Tell me what a school system is teaching its children and I will tell you whether there will be peace or war in another five to 10 years.
Less than a month ago, there were numerous press reports on the results of a high level joint US-Israeli-Palestinian study, Victims of their Own Narratives. The impression conveyed in these reports was that the study’s findings presented a roughly symmetric assessment on the prevalence, intensity and severity of incitement in Palestinian and Israeli textbooks. This impression is wrong.
The project was carried out by a team headed by Professor Bruce Wexler, a psychiatrist form Yale, and professors Daniel Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University and Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University, funded by the US State Department, and overseen by the “Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land.” The Council includes Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and Muslim and Christian clergymen. I was one of some 20 members of the Scientific Advisory Panel. I and three other Israeli members of the Scientific Advisory Panel withheld our own endorsements of the final report.
As an epidemiologist in the business of prediction and prevention, I was and remain intrigued by the attempts to measure incitement, which leads to conflict, and its opposite, education for respect for life and dignity of the other. What was good about the study was that it established the principle and feasibility of monitoring. It made a sincere effort to define and measure what I call Word Pollution the way we measure Air Pollution. There was a study design, protocol, definitions of incitement, and a well-thought-out statistical sampling procedure.
In the West monitoring air pollution and its effects led to major reductions in both. Can the same happen if we monitor “word pollution” and its effects on attitudes and behaviors which lead to hate, hostility, conflict and violence? I have proposed a Region-Wide Surveillance Network in the entire Mideast, based on the precedent established by the study.
But the study had major limitations. It ignored the insights of several previous hands-on studies, some strong, some weak. It was narrowly confined to textual excerpts alone, and did not include homework assignments, guidebooks for teachers, and the larger educational environment of children. It therefore did not capture much of the explicitly horrendous incitement in the public square, summer camps, children’s TV programs, and print media. The study did not look at Hamas run schools.
Contrary to most press reports, the hard data in the study in fact showed substantial differences between Palestinian and Israeli state textbooks. 84% of the excerpts from Palestinian texts were found to present negative characterizations of the other, compared to 49% in Israeli state texts; the corresponding scores for “positive” characterizations were 1% and 11%. Similar scores were recorded for descriptions of the actions of the other. Negative images of Israelis were far higher in Palestinian texts than were negative images of Palestinians in Israeli texts. (For photos, 66% vs. 6%, for illustrations, 43% vs. 17%.)
But the most striking contrasts had to do with Palestinian delegitimization: ignoring the existence of the other. 97% of Palestinian maps omitted Israeli cities, sites or Jewish holy places or sites as compared to 12% of Israeli maps that did not list Muslim sites or holy places.
The major errors of omission and commission serve to obfuscate some of the most important differences. These errors seem to be driven by an effort to arrive at a politically correct impression of symmetry, in keeping with modern ideas in conflict resolution which emphasizes minimizing differences and maximizing similarities, even at the expense of truth.
The advantage of this approach is that it looks forward. The problem with it is that it can result in sliding down the slippery slope to moral equivalence. Professor Bar-Tal, a recognized authority in conflict resolution, wrote that he himself took a “holistic” approach (an academic way of saying that the study was driven by a preconceived notion), which appears to have distorted the assessment of the facts in the source material concerning education for peace and incitement.
This distortion resulted in understating major and fundamental differences between Israeli and Palestinan texts and missing important targets for preventive intervention. In my opinion, there was a non-critical approach to the use of national narratives to tell stories, motifs, and themes which promote emulation of role models for terror, therefore undermining respect for life and human dignity of the other as universal values. “It’s my narrative, therefore it’s OK” may be politically correct but is it education for respect for life and human dignity?
At Bar-Tal’s initiative, the study used the term delegitimize to lump together statements which dehumanize, demonize, defame and delegitimize – a term which conventionally means denying or ignoring the existence of the other.
The definitions preclude capturing examples of the far more severe types of hate language and incitement. Using this term, the study could have defined down the dehumanizing and demonizing venom of Mein Kampf as mere delegitimization.
Dr Ruth Firer, for many years at Hebrew University’s Truman Center, who over the years has published research on textbook analysis, and Dr Arnon Gross, a member of the Scientific Panel are both world authorities on textbooks. Both said that the study failed to capture many nuances picked up by hands-on inspection of texts.
Firer wrote that rigid comparisons cannot be symmetric, as she sees Israeli-Palestinian relationship in terms of occupier-occupied, but that this relationship has to be guided by the principle that respect and the right to live take priority over all.
Gross noted that “highly demonizing pieces were not included, under the pretext that they were not explicit enough. Thus, a piece saying ‘Your enemies killed your children, split open your women’s bellies…’ was rejected because it did not mention Jews or Israelis and was actually written in the early 20th century.”
Firer, Gross and I noted that the study says nothing about Palestinian texts ignoring or misrepresenting the Holocaust. They do not address the role of the Grand Mufti, who lived in Hitler’s bunker in the latter years of the war and was an accomplice of Eichman. A proposed antidote would have been to use the first and only textbook in Arabic on the Holocaust, written by Professor Mohammed Dajani of Al Quds University, himself a member of the Scientific Advisory Panel.
Another problem with the study is that it scored historical facts which are painful truths as negative depictions of the other. For example, Israeli excerpts describing the horrors of the Munich massacre are defined as conveying a negative message.
According to Gross:
Whoever reads the quotations…taken from the schoolbooks easily finds that Israeli schoolbooks…include revealing texts of open advocacy of peaceful resolution of the conflict…and are totally devoid of calls for solving it violently. Alongside their treatment of the Palestinians as enemies, they provide texts that portray the individual Palestinian as an ordinary, sometimes noble, human being with whom friendly relations could develop.
The Palestinian quotations, on the other hand, show none of these traits. They … contain neither an explicit call for peace with Israel nor a vision of a peaceful future alongside it; they speak of a struggle for liberation without specifically restricting that struggle to the areas of the West Bank and Gaza alone; that struggle is enhanced by the use of the traditional Islamic values of Jihad, martyrdom and Ribat; they recognize as legitimate neither Israel’s existence, nor the presence of its Jewish citizens in the country, nor the presence of Jewish holy places there;
In short, the study mismeasured or missed much incitement.
So when President Obama comes here to listen, the message to him is that those extolling Wafa Idris from the Fatah Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and others who killed ensure intergenerational perpetration of conflict, hate, terror and war.
Perhaps the last word should be left to Ruth Firer, who herself has a long record of work in joint Israeli-Palestinian cooperation: “The power of one negative word is stronger than few positive words – therefore the statistics can’t ignore it.”
In short, because Incitement Kills there should be Zero Tolerance for Incitement.