The Politics of Palestinian Textbooks

This article analyzes the attempt by extremist Israeli groups to frame the issue of content in Palestinian textbooks in a manner that is consistent with their overall political agenda of discrediting the Palestinian Authority. It suggests an alternative way of examining the content of these texts on the basis of established professional literature in the field of education. It also explores the Israeli and Palestinian debates about what historical narratives should be included in textbooks and what images of the "Other" these texts should present.

Fouad Moughrabi is director of the Qattan Center for Educational Research and Develpment, Ramallah, Palestine.

Full text: 


CONTROVERSIES OVER THE FORM and content of school textbooks are not new. Over the years, right-wing groups in the United States have launched numerous campaigns against textbooks deemed ideologically offensive or antipatriotic. In the 1930s, for example, such groups targeted Harold Rugg's Man and His Changing World on the grounds that the book was anti-American, antibusiness, and socialist. In the mid-1970s, Kanawha County in West Virginia witnessed a heated controversy over schoolbooks led by conservative parents and religious and business leaders that eventually resulted in school boycotts and violence. [1] 

More recently, in Japan, government approval of a history textbook casting the Japanese invasion and occupation of China and Korea in a positive light led to anti-Japan protests in countries formerly occupied by Japan and even the recall of the South Korean ambassador from Tokyo. [2] At issue was the fact that the new textbooks, produced by a nationalist Japanese organization, failed to mention a number of contentious issues for the Chinese and Koreans, including that of "comfort women," a euphemism for Asian women forced into prostitution by the Japanese during World War II.

These examples illustrate important dimensions of the politics of textbooks. In the first instance, controversies within countries such as the United States represent a form of struggle over what constitutes "legitimate knowledge." As Michael Apple has argued, what counts as legitimate knowledge--namely, whose knowledge is most worthy--is often "the result of complex power relations and struggles among identifiable class, race, gender/sex, and religious groups." [3] In other words, by focusing on what is included and excluded in school textbooks, these controversies serve as proxies for wider questions of power relations in society.

In the second instance, the issue of school textbooks is an aspect of the ideological and political conflicts among states previously at odds over the uses of history. Asian protesters want the Japanese government to make a full disclosure of Japan's war crimes, admit its complicity in them, make appropriate reparations to the victims, and teach the truth in textbooks so the crimes are not repeated. How the past, especially a contested one, is interpreted often makes a statement about the present and the future.

It should come as no surprise, then, that what textbooks Palestinian school children read and what they are taught have emerged as issues in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. One could argue that raising this issue is appropriate if the contending parties are making steps toward peace and reconciliation. Under such circumstances, it is fair to examine whether the Palestinians are making a serious effort to promote values of peace and coexistence in their new curricula. It is equally valid to examine whether Israeli curricula also are trying to promote these same values. In essence, each party's view of the "Other" goes to the heart of the conflict and heavily influences the modalities of its possible resolution.


The Palestinians, who are still not masters of their own destiny, assumed control of their own educational system only in 1994, following the Oslo Accord that gave them limited autonomy. Until then, they had to rely on Jordanian textbooks in the West Bank and on Egyptian texts in the Gaza Strip. These books were severely censored by the Israeli occupation authorities until 1994: The word "Palestine" was removed, maps were deleted, and anything Israeli censors deemed nationalist was excised. Furthermore, the Palestinians inherited from the Israeli authorities a dilapidated educational system badly in need of repair. No investments in educational infrastructure had been made since the beginning of Israeli occupation in 1967, resulting in a significant decline in the quality of education as well as in access to educational resources.

In 1994, the Palestinians established the first curriculum center on the basis of a formal agreement between UNESCO and the newly established Ministry of Education of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The center, directed by the late Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, began its work in October 1995 with a team of researchers analyzing the existing curriculum. They consulted with educators and teachers throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip and produced a blueprint containing the basic principles that should govern a unified Palestinian curriculum.

