The recent study of Palestinian and Israeli textbooks, prepared under the auspices of the Jerusalem-based Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land and issued today, is already generating much controversy, particularly relating to a false equivalency in comparing how Israeli and Palestinian school books portray the other and themes related to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It is clear that however well-meaning the sponsors and researchers of the textbook study may have been, the lack of sufficient historical, social and geopolitical context distort the findings and render this study distorted and counterproductive.
The report, titled "Victims of our own Narratives?" and funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of State, presents a dangerous premise -- that both sides have problems in not accepting the other and, in order to enhance the chances for peace, both sides have to do more to change their textbooks.
When the Oslo Accords were signed, based on the concept of Palestinian acceptance of Israel and Israeli territorial concessions to the Palestinians, the challenge for Israel was how to establish ways to concretize the Palestinian commitment to peace.
On the Israeli side, its concessions were concrete and irreversible. Peace by the Palestinians seemed intangible and reversible.
This is where the concept was introduced about monitoring to ensure that the Palestinians no longer taught their young to hate Israel and to de-legitimize the Jewish state. If this did not happen, then it was hard to take seriously Palestinian statements on peace.
It is in light of this historical context that the new study of Palestinian and Israeli textbooks, released on February 6, is so disturbing. No one suggests that Israel does not have to do more to appreciate the Palestinian narrative. But by bundling the two issues, the study diminishes, almost to the point of overlooking, the centrality of this issue to Israel. Just as territory and a Palestinian state are core issues for the Palestinians, how Palestinians speak and teach about Israel in the media and in schools is a core issue for Israel. This is so because from the Israeli side, the reason the conflict has raged on for so long is directly connected to the way Israel is thought of by Palestinians, young and old.
By linking the textbooks of both sides in an artificial investigation, distortions and misperceptions are inevitable.
To name a few:
- The revelation that textbooks in the Israeli state secular school system, by far Israel's largest, are many times better than Palestinian textbooks gets lost in the effort to say there are problems on both sides;
- Too often what is described as negative in Israeli texts is really just the observation of reality, for example that Israeli texts described the Palestinians as simply wanting to destroy Israel between 1948 and 1967;
- The unwillingness to accept that when Palestinians texts reject or ignore Israel's existence that that is not dehumanization.
This study fits into a pattern of so much international intervention regarding the conflict: it seeks to put Palestinians in a better light -- here by juxtaposing it with Israel where it should not be done -- and by doing so discourages the Palestinians from taking the necessary positive steps toward Israel to make peace a reality.
In other words, one more counterproductive exercise.