DAMASCUS, Syria Chapter 13 of an elementary school book teaches that Zionism, Israel’s founding ideology, is a “Nazi movement that aims at colonizing the Arab world from the Euphrates to the Nile.”
Israel, the civics text says, is a “malignant cancer that sprouted in the heart of the Arab nation” and seeks to expand through racist aggression. Many Syrian textbooks devote sections to Israeli attacks on Arabs; Jihad, or holy war, against Israel is encouraged.
Zionism is portrayed as the obstacle to Arab unity, the elusive cause that lies at the core of Syrian ideology.
With efforts under way to bring Syria and Israel back to the negotiating table and agree on a peace treaty, Israelis are calling for Syria to rewrite its history books, as Egypt and Jordan did after they made peace with Israel.
“As long as there is no peace treaty, the minimum that we can expect in Syrian textbooks is precision regarding the presentation of history and sticking to the facts,” said Rivka Shraga, spokeswoman for Israel’s Education Ministry. “After peace is achieved, we expect more the sowing of the seeds of peace as well as mutual respect and a presentation of the other side’s views.”
For now, the word Israel is rarely mentioned in Syrian classrooms except for broad references to the “Arab-Israeli struggle.” As in most of the Arab world, maps and geography books identify the area as Palestine.
Israel, the books say, was created as a geographical base for British and French imperialism a strategic foothold for the West to protect its interests and block Arab progress.
A recent study of Syrian textbooks by the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute said the notion that Israel’s existence prevents Arab unification means any recognition of Israel would mean the collapse of the ideological essence of the Syrian state.
“It means that the very foundations of Syrian society will have to be changed if peace and normalization are to come to the Middle East,” the study said.
Syrians grow up learning that Israel is the ultimate foe, an illegitimate state that stole the Golan Heights from Syria and murdered thousands of Arabs. Deep-seated animosity has been passed to younger generations through 50 years of hostility.
In the peace negotiations, Syria is now seeking to recover the Golan, strategic high ground Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War. Talks that resumed in December after nearly four years have stalled again.
The Jordanian government, after signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, amended school books at all levels to delete references that incite hatred toward Israel.
Two decades after Egypt and Israel made peace, Egyptian textbooks’ accounts of the Arab-Israeli conflict since the 1940s are fairly factual. Books for religion classes, however, are critical of Jewish actions in the early days of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula.
Israel has started to change its textbooks in what Miss Shraga, the Education Ministry spokeswoman, described as a push for “peace education.”
She said several children’s books have been banned from Israeli school libraries because of racist portrayals of Arabs. Israeli textbooks, she said, avoid an ideological bent and deal with Syria mostly in terms of the three wars and specific battles in which it faced Israel.