Marcus Sheff

Debunking Beinart on Textbooks

Peter Beinart’s “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine” has been so thoroughly eviscerated, we should be able to put it to rest.

Daniel Gordis on this blog, explains the “sleights of hand and misrepresentations” that “for his readers to buy his thesis, it is important that they not know very much.” Dan Shapiro goes to the trouble of explaining that “while one democratic state sounds superficially appealing to some American ears, the reality would be a highly impractical perpetuation of the conflict within one state, a society deeply riven, and nearly inevitably, far worse violence.”

Ron Kampeas tweets that in the opening paragraph, Beinart opines on what makes someone a Jew but “not one of these three assumptions holds water.” Lahav Harkov points out in a tweet that the Yavne ideal was in fact an “ethnic cleansing and subjugation of the tiny [Jewish] minority left behind.”

So I would not belabor this further if Beinart had not felt the need to extend his sleights of hand and misrepresentations to Israeli and Palestinian textbooks.

He writes, “It’s because of the Holocaust lens that so many Jews are convinced that Palestinian schools teach Palestinian children to hate Jews when academic studies have shown repeatedly that Palestinian textbooks are no more incendiary than Israel’s own.”

In fact, those who are convinced that Palestinian schools teach Palestinian children to hate Jews include the United Nations, US Congress House Foreign Affairs Committee, US State Department, European Parliament, Norwegian and UK governments.

They relied on current data based on the textbooks—not Holocaust lenses or old studies lazily cited by Beinart—one of which reviews books literally dating from the last century and the other from 2013, covering textbooks no longer used and thoroughly debunked by a member of the study’s own Scientific Advisory Panel when it came out.

These data show that extremism is pervasive across this new Palestinian curriculum. The Palestinian Authority has been in full control of the Ministry of Education for over 20 years and used their agency strategically, to educate 1.3 million Palestinian children every school day that their lives are dispensable; that dying is better than living; and that they are expected to sacrifice themselves in a long and bloody war.

While the Israeli curriculum is not perfect—no curriculum is—peace and peacemaking as the way to resolve conflict suffuse grades and subjects. Peace is often depicted through poetry and song. From second grade on, Israeli students are taught to strive for peace as the best possible outcome of the conflict. Historical diplomatic peacemaking, such as the peace treaties with Jordan, Egypt and the Oslo Accords are taught as highly positive and necessary steps.

Coexistence is similarly a central element of Israeli textbooks. Students are taught about coexistence between Jews and Palestinians in an eighth-grade textbook. A picture of a Palestinian and Jewish girl hugging is illustrated to describe positive relations between Arab and Jewish youth in Jerusalem.

Far from the “dehumanization masquerading as realism” that Beinart claims exists in Israeli textbooks, the individual Palestinian voice is heard. A fourth-grade civics textbook describes the life of Yazan, an Israeli Arab and his family. The father is an engineer and the mother is studying for her master’s degree. Their lives are discussed from a first-person perspective.

A ninth-grade civics textbook features a sick and elderly disabled Palestinian man who collapses while at a checkpoint. Students are asked discuss the issue in a lesson about human dignity.

The Israeli curriculum has worked to dispel a Jewish victim narrative and to present the conflict as a complex and multi-faceted issue with different perspectives. Israeli students are presented with the Palestinian narrative. They learn about Deir Yassin and Kfar Qasim, and Arab families protecting Jews during the Hebron massacres.

They are exposed to the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish. An Arab Member of Knesset is quoted talking about the “Nakba” while A history textbook uses the expression “Nakba” and explains that it was “one of the central, most important, and most fateful occurrences accompanying the war.”

Palestinian refugees are depicted. Much of the Palestinian perspective in textbooks was introduced during the rule of recent right-wing Israeli governments and ministers of education including Naftali Bennett.

The PA curriculum reveals a stark contrast.

Quite literally thousands of violent references plague textbooks teaching Arabic, Islamic Education, Social Studies and National Education. Of 50 textbooks analyzed across these subjects, just two do not include problematic material, as defined by UNESCO standards.

Some of the examples are breathtaking. A poem for nine-year-olds calls for “sacrificing blood” to liberate all of Palestine. Meanwhile, Newton’s Second Law is explained with the use of a slingshot targeting soldiers, to explain mass and tensile strength. While children worldwide are taught basic arithmetic by adding apples or other innocent objects, the PA’s textbooks ask pupils to add the number of ” martyrs” killed in the First and Second Intifadas.

Peacemaking has been intentionally removed. Unlike versions before 2016, this year’s PA curriculum sees an almost total absence of any Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. Similarly, where PA peace agreements with Israel once featured in the curriculum, they are now nowhere to be found, as if they simply did not exist. The Israeli Other is mentioned only to dehumanize. Ninth-grade Arabic students learn that a firebomb attack on Israeli bus passengers was a “barbeque party,” rendering Israeli life worthless. The logical conclusion isn’t hard to predict. Martyrdom and jihad is a recurring theme in the curriculum.

Fifth-graders are taught as part of their Arabic class, that “Giving one’s life, sacrifice, fight, jihad and struggle are the most important meanings of life.”

The curriculum is openly anti-Semitic, teaching children that the “corruption of the Jews will be the cause of their annihilation” and that Jews sexually humiliate Muslim women.

School education is key to achieving the tolerant and open-minded societies of the future. Particularly in the Middle East, where textbooks are powerful and uniquely authoritative, they are can be a robust barrier to radicalization—but they can also be used to radicalize.

Across the region, leaders are now acting to improve values of peace and tolerance in schoolbooks. Jordan has embarked on a brave educational reform to teach tolerance of the Other and tackle Islamic extremism. In Tunisia, textbooks educate about the importance of negotiations, peace and respect for the Other.

About the Author
Marcus Sheff is CEO at The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Curtural Tolerance in School Textbooks. IMPACT-se analyzes textbooks, employing standards on peace and tolerance as derived from international declarations and resolutions.
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