Self-fulfilling textbook prophecy

Terra Incognita: A university professor who believes Israel created Hamas and argues that it is a victim of dehumanization by Israel, rather than the other way around, was supposed to provide an unbiased opinion on Israeli textbooks?

pupils370 (photo credit: reuters)
(photo credit: reuters)
This week, after months of postponements and controversy, the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land (CRIHL) released a report on “Portrayal of the ‘other’ in Israeli and Palestinian School Books.”
The study has been greeted with both condemnation and praise; the Education Ministry called it “biased, unprofessional and profoundly nonobjective” while Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad welcomed it.
The study was funded by a 2009 grant from the US State Department to the NGO A Different Future.
The NGO’s motto is “majorities of Israelis and Palestinians want peace, we help make it known.”
The NGO’s founder, Bruce Wexler, a Yale professor of psychiatry, turned to Tel Aviv University’s Daniel Bar-Tal and Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University to lead the study. Bar-Tal and Adwan had won awards for collaborative Israeli-Palestinian work in 2001 and 2005.
At a press conference on Monday, Wexler slammed Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar.
“I think that the minister of education is a great example of the power of these universal narratives...
Leaders who have those blind spots like he does make for poor and dangerous national leaders,” he said.
This political attack makes one wonder whether bias was built into the project from the start.
Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal has a long history of critiquing Israel’s education system for what he claims are its values of belligerence and victimization. As co-editor of the radical Left Palestine-Israel Journal from 2001 to 2005 (whose masthead shows the colors of the Palestinian flag next to an Israeli flag that does not include a Star of David), he wrote about “The Arab image in Hebrew School Textbooks” (2001). He concluded that “the great majority of the books at best stereotype Arabs negatively, but often they also delegitimize them in the context of the conflict.” Foreshadowing the current study, he wrote that the stereotypes were backed up by “graphic descriptions of Arab pogroms, murders and riots.”
Bar-Tal’s views should have led to concern about the potential for bias in the CRIHL study. In 2009, he published a startling condemnation of Israel for its actions in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead: “It is important that you know that there is a small minority of us, Jews in Israel, who care about moral considerations and have opposed this war... The brutality and scope of the Israeli actions testify to deeper roots that are found on the darker side of human beings... They reflect a deep sense of collective victimhood because of the continuous firing of rockets on civilian populated areas in the south by the Hamas military organ.”
The war, he wrote, “derived from the continuous dehumanization of the Hamas organization.” He went on to claim that “most Israeli Jews do not know that Hamas was originally founded by the Israeli authorities.”
A university professor who believes Israel created Hamas and argues that it is a victim of dehumanization by Israel, rather than the other way around, was supposed to provide an unbiased opinion on Israeli textbooks? One is left with the conclusion that there is overwhelming evidence of pre-existing bias on the part of the authors.
Methodology and findings
The project set out by naming a scientific advisory panel of 21 experts. According to panel member Arnon Groiss, a PhD from Princeton and an Arabiclanguage journalist at the Israel Broadcasting Authority, the advisers were rarely allowed to be involved in the project and almost never met.
According to the final report, “The present project employs a new methodology to produce a transparent, simultaneous, comprehensive and scientifically rigorous analysis.”
The methodology was to analyze 2,188 excerpts from textbooks used through grade 12. Ten research assistants were chosen; according to the CRIHL website they consisted of “6 Israeli and 4 Palestinian, all fluent in Arabic and Hebrew.”
Groiss claims, however, that the “Palestinian” students were almost all Israeli Arabs. It appears that assistants Eman Nahhas and Alhan Nahhas-Daoud both attend Israeli universities, so the research seems to have been conducted by six Israeli Jews and four Israeli Arabs, and is misrepresented as including Palestinians from the Palestinian Authority.
A query to CRIHL went unanswered by press time.
A total of 74 Israeli textbooks and 94 Palestinian textbooks, approved by the authorities for use in public schools, were analyzed using questionnaires the research assistants were asked to fill out. The “new methodology” was simply a massively confusing 50-page list of questions. Convoluted survey questions lead to convoluted findings.
The research assistants only agreed 63 percent of the time on their analyses of the passages. If people agreed 63% of the time that a color was “blue,” would we confidently say that it is blue? Out of 9,964 pages of Palestinian textbooks, only six passages showed Israelis in an “extremely negative” light and none included “general dehumanizing characterizations.” Perhaps none of them were “dehumanizing” since the word “dehumanizing” is not found among the 50 pages of criteria provided to the research assistants? If you don’t let people select the word “dehumanizing,” is it surprising that you don’t find it in your results? The study defined as “negative” portrayals of “the other” those that would strike most readers as simple statements of fact. One example the authors list is: “Ever since 1964, the year the PLO was founded, Palestinian terrorist gangs penetrated [into Israel].”
Here’s another, describing a pogrom in Iraq: “On the holiday of Shavuot, Arabs attacked Jews and murdered them, including women and children.”
Or how about: “Terror struck again and again, and reached a climax in the period after the war with the murders of 13 students and teachers from Moshav Avivim on their way to school (May 1970) and 11 athletes at the Munich Olympics (September 1972).”
The authors provide examples of what they consider similar negative views of Jews in Palestinian Authority textbooks, such as the British “facilitating Jewish migration to Palestine to turn it into a Jewish state after evacuating or exterminating its people.”
Or this one: Zionism is “a colonialist political movement founded by the Jews of Europe in the second half of the 19th century... [intent on] displacing the Palestinian people in Palestine from their land.”
