It would be an understatement to say that the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Germany has written the book on how to analyze textbooks. The Institute has actually published many books — ones that are meticulous, detailed, and dispassionate. Now the Institute has published one more, this time on Palestinian textbooks. A dispassionate report about Palestinian textbooks? Perhaps not since Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses have so many denounced so strongly something they have not read. Is the Institute finally going to end the international controversy?

No. The report is quite thorough but makes some errors in judgment that may actually fan the flames. But it is not fair to blame the Institute if that happens. If studies and reports could have ended the controversy, it would have died two decades ago. The controversy over Palestinian schoolbooks was born before Palestinians actually wrote any and has continued no matter what the textbooks (or studies of them, some by the Institute itself) actually say. The European Commission, requesting this latest report, led the Institute to make some uncharacteristic missteps that are likely to vitiate its positive contributions — especially because the report is likely (as often happens on this subject) to be widely cited but infrequently read.

Incitement lobby

At its base the concern about Palestinian textbooks in some circles is founded on a charge by those lobbying against assistance to Palestinian education that textbooks “incite” — a claim advanced in a way that would spark the deep suspicions of any social scientist but that generations of activists and even some government officials have kept alive. The term “incitement” suggests that textbooks brainwash Palestinians to hate Israelis and Jews and that this is an important cause of violence in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Institute’s report gently critiques facile claims about cause and effect. I will be more blunt. Even if the lurid charges made over the years are true (and they are not), the incitement lobby is at a loss to explain a central empirical reality. From the start of Israel’s occupation in 1967 till the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, Israeli officials reviewed every single page of the books given to Palestinian students in the West Bank and Gaza and censored whatever they wished. And the generation raised by those textbooks launched two uprisings and grasped more tightly to an independent Palestinian national identity than any previous Palestinian generation. The idea that Palestinian anger or action against Israel was incited directly by schoolbooks should scarcely have been credible any longer.

Yet the idea lives on. Ten years ago, Newt Gingrich cited an utterly fabricated passage from a Palestinian textbook in a 2011 United States presidential debate, claiming it said “if there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left?” Without a sense of irony, he cited his falsehood as evidence of his honesty: “It’s fundamentally time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say, ‘Enough lying about the Middle East.’”

But the real problem with the lobby is its method: it searches for anything in any book that it can portray negatively and dismisses any contrary evidence, interpretation, or study that undermines its “incitement” charge. And sure enough, the incitement lobby began blasting the Institute’s new report even before it was written — but as both deeply flawed and as proving its point at the same time. The methods, personnel, conclusions, and even the language abilities of the Institute’s research team have come under withering criticism. This is an epistemological position that amounts to “We are correct and others are worth listening to only when they specifically affirm our claims, but when they do not they are incompetent and biased.” This is an admirably consistent but unpersuasive position — except to the already persuaded.

How to study textbooks

Textbooks are educational material and should be understood as such — and that is what the Institute usually does. That is actually the body of its report this time. Three of its chapters make for wonderful reading that tackle complicated subjects: the history of textbook research; different approaches to conflict and post-conflict teaching; and the slow but impressive establishment of international standards about what to teach, how to teach, and how to assess what is taught — and of the uncertain relationship (which is no news to anybody who has ever graded a final exam) between what textbooks say and what students learn and do. There is a fascinating chapter on real world connections in the curriculum. It assesses the textbooks on issues such as human rights, tolerance, global citizenship, and respect for diversity.

There are inherent limitations in focusing only on written texts — schoolbooks do not exist in a vacuum. If one wants to know about the link between textual material and outcomes, there is much more to consider, like teacher training, pedagogy, assessment, and context. And indeed, most educators — and certainly Palestinian educators — focus most of their attention on such issues. If outsiders really want to make a difference, it would most likely be in helping Palestinian educators to answer educational questions. How is material taught? What messages are students given on what is important? Do teachers and students approach the material as facts to be memorized (and forgotten the day after the exam) or critically assessed? It is actually on such questions that Palestinian educators have been at odds with each other — and the Institute’s report hints that efforts by progressives to foster real world applications, critical thinking, and appreciation of diversity are having a real impact. A report that is based only on textbooks cannot fully probe such matters. The Institute’s report authors acknowledge this, but the acknowledgment is likely to be lost by those rushing for a bottom-line judgment of whether the textbooks are guilty or innocent.

