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Friday, April 01, 2005


What the School Children Know . . .

Politicizing Palestinian education: IPCRI reports and the lack of objectivity
an expert report by Nadia Naser-Najjab

THE ISSUE of “incitement” in Palestinian textbooks is one that has been under focus for some time now, to the extent that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon set “reform” of Palestinian school curricula as a precondition to any progress in talks with the Palestinian Authority.

Several surveys have found that there is no incitement in Palestinian textbooks, but other surveys have disagreed. The issue has raised another, parallel issue, that of similar problems in the Israeli curricula. These are not discrete problems, rather a comparative analysis goes to the root of the problem of Palestinian-Israeli education, namely that the two cannot be divorced either from the realities the peoples live under and the history of the country they both claim as their own. The issue also poses the question of what education should be about: teaching the truth as it is best understood, or shaping attitudes to political circumstances.

The most recent investigation into the matter was undertaken by the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) and was funded by the US government. The last report of November 2004, “Recommendations for Palestinian Text Book Reform”, was the third in a series of three evaluations of the Palestinian curriculum presented to the Public Affairs Office at the US Consulate General in Jerusalem (the other two were “Analysis and Evaluation of the New Palestinian Curriculum: Reviewing Palestinian Textbooks and Tolerance Education Program (Report I)”, March, 2003, and “Analysis and Evaluation of the New Palestinian Curriculum: Reviewing Palestinian Textbooks and Tolerance Education Program Grade 4 & 9 (Report II)”, June 2004). IPCRI also carried out one evaluation of Israeli textbooks, “Examination of Israeli Textbooks in Elementary Schools of The State Educational System”, April 2004. It is not clear whether the evaluation of the Israeli textbooks has been presented to the US government.

In this article I will examine the latest report issued by IPCRI in November 2004 and compare its findings with the April 2004 evaluation of Israeli textbooks. The overall evaluation of the latter was positive, as best summed up by this excerpt of the report’s closing paragraph:

“Our hope is that the balance will continue, that the injustices requiring correction will be corrected as well as the contents of the books, and that the factual aspects will be more emphasized than the mythological aspects.”

While there is some criticism of Israeli textbooks for not teaching enough about Arabs and Palestinians, there is no mention, however, in the IPCRI report of an earlier study by Professor Daniel Bar Tal of Tel Aviv University, which in 1998 found that Israeli textbooks described Arabs as “hostile, deviant, cruel, immoral, unfair, with the intention to hurt Jews.” In other words, Israeli textbooks are criticized for what they leave out, but not in any way accused of incitement.

The “velvet glove” treatment afforded Israeli textbooks can be seen in other contexts as well. There is an inherent imbalance in the treatment afforded Israeli and Palestinian curricula by IPCRI when on the one hand Israeli students are implored to “be challenged to understand the period of the Oslo peace process in all of its complexities” (this in the November 2004 report), while Palestinian teachers should “place an emphasis on positive Palestinian intentions and positive elements [that] occurred during the Oslo process, such as the establishment of the Palestinian Authority”.

Two examples are included in the IPCRI report on grade 2 Israeli history curriculum intended to show that it promotes a balanced view. One concerns a cautionary tale of how Jews should avoid buying land close to Arab settlements. The intention, according to the IPCRI report, is that it teaches students to maintain good relations with their Arab neighbors, but with no mention of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, to ferret out such intention rather depends on classroom discussion management by the teacher. Another, equally teacher-dependant example, concerns the biblical story of the negative impact of Philistine rule. That example, according to the IPCRI report, should show the negative impact of one people ruling another, but it is for the teacher to bring such a message out. Another message can easily be understood.

More importantly, for our purposes, is that while Israeli teachers are afforded the benefit of the doubt by the IPCRI report writers that they will indeed steer the classroom discussion in a “positive” direction, no similar faith is placed in Palestinian teachers, and no leeway is given equally ambivalent examples from Palestinian textbooks.

In another example, the IPCRI report criticizes the Palestinian curricula for not explicitly recognizing the right of Israel to exist. While it does include criticism of Israeli textbooks for not recognizing the 1967 borders, the writers behind the IPCRI report apparently feel this should not be a justification for the Palestinian side to do the same. A recent article on the issue by Akiva Eldar in the Israeli Haaretz newspaper (“Learning all the wrong facts”, December 9, 2004) finds that not only is the 1967 border not recognized, the Green Line receives no mention at all and the West Bank is referred to only as Judea and Samaria.

The lack of education in the Israeli textbooks surveyed for grade 2 schoolchildren about Palestinian identity is explained away as not relevant to the period taught, while grade 4 Palestinian textbooks are taken to task for not mentioning any historical Jewish presence in the land. It seems odd to expect young Palestinian schoolchildren to learn ancient Jewish history and not for Israeli schoolchildren to learn much more recent history about Palestinians and Palestine, but it also raises questions about the methodology of the IPCRI team. Why a whole series on the Palestinian curricula and only one report on Israeli primary school curricula? Indeed, why the IPCRI recommendation to have Israeli experts on the committees to evaluate Palestinian textbooks, but no Palestinian experts to review Israeli textbooks?

The Palestinian curriculum is generally criticized for teaching animosity toward Israel. For example, the November 2004 report includes the following quote from a Palestinian textbook:

““They (the Israelis) have taken our land, they destroy our homes, they have determined our future, and the only thing we can hold onto as our own is our identity and our past. Now they want to take that as well.”

Considering what is happening on the ground, it is very hard for me to see what is wrong with the above quote. Indeed, while Palestinian teachers are urged to teach the negative effects of suicide bombings on Israeli civilians, in all four IPCRI reports not one mention is made the Israeli occupation and Israeli aggression against Palestinian civilians. The IPCRI reports seem to assume that peace has been struck, that people’s rights have been met, that the occupation no longer exists. But children, as any teacher knows, will always ask awkward questions, especially when those questions are posed of them every day in the form of foreign soldiers and bulldozers, checkpoints and curfews, death and destruction.

It is singularly dispiriting to find a non-governmental organization that, by its own definition, is devoted to achieving a just peace between Palestinians and Israeli, publishing an account so devoid of balance. It is dispiriting to find this same organization in their November 2004 report urging the PA to recognize Israel as the “State for the Jewish people” thus relegating Israel’s Palestinian population to second-class status, not to mention the rights of Palestinians from pre-1948 Mandate Palestine.

IPCRI challenges Palestinian educators to focus on the new period. What new period this refers to, is not exactly clear. “Peace education”, as some like to call it, can be very useful in fostering tolerance and understanding, but cannot come at the expense of reality. No amount of fine words will challenge the evidence of your own eyes. As settlements continue to expand, and a wall is built up and down the West Bank (perhaps equally confounding for Jewish children, up and down “Judea and Samaria”), it is simply unrealistic for IPCRI to ignore these factors. If we are to learn about the Oslo process “in all its complexity” perhaps we need to learn why it hasn’t brought peace. – Published 9/3/05

Dr. Nadia Naser-Najjab is a part-time assistant professor at the department of education and psychology at Birzeit University. -Published March 09, 2005©Palestine Report

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