Sheldon Kirshner

Saudi School Textbooks Have Improved

Saudi Arabia, once one of the most reactionary countries in the Arab world, is buffing and improving its international image, judging by the manner in which Israel and Jews are portrayed in its newest school textbooks.

A recent study by the Institute For Monitoring Peace And Cultural Tolerance In School Education reports that antisemitic references have been virtually removed from the Saudi curriculum, that the historic Jewish presence in the Middle East is acknowledged, and that Zionism is no longer portrayed as a “racist” movement.

The designation of Israel as an “enemy state” has been expunged, though Israel still does not appear on Saudi maps.

These incremental modifications indicate that the Saudi monarchy may be laying the groundwork for a historic rapprochement with Israel, which the United States is actively promoting. The Saudi government is reportedly ready to normalize relations with Israel if it agrees to Palestinian statehood within the parameters of a two-state solution, which the current Israeli government rejects.

By all accounts, Saudi Arabia — the seat of Islam — is emulating two of its neighbors, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, in its approach to normalization. They established relations with Israel in 2020 after a gradual confidence-building phase. Tellingly enough, Saudi Arabia did not object to their moves.

There is no deep-seated reason why Saudi Arabia should not establish relations with Israel under certain conditions. As the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University points out, “There is not much historical baggage between Israel and Saudi Arabia standing in the way of normalization. The two countries do not share a border, and they have never fought one another, apart from a negligible Saudi force that participated in the 1948 war.”

The institute believes these reforms have been made at the direction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and the son of King Salman.

As part of his modernization efforts, the prince has been weaning Saudi Arabia away from Wahhabism, an extremely conservative and austere form of Islam that has been manifestly influential in Saudi society for about two centuries. Closed to external influences and trends, Wahhabi Islam has a condescending, if not hostile, view of Judaism and Christianity.

Within the framework of Vision 2030, the prince seeks to transform the kingdom by modernizing and diversifying the economy through reducing its reliance on fossil fuel revenue and creating a spirit of openness in schools.

His socio-economic reforms are intended to project an image of pluralism and moderation, particularly in the United States, one of Saudi Arabia’s chief allies.

For most of its existence as a sovereign state, Saudi Arabia has been antagonistic toward Israel and Jews. Saudi Arabia denounced the birth of Israel and joined the Arab economic boycott to strangle Israel. Jews were not permitted to visit, even for work purposes, on the grounds that they would defile its sanctity. The antisemitic tract, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was openly sold in Saudi shops.

Nevertheless, there was a pragmatic streak in Saudi policy.

In 1981, Crown Prince Fahd endorsed an Arab League initiative recognizing Israel’s right to exist in exchange for its withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders and a resolution of the Palestinian problem. In 2002, amid the second Palestinian uprising, the Saudis offered Israel full normalization within the context of an Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement. Israel rejected the Saudi offer, unwilling to retreat to the 1967 borders or accept Palestinian statehood.

Following the 1993 Oslo peace agreement between Israel and the PLO, the former grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, decreed that a Muslim ruler could build bridges to Jews as long as it benefited Muslims.

“This duality was the result of the close alliance … between the Al-Saud royal dynasty and the Wahhabi sect,” says the Institute for National Security Studies. “Under this alliance, the royal house practiced political pragmatism in the diplomatic sphere, while domestically enforcing Islamic Sharia law in its strict Wahhabi interpretation. The Saudi kings leveraged their upholding of Wahhabism to claim legitimacy for their rule over Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.”

The Saudi royal family began distancing itself from Wahhabism after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York City and Washington, DC. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists were Saudi citizens who had been educated in Wahhabi institutions.

The regional challenge posed to the Saudi monarchy by Iran and Islamic radicals in Al-Qaeda and Islamic State was also instrumental in moving Saudi Arabia away from Wahhabism.

In 2014, Saudi Arabia allowed Jews to work and live in the kingdom, signaling a shift in its attitude toward Jews. Three years later, the current crown prince renounced Wahhabism in favor of “a return to moderate Islam.”

Antisemitic references and calls for Israel’s destruction were incrementally excised from Saudi schoolbooks and the Saudi media, though Saudi Arabia’s support for the Palestinians remained constant.

During a visit to Saudi Arabia in 2022, Deborah Lipstadt, the US special envoy charged with monitoring and combating antisemitism, said she was impressed by the progress the kingdom had made in eradicating antisemitism, especially in school curriculums.

In its latest report, the Institute For Monitoring Peace And Cultural Tolerance In School Education says that passages accusing Jews and Christians of treachery have been removed from textbooks.

But there are still gaps to be filled. Among the problematic claims that remain include the assertion that the Ottoman Empire collapsed due to “the control of non-Muslims over influential positions.”

Polls conducted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy show that Saudi attitudes toward normalization with Israel have shifted.

Prior to the current Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip, approximately 40 percent of Saudis supported economic ties with Israel if they proved beneficial to the local economy.

Since then, the proportion of Saudis supporting any form of contact with Israel has dropped to 20 percent. Indeed, 96 percent of Saudis favor an immediate cessation of ties between Arab states with Israel

It should be noted that even before the war, 87 percent of Saudis believed that Israel would eventually be defeated. Only five percent thought that Jews should be respected and that relations with them should be improved.

Clearly, the majority of Saudis have been brainwashed to dislike or hate Jews and Israel. One can safely assume that the current effort by the Saudi government to change this unpalatable reality by reforming school textbooks will be an uphill battle.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,
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