Birzeit University professor Ali Jarbawi, a member of the team, carried out a comprehensive analysis of history and social science textbooks, conducted workshops with teachers to obtain their assessment of the texts in use, and analyzed questionnaires that had been sent out to a random sample of history and social science teachers. Specifically in terms of writing Palestinian history, Jarbawi was guided by the following questions:

What Palestine do we teach? Is it the historic Palestine with its complete geography, or the Palestine that is likely to emerge on the basis of possible agreements with Israel? How do we view Israel? Is it merely an ordinary neighbor, or is it a state that has arisen on the ruins of most of Palestine? This may well be one of the most difficult questions, but the answer to it need not be the most difficult. The new Palestinian curriculum should be creative, pragmatic, and truthful without having to engage in historical falsifications. [4] 

Since that time, new textbooks-language, history, science, civic education, national education, etc.-have been prepared for grades one and six and introduced in September 2000; the PA Ministry of Education's plan is to introduce new textbooks for two more grades every year (grades two and seven in September 2001, grades three and eight in 2002, grades four and nine in 2003, and so on). In preparing the books, the ministry has tried to incorporate five basic principles suggested by Jarbawi. The first of these principles is that the curriculum should be predicated not on giving students facts as if they were eternal truths that must be memorized, but on encouraging them to become critical thinkers. Second, students should be encouraged to make independent judgments and intelligent choices, with careful attention to be paid to individual differences within the classroom. Third, the new curriculum should generate a concept of citizenship that emphasizes individual rights and responsibilities and that establishes a linkage between private interests and the public good so as to encourage responsible and intelligent political participation. Fourth, democratic values such as justice, personal responsibility, tolerance, empathy, pluralism, cooperation, and respect for the opinions of others should be emphasized. Fifth, students should be taught how to read primary texts, to debate, link ideas, read maps, interpret statistics, and use the Internet as well as how to verify facts, sources, and data critically and scientifically.

In the application of these principles, the new textbooks--as can be seen from the two grades that have been issued so far--rely less on facts and more on a student-centered approach. By and large, they avoid dealing with unresolved political issues. They do not provide a map of Israel because the latter has yet to define its borders, and they do not provide a map of Palestine because its borders remain to be negotiated. The texts do, however, reflect the Palestinian narrative, which is basically that of the native in conflict with a settler colonial movement. The narrative presents the establishment of the State of Israel in most of Palestine in 1948 as a disaster (nakba) for the Palestinians, a majority of whom became uprooted and were forcibly expelled from their homes.

The Palestinian narrative, while not contested by objective non-Arab and non-Zionist scholars or even Israeli scholars associated with the "new historians" revisionist interpretations of 1948, is one that mainstream, and especially right-wing, Zionists reject. It is therefore probably inevitable that the new educational materials used in the schools under the PA would attract the attention of Israeli and pro-Israeli groups that view even benign attempts to depict the Palestinian narrative as evidence of an "anti-Israeli bias." The most prominent of these is a Jewish-American nongovernmental organization called the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace (CMIP), whose research director, Itamar Marcus, lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.


On the eve of the al-Aqsa intifada, CMIP issued a report that claims to be an "evaluation" of Palestinian textbooks. Entitled "The New Palestinian Authority School Textbooks," the report states the following principal conclusion:

Ever since the PA [Palestinian Authority] became responsible for education in 1994, Palestinian children have been learning from their schoolbooks to identify Israel as the evil colonialist enemy who stole their land. . . . The new PA schoolbooks fail to teach their children to see Israel as a neighbor with whom peaceful relations are expected. They do not teach acceptance of Israel's existence on the national level, nor do they impart tolerance of individual Jews on the personal level. [5] 

This message soon took hold in policy circles to the extent that, in the midst of an uprising in which more than 500 Palestinians and a hundred Israelis have been killed, in which the fragile Palestinian economy has been wrecked, and in which an entire population is forced to live under virtual siege conditions, what textbooks Palestinian students read has become a major theme in the debate on how to end the violence. President Bill Clinton drew attention to the issue just before leaving office in remarks at the Israel Policy Forum in New York, when he called on the Palestinians to change the "culture of violence and the culture of incitement that, since Oslo, has gone unchecked." [6] The president went on to say, "Young [Palestinian] children still are being educated to believe in confrontation with Israel." Six months later, his wife, by that time Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, held a joint press conference with fellow New York senator Charles Schumer to denounce the "hateful, anti-Israel rhetoric in official Palestinian . . . schoolbooks." [7] 

