Noru Tsalic

How NOT to teach history: A textbook example


The Collins dictionary says the term ‘education’ “involves teaching people various subjects…”

According to the same dictionary, ‘indoctrination’ also involves teaching.  In this case, however, “people […] are taught a particular belief…”

Simply put, education seeks to transfer knowledge.  Indoctrination aims to convey a narrative.

If you’re a parent, you owe your child a good education.  But is that what s/he’ll get in school?  Not always, apparently.

Pearson Education is a British publisher of – among other things – schoolbooks.  A few months ago, one such textbook was withdrawn – thanks to the excellent endeavours of UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI).  A detailed analysis by researcher David Collier revealed that the textbook (entitled HISTORY Conflict, Crisis and Change: The Middle East, 1917-2012) “was full of distortions”.  The book was targeting I-GCSE students; that is, 15 year-olds.

I was barely aware of all this when UKLFI approached me to review another textbook: GCSE History for Edexcel ‘Conflict in the Middle East 1945-95’ – this one published by yet another British schoolbook publisher, Hodder Education.  I found this ‘history’ book so crammed with inaccuracies, bias and plain shoddiness that just critiquing Chapter 1 (i.e. the first 19 pages) resulted in a 46 page document!


The Hodder textbook

Don’t worry, dear reader: I am not about to reproduce it all here.  I will discuss just a few of the book’s many egregious blunders.

‘Thousands of years’ of conflict

Even before peering into the book itself, I wondered: how does one squeeze 50 years of conflict in the world’s most troubled region – in just 100 pages?  Well, I soon discovered that, despite the title, this textbook dealt exclusively with one conflict: the Arab-Israeli one.  Why, you ask?  I have no idea.  Of course, just one of ‘the other’ Middle East conflicts (the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war) resulted in circa 1 million fatalities, including at least 200,000 civilians; that’s about 10 times more than the total fatalities in the Arab-Israeli conflict – from 1948 to date.  But somebody decided – for reasons that only ‘somebody’ understands – that what the students really needed to study was the Arab-Israeli conflict.  They also decided not to say so clearly on the book’s cover.  But even inside the book, one searches in vain for an explanation or for the context of that selective ‘history’: none is given.  ‘Somebody’s’ belief that this is the only (or the most important) Middle Eastern conflict has been uncritically imprinted onto the malleable minds of 15 year-olds: the first instance of indoctrination.

And why “1945-1995”?  Of course, 1945 (the end of World War II) is a seminal date in European and world history.  But in the history of this particular conflict??  That’s like starting a History of the United States from 1729 – the end of the Anglo-Spanish war.

It gets worse: on page 7, the textbook ‘teaches’ the unsuspecting youngsters that

The problem of Palestine dates back thousands of years and involves the rival claims of Jews and Arabs to the area.

Thousands of years?  Really?  Where did the authors find this invaluable pearl of knowledge – in Housewife’s Illustrated Almanac??

The earliest signs even remotely resembling ‘rival claims’ by Arabs and Jews over Palestine/Eretz Israel can be found in the second half of the 19th century.  The Arab-Israeli conflict (if that’s how we choose to call it) started in on 15 May 1948, when the neighbouring Arab countries attacked the freshly-declared State of Israel.

Of course, to understand the conflict, one has to learn the historical background.  That is so obvious that even politicians understood it: as early as 1937, the Peel Commission Report mentioned:

The present problem of Palestine, indeed, is unintelligible without a knowledge of the history that lies behind it.

I doubt that the authors of this Hodder textbook were aware of that quote; but, while they weirdly decided to start their ‘history’ from 1945, even they understood that they owed the students a bit of ‘background information’.  So – right after the “thousands of years” pearl, they tossed in two short sections, entitled “Jews and Palestine” (111 words) and “Arabs and Palestine” (138 words).

I know, I know: “Palestine” is not exactly how Jews historically called the place; but let’s not quibble – there are bigger issues here.

