Palestinian and Israeli textbooks and their critics

In correspondence a colleague recently linked to a site which produces reports on textbooks in the Middle East – http://www.edume.org, the Centre for Monitoring the Impact of Peace.

Click on Reports to find the one for the PA 2005, the exec summary of which reports that the Palestinian Authority textbooks continue to date the occupation from 1948, present Israel as “wholly negative”, never mention peace with Israel, and generally do not support peace and reconciliation with Israel.

The exec summary of the 2002 report on Israel is reassuring, observing a strengthening of positive trends noted in the last report in terms of the presentation of Arabs, Islam, the Israel Lands Laws and their impact on Arab Israelis, and peace as an obtainable goal. Also:

“A number of textbooks have aroused public controversy by certain groups, who have accused them of “post-Zionism” and “self-hatred”. These textbooks were reviewed in the previous report and with one exception, are still included in the list approved by the Ministry of Education.”

That’s an old report but recent news suggests that these trends are continuing – a pro-boycott activist posted recently that Israel’s education minister Yuli Tamir is taking a mauling from the Israeli Right after authorising a textbook for Arab Israeli school children which, says The Scotsman, “is much more honest about the 1948 war than many Israelis are”.

“Some of the Arab residents were forced to leave their houses and some were expelled and became refugees in the neighbouring Arab countries,” the book says.

The book says that what for Jews was a fight for Israeli independence was for Arabs “a catastrophe, a war of disaster and loss”.

Right-wing politicians have reacted furiously to the book. “This is an anti-Zionist decision, which erases Jewish history and denies that the state of Israel is a Jewish state,” said Mr Orlev.

Needs to be noted that this textbook is not for Jewish schoolchildren and, though the CMIP report suggests that there is already acknowledgement, as should there be, of Arab disinheritance in 1948, integrated education where narratives can be shared and challenged is rare in Israel – though exceptions include Hand in Hand and The Abraham Fund’s structured encounters between pairs of Arab and Jewish schools.

One thing I’m puzzling over is why the activist posted this news when it seems to me clearly counterproductive to the boycott cause. Surely a development like the introduction of a text-book which has angered the Israel Religious Right is evidence that Israel is inclined in a moderate direction. If it’s the reference to an “anti-zionist decision” which excited her, it’s impossible to judge Zevulun Orlev’s comments taken out of context and without seeing the textbook. But I find it difficult to believe that the textbook is advocating either the end to Jewish self-determination or the Jewish character of the state of Israel. Do boycotters think that if a religious Zionist from Mafdal, a party which tried and failed to block Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, calls a textbook “anti-zionist”, that this is some kind of breakthrough for Palestinians? No – ‘anti-zionist’ is an easy insult to sling around and it means something different to Zevulun Orlev than it does to me.

What this story does do, though, is signal another victory for Israeli moderates in a series of victories, and highlight the inappropriateness of a boycott. (If there were to be an attempt to credit the boycott movement by presenting the controversy as a boycott-induced thawing of the Israeli educational authorities, the old 2002 CMIP report detailing other controversial textbooks predates the boycott and would invalidate a claim like that. In any case, if credit is due, a large part must go to Israel’s own home-grown historians.)

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