CMIP's report is the result of a joint research project with the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace of the Hebrew University, a partnership that endowed it with a measure of academic respectability. Even before the report was completed in the fall of 2000, CMIP had studied temporary textbooks introduced by the PA on an experimental basis for the 1998-99 academic year [8] and presented its findings to a Washington gathering of members of the U.S. Congress and the Clinton administration in September 1998. To American politicians inclined to be reflexively pro-Israeli, CMIP's summary analysis of the PA curricula struck a chord. Pro-Israeli lawmakers demanded that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright use her good offices to make sure that UNESCO and the World Bank stop funding the publication of textbooks by the PA. The U.S. Congress also demanded that UNRWA stop using these textbooks in UNRWA-run schools. In response, UNRWA made clear that its mandate required it to use books approved by the host country, though it can and will produce enrichment materials focusing on human rights, democracy, peace education, and creative conflict resolution that can supplement existing textbooks. It added that it would conduct a comprehensive review of textbooks in use and take measures to counteract any racist material that might be found. UNRWA did in fact review textbooks, but limited itself to the old Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks still in use in most grades in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively, and did not review the new textbooks introduced by the PA in 2000-2001. CMIP claims that UNRWA's review confirms its own findings of bias and incitement, a specious claim since UNRWA's findings on the Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks could not, ipso facto, confirm CMIP's findings on the new Palestinian textbooks. [9] 

What is beyond dispute is that the effects of CMIP's campaign have already been nothing short of disastrous. In December 2000, for example, the Italian government, referring directly to the CMIP study, informed the Palestinians that it could no longer finance the development of the new Palestinian school curriculum. At the same time, the World Bank notified the PA Ministry of Education that money allocated for the development of school texts and teacher training would have to be diverted to other projects. This rush to judgment has led to similar reactions by a number of other donor countries.

Whereas many international leaders and institutions have been quick to try and convict the Palestinian textbooks without even bothering to examine them, there have been some more temperate voices within Israel. For example, in the leading Israeli daily, Ha'Aretz, Akiva Eldar wrote that "the Palestinians are being rebuked where they should in fact be praised" and went on to quote Ruth Firer, head of a research team from the Truman Institute, as saying,

We were surprised to find how moderate the anger directed towards Israelis in the Palestinian textbooks is, compared to the Palestinian predicament and suffering. This surprise is doubled when you compare the Palestinian books to Israeli ones from the 1950s and 1960s, which mentioned gentiles [only] in the context of pogroms and the Holocaust.

Eldar also notes Firer's finding that the new texts are freer of negative stereotypes than the Jordanian and Egyptian books, and adds that the "defense establishment has investigated and confirmed this finding." [10] Firer herself attributes a political motivation to the right-wing researchers at CMIP, saying that they have no educational or methodological skills and only want to prove that it is impossible to achieve peace with the Palestinians. [11] 


At this point, we need to examine the main CMIP charges leveled against the new Palestinian textbooks and compare these charges with the actual texts. A point-by-point analysis is beyond the scope of this paper, and in any case is unnecessary because the charges are repetitive. Therefore, the discussion is limited to the two main allegations: (1) that the texts "delegitimize" Israel; and (2) they rely on old "anti-Semitic" books. These charges merit serious consideration because they have provoked the strongest attacks on the PA.

Delegitimizing Israel

According to CMIP,

The new PA textbooks continue to promote total de-legitimization of Israel. Israel is mentioned only in contexts that breed contempt, such as having expelled and massacred Palestinians. Worse still, Israel is grouped in the new PA sixth grade education under the section "colonialism" together with Britain, as the foreign conquerors of "Palestine" in the last century. . . . This contempt expressed for Israeli "settlements" and "occupation" is not directed at the areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but to Israeli "settlements" and "occupation" since 1948. In the PA education Israel's de-legitimization does not contest the lands under Israeli administration since the 1967 Six-Day-War, but contests the very existence of the State of Israeli itself. [12] 

From a reference that follows, it is clear that the CMIP is referring here not only to the new sixth grade textbook, as it states, but more specifically to the section "Problems in Palestinian Society." [13] Looking at the section in question, one finds at the top of page 16,

Let us think about the following and try to answer. 1. We read the title of the map ["Israeli Settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," on the previous page]; 2. We mention some settlements close to where we live; and 3. We try to examine Israel's purpose in erecting settlements on Palestinian soil.