The ‘Jews’ paragraph starts (I have no idea why) with their expulsion by the Romans in the 2nd century CE.  Who were these Jews?  How did they get there?  These are aspects the authors decided not to trouble the poor kids with.  So, after entering history by getting on the wrong side of the Romans, the Jews suddenly become victims of “anti-Semitism” (authors’ original spelling), because

[t]hey were seen as ‘Christ killers’, as an elite group who considered themselves to be the ‘Chosen People’ and as wicked moneylenders.

The authors also ‘teach’ the students that

[b]y the end of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitism was common-place in Europe.

And I thought this happened long before the 19th century… Stupid me!

Next, the students are also informed that

3 million Jews fled eastern Europe before 1914 in order to escape persecution.

We are not told when the count of the 3 million started.  In the 2nd century perhaps?  We aren’t told why “before 1914” and not, for instance, 1994.  We aren’t told whereabouts those Jews fled to.  And why that is relevant to the ‘Jews and Palestine’ background section.

Rather, the authors abruptly end that ‘Jews and Palestine’ section with that priceless bit of ‘1914’ info.  That’s it: 1800 years of Jewish history in 111 words; as for the 12-odd centuries that preceded the expulsion by the Romans – they didn’t qualify for even one sentence.  Nor did the pre-1914 rise of Zionism, which – the authors decided – did not belong in a ‘Jews and Palestine’ section.

Now the Arabs: according to this textbook, their history started from “the early Middle Ages”, when (we are not told how or why) they “controlled a huge empire covering the Middle East, north Africa and south-western Europe”.  But where did those Arabs come from?  Well… that, folks, is another story.  And, apparently, not one that’s relevant to ‘Arabs and Palestine’.

After spending one sentence on “the Turkish Empire, also known as the Ottoman Empire”, the authors turn their attention to Arab national aspirations.  Which, unlike Jewish national aspirations of course, did qualify for mention in this context.

Many Arabs wanted independence from the Turks and, in 1913, the First Arab National Congress was held. The following year, the Arab Nationalist Manifesto was published, which put forward the idea of Arab independence.

The 1913 Arab Congress (which was not called ‘National’ at the time) was attended by 25 official participants – mostly reform-oriented Arab intellectuals, with an outsized proportion of Christians.  That’s hardly “[m]any Arabs”.  The Congress was organised under the auspices of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was interested in the weakening the Ottoman Empire – including, if at all possible, by fomenting discord among its subjects.  And, rather than calling for independence, the Congress adopted resolutions demanding merely a degree of autonomy for the Arab provinces within the Ottoman Empire.  In reality, in 1913 “[m]any Arabs” (most Arabs?) were staunch supporters of the Ottoman Empire, which they saw as the embodiment of the Islamic Caliphate.  In fact, just a few decades earlier (1834), the Arabs of the Levant had revolted against the Egyptian Khedive and in support of the Ottoman rulers.

The reason I tarry upon this episode is that the 1913 First Arab Congress is also the first item on a ‘1945-1963 Timeline’ included in the Hodder textbook.  Yes, I know: 1913 is not exactly between 1945 and 1963; but, when it comes to this textbook, the term ‘exactly’ is utterly misplaced.  I thought we’ve already established that!

The 1945-1963 timeline that starts from… 1913 {screen capture}

So how about Herzl’s seminal book ‘Der Judenstaat’, published in 1896?  How about the First Zionist Congress (1897), attended by more than 200 delegates from 17 countries and representing 69 Zionist organisations?  How about the 10 other Zionist Congresses that had taken place by 1913?  Assuming that the distinguished authors even heard about those events, they must have decided that they were irrelevant to the topic at hand!

For someone without prior knowledge of the topic, the picture that this ‘historical context’ draws is that of a strongly nationalist Arab nation, striving for independence as early as 1913.  As for the Jews, they are portrayed as merely seeking a haven from persecution.

Needless to say, that picture is utterly ahistorical.  But it doesn’t just encourage bias – it fosters ignorance.  How are students supposed to understand the “rival claims of Jews and Arabs to the area” without – for instance – an explanation of the religious significance of the Holy Land and of Jerusalem (enormous in Judaism, important in Christianity and Islam)?  How are 21st century British teenagers supposed to grasp the meaning of national aspiration trends (such as Zionism or pan-Arabism), unless explained within the context of 19th century imperial Europe, with its multitude of national emancipation movements?

