Marcus Sheff

What Muhammad Aliwat learned in school

Palestinian curricula continue to glorify religious martyrdom and spread hatred even as educational reform is underway elsewhere in the Arab world
8th-grade textbook teaching reading comprehension through a violent story promoting suicide bombings. From IMPACT-se report, 'The 2020-21 Palestinian School Curriculum, Grades 1-12,' May 2021
8th-grade textbook teaching reading comprehension through a violent story promoting suicide bombings. From IMPACT-se report, 'The 2020-21 Palestinian School Curriculum, Grades 1-12,' May 2021

Muhammad Aliwat, the 13-year-old Palestinian attacker who ambushed and seriously wounded a father and his son at the entrance to the City of David Friday night, used his school notebook to leave a message for his mother that reads: “God, or victory, or martyrdom. Forgive me, mother, you’re going to be proud of me.”

The 8th-grader, reportedly a student at the Al-Furqan Islamic School for Boys in the Shuafat refugee camp, which uses the Palestinian Authority’s curriculum, has had quite an education in martyrdom, jihad, and antisemitism this school year and last. For example, he studied comprehension through a story promoting suicide bombings, in which Palestinians “cut the necks of enemy soldiers.” In Islamic education, a textbook devotes an entire chapter to teaching that martyrdom is “obligatory,” that it brings honor, glory, and promises entrance to paradise. Those who do not sacrifice themselves are weak. 

Jews are depicted as conspiratorial, powerful, evil, and impure, posing a threat to the sanctity of Islam. A teacher guide for the 7th grade teaches that Jews crushed children’s heads, set them on fire, and threw them into wells. Even the science classes Aliwat attended take advantage of the opportunity to teach hate. He learned Newton’s Second Law through the action of a slingshot aimed at soldiers, and biology through a violent clash with the IDF that asks about its effects on one’s bodily organs.

This is a small sample of some of the violent and inciteful material Aliwat was presumably exposed to in the Palestinian Authority (PA) curriculum this year and last; material taught by teachers whose salaries are supported by the European Union, Germany, and other nations. It is the curriculum taught by UNRWA, whose biggest financial supporter is the United States.

UNRWA has been caught twice in the last two years by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Education (IMPACT-se) teaching its self-produced hate material. Its response was a half-apology followed by outright denial.  

Education is the imparting of a society’s common knowledge and traditions to the next generation – it is the most important task adults have, it is a core task of government, and it is strategic. 

So while the PA and UNRWA pursue a strategy of teaching Palestinian schoolchildren that one state – Palestine – will be gained through violence, jihad, and their personal sacrifice, others in the region are taking a different path.  

Teaching tolerance

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a trailblazer, leading the way under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed al-Nahan, who ordered widescale rewrites of the country’s textbooks alongside sweeping post-9/11 state reforms. The result is outstanding. Emiratis are taught to embrace the Other and that national pride and prosperity are connected to peace and tolerance, an attitude that has undoubtedly helped pave the way to harmonizing relations between the UAE and Israel. Combating radicalism is inherent to the Emirati mentality, and tolerance toward other faiths and teaching conflict resolution are cornerstones of the education system. What’s more, the UAE will be teaching about the Holocaust in future iterations of its curriculum. 

Our 2022 Saudi Arabia annual report revealed a continuing overall trend of significant improvement. This follows the gradual removal of problematic content from Saudi textbooks since IMPACT-se’s 2020 report, with dozens of lessons demonizing Jews, Christians, and non-believers removed or edited in 2021. Antisemitism based on modern European tropes has largely been removed.  

Even in the case of Qatar, our 2022 report shows a continued trend of reform. Since IMPACT-se’s two reports in 2020 and 2021, which identified content that did not meet UNESCO standards, improvements were made in removing antisemitic tropes and conspiracies, and violent jihad. Problematic examples remain and there is still a disproportionate focus on Israel, but the hostile tone is being lessened, and the trajectory is positive. Our 2019 review of Jordan’s revamped curriculum shows that, overall, it teaches students to show respect and tolerance toward minorities at home and throughout the world. While displaying no respect for Israel, it features explanations of Jewish history. 

Outside of the Middle East, our review of the Indonesian curriculum, the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, points to teaching that is largely tolerant, promoting peace and coexistence with other religions. 

All of this is suggestive of positive progress in relation to how Jews are depicted in textbooks in the region. Education remains an essential tool to promote the open-mindedness needed for religious tolerance; MENA countries continue to reform their education systems, taking a different direction from the kind of education that previous generations in these states were taught. 

The Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, however, continue to glorify religious martyrdom and spread antisemitism and hatred against Israel in their schools. It is a national strategy, one the Palestinian leadership refuses to change and which inevitably, continues to result in bloodshed. 

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.