“Victims of Our Own Narratives?”

Reflection on the report:

Portrayal of the Other in Israeli and Palestinian School Books

Nurit Peled-Elhanan*

The report, short as it is, raises some poignant questions. Israeli educators, who hastened to pronounce it biased were quite right.  Such a study cannot be symmetrical, for it examines two education systems, one of which is entirely subjugated to the other, which is completely autonomous .A reminder of this situation is found right at the introduction of  the report:

“The Wye River Memorandum (signed in 1998) includes in Section A (Security Actions) an explicit statement about incitement and called for a committee with education specialists (Point 3 Prevention of Incitement):

The Palestinian side would issue a decree prohibiting all forms of incitement to violence or terror, and establishing mechanisms for acting systematically against all expressions or threats of violence or terror. This decree would be comparable to the existing Israeli legislation which deals with the same subject.

No such caution is mentioned with regard to the Israeli regime of occupation, though there are lots of them to be found.

As textbook researcher Samira Alayan from the Georg Eckert Institute for the study of textbooks  shows (2012),  Palestinian textbooks are severely controlled and censored not only by Israel but also by European and American bodies that finance their production. Nevertheless, the report prides itself for having engaged “objective” evaluators who come from the USA and Europe, although the USA denies tourist visas to most Palestinians, including the ambassador of Palestine to Europe, Leila Shahid, who was not allowed  to attend the NY session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine a few month ago, and many European states and companies profit from the occupation of Palestine.  Why not recruit evaluators from Pakistan or South Africa?
The study uses content analysis but neglects both  the visuals and the rhetoric of the texts, namely the ways in which the content is used to persuade the readers of its ideological message. For instance it praises Israeli textbooks for relating the details of massacres but does not discuss the rhetoric of these reports which convey the legitimation of the massacres in the name of  the “big picture” namely of Israel’s benefit.

Two main categories are missing: Occupation and racist discourse. That is why perhaps, describing the dire facts of the occupation seemed “negative characterization of Israelis” to the researchers.

Israeli school books do not speak about the occupation because their message is that there is no occupation. They inculcate what sociologist Stanley Cohen termed the “Zionist Kitsch” about the eternal historical rights of the Jews on the whole land of Israel and Palestine, and therefore the study of Bar-Tal and Adwan found Palestinians  labeling Zionist settlement on their land “colonialism” very offensive. In Israeli mainstream books Illegal settlements  like Ariel or Alon Shvut are presented as Tel Aviv or Kfar Sabba. The green line is never shown or discussed[1]. The cruel practices of occupation such as administrative detentions or checkpoints and house demolition are presented as necessities in our “defensive democracy”.

Since racist visual and verbal discourse is not part of the study’s content analysis, racist 89% of Israeli representation of Palestinians are reported to be “neutral”. However, since Palestinians are never presented in Israeli textbooks as persons like us – modern, individual professionals – only as negative stereotypes of terrorists, nomads and primitive farmers, one must conclude that these racist representations seemed  “neutral” to the researchers  and  to the objective western evaluators.

The report concludes that the books on both sides fail to relate the” better times” when there were good relationships between Palestinians and Israelis. They must refer either to the good relationships between Jews and Muslims in Morocco, Tunisia or Iraq, prior to their “redemption” by Zionism – a reality Zionist education in Israel has always done its utmost to conceal – or to the years  1967-1987 when oppression of Palestinians had its way without protest.  I found one reminder of that idyllic time in a Geography book from 2003: Israel-Man and Space (p.32):

Some of the foreign workers are Palestinians who come from the areas controlled by the Palestinian authorities. They are employed in unprofessional jobs and their wages are lower than that those of the Israeli citizens who work in the same jobs. […] This is characteristic of all developed countries.

The conclusions of the study use the Israeli Bon Ton that brought the success of Lapid in the last elections – to wrap up Arabs and Orthodox Jews together and slander them.  But  as usual,  there can be no comparison. While orthodox Jewish textbooks present the Arabs- all of them – as the Evil forces , a sort of biblical Amalek we must eliminate with the help of God, Palestinian textbooks never recur to such discourse. They respect Judaism as one of the three monotheistic religions but relate as accurately as they can under so much censorship the true though horrid facts of life under Israeli oppressive military rule.

To sum, the study, as presented in the report, seems quite problematic and rather biased but not the way Israel is trying to turn it.

* Prof. Nurit Peled-Elhanan is a lecturer in language education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the author of  “Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education” (I.B. Tauris 2012).

[1] The only Geogrpahy book I found that discusses the issue of the green line is belongs to the much slandered independent ultra-Orthodox school tract. “Sfat Hamapa,” ( the language of maps) by P. Dina (Yeshurun Press). While taking a clear ideological stance, it puts the 1967 border in its maps, and asks questions that can lead students to the heart of the matter. For example: “Consider why it is very important to know the precise borders of the Land of Israel as they are depicted in the Torah.” “Why are the Golan Heights so important to us?” “What is the Green Line?” “Name some Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 border.” “Clip and paste newspaper articles about the controversy over settlements in the ‘occupied territories’ beyond the Green Line.”

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