Schooled in distrust: a textbook case of indoctrination?

Israeli school books' view of Arabs is dangerously biased, an educator says. Matthew Reisz reports

November 10, 2011

Credit: Reuters
Subtext: in Israeli history books, Palestinians are shown in a negative light, while students leave high school knowing nothing about the origin of their state and its borders, according to Nurit Peled-Elhanan

"At the base of the modern state there is the professor, not the executioner," writes Nurit Peled-Elhanan at the end of her new book, "for the monopoly of legitimate education is more important than the monopoly of legitimate violence."

A professor of education and linguistics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who also works at the David Yellin Academic College of Education, Peled-Elhanan is well known in Israel as an activist and as the co-founder of Bereaved Families for Peace.

Her teenage daughter, Smadar, was killed in 1997 by a suicide bomber. Peled-Elhanan refused to receive Israeli government representatives who came to offer their condolences.

She is also the daughter of Major General "Matti" Peled, a leading military figure who later served in the Knesset. He was an impassioned advocate of dialogue with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, and of withdrawal from the Occupied Territories that he had helped to conquer in 1967.

As part of her work, Peled-Elhanan teaches courses on textbooks to the nation's current and future schoolteachers. "Nobody is critical of what the textbooks say," she explains.

"People don't doubt the subtexts or look for ideology in textbooks. They don't even remember the names of the authors and assume that they just give 'the facts'.

"I teach my students to read critically. I give them the analytic tools and they reach the conclusions themselves."

Before tackling the textbooks' treatment of Arabs, Peled-Elhanan is careful to examine stereotypical images of Jews.

"Ethiopian Jews are described in an anthropological way, what they wear and what they eat, but without a history.

"Diaspora Jews are seen as choosing the fleshpots of the West over a meaningful life in Israel. Anything that is not Zionist, if it is considered at all, is shown in a simplistic and demeaning way. But it is the Palestinians who are presented in the most obviously racist terms."

Stereotypes and threats

It is the latter theme that Peled-Elhanan has now researched in much greater detail for Palestine in Israeli School Books.

The work applies "the methods of multimodal and discourse analysis" to 10 history books, six geography books and one on "civic studies", all of them published in the years 1996-2009.

One of the history texts, however, was pulped in 2001, after just two years of use. Peled-Elhanan writes that this was "mainly on the charge that it attributed greater importance to global forces, historical structures and political powers than to Zionist national ethos such as the Jewish yearning for Zion in 2,000 years of 'exile', the return of the Jews to their legitimate homeland and the idea of redemption through Zionism".

In general, she says, "Arabs and Palestinians don't do much in Israeli school books except for lurking, attacking in all sorts of ways and multiplying.

"The few transitive verbs I came across regarding this unanimous group of people included 'poison', 'attack', 'refuse', 'evade tax payment' and 'thank Israel for the progress it has brought into their life'."

Illustrations include an Israeli Arab "wearing Ali Baba pants and shoes, kaffiyeh, a moustache and followed by a camel" and the common "Oxfam image" of "the primitive farmer who follows a primitive plough pulled by oxen or donkeys".

Much of this is, of course, ridiculous as well as offensive to Arab-Israeli teachers and students who know they don't come from families of primitive farmers and who find no doctors, lawyers or any "positive cultural or social aspect" of Palestinian life in the textbooks.

Instead, Peled-Elhanan claims in her book, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are regarded as "a demographic problem that can expand into a 'demographic threat' unless controlled".

Where massacres of Arabs are mentioned, readers are encouraged, she says, to "look beyond the individual (unfortunate) incident of killing at the big picture and at the long-term (positive) outcome for us".

Some of this is perhaps to be expected. There is nothing particularly unusual about Israeli textbooks, Peled-Elhanan stresses, since "all states use them to promote their own way of seeing things, to determine what is to be remembered and what forgotten. It's like that everywhere. But because of military service and the occupation, they have a much more immediate effect in Israel.

"Students leave high school knowing nothing about the history and borders of the state, and seeing Palestinians as intruders, and then have to go out and control and sometimes kill them. Furthermore, the country is very small, but education can fence off neighbours and prevent them from having any real contact."

'Hating' books

On the textbooks now used in Palestinian schools, Peled-Elhanan takes the view that "they are not racist and there is no incitement there, for the simple reason that they are controlled by the Israeli army, the EU, the Danish government and other bodies that finance them.

"The 'hating' books were the Jordanian and Egyptian ones the Palestinians had to learn from before they got permission to have their own curriculum in 1994."

Some of this has been contested by critics, who argue that Peled-Elhanan's use of evidence is selective and driven by her own political agenda.

She notes that she has "few political allies within the university" and sometimes feels "part of an almost extinct minority", since she refuses to accept the assumptions of even what she calls "the Zionist left, which still accepts the need for a Jewish majority".

Yet she also acknowledges that she enjoys "complete academic freedom", is widely acclaimed for her research on literacy and frequently invited to provide in-service training to kindergarten teachers.

However, at a recent conference at Georgetown University in the US commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict, her invitation as a keynote speaker was cancelled at the last moment - she suspects because of pressure from the local Jewish community - until her protests led to reinstatement.

Legacy of intolerance

Highly pessimistic about where Israel is going, Peled-Elhanan sees no hope of convincing the authorities to change tack. And her book concludes with the gloomy reflection that "the past three generations of Israelis are, for the most part, not aware of the geopolitical or social realities of their country", given that most schoolchildren "do not run to libraries to verify the facts [in their textbooks] and fill in the gaps", and that "most teachers were brought up on similar books".

Yet she retains a strong faith in the potential for education to help move things forward gradually. When her students start to analyse the textbooks, she observes, "they often say 'we've been blind' and feel empowered at being able to read what's behind the texts. They are usually happy to learn these things, which may affect their teaching later on. Once you know something, you can't un-know it."

In other cases, students feel that their most basic assumptions about history and politics have been challenged and they "come out and say 'I don't know anything any more'. I reply: 'Good, now you can find your own way. In an immigrant country, you should be able to see other things'.

"Too much self-confidence is bad. Perplexity and confusion and doubt are very good for education. They are what it should be about. Otherwise you're just fabricating little soldiers all the way from kindergarten to high school. Maybe this contributes to some kind of change," says Peled-Elhanan.

"I'm not optimistic on the large scale determined by politics, but if you believe in education you work one step at a time and build up a group of 1,000 teachers. You need to be modest and work on the level of individuals."

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