In June, Germany’s Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research published a comprehensive survey of textbooks used in the Palestinian Authority school system. Over the course of 18 months a research team analyzed 156 textbooks and 16 teacher guides published by the Palestinian Education Ministry between 2017 and 2019, as part of a curriculum and textbook reform initiated by the PA for all subjects taught in grades 1-12. The GEI study examined content in Palestinian textbooks addressing hate or violence, the promotion of peace and religious coexistence as well as elements addressing reconciliation, tolerance and the observation of human rights. The research was funded in its entirety by the European Union, and the materials were analyzed on the basis of UNESCO-defined criteria of peace, tolerance and nonviolence in education.
As with any comprehensive study of such a complicated subject, the findings are complex and can be interpreted in various ways.
Conservatives in Europe and in the United States (especially in the U.S. Congress) pounced on it, some of them with a push from anti-Palestinian conservatives in Israel. The reactions from the other side, however, have been few, perhaps because the obsession with Palestinian textbooks is perceived, correctly, as an amusement reserved for the right. But the left cannot exclude itself from the playing field on which the rules of the game and the balance of power between the occupier and its allies on one side and the occupied on the other are determined. I will address the research and its findings while paying attention to the framework defined for it, to what is in it and especially to what is not in it.
First, the research team’s statement, in a press release, that its work provides a “comprehensive and objective analysis” of Palestinian textbooks is puzzling by all accounts. The analysis is indeed very comprehensive, but the extent of its objectivity can only by evaluated by readers with a range of perspectives, not the authors. Such a statement is unusual when voiced by such a reputable textbook research institution as GEI, and raises a creeping suspicion that it is not by chance.
A 200-page report of a study funded by the EU and devoted entirely to examining the textbooks of one side of the conflict – the vanquished side – is inherently flawed. Students in the state education systems in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories do not learn about each other in a vacuum. The balance of power between Israel, which denies the growing violence required to maintain the occupation, and the Palestinians, dictates the framework and the narratives that are taught in each.
Palestinian students attend a class in a school in the West Bank city of Ramallah, in 2013.Majdi Mohammed / AP
The research of Profs. Daniel Bar-Tal and Sami Adwan, whose review and comparison of textbooks on both sides by a joint Israeli/Palestinian research team yielded fascinating findings, is an example of how research on the textbooks of two societies that are involved in an intractable conflict can and should be carried out. It is surprising that an EU-funded study ignores such a necessary comparative methodology, the kind that is reflected even in the doctoral dissertation of Yifat Shasha-Biton, a senior member of a moderate right-wing party who serves as Israel’s education minister.
The very notion of examining only Palestinian textbooks with a fine-tooth comb, while completely ignoring their mirror image in Israeli textbooks, is fundamentally tendentious. It’s hard to believe that political considerations were not involved in the decision, the result in part of ongoing pressure from IMPACT-SE, a conservative Israeli nongovernmental organization, on the EU and on the British government, a contributor to the PA and to the UN Relief and Works Agency – pressure that was also expressed as “assistance” in drawing up EU legislation that includes Palestinian textbooks only.
One of the leaders of the one-sided criticism of Palestinian textbooks in the European Parliament is Monika Hohlmeier, a conservative MEP from Germany. The pressure for such a study began effectively in a proposal she pushed through the EU Committee on Budgetary Control in 2018 that focused solely on criticizing the Palestinian textbooks and curricula. In these circumstances, the GEI research team’s insistence on its “objectivity” is mere whistling in the dark.
Given that the study’s objective is to focus on the response of the occupied population to the violence of the occupier, our only option is to make the best of a bad situation and extract from it a few important findings and insights for the benefit of the fight against the occupation and the pursuit of Palestinian independence.
One of the important things about the study is the team’s clear determination that the characterization of Palestinian textbooks in the studies published by IMPACT-SE suffer from “generalising and exaggerated conclusions based on methodological shortcomings” (p. 15). In contrast, binational comparative studies of Palestinian and Israeli textbooks, including that of Bar-Tal and Adwan, are mentioned favorably. We can only hope that the editors of the Ynet news website, who in recent years have given IMPACT-SE a broad platform, remember this in the future.
The research team offers a passing reference to the Palestinian Education Ministry’s determination that international law permits resistance – by implication, violent resistance – to an occupying power (p. 20). This is a very complex legal issue, and it is impossible to analyze the attitude to it in the Palestinian textbooks without addressing it seriously. It seems that the team tried to have it both ways and failed. In any event, its recognition of the occupation and of the legitimacy of resisting it, at least nonviolently, stands out as a lone voice in the wilderness of conservative studies generated by Israeli organizations, led by IMPACT-SE. These organizations have never heard of the Israeli occupation in the territories, apparently, and therefore cannot recognize the legitimacy of any form of resistance.
The distinction among different types of resistance, and between violent resistance directed against an army versus that targeting civilians, is a good beginning for any future examination of Palestinian textbooks, and GEI did well to find a place for it, even if cautiously and indistinctly. It is nevertheless hard not to wonder about the discovery of the “narrative of resistance” to the occupation and the “antagonism towards Israel” in the textbooks.
Sympathy for the occupier?
Did the researchers forget that the occupation is more present than ever, and that every day Israel works very hard, directly and through its settler emissaries, to tarnish its image in the eyes of the Palestinians in the territories? In these circumstances, is it possible to expect narratives sympathetic to Israel?
Finally, and perhaps most important: The study’s findings unequivocally refute the exaggerated and overgeneralized accusations by conservative Israeli organizations about antisemitism and incitement to violence in Palestinian textbooks. It reveals “numerous instances [in which] the textbooks call for tolerance, mercy, forgiveness and justice” and distinguishes among various types of Palestinian criticism of Israel and among textbooks in various subjects (such as religious studies).
Palestinian textbooks do contain examples of antisemitism, incitement to violence, glorification of violence and dehumanization of Jews or Israelis, but according to the researchers their frequency is limited. But this bears repeating: The Palestinian nation would have to be a saint for its textbooks to be completely free of such examples, in light of the expanding occupation, the widespread dispossession and the dehumanization from the Israeli side, which are supported by the enormous resources that are at the disposal of the strong party in the conflict.
Given the inherent limitations of the study, and the framework imposed on it, these are important insights that should set a minimum threshold for future research on the subject. It would be better, of course, for these studies to be comparative and deeply rooted in the context of the occupation, in order to deserve the descriptor “objective.”
Assaf David is the director of the Israel in the Middle East research cluster at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and co-founder and academic director of the Forum for Regional Thinking.