Textbooks as what adults say

And this leads us to the real flaw in the report, and it is contained in a single problematic chapter. Suddenly textbooks are no longer to be read as educational material but as one might read a speech by a foreign minister in a crisis: as a proclamation of official policy to be heard by an adversary. Such an approach is not without value; textbooks can be places where adults hammer out what they think is important (even if they are often uninterested in what students actually learn from them).

This is an area where the Institute has very deep experience indeed. It has worked much more often bilaterally and multilaterally — and that is how it has approached Israeli and Palestinian education in the past. But in this case it agreed to deploy that experience in a manner that is focused on just one side in a conflict when it accepted an assignment to undertake “a comprehensive analysis of the current Palestinian text books” because “Incitement to violence is fundamentally incompatible with advancing a peaceful two-state solution and is greatly exacerbating mistrust between the communities.”

Other scholarship — very strongly buttressed by my own impressions as someone who has lived in Israel and worked for years in Palestinian society — suggests that education in Israel is very much an issue.

Those who wish to work for a better future in which the diverse peoples of Israel/Palestine coexist have quite a job in front of them when it comes to political socialization. The way in which both societies imbue identities that make coexistence difficult (and do so in all kinds of subtle ways from street naming to public art) would give a post-conflict coexistence committee years of work to address. And Palestinian schoolbooks would simply not be the place to start.

And that is why bilateral or multilateral approaches make sense in managing post-conflict co-existence. And this brings us to the heart of the problem: the conflict is alive with no clear path toward resolution. In the past there was in practice (and there remains on paper) a “peace process” that at least aimed at resolving the conflict. But the Oslo-era committee designed to deal with such issues was scuttled — by the Israelis.

An uncharacteristically lopsided approach

And this leads back to the problematic chapter in the report — problematic less in what it says than in how it is almost asking to be used. The chapter does not assess the Palestinian books in the context that they are used — that is, how Palestinians would read and understand them. It reads them through the eyes of the incitement lobby. It is organized around a series of issues raised by the incitement lobby (maps, violence, martyrdom). But it is hardly just the structure that is at issue. The analysis is written as if Palestinian textbooks cannot be understood except by relying heavily on how Israelis might view them — but without giving Israeli textbooks the same treatment.

The pattern is subtly expressed but clear even in terminology: there is reference to “the Six-Day War” (a term used in Hebrew but rarely in Arabic; the effect on a Palestinian reader might be the same as an American reading about the “Great Patriotic War” in a report on U.S. educational material on World War II); the 1973 war is given interfaith status (as the “Yom Kippur War or Ramadan War;” the former term is rarely used in Arabic). The report even handles the term “occupation” in a way very conscious of Israeli sensitivities — by largely (though not always) avoiding direct use of the term and simply reporting Palestinian usage: “The term 'occupation' and its derivatives are quoted and placed in inverted commas when they occur in textbook passages as grammatical subjects or objects.”

Such features are no accident but a sustained approach in the problematic chapter. When Khalil al-Wazir (one of the most prominent Palestinian political leaders of the last century, assassinated by Israel in 1988) is mentioned, for instance, he is described in the text far closer to the way Israelis remember him (as a terrorist) than how Palestinians do (as one of the most important nationalist leaders of the twentieth century). Indeed, even the Israeli assassination team headed by a later prime minister is rendered invisible by the passive voice: Al-Wazir “was involved in the planning of violent attacks on soldiers as well as civilians until he was killed in 1988.” (A footnote does mention his role in founding Fatah and his status as a co-founder of Fatah but then elaborates on how Israelis hold him responsible for terrorism.) The description is accurate enough, but imagine a quick description of George Washington not as the first president of the United States (as he would most likely be described in a U.S. schoolbook) but as “a major slave owner and commander in a successful rebellion that resulted in the forcible expulsion of thousands of political opponents to Canada,” or similarly accurate but charged descriptions of prime ministers Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir (as involved in bombings and massacres of civilians) in a report on Israeli textbooks.