Jewish terrorists

History is supposed to be about facts, rather than moral judgments.  Yet the authors of this ‘history’ textbook don’t balk at using the word ‘terrorism’.  But they employ that loaded term in a weirdly indiscriminate manner – to describe, for instance, both violent actions against the British colonial/military infrastructure in Palestine Mandate and attacks aimed at uninvolved civilians.

Anyone who follows the news or political statements knows that there is – certainly in Europe – a great reluctance to use the term ‘terrorist’; and even more so, to ascribe it to a particular ethnic or faith group.  The phrase ‘Islamic terrorism,’ for instance, is studiously avoided, even when the motivation for a particular attack is obviously rooted in religious fundamentalism.  But the authors of this GCSE schoolbook dispense with such scruples: in fact, they seem especially fond of employing the term “Jewish terrorist”.  Thus, Irgun is repeatedly described as “the Jewish terrorist organisation”.  On the other hand, Black September (the perpetrators of the Munich Olympics massacre) are just a “terrorist organisation” or “terrorist group” – unassigned to any particular ethnic group.

In this ‘history’ textbook there are plenty of ‘Jewish’ terrorists, but no ‘Arab’ or ‘Palestinian’ ones. {own picture}

The short biography of Yasser Arafat (page 52) says that he

founded Al-Fatah, which supported the use of armed resistance against Israel.

Given that Arafat and his organisation only dealt in noble “armed resistance,” the students might find it odd that (on page 86) “he renounced terrorism”.  Now why would that poor fellow have to renounce something he’d never done??

If Fatah dealt in “armed resistance,” how about the rival movement – Hamas?  The profile of that organisation (page 93) informs the students that… it sprang into action in February 1994 – and only in retaliation:

Following riots in the Palestinian Authority in February 1994 and the deaths of 33 Palestinians, Hamas retaliated by killing Israeli security officers and using a car bomb to kill Israeli civilians. Israel then deported 400 leading Hamas figures to Lebanon.  Arafat found it difficult to deal with Hamas, and it grew in power and influence in the 1990s.

Except that’s not the sequence of events.  Not even according to Hamas.


‘History in reverse’
(according to the Hodder textbook)


Feb. 1994: riots in the Palestinian Authority.  33 Palestinians killed.

?: Hamas retaliates by killing Israeli security officers and civilians.

‘Then’: Israel deports 400 leading Hamas figures to Lebanon.

Feb. 1989: Hamas abducts and murders an Israeli soldier (Avi Sasportas);
May 1989: Hamas abducts and murders a second Israeli soldier (Ilan Saadon);1st half of Dec. 1992: Hamas abducts and murders a third Israeli soldier (Nissim Toledano); 5 additional Israeli soldiers are killed.
2nd half of Dec. 1992: Israel deports 415 leading Hamas figures to Lebanon.Sept. 1993 – Feb. 1994: 31 Israelis (soldiers and civilians) are killed by Palestinians.  Hamas assumes responsibility for most of these attacks.
Feb. 1994: a Jewish Israeli terrorist murders 29 Palestinians in Hebron. Riots in the Palestinian Authority.


Unfortunately, I cannot ascribe these blunders to mere ignorance or even to malevolence, but to sheer laziness: it would take a not-very-skilled researcher all of 5 minutes to check the facts on his/her smartphone…

Even when the authors deign to seek ‘balance’ by distributing ‘blame’, the ‘examples’ just happen to be Jewish:

Both sides carried out atrocities such as when Irgun, in April 1948, massacred the inhabitants of Deir Yassin.

The ‘visual aids’ – especially gruesome pictures – ‘incidentally’ only ‘illustrate’ acts of ‘Jewish terrorism’.  And the ‘Activities’ that the authors ask students to perform also very often focus on ‘Jewish terrorism’.

The visual aids and ‘activities’ almost always portray Jews/Israelis as terrorists and aggressors; Arabs and Palestinians are portrayed as victims. {collage of screen shots}

An Idiot’s Guide to Teaching Antisemitism

And then, bias and ignorance meet prejudice.  The authors assign the post-World War II US support for the idea of a Jewish state to the influence of a “large and powerful [American] Jewish community”.