In the second and lower portion of the page, the text goes on to read:

We deduce the following: first, special problems: 1. Colonialism: Palestine was subjected to British occupation after World War I (1917) and Israeli occupation in 1948 with British assistance. The Israeli occupation destroyed most Palestinian towns and villages and expelled the Palestinian inhabitants, forcing them to abandon their land and villages. 2. Settlement: Israel pursued a new policy of settlement during its occupation of Palestinian lands by establishing agricultural, industrial, and residential settlements; 3. The Israeli occupation ignored the social, educational and health needs of the Palestinian people; 4. Israel controls the water aquifers under Palestinian soil; 5. The Palestinian economy is totally dependent on the Israeli economy; and 6. The Judaization of Jerusalem and the erosion of the Palestinian identity of its Arab citizens.

The notion that Israel is a settler colonial entity that forcibly expelled Palestinians and destroyed their villages has been embraced by serious scholars, both Israeli and non-Israeli, and although there is absolutely no mention of massacres anywhere in the textbook, massacres perpetrated by Israeli soldiers during 1948-49, too, are well documented by Israeli and other historians. As for the charge that the textbook "contests the very existence of the state of Israel" by referring to "settlements" as of 1948, this is sheer falsehood. The map that accompanies the text, entitled "Jewish Settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," shows precisely those settlements, and it is clear that all questions about settlements refer to this map. Nowhere in the text is there any mention of settlements within the so-called Green Line.

Still referring to the same sixth grade textbook, the CMIP report states that

the primary terrorist organization operating against Israel since the signing of the Oslo Accords is the Hamas, whose members terrorized Israeli citizens with suicide attacks, primarily on buses. The terror wing of the group is called the "Az Aldin Al Kassam" [sic] squad, named after the terrorist who fought the British and Jews before the establishment of the State of Israel. The new PA schoolbook glorifies Kassam, including this large picture.

In this passage, the report implies that the Palestinian textbook mentions Hamas, which in fact it does not. But on p. 15 there is a photograph (though a rather small one) of Izzeddin al-Qassam, who was killed in 1935 on the eve of the 1936-39 Rebellion against British colonial rule in Palestine, along with two other illustrations: a photograph of a group of rebels during the rebellion and the aforementioned map of Israeli Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Beneath the illustrations is the following text: "We think of the following and try to answer: 1. We note the name of the country that colonized Palestine between 1917 and 1948; 2. We mention the means used by the Palestinian people to struggle against British colonialism; and 3. We note the name of the Arab leader who died in Ya'bed in 1935 fighting against British colonialism." It is clear that the CMIP report misleadingly seizes on the mere mention of Qassam (and only as a martyr in the struggle against British colonialism) and the presentation of his photograph to imply PA endorsement of suicide attacks and bus bombings. [14] 

Anti-Semitic Book?

CMIP's charge of anti-Semitism rests on one section of the sixth grade textbook.

An old book introduced this year into the PA curriculum is filled with virulent anti-Semitism. The book entitled "Our Country Palestine," written by Mustapha al-Deba'a [sic], was published in 1947 and expanded in 1965. With the aim of endearing [sic] "Our Country Palestine" upon the children, the new textbook, "Our Beautiful Language" for sixth grade, devotes three pages to the book (p. 110-112), lauding both the book and its author, proclaiming it a "Great Book" and elevating it and the story of how it was written to the level of a Palestinian legend. Moreover, the new PA schoolbook includes the class activity of going to the school or city library for the book.

The CMIP report then lists examples of anti-Semitism in Our Country, Palestine, including a banner alleged to be on the title page of volume 1--"There is no alternative to destroying Israel"--and the dedication page "to those who are battling for the expulsion of the enemy from our land."

The section that introduces Mustapha Murad al-Dabbagh begins on p. 108 of the sixth grade Arabic-language textbook. [15] The facing page (page 109) shows a pre-1948 photograph of Jaffa. The narrative, beginning on page 110, presents the author as a man who devoted his life to education and knowledge at the service of his people. The text then reproduces an excerpt from the introduction to volume 1, part 1, of the book, published in 1965, in which Dabbagh provides a moving personal account of the fall of Jaffa and the circumstances of his departure. This is the only part of Dabbagh's work that Palestinian students read, for contrary to the CMIP's claim, it is not required reading in the PA curriculum. Here is a translation:

I could never have imagined when I wrote the first volume of this book in 1947 that the Nakba would befall us in the following year, uproot the people, and disperse them as storms disperse the sand.