Actually, as an educator, I think it would be a salutary step to have more mature students grapple both with the real historical record and with the way national heroes are regarded externally. But I would be surprised if there were any other Institute publications that primarily described prominent national leaders in terms of how they are viewed in a neighboring society, especially in the midst of an ongoing conflict.

Those who worked so hard on the report might feel I am cherry picking. I am. I will not be the only person to generate such suspicion. Indeed, those who follow the issue will likely be treated to months in which the report’s generally positive depictions of Palestinian teachings (“the textbooks adhere to UNESCO standards and adopt criteria that are prominent in international education discourse, including a strong focus on human rights,” p. 3); and some very specific offensive passages, especially in some religious education, are hurled at (and past) each other. The Institute’s painstaking researchers, by producing what is quite literally a one-sided study, may come to feel that the incitement lobby treats them with respect only to the extent they can serve as research assistants digging up material.

A stalled bilateral process

The Palestinian leadership has a stock response to the incitement lobby — long ago, when there was a peace process, Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to form a joint committee on “incitement” to manage such issues. That committee was never abolished, just abandoned by the Israelis. And the Israeli response to the stock Palestinian response is to say that the committee accomplished nothing. And indeed, for the Israeli leadership of that time, “incitement” was something to show Palestinian bad faith, not an issue to be jointly resolved. So the alternative approach that the EU is being asked in effect to follow is that textbook revision should be a task imposed by international donors on Palestinians alone to satisfy Israeli concerns.

And that is where two sections of the report are particularly helpful. One section carefully examines the most recent set of books to see if there are any changes. And there are — the changes suggest that if diplomats wish to spend tremendous energy carefully reviewing the books line by line, they will get what they wish — though whether that is a useful project is unclear.

A second section examines what Israeli officials censored (or substituted) in Jerusalem books. The changes show how awkward it can be to teach Palestinians in a way that does not cross any Israeli sensibilities. But does anyone seriously think that the awkward ways obscure their authorship, censor some expressions of nationalism, avoid mentioning “occupation” (save on one occasion), and display awkwardness on geographical issues (what country do students live in?) has the slightest thing to do with either causing or counteracting the violence in the city this year?

The real problem

I first became interested in the Palestinian curriculum over two decades ago because the discussions among Palestinians were very revealing of the internal debate over history, identity, and political values. I was not interested in the “incitement” issue but felt I had to address it since I had actually read all the books. But I have scaled back my work: the books do not matter to the incitement debate. There have been many authoritative analyses already; each new contribution gets dragged into vitriolic debate. It is sad but not surprising that the Institute has taken the unusual step of concealing — for their own protection — the identities of most of those involved in this most recent study.

Palestinians and Israeli Jews (and some others) are fated to live together in a small area. There are many ways for them to do so peacefully and justly, but the current arrangements are not among them. For years, the mirage of a peace process obscured the current reality of occupation and domination with hopes of an emerging two-state alterative that — whether they were real at one point or not (and I think they were) — are now dashed.

And this points to the underlying political problems that the textbook wars can no longer cover up. If there actually were a peace process then it would be possible to revive the dormant bilateral mechanism or draw on one of the many alternative models for international textbook revision on a mutual basis.

But there is not; there is only domination, power imbalance, and political decay. In this context, the Institute’s report is simply likely to aggravate a process of Israeli and international imposition of increasing and ever shifting demands on a set of threadbare, bankrupt, deeply discredited, and sharply constrained administrative structures governing Palestinians in areas of the West Bank and Gaza.

The Institute’s full report is still quite worth reading — in its entirety. Anyone who takes up that challenge will discover why the critics have been so quick to lambaste everything about the report even while they rush to quote it. Thus, while I have my reservations about the Institute’s decision to take on this task, the real problems lie not in the report itself, but in those who will use it without reading it.

The textbooks are more effect than cause of conflict, and the incitement lobby has turned them into a useful decoy as well — one that risks further postponing the task of making a better world for Israelis and Palestinians for yet another generation.


Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own.

Photo by HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

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