The More Things Change…Textbook Bias

CAMERA recently published a monograph on biased textbooks in high schools in Newton, MA, and an article on the textbook issue quoted Dr. Sandra Alfonsi, founder of Hadassah’s “Curriculum Watch,” asserting that “there is no doubt the lack of sympathy for Israel on college campuses today is at least partly the result of several generations of teenagers being educated with textbooks that are slanted against Israel.” This discussion of textbooks brought back memories of the past and how we are still fighting the same battles we did decades ago.

In my 1993 study, “Rewriting History in Textbooks,” I noted that “distortions of Jewish history have become a feature of some of the most frequently assigned textbooks.” I looked at 18 of the most widely used world and American history texts and found them filled with egregious factual errors and specious analyses. The mistakes were invariably to the detriment of the Jews or Israel. I found:

The anti-Israel bias is usually a result of factual inaccuracy, oversimplification, omission and distortion. Common errors include getting dates of events wrong, blaming Israel for wars that were a result of Arab provocation, perpetuating the myth of Islamic tolerance of Jews, minimizing the Jewish aspect of the Holocaust, apologizing for Arab autocrats, refusing to label violence against civilians as terrorism and suggesting that Israel is the obstacle to peace. Some of the most flagrant examples that occur in more than one book are the failure to mention that Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attack in 1973 on Israel’s holiest day, Yom Kippur, and that Iraq fired SCUD missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. The books in this study were so poorly written that all but one requires major revisions.

I did not believe the books were written or published by anti-Semites, or even people biased against Israel. One reason the texts were so bad was that they were not adequately reviewed by experts in the field. The authors overlooked basic sources and most lacked footnotes or bibliographies. The couple of books that did have references failed to include works by any serious Middle East scholars.

More than a year earlier, I wrote in Near East Report about one particularly problematic history textbook brought to my attention by Morton Klein. After readers bombarded the publisher with complaints, and Klein brought the issue to his local school board, the authors were asked to revise the inaccurate passages. They agreed because publishers do not want mistakes in their texts.

This was an example of how the process can work, and how it often depends on a vigilant parent to notice a problem and take action. If you have concerns about how Jewish history is being taught in your community, your local Jewish community relations council can provide support in navigating the education system. At a national level, the Institute for Curriculum Services (ICS) is working with publishers to improve the accuracy of textbook content on Jews, Judaism, and Israel.

An advantage of the digital revolution in education is that publishers can rapidly make corrections to digital textbooks. Correcting print editions takes time and many schools do not have money to buy new books between selection cycles. The best solution is to ensure books are carefully reviewed before they are offered to schools. ICS works with publishers to improve their content from the outset, and to correct errors and bias in existing editions.

Textbook bias is a real concern, but Alfonsi may be overstating the impact on teenagers. Generally, public schools spend so little time discussing Israeli history – ICS estimates 2-5 hours during a school year based on teacher reporting – that it is unlikely they remember anything about those subjects. Moreover, Holocaust education is now required in many school districts so that students are at least more knowledgeable on that subject than in the past.

As Aliza Craimer Elias, the Director of ICS told me, “textbooks are only part of the problem.” It is important to ensure textbooks are correct, but, she emphasized, “teachers have a disproportionate influence on student learning, and they need to know historical facts, which is why ICS also provides curriculum and training to classroom teachers, building their capacities to accurately teach about Jewish topics.”

Meanwhile, Israel’s detractors have become much more active in the last decade in pushing their agenda in schools. In my book, The Arab Lobby, I observed: “The dissemination, often at no charge, of distorted textbooks and other materials is one of the principal means by which the Saudis and others are attempting to propagandize K-12 education about the Middle East.” Many of these resources are not properly vetted because they are sold directly to schools or individual teachers.

What I have also found shocking is the poor quality of Israel education in Jewish day schools, which have no excuse for not spending quality time on the aleph-bet of Israeli history. In 2006, the Los Angeles Jewish Federation hired me to write a textbook on the history of Israel, Israel Matters: Understand the Past – Look to the Future, which is still the only one I know of designed for high schools. Sadly, and I can say this because I receive no royalties, it is not widely used.

I’ve said it many times and will say it again: It is not too late to educate Jews when they get to college, but it is very late. Education about Israel must begin when students are in high school, if not before. Moreover, to ensure they are getting a quality education, it is imperative they have accurate textbooks. It is up to parents to make sure both religious and secular schools are providing them.

It is hard to believe we are still talking about a problem I wrote about nearly 25 years ago. It just goes to show how pervasive issues surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict remain. One can only hope that our children will not be discussing them 25 years from now.

Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Arab Lobby, and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

About the Author
Dr Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and a foreign policy analyst who lectures frequently on U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, the world's most comprehensive online encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture. He is also the author/editor of 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.
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