After the Jews occupied the Manshiah Quarter of Jaffa in late April 1948, they began to move in with their everincreasing power on other quarters of the city. Although our fighters, few in number and poorly armed, resisted bravely, they were unable to stop them.

The situation then began to deteriorate; water and electricity were cut off, and we began to run out of bread. Finally my cousin, who had rented a small boat in Egypt and brought it to Jaffa to help evacuate his brothers, managed to convince me to go along. I carried only a small briefcase that contained the more than six-thousand-page manuscript of my book on the history and geography of Palestine. This was my only book, my life's work, on which I spent more than ten years collecting materials, cataloging them, and then writing.

I found a place on the boat, with my cousin and some friends along with other refugees. The sea was rough and the waves were high as strong wind blew over us and heavy rain began to fall. As the boat began to take on water, the captain shouted instructions that we should reduce the load, otherwise we would surely all drown.

I held on tight to my briefcase but, in the middle of the storm, I was inadvertently shoved by one of the sailors, and it went flying into the sea.

After years of exile and following a period of depression suffered as a result of the Nakba, I decided to return to my book, to put it back together again, to present it to the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular so they will recall their lost country and try to recover it. I returned to my book because memories dominate me and compel me, and I cannot do otherwise.

I finished the first volume that describes the geography and history of Palestine from ancient times till the arrival of the Islamic armies. I will pursue my research on other periods of Palestinian history, the geography of villages and towns. I pray that Allah will enable me to accomplish my task. [16] 

I found a copy of the 1988 edition of Our Country, Palestine at the Ramallah public library. It is an encyclopedic ten-volume work on the history and geography of Palestine. Comparing its actual contents against the charges stated in the CMIP report, one finds on the title page of volume 1 a banner containing a sura from the Qur'an recalling the Prophet's night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem--nowhere does one find, either in volume 1 nor in any of the ten volumes, any banner proclaiming that there is "no alternative to destroying Israel." Similarly, it could only have been with malicious intent that the CMIP report falsely translates the book's dedication, which in fact reads, "To those who have struggled to keep Palestine Arab," as "To those who are battling for the expulsion of the enemy from our land."

Branding as "anti-Semitic" a work that scholars consider a classic Arab reference on Mandatory Palestine serves the political and ideological agenda of CMIP and the Jewish settler movement, which is to confiscate and settle as much Palestinian land as possible before any final agreement on borders can be reached between Israel and the PA. For the group of right-wing settlers that produced this report, the presence of Palestinians and the prospects of an independent Palestinian state pose a serious threat to their vision of ongoing Zionist settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, however, their propaganda apparatus has been highly effective, and too few people, especially in American political circles, have questioned the motives for or accuracy of the CMIP report. A striking example of this tendency is a June 2001 letter to President George W. Bush, co-signed by Senators Clinton and Schumer, that repeats the false CMIP charge: "A book that is required reading for Palestinian six graders actually starts off stating, 'There is no alternative to destroying Israel.'" [17] 

In all likelihood, Senators Clinton and Schumer received their information not directly from the CMIP report but from a full-page advertisement based on CMIP "findings" that appeared repeatedly in major U.S. and Israeli newspapers throughout November and December 2000 under the large heading "There is no alternative to destroying Israel." Sponsored by a group called Jews for Truth Now, which soon achieved a prominence that went far beyond the circles reached by the CMIP, the ad repeated some of the allegations disseminated by CMIP. [18] At all events, the international attention on Palestinian textbooks eventually prompted the PA's Ministry of Education to respond to the criticisms:

We have referred to Israel in some of the Palestinian textbooks as the occupier, and this is what Israel in fact is on our land. This is what the United Nations calls Israeli presence on our land in its resolutions. We hope that Israel will end its occupation of our land, and when it does we will stop using this word. [19] 


The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as the destruction of Palestinian society in 1948 are central to Palestinian collective identity. The problem for the educational system is how to teach these common experiences in a way that satisfies the need to impart factual knowledge without also imparting stereotypes of and prejudices toward the country and people that Palestinians hold responsible for their dispossession. In other words, how can the issue of history texts be framed? What questions should be raised and how should texts be read and evaluated?

