Back to school: What we teach our children

Both Israel and Palestine are guilty of the crime of omission. We teach almost nothing about the other people living on this land.

August 22, 2019 01:57
Back to school: What we teach our children

‘BOTH ISRAEL and Palestine are guilty of the crime of omission. We teach almost nothing about the other people living on this land.’. (photo credit: REUTERS)

This is directed to parents and to educators in Israel and Palestine. Parents and educators should be aware of the far-reaching effect of education in the promotion of reconciliation, tolerance and peace, or in the promotion of hatred, violence and fear. They should be aware of the effect of education to incite and encourage violence and how that will continue to impact our future in which these two peoples are intertwined.

One of the best ways to assess the values of a society is to look at their textbooks. The values and lessons that we choose to pass on to our children are a good litmus test of what is really important to us. Regarding the relations between Israel and Palestine, our histories, narratives and most importantly, our view toward the future in our educational systems present a very worrisome view.

Both Israel and Palestine are guilty of the crime of omission. We teach almost nothing about the other people living on this land. Some Israeli textbooks, particularly in the ultra-Orthodox educational system, are guilty of teaching xenophobia and hatred. Palestinian textbooks have gone from bad to worse, with the latest editions published in 2018 containing some of the worst examples of inciting to violence, racism against Jews and hatred of everything Israeli.

This subject has been written about extensively and I do not want to add to the bandwagon and grandstanding against the Palestinian Authority. I am truly concerned from my conversations with both young Israelis and young Palestinians about what they learn in school, what they don’t learn in school, and the enormous misconceptions and mistruths they hold about themselves and about the other people with whom they are sharing this land. 

Over the years I have attempted to encourage both education ministries – in Israel and in Palestine – to engage in objective self-evaluation and introspection regarding the messages and values we teach regarding “the other.” It is clear that if each side conducted an evaluation of the curricula and textbooks of the other, the results would be automatically rejected. I laid down a challenge that both sides use internationally accepted criteria for the evaluation of textbooks, but they conduct their own internal evaluation. My conclusion is that the education ministries are not prepared to pick up the challenge.

One Palestinian education official once said to me: “They [the Israelis] have taken our land, they destroy our homes, they have determined our future, and the only thing we can hold onto as our own is our identity and our past. Now they want to take that as well.” Most Israeli education officials believe that Israel’s textbooks are far better than the Palestinians’ so we have no problem.

I have recommended in the past that the Israeli government and the PA appoint a national advisory committee on textbooks empowered to review the textbooks taking into account the critiques that have been raised over the past years. Both sides should progress on this issue without regard for what the other side does. This is not a question of negotiations, mutuality or reciprocity. Each side must demonstrate the values that it holds dear without regard for what the other side does. The true test of the ability of both sides to make peace will be to degree to which both sides take positive action in educating the next generation in a true spirit of pursuing peace. 

Beyond the main task of the Palestinian Ministry of Education to provide the young people of Palestine with international standards and high levels of academic education, the Palestinian ministry must face the significant task of providing the children of Palestine with a strong values-based education aimed at building a healthy Palestinian society and the future Palestinian state.

AN ESSENTIAL aspect of values-based education is imparting and building the Palestinian national identity with all of is many facets. This kind of task is complicated under the best circumstances, and when faced with a 100-year violent conflict with the neighbors, it becomes extremely problematic and difficult.

As the PA has witnessed over the past years, Palestinian textbooks are under great international scrutiny, and every word and picture is weighed and judged by reviewers from all corners of the world. The books are not only evaluated by their pedagogical content and context but also, and perhaps mainly, by the interpretations of the political messages they deliver to the readers. There is a need for a great deal of care with the selection of every text and every picture, but more so, there is a need for the messages that are being delivered to be clear and based on firm moral ground.

Palestine is embroiled in a struggle for national existence. The conflict and struggle for achieving freedom, liberation and sovereignty has been very bloody and filled with great suffering. Every Palestinian is aware of the context of the struggle and of the price that Palestinians have had to pay in this struggle. The messages delivered by the Palestinian textbooks have thus far failed to impart a clear and decisive message that the Palestinian people wish to live in peace with their neighbor, their enemy and hopefully future peace partner. There is no contradiction in teaching the students to need to struggle for their just rights and at the same time to state unequivocally that they wish to live in peace with the people they are fighting against.

The Palestinian textbooks contain confused messages, however, it is not difficult to understand the main political theme imparted to the students is that Israel should not exist and that this is essentially the Palestinian goal. Assuming this is not the political message the PA adheres to, there is a need to make real revisions and amendments in the Palestinian textbooks.

Palestinian Authority senior personnel have avoided dealing with much of the criticism by stating two main issues:

1) Israeli textbooks don’t make mention of Palestine, the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian political rights or recognition of them; and

2) The issues which are raised are political in nature and the PA’s Education Ministry does not have the mandate to deal with them.

Neither of these reasons appropriately answers the obligation of the PA and its Education Ministry to do a better job in educating the young people of Palestine toward peace and reconciliation and not toward further fostering of the conflict and violence.

On the Israeli side, almost all maps in Israeli textbooks do not designate the PAu areas or even the “green line.” History books in Israel do not cover the decision of past Israeli governments to recognize Palestinian political rights. Israeli textbooks teach too little about their Arab and Palestinian neighbors. If Israel is calling for the Palestinians to revise and reform their textbooks in the spirit of making peace, Israel must also look inside its own classrooms and do the same.  This would also be a serious indication of Israeli intentions to make peace with the Palestinians.

Part 2 of this series will present specific recommendations for textbook amendments in Israel and Palestine. 

The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine was published by Vanderbilt University Press and is now available in Israel and Palestine.

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