Battle of the Books in Palestine

Battle of the Books in Palestine

Unfounded attacks on school textbooks have had disastrous consequences.


In the midst of an uprising in which at least 600 Palestinians and 150 Israelis have been killed, and in which the fragile Palestinian economy has been wrecked, with skyrocketing poverty, unemployment and a population living under siege conditions, what Palestinian students are taught in the classroom and what textbooks they read has somehow become a major issue in the current debate on how to end the cycle of violence. President Clinton drew attention to it in remarks at the Israel Policy Forum in New York this past January, when he called on the Palestinians to change the "culture of violence and incitement that, since Oslo, has continued unchecked." The President went on to say, "Young [Palestinian] children still are being educated to believe in confrontation with Israel." Five months later, his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, held a joint press conference with fellow New York Senator Charles Schumer to denounce the "hateful, anti-Israel rhetoric in official Palestinian…schoolbooks."

The principal source of the allegation is a Jewish-American NGO called the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, whose website contains the full text of a study titled "The New Palestinian Authority School Textbooks for Grades One and Six." The study's research director, Itamar Marcus, is an extreme right-winger who lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat. It concludes: "Ever since the PA (Palestinian Authority) became responsible for education in 1994, Palestinian children have been learning from their schoolbooks to identify Israel as the evil colonialist enemy who stole their land…. The new PA schoolbooks fail to teach their children to see Israel as a neighbor with whom peaceful relations are expected. They do not teach acceptance of Israel's existence on the national level, nor do they impart tolerance of individual Jews on the personal level."

The CMIP report is full of distortions, exaggerations and outright lies. For example, it claims that an old anti-Semitic history book written by Mustafa Dabbagh is now required reading for Palestinian students, that this book is dedicated to "those who are battling for the expulsion of the enemy from our land!" and that it contains a banner on the title page of volume one that supposedly proclaims, "There is no alternative to destroying Israel."

The book in question, Our Country Palestine, is a ten-volume history written in 1947 that scholars consider a classic Arab reference on Mandatory Palestine. It is not required reading for Palestinian students. I found a copy of the 1988 edition at the Ramallah public library. It contains no banner on the title page of volume one or any other volume with the alleged proclamation. And a more accurate translation of the dedication is "to those who have struggled to keep Palestine Arab." The only segment that Palestinian students are required to read is a moving personal account in the introduction to volume one in which the author describes the circumstances of his forced departure from his hometown, Jaffa, in 1948.

The Palestinians have been tried and convicted in total disregard of the facts.

Deborah Sontag of the New York Times visited a Palestinian classroom in Ramallah on September 7, 2000. My own 6-year-old son happens to attend this school, and he was in the same classroom. It is obvious from the text of her subsequent article in the Times that Sontag was primarily looking for evidence to substantiate the charge. She found none. Instead, she drew a thorough picture of the pedagogical dilemmas facing Palestinians in dealing with complex historical issues.

Israelis who have carefully examined the new Palestinian textbooks have arrived at different conclusions from those of the right-wing researchers. Writing in the leading daily Ha'aretz in January, Akiva Eldar said: "The Palestinians are being rebuked where they should in fact be praised. For this school year the Palestinian Authority has, for the first time ever, printed its own textbooks. A research team from the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, led by Dr. Ruth Firer, has established that the new books are 'freer of negative stereotypes of Jews and Israelis, compared to Jordanian and Egyptian books.' The defense establishment has investigated and confirmed this finding." Quoted in Le Monde diplomatique, Dr. Firer attributes a political motivation to the right-wing researchers at CMIP, who, she says, have no educational or methodological background and only want to prove that it's impossible to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

The effects of this campaign have already been nothing short of disastrous. In December 2000, faced with strong parliamentary pressure during an election campaign, the Italian government, referring directly to the CMIP study, informed the Palestinians that it can no longer finance the development of the new Palestinian school curriculum. At the same time, the World Bank notified the Palestinian Ministry of Education that money allocated for the development of school texts and teacher training will have to be diverted to other projects. This rush to judgment has led to similar reactions by a number of other donor countries.

The focus on Palestinian textbooks has meant the avoidance of other, more important issues. More than a quarter of all Palestinians so far killed by the Israeli army are under 18. The Palestinian educational system has suffered serious setbacks because Israeli closures–first imposed in 1993 and tightened considerably during the new intifada–prevent students and teachers from reaching their schools for long periods of time. And there is no debate or even the slightest bit of international concern about the psychological effects of violence on Palestinian children.

Normally, international agencies are quick to send mental-health professionals to war-torn areas to help children cope with situations of extreme stress. The Palestinians have had to cope on their own, with limited resources, without international assistance. In October 2000 I tried to convene a small group of people to discuss what can be done to help schoolchildren cope. We discovered, to our amazement, that international agencies like UNICEF and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency had evacuated their personnel.

Palestinian mental-health professionals and school counselors report numerous cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among school-age children, especially those whose homes and schools are near points of confrontation. Symptoms include depression; disturbed sleep and nightmares; difficulty concentrating and remembering things, especially schoolwork; diminished interest in enjoyable activities; emotional detachment from parents and friends; and bedwetting. The Palestinian educational system simply cannot cope with the problem. Severe cases of shock go untreated because of the lack of skilled professionals.

Dr. Firer's Palestinian co-researcher, Dr. Sami Adwan of the education department at Bethlehem University, responds to Marcus's allegations: "How can a Palestinian write in a textbook that Israelis or Jews should be loved, while what he is experiencing is death, land expropriation, demolition of homes and daily degradation? Give us a chance to teach loving." Dr. Adwan correctly points out that what children see on the street, on TV and on the Internet has a far greater impact than any book.

It is indeed frightening that a small, extreme-right-wing organization, producing shoddy work, can help shape the agenda in a rather complex conflict and eventually have such a far-reaching impact on governments throughout the world.

Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands breeds more hatred and mistrust than any schoolbooks can. Indeed, if Itamar Marcus wants Palestinians to stop identifying Israel as the "evil colonialist enemy who stole their land," he would do far better to join the campaign to end Israel's occupation, land expropriation and settlement construction, which continue to this day.

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