The value of the new texts as teaching tools ultimately must be determined by Palestinian teachers, who will mediate these texts to the students. The Qattan Center for Educational Research and Development already has conducted a focus group discussion with history and civics teachers to inquire about their use of the new texts. On the positive side, the teachers say that the new texts try to reflect reality, emphasize tolerance, and provide a student centered approach to learning. On the negative side, teachers complain about the amount of material to be covered especially since only one period a week is allocated to civic education. Others complain that the amount of material forces students to memorize in order to do well on the tawjihi (high school matriculation) exam. Asked "which Palestine" they teach, one teacher said, "I feel it is my duty to explain things in detail. I talk about the cities that we have recovered and those that are still occupied. I have to explain what areas A, B, and C are because the students ask numerous questions and they hear about that on the outside. If I do not answer them thoroughly and truthfully, they will lose interest." Another teacher replied, "There is such a wide gap between our daily reality and what is included in the books. . . . The students are intelligent, and they ask all kinds of questions. When I talk about a Palestinian state, they ask, 'Where is this state?'" [20] 

The First Curriculum Plan put forth by the Ministry of Education affirms that while Palestine has a unique history, culturally it belongs to the Islamic and the Arab worlds. It also emphasizes that Palestine cannot be presented as just an ordinary political entity that will have to work out normal relations with its neighbors. It is clear that the Palestinians are more preoccupied with the task of state building and trying to cement a new civic identity than with how to write the history of the conflict with Israel in their textbooks, and one hears few debates about how the history of the conflict should be written.

Yet Palestinian scholars and historians need to engage in critical self-reflection and historical revisionism so as to produce a more accurate history of their society using rigorous standards of historical research based on available archival materials and oral history. By its nature, a revisionist Palestinian history is bound to be oppositional and critical, but the facts as ascertained by objective scholars, including Israeli ones, bear out the Palestinian narrative in its broad lines, so there is no reason not to proceed. Palestinian history as written for school children should not be apologetic, nor should it try to accommodate whatever scripts others may wish to impose for political reasons. Finally, it is essential that Palestinians write their own history, because otherwise those who want to negate their history will write it for them.

The research that Ruth Firer (Truman Institute) and her Palestinian co-researcher Sami Adwan (Bethlehem University) carried out as part of a peace education project sponsored by the Truman Institute suggests ways of framing the issues in school textbooks. Firer and Adwan question whether either Palestinian or Israeli textbooks prepare students to accept values of peace, openness, human rights, and coexistence. In this and other studies, Firer's methodological approach bears out Michael Apple's position that textbooks, as forms of "legitimate knowledge," tend to mirror the political culture of society. She suggests that one can examine metaphors, codes, previously accepted conceptions, connotations, and other semantic devices in order to do a critical analysis of textbooks and lay bare hidden curricula that reflect dominant norms. Rather than doing a straightforward content analysis, Firer tries to examine text and context, thereby revealing what is deeply embedded in the text. [21] 

Why is this so important? Texts, as Allan Luke suggests, "do not always mean or communicate what they say." One major problem with research in the sociology of the curriculum, according to Luke, "has been its willingness to accept text form as a mere adjunct means for the delivery of ideological content." [22] Firer demonstrates this aspect by analyzing forty-four Israeli history textbooks, twenty-three civics textbooks, and five "peace" manuals. She asks the following questions: What value dilemmas are presented in the explicit textbooks of the last fifty years? What is the hidden curriculum in these texts? What material is omitted from these manuals and why? And finally, to what extent do these texts promote tolerance or intolerance? [23] 

Firer finds, among other things, that Palestinians had not been "granted any identity as a nation in Israeli textbooks until after the 1973 war." Prior to that, the Palestinians were viewed as "a mob who were incited by corrupt politicians against their own good." The predominant emphasis in Israeli textbooks gives priority to the "historical and political rights of the Jews in 'Eretz Israel'" (referring to all of historic Palestine, including the territories occupied by Israel in June 1967). All the Israeli school texts continue to present Israelis as peace loving and Arabs as terrorists who prefer war. In order to change old and fixed attitudes and to help ensure a lasting peace, suggests Firer, both Israeli and Arab educational systems must drastically revise humanistic education as well as school climate. In other words, they must move away from a "culture of war," where each side demonizes the other, to a "culture of peace," where a more empathetic image begins to emerge.