When the study found Palestinian outliers that didn’t seem to mesh, the findings were frequently disregarded; although 67% of photographs of Jews or Israel in Palestinian textbooks were “very negative,” the study claims “the very small number of photographs in the Palestinian books rated as providing information about the other makes the percentage breakdown of little meaning... not statistically significant.”
Similarly, although 43% of the illustrations in Palestinian books were “very negative,” compared to only 17% in Israeli books, “the very small numbers of illustrations of the other in the ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian books make these percentages unreliable.”
If an American textbook only included one picture of an African-American man, and in that photo he was being arrested, one might reasonably conclude that far from being “unreliable,” this would tell us a lot about stereotypes of black people in the US.
The report also discusses positive portrayals of “the self,” and gives this example: “Bilbisi was 18 years old the day she was martyred, but she did not look for amusement... but rather went off to perform a sacred duty, and history recorded her in the ranks of our courageous female martyrs.”
The authors compare this to an 11th-grade textbook for Israelis: “Since its establishment, the State of Israel sought to make peace with its neighbors.”
The notion is that both societies adore themselves – but the nature of Israel’s excerpt seems to do with peace, while the nature of Bilbisi’s sacred mission doesn’t seem so peaceful.
The authors also sought to show that although Palestinian textbooks are rarely self-critical, whereas Israelis are slightly more so, the Palestinians engage in self-criticism. As an example, with regard to Caliph Omar helping a poverty-stricken Jew, “Omar’s policy with his subjects is an example illustrating how careful Islam is to guarantee subjects’ rights and provide them with a dignified life whatever their religion.”
This doesn’t read like self-criticism.
The textbooks of both Israel and the PA are said to inculcate victimhood, with the Jews using the Holocaust: “The displaced Jews who were from the Holocaust and suffered from disease and trauma.”
The Palestinian example for a similar quote is: “Our children and elderly die and do not surrender.”
The authors present the portrayal of the others’ religion as lacking in both sets of books, but then provide examples of how Palestinians do acknowledge Jews: “Moses (peace be upon him) was purified by God Almighty... and his brother Aaron (peace be upon him) was made a prophet.”
But this passage from a 10th grade Islamic education book isn’t about Judaism, it is simply a Muslim religious text; a rendition of Koran sura Al-Furqan: “To Moses was given revelation and his brother Aaron appointed by his side.”
Another passage presented as a positive religious portrayal of Judaism is actually negative: “The Jews kept Saturdays’ sanctity and they [Jews] made it a day for rest and prayer, and they forbid all work in it, even the work for good.”
Israeli researchers such as Groiss have shown that Israel is absent on Palestinian textbook maps, yet this study seeks to make Israel’s texts equivalent because only 13% of maps in Israeli textbooks show Area A, which the PA controls. The study doesn’t say whether the Israeli maps analyzed relate to the post- Oslo period when Area A has existed, or are maps relating to a period before the existence of Area A, in which case testing them to see if Area A exists is disingenuous.
By contrast the Palestinian textbooks, which have only existed for a decade, should show Israel on modern maps, and yet they don’t.
Flawed conclusions
The study concludes: “Both Israeli and Palestinian books present exclusive unilateral national narratives that present a wealth of information about the other as enemy.”
But hidden within are contrary facts, one being that there are 368 photos of Palestinians and Arabs in Israeli textbooks, and only six of Israelis in Palestinian ones.
The excuse for PA failings is that Palestinians are “at an earlier stage of nation building... It has also been suggested that the weaker of the two conflicted societies in military or economic terms may have a more strident national narrative because it sustains more hardships.” In concluding this way they are papering over the flaws in the PA system.
If the methodology used to compile this report had instead been used to describe Holocaust education texts the result would have been the conclusion that the Nazis were the victims of a widespread campaign of “negative stereotyping” because textbooks included accounts of German SS officers killing people.
And therein lies the problem.
Something can be accurate without being a prejudicial stereotype. Palestinians likely feel the same way, and there is no reason their textbooks should gloss over, say, Deir Yassin. But it is as illogical to analyze Jews describing an actual pogrom that happened in Iraq as a form of “negative stereotyping” of Arabs as it is to describe the Sharpeville massacre as a “negative stereotyping” of Afrikaners. The study seeks to draw parallels with the Franco-German attempt to write history books in the 1950s that moved away from the myth of historical enmity. But that doesn’t mean French history books don’t mention atrocities carried out by Germans. Israel and the Palestinians are involved in an intractable conflict that education plays a role in, but denying historical facts is not a way to make the two sides peaceful.
THIS STUDY was conducted by an Israeli academic who once wrote that Hamas “provides an alternative to the humiliated Palestinian national identity.” It was obvious from the start that the goal of the study was to provide meat for the media grinder, so it could generate headlines like this one in The Guardian: “Israeli and Palestinian textbooks omit borders.”
Now, as Akiva Eldar writes at Al-Monitor, “Israeli public diplomacy is about to lose one of its trump cards – the argument that ‘Palestinian’ textbooks are fraught with incitement and delegitimize the other side.”
A more fair method of comparison of the textbooks would be to make them open source; scan translations of them into Google Books and let readers decide for themselves.
For instance, when the average person reads: “They killed our youth, deported our families, decried [sic] our women, humiliated our men... and our pain becomes stronger,” he or she is quite capable of deciding whether this constitutes “deligitimization of the other,” or, as Bar-Tal’s research assistant Maytal Nasie defined it, an example of “one own’s victimization.”
Better yet, swap translated Israeli and Palestinian textbooks, and let the students on both sides decide how they feel they are being portrayed by the other.
Students are more trustworthy than Israeli academics with agendas and axes to grind.