In 1945, Jews represented circa 3.5% of the US populace.  And while this was by and large a successful community, it was neither overly “powerful”, nor indeed united in its support for Zionism.  There were, of course, much more important motivations for the US sympathy towards Zionism – a sympathy that was itself neither unanimous, nor unwavering.

But, with so many inaccuracies, why is the “large and powerful” comment (on page 11) worth more than a shrug?  Because it plays to and reinforces existing antisemitic prejudice.  A 2017 survey found that 1 in 8 Brits thinks that ‘Jews get rich at the expense of others’; 1 in 12 believes that ‘Jews have too much power in Britain’.  Rather than combating racist prejudice – which is what schools are supposed to do – this ‘history’ textbook helps bolster it.

Nor is this a singular, random slip: on page 24, the authors tell the students that

[t]he US President, Harry S. Truman, was greatly conscious of the need to attract the Jewish vote.

Unsurprisingly, ‘innit?  After all, what politician isn’t greatly conscious” of the fact that Jews vote as a bloc (a.k.a. ‘the Jewish vote’) and always in accordance with the interests of other Jews?  In the same 2017 survey I quoted before, 1 in 8 Brits opined that ‘The interests of Jews in Britain are very different from the interests of the rest’.

In fact, the book dedicates an entire subchapter to “American aid to Israel”.  But why would US aid to Israel (at best modest in the 1945-1963 period discussed in that chapter) qualify for an entire section, while the enormous economic, diplomatic and military support delivered by the Soviet Union to Arab countries does not?  Referring specifically to Egypt, John W. Corp remarked:

An intimate diplomatic relationship developed that bound the fortunes of the United Arab Republic (Egypt) and the Soviet Union tightly together.

And that’s before mentioning the 1955 arms deal, which

provided the Egyptians with substantial numbers of relatively modern types of military equipment, including MiG-15 fighters, IL-28 light bombers, naval destroyers, submarines, IS-III (Stalin) heavy tanks, T-34 medium tanks, and light arms of all types.

Most of which weapons were not paid by Egypt, but ‘acquired on credit’.

Blundering away through history

Some passages in the textbook appear to be written not for teenagers, but by teenagers; or, rather, by primary school children – and, unfortunately, not by particularly bright ones, either.  This is how this ‘history’ textbook summarises the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (II) of 1947:

This partition plan sought to declare the creation of the state of Israel, and brought about the first Arab–Israeli War as furious neighbouring Arab states invaded Israel.

Err… no, not quite!  The Partition Resolution did not seek “to declare the creation of the state of Israel”; it sought to preserve peace and diffuse what was already a very tense situation:

The General Assembly […] [c]onsiders that the present situation in Palestine is one which is likely to impair the general welfare and friendly relations among nations;

It attempted to do that by dividing the territory into two states:

3. Independent Arab and Jewish States […] shall come into existence in Palestine.

It was not the UN Partition Resolution that “brought about the first Arab–Israeli War”; quite the opposite: it was the threat of impending war that brought about the resolution.

I’ll end this litany of embarrassing blunders (far from an exhaustive list thereof) by mentioning that, according to the Hodder textbook, in 1968 there were

about 1.5 million Palestinian Arabs living in Israel…

Which would mean that Israeli Jews were an oppressed minority: in 1968 the entire population of the country was 2.8 million!

A sustainable alternative

All’s well that ends well: in response to the approach by UKFLI, Hodder Education has now announced that

[a]fter further consideration, [they] have decided to remove the book from sale and […] reconsider its future.

Some might say, “[a]fter [even] further consideration” that the rubbish bin is the most suitable “future” for this book.  Personally, I suggest recycling it into something useful.  I hear there’s a lack of toilet paper in some places…

About the Author
Noru served in the IDF as a regular soldier and reservist. Currently a management consultant, in his spare time he engages in pro-Israel advocacy, especially in interfaith environments. He presented in front of Church of England and Quaker audiences and provides support to Methodist Friends of Israel. Noru is the Editor-in-Chief of 'Politically-incorrect Politics' ( Translated into Polish, his articles are also published by the Polish portal 'Listy z naszego sadu.'
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