In a forthcoming paper, [24] Sami Adwan analyzes the new Palestinian school textbooks produced for grades one and six by the Ministry of Education and arrives at the following conclusions: (1) the new texts focus more on learning as a process and less on the didactic role of teachers and content; (2) the new texts contain no negative stereotypes of Jews; (3) the texts continue to be male centered; (4) there is a noteworthy general emphasis on religious tolerance, especially among Christians and Muslims, and references to the need to respect the three monotheistic religions are also noted throughout; (5) there is an effort to help build a Palestinian national identity by focusing on history, culture, heritage, and origins; (6) Palestinians are portrayed as historic victims of colonial and Zionist assaults against them that resulted in uprooting, dispossession, land confiscation, massacres and forced exile; and (7) the texts finesse issues that are still in the process of negotiation. For example, borders are still to be defined. Maps in Israeli textbooks continue to show the land of Israel as extending from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, with the West Bank and Gaza Strip showing only Israeli Jewish settlements and no Palestinian villages or towns. Palestinian maps, on the other hand, while they do show the entire map of British Mandatory Palestine as their historic patrimony, also clearly delineate the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a possible site of the new Palestinian entity.

Adwan's contribution is significant not only for his conclusions but for the methodological framework he adopts, which is consistent with the established professional literature. He reminds us that textbooks are not the only means of political socialization and draws attention to the importance of tacit learning. Children learn from real life, from their parents, their peers, and from the media, especially in the era of information technology and instant satellite communication. He suggests that the role of teachers is critical in the socialization process. As Michael Apple demonstrates, one cannot assume "that what is 'in' the text is actually taught. Nor can we assume that what is taught is actually learned." Teachers mediate classroom materials and students "selectively accept, reinterpret, and reject what counts as legitimate knowledge." Apple firmly opposes the notion "that there can be one textual authority, one definitive set of 'facts' divorced from their context of power relations." [25] Adwan also cautions that one cannot analyze texts by abstracting them from their cultural context. Agreeing with Firer, he suggests that one cannot look only at what is explicit in the texts but also at what is implicit, meaning the values, attitudes, norms, customs, and societal codes.


The claim that the new Palestinian textbooks incite students against Israel has been widely accepted as truth in the United States and Israel. The report on which such claims were based was issued by CMIP, a Jewish-American organization with known links to the Israeli settlement movement in the West Bank. Yet none of the American politicians who repeated the allegations or the Western donors who hastened to cut off funding for Palestinian textbook development bothered to have the report's claims checked against the actual texts. If they had, it would immediately have been clear that the report was based on innuendo, exaggeration, and downright lies. Indeed, the real message of CMIP's campaign against the textbooks is that peace with the Palestinians is impossible, that Israeli settlement in the occupied territories must go on, that force is the only language that Palestinians can understand.

In fact, the new Palestinian school textbooks make a special effort to promote tolerance, openness, and democratic values. [26] The PA Ministry of Education, despite the extraordinary conditions of siege and violence under which it is operating, introduced new textbooks for two more grades in September 2001. The new textbooks, according to those who have seen them, demonstrate the same concern for promoting tolerance, openness, and democratic values. But even if all the grades in Palestinian schools carried absolutely exemplary textbooks, and even if all the teachers preached amity and concord, it is doubtful that such values could take hold in the ever deteriorating conditions of recent years. For ultimately, the Israeli occupation, with its daily cruelty and humiliation, is a far more powerful text than any schoolbooks could possible be. As Sami Adwan remarked, "How can a Palestinian write in a textbook that Israelis or Jews should be loved, while what he is experiencing is death, land expropriation, demolition of homes, and daily degradation? Give us a chance to teach loving." [27] 

In a forthcoming study, [28] Nadim Rouhana argues that conflict reconciliation, as opposed to conflict resolution or conflict settlement, seeks to achieve a kind of relationship between the parties founded on mutual legitimacy. For this to occur, issues of justice, truth, and historical responsibility as well as the restructuring of social and political relations need to be addressed.

If a Truth and Reconciliation Commission were ever established at the end of the historic Israeli-Palestinian conflict, perhaps a committee of Israeli and Palestinian educators eventually could produce guidelines for new history textbooks that would contribute to the creation of a more peaceful environment in this troubled region.


Research and scholarship requires investment. Generous contributions from people like you allow us to provide invaluable resources as a public good. Make a tax-deductible donation today!



Fouad Moughrabi is director of the Qattan Center for Educational Research and Develpment, Ramallah, Palestine.

found 3.jpgfoud2.png