- By Marya HannunMarya Hannun is a Ph.D. student in Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Follow her on Twitter at: @mrhannun.
During last year’s GOP primary, candidate Newt Gingrich boldly asserted that Palestinian schoolchildren "have textbooks that say, ‘If there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left?’"
Could the situation really be that bad? And what about the other side? How are Palestinians portrayed in books used by Israeli children?
A recently published study, sponsored by the US Department of State attempted to answer these questions. This three year study, the largest ever done on the topic, examines "depictions of the other" in Palestinian Authority, Israeli State, and Israeli Ultra-Orthodox textbooks. To the surprise of many, the contents were really not that bad, considering the amount of built-up resentment both sides have to work with.
As Bruce Wexler of Yale University, one of the study’s leading authors, said during a briefing at the National Press Club on February 6, the first US discussion of the project:
The big picture is not that there are these made up things about the other. There are, unfortunately, plenty of true things about the other that do the service of portraying them as negative without making any false statements.
Of course, there were a few egregious examples. A passage from an Ultra-Orthodox, "Israeli Studies" textbook for 2nd graders reads:
A convoy of bloodthirsty Arabs marched to that settlement, the purpose was clearly to loot the property of the Jew and burn down their houses.
And a Palestinian Islamic Studies book for 6th graders asks students to complete the following exercise:
Through studying history and experiencing the events and reality in which we live:
A – Mention some violent events against our people by the enemies.
B – How do enemies and occupiers deal with the people of occupied countries?
C – How did the Muslims deal with the people of conquered countries?"
Israeli state textbooks came out the most favorably, with 49 percent of their depictions of "the other" being negative, compared to 73 percent in ultra-Orthodox books and 84 percent in Palestinian books. But this did not stop the Israeli government from lashing out at the writers before the report was even published. In a press release, the Israeli Ministry of Education skeptically questioned the authenticity of the "study":
An examination of professionals within the Ministry of Education and outside it of the materials prepared by the bodies that "conducted the research," clearly reveals that it is biased, unprofessional and significantly lacking in objectivity.
Ironically, the report also found Israeli state textbooks to be the most comfortable with self-criticism.