- - Sunday, February 24, 2013

“Victims of Our Own Narratives” was the title of a recent handout given to journalists filling two rooms — one in Jerusalem and the other at the Press Club in Washington, DC. Headlines were quick to follow stating that the problem of incitement in Israeli and Palestinian school textbooks is over. However, wishful thinking aside, it is not.

The “textbook incitement debate” deals with the claims that textbooks in both Israeli and Palestinian societies undermine the peace process and fail to encourage the struggling nations to find common ground. Putting this simply, it is about books that foster hate and struggle rather than tolerance and peace.

Recently – following three years of work – a new report by an Israeli-Palestinian research team claimed to have settled that debate. The self-proclaimed “definitive” report, commissioned by the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land and headed by Yale Professor Bruce Wexler, studied Israeli and Palestinian textbooks and stated that there is no actual dehumanization or incitement in either curriculum and concluded that both sides need to improve their attitudes toward the other.  

School textbooks, which are official products of governments, can tell us something about the mindset of those who wrote and approved them. This is exactly why the report triggered so much attention. It was quickly endorsed by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who claimed that the report “confirms that Palestinian textbooks do not contain any form of blatant incitement.” But there are two problems with that statement. The first is that Mr. Fayyad has neglected to read the entire report, which criticizes many aspects of the Palestinian curriculum. The second is that Mr. Fayyad failed to actually read the Palestinian books that still very much work against peaceful coexistence with Israel.

In fact, the Wexler report found that 84 percent of characterizations of Jews in PA school books were very negative or negative, and likewise that 87 percent of descriptions of the actions of Jews were very negative or negative. These examples refer to quotes from Palestinian textbooks such as: “The Messenger of God [Muhammad] ordered to Zayd Ibn Thabit to learn the language of the Jews in order to be safe from their cheating” ( “The History of the Arabs and Muslims,” Grade 6, 2009, p.133); or this statement about the peace process: “By your life! How come that snakes invade us and we [still] observe a protection covenant 5 [dhimma], which respects commitments?” (“Arabic Language — Linguistic Sciences,” Grade 12, 2010, p. 61). 

On the other hand, the researchers decided not to examine  religious passages found in textbooks, claiming that one cannot criticize the Koran or the Bible. This methodological decision meant that the report excluded texts such as the following: “God’s Messenger said: ‘The Hour of Resurrection will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews. The Muslims will kill them, and when a Jew would hide behind a rock or a tree the rock or the tree would say: “O Muslim, O worshipper of God! There is a Jew behind me; come and kill him”’” (“Noble Hadith and Its Studies,” Grade 11, 1996, p. 200). 

Excluding religious verses from research led to the misleading notion that the Palestinian textbooks are devoid of outright incitement. Unfortunately, these types of omissions cause the authors to distort the problematic picture that the study supposedly attempted to fix.

A central point of the Wexler report is the claim that some of the ethnocentric and de-legitimizing trends found in Palestinian textbooks also appear in private Haredi (Jewish Ultra-Orthodox) textbooks. This appears to be a fair point, since the Haredi books apparently need improvement. However, the report fails to emphasize that the Haredi school system — which makes up only about 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population and about 20 percent of the Jewish students — is not  government regulated and does not represent an official line. The Wexler report is useful in highlighting problems with this worrying phenomenon of unregulated books, but it is misleading, allowing readers to conclude that Israel’s books are on a par with Palestinian books.

When one looks at the government run school systems and officially approved textbooks, the report agrees that Israeli textbooks include many more positive references to the “other” (Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims); that peace is presented as the ultimate goal in Arab-Israeli relations; and that the books contain a more complex depiction of events regarding Israeli and Arab relations with some discussion of the Palestinian point of view. All of these are missing from the Palestinian textbooks, admits the report.

These important differences, however, appear to be missing from many of the media reports that focused on headlines such as “Textbook Study Faults Israelis and Palestinians.”

Is this the fault of the media, or is it because of the study’s authors who, in an attempt to appear “balanced,” missed the bigger picture about the nature of incitement? The Palestinian Authority, with its textbooks that systematically deny any legitimacy to Israel’s existence, has more work to do than does the Israeli government, whose books already depict peaceful coexistence with Palestinians and Arabs  as the ultimate goal. Closing the file on the incitement debate will not change what needs to change. Instead, it makes this report a victim of its own narrative. 

Nir Boms is a board member of The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE). Yael Teff is the head researcher for the Israeli Textbook Project of the institute.