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Jewish Groups See the Specter of Antisemitism in Palestinian Texts

Education: New works for elementary schools do not acknowledge Israel or the Oslo accords, critics say. Advocates contend that peace has to precede curriculum changes.

RAMALLAH, West Bank – Searching for the root causes of the Palestinian revolt that exploded here last September, some Israelis think they’ve found a clue between the brightly colored covers of newly published elementary school textbooks.
The first Palestinian-authored textbooks were distributed to children in the West Bank and Gaza Strip just a few weeks before widespread riots erupted in the Palestinian-controlled territories. They were unveiled as the centerpiece of the Palestinian Authority’s effort to overhaul an educational system that had been largely untouched during decades of Israeli occupation.
The books immediately came under fire from right-wing Israeli and American Jewish organizations, and even from then-candidate and now Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), for what the works do –and don’t – say and illustrate about Israel, Jews and peacemaking. Clinton branded the books “racist” and called on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to “stop teaching hatred” to children.
References Made to ‘the Occupier’
Critics point out that maps in the books show – but don’t name – a dagger-like swath of land between the West Bank and Gaza Strip recognized by the world as Israel. They show only Arab cities that existed before the birth of the state. Indeed, the brief blocks of text in the books mostly ignore the existence of Israel and speak of it as the “occupier” when it is mentioned.
Children are told of the calamity that befell the Palestinians in 1948, when many fled or were forced from their homes. But they are given virtually no information about the Jewish state that replaced British-run Palestine at the time, and they are told nothing about their present-day Israeli neighbors.
A history of Palestine that students are encouraged in one textbook to check out of a library “is the most Antisemitic book we have come across in our study of books in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and the territories,” according to Itamar Marcus, research director of the private Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace.
The new textbooks, Marcus acknowledged, are an improvement over the Egyptian and Jordanian works in that they do not include overt Antisemitism and explicit calls for Israel’s destruction. But they hardly mention the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, nor do they speak of any need for reconciliation between Arabs and Jews.
“They are completely lacking in peace education,” said Marcus, whose 2-year-old center has offices in New York and Jerusalem. “If you are talking about taking a generation of children who have had conflict with Jews and Israelis and about educating them to put that behind them, the silence here is very, very loud.”
But Marcus found it hard to interest Israelis in the content of the textbooks before the latest intifada erupted. Since the outbreak of violence that has claimed more than 350 lives and derailed peace negotiations, “we’ve been inundated with requests by the Israeli media for examples in the Palestinian educational material” that might explain the rioting, Marcus said.
No one argues that there is a direct link between the revolt and either the new textbooks or the Egyptian and Jordanian ones that most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip grew up reading. But a growing number of Israelis say the new books reflect the refusal of Palestinian society to embrace them as neighbors rather than confront them as enemies.
“The Palestinians have not done what they should have,” said Colette Avital, a member of parliament with the center-left Labor Party who has strongly supported outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s peacemaking efforts. “They are raising a whole generation of young children with hatred. I think this generation is, in a way, lost.”
Palestinians reject the criticism. “Our curriculum is not anti-anybody,” said Naim abu Hommos, deputy minister of education for the Palestinian Authority.
Israel does not appear on the books’ maps because “Israel’s borders are not yet defined. When they decide where the borders are, we will go by what the government agrees. We left this issue to the politicians,” Abu Hommos said. The ministry had no intention of denying Israel’s existence, he said; it simply selected maps commonly used in the Arab world.
The new textbooks aim to educate children to be humanists, “to let Palestinians be open, to know about America, Argentina and to understand other cultures,” Abu Hommos said. Lessons on living in peace with Israel will come once a final peace treaty is signed, he added. “Without a just peace, all the articles and all the words are not going to work.”
It was Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to a disputed Jerusalem holy site Sept. 28 and anger over the slow pace of the peace process, not the Palestinian Authority’s educational approach, that triggered the intifada, Palestinians say.
One expert on Israeli and Palestinian textbooks said she finds it hardly surprising that Palestinian works should express animosity.
“What would Israelis who are shouting about this expect from the Palestinians after looking into their history and their present reality?” asked Ruth Firer, director of a peace education project at Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace. “Do we expect them to love the people who took their lands and robbed them of their chance to have a state and have self-respect?”
Changes must be made in the texts, she said, but it won’t happen by pressuring Palestinians to make them. “It must be done quietly, with respect,” she said.
Few Israelis are willing to be as patient as Firer. Marcus said more of the nation’s political leaders and academics are accepting his argument – once dismissed as a right-wing canard – that education must come before peacemaking. One of them is Sharon, now the prime minister-elect, who says it will take years before the two societies are ready to sign a comprehensive peace agreement.
“If Israel had said five years ago, ‘Until you educate for peace, we’re not going on,’ the Palestinians would realize that we are serious about sticking to the Oslo accords,” Marcus said.
The accords, which established the framework for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, called for the two sides to “ensure that their respective educational systems contribute to the peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.” In 1998, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to set up an anti-incitement committee to monitor, among other things, textbooks. That panel stopped operating more than a year ago.
Lost in criticism about their approach to Israel are the positive aspects of the new Palestinian texts, said Abu Hommos and other Palestinian educators. The new books speak to children by relating to their way of life in a manner that no other works used in West Bank and Gaza schools have done.
For years, Palestinian children in the West Bank have used Jordanian books that taught them about “our king, Hussein.” In Gaza, Egyptian texts told Palestinian children that they were “descended from the pharaohs.”
The new books speak of the importance of stonecutting and olive trees to the culture, cite the works of Palestinian poets and authors, extol the virtues of Arab unity and speak of the need for tolerance between Muslims and Christians. They tell tales of Palestinians fleeing the seaport of Jaffa in 1948 and of young men spending time in Israeli prisons.
But some Palestinian educators have criticized the books as simplistic. Others have said that they fail to adequately explain history.
“We are in a period of nation-building,” said Sabrine Tamimi, a sixth-grade history teacher at the private Friends’ School here in Ramallah. “Our education should encourage and strengthen identity and national understanding… We have a flag, and the students know its colors and how to draw it, but they do not know the history of the flag and what it symbolizes, or the battles fought to keep it.”
Educator Warns of ‘False Hopes’
Ibrahim abu Lughod, a Palestinian academic who headed a committee funded by UNESCO on reforming the education system, said he is disappointed with the ministry’s effort.
“In general, the object of history is to teach the truth,” he said. “You should be realistic. You refer to Israel because it is there. You cannot mislead students and raise a generation on false hopes.”
The failure of the textbooks to deal with Israel, Abu Lughod said, is symptomatic of a larger failure of the new curriculum. After holding dozens of workshops to ask educators, parents and students “what is wrong with Palestinian education and how can we fix it,” Abu Lughod said, his committee recommended replacing rote learning with a more analytical approach and infusing Palestinian culture into all aspects of education.
The ministry did not embrace such a sweeping overhaul, Abu Lughod said.
“It is the force of culture,” he said. “The people in charge are actually afraid to experiment with the basic system of learning. It is still dependent on rote learning. It is below my expectations.”
This overall failure, he insisted, is far more worrisome to him as a Palestinian and an educator than the textbooks’ omissions on Israel, Jews and peacemaking.

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