Middle East / Nurit Peled-Elhanan

Palestine in Israeli Schoolbooks

Nurit Peled-Elhanan asks: how is Palestine, and the Palestinians against whom young Israelis will potentially be required to use force against, portrayed in the school system?

Palestine in Israeli Schoolbooks

Israel maintains complete separation between Arab-Palestinians, Jews, and non-Jews who are not Arab Palestinian. This separation is legal and supported by laws.

I believe education in Israel emphasises this separation not only by having two systems of education but also by portraying the Arab-Palestinians, both the citizens of the state and the non-citizens in the occupied Palestinian territories, in negative, stereotypical terms –- if at all.

The argument of my new book Palestine in Israeli School-Books: Ideology and Indoctrination in Education, is that Israeli schoolbooks inculcate ignorance and use racist visual and verbal discourse to represent Palestinians in textbooks of history, geography and civics.

All the 20 books I studied – published in the years 1996-2009 – share some basic assumptions regarding Palestinian Arabs:

a) Jews have historical rights to the Land of Israel (which includes Palestine).

b) Palestinian citizens constitute a demographic problem which can expand into a ‘demographic threat’ unless controlled.

c) Palestinians in the occupied territories are a constant threat and must be controlled.

School children learn about the Land of Israel of which the state of Israel is only a small part. Palestinian people, cities and institutions are never depicted on any map and are hardly mentioned in the texts. Most of the occupied Palestinian territories are depicted as part of the state of Israel. In a population map in the Geography book Israel-Man and Space, these areas are colourless and the legend says this is a region within Israel for which there are no data. In a map of universities, the tiniest university extension in the Jewish settlements on the West Bank is depicted but no major Palestinian university is to be seen. When Palestinians are depicted it is as a collective or as types of primitive farmers, nomads, refugees and terrorists. These stereotypical images, located in non-places, nameless and timeless, are objectified, and became the embodiment of the ‘problems’ or ‘threats’ they supposedly constitute for Israel: backwardness, terrorism and the refugee ‘problem’, which as The 20th Century (1998) tells the readers, stains Israel’s image in the eyes of the world and ‘poisons’ its relationships with other nations. Or as Building a Nation in the Middle East (2009 p.158) describes, it ‘has remained as a menacing sword that threatens the very existence of the state of Israel.’

Palestine in Israeli SchoolbooksFrom GLI: 195.

Palestine in Israeli SchoolbooksFrom PIS: 76. Average marital age for women in a number of countries 1995. *Note: The Israeli data refer only to the Jewish population.

Palestine in Israeli SchoolbooksFrom GLI: 149. Age Pyramid: Jewish population versus Arab population 2000.

Palestine in Israeli SchoolbooksFrom GLI: 135. Geographic spread of Arab population in Israel.

Although the goal of having an Arab-free land is never spelled out explicitly in school books, the need to keep a Jewish majority is. For example, the history school book The 20th Century (p.249) explains that annexing the Palestinian occupied territories to the state of Israel would create ‘an absurd situation where the Jews would be a minority in their own land,’ and this, would turn ‘the Zionist dream into a South African nightmare.’

In The Geography of the Land of Israel (p.240) we learn that “The purpose [of the Judaization of the Galilee] is to preserve the national land and protect it from illegal invasion by the non-Jewish population, […] to prevent a territorial sequence of non-Jewish settlements, for fear that an Arab sequence would cause the detachment of Galilee from the state of Israel.” The negative characterization of Palestinians is presented as ‘in their blood’, for instance, in this Geography book we find: ‘The Arab society is traditional and objects to changes by its nature, reluctant to adopt novelties.’ (p. 303). Also within the book, these citizens are presented as tax-evaders, outlaws and thieves of water.

The killings of Palestinians are presented as appropriate responses to “Arab hostility” and are legitimated on the basis of effect and utility (Bar-Navi 1998, Blank 2006, Inbar 2004, Nave et al. 2009, Domka et al. 2009). The reports advocate the view that positive outcome (for us) may condone or overlook evil (done to them). For instance, the massacre of Dir-Yassin encouraged the massive flight of the Palestinians which enabled the creation of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority; the Kibya massacre and other such “reprisals” restored the morale and dignity to the IDF and the confidence to the citizens.

There is nothing particularly unusual about Israeli textbooks, since all states use them to promote their own way of seeing things, to determine what is to be remembered and forgotten. But because of military service and the occupation, schoolbooks have a much more immediate effect in Israel. Students leave education knowing nothing about the history and borders of the state, and seeing Palestinians as intruders, and then have to go out and control and sometimes kill them. Furthermore, the country is very small, but education can fence off neighbours and prevent them from having any real contact.

Israeli students embark upon their military service totally ignorant of the geopolitical facts of the region. Students leave education convinced that the Palestinians are a ‘problem to be solved’ and that empathy is race or religion-related and has no place in the relationships between themselves and their neighbours who are given to their mercy, and that utility is the only criterion that should guide them in their conduct.

Palestine in Israeli School BooksNurit Peled-Elhanan is the author of Palestine in Israeli Schoolbooks and Lecturer in Language Education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and laureate of the 2001 Sakharov Prize for Human Rights. 

Further reading

You can watch Nurit Peled-Elhanan talking more in-depth about her studies to Alternate Focus here.
Read Harriet Sherwood’s article in the Guardian responding to Nurit Peled-Elhanan’s research.
Matthew Reisz for Times Higher Education looks at whether Nurit Peled-Elhanan has revealed a textbook case of indoctrination.
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