Israeli school books write out Palestinian, Arab story
JERUSALEM – Professor of language and education at Hebrew University Nurit Peled-ElHanan recently released a book analyzing the portrayal of Palestinians in 16 history, civics and geography textbooks authorized by the Israeli Ministry of Education.
‘Palestine in Israeli School Books’ argues that the textbooks legitimate Israeli military policy in the eyes of young students, and prepare them for military service upon graduation.
Ma’an spoke to Peled-ElHanan about the ideas behind her latest book.
You write that Palestinians are often portrayed as anonymous, primitive, so-called “third-world” farmers — do you think this imagery functions as a kind of “imperialist nostalgia,” as Renato Rosaldo calls it, a “mourning for what one has destroyed”?
This colonialist idea of the romantic Orient was there in the past, when the Israelis wanted to be “indigenized,” but today I don’t think that is true anymore.
In the textbooks I studied, the Palestinians and Arabs are presented as a problem. It is like Ehud Barak said, “We are a villa in a desert,” so the Palestinians are the desert. They look down on the desert. The desert is an underdeveloped, backward, political mass.
You also see the “Oxfam image” of the Palestinian farmer. These caricatures of the Palestinians do not have any Arab characteristics; they are primarily “non-Jews,” problems or obstacles to progress.
The Palestinian farmer is not presented with a kuffiyeh or anything specifically Arab, just oversized, ratty clothes that evoke imagery of a poor laborer that could be from anywhere. This is a different perspective. There is no more glorification of the kuffiyeh here, or of anything specifically Arab.
In the book, you discuss how Israelis are now presented as “Jews and others,” mainly referring to non-Jewish Russian immigrants. Why do you think Russians have been incorporated like this?
Because they are white, and they are Europeans. This is the complex. For Zionism, if you are white and blonde then you can come here. The Russians are going to help to purify the race. But when you look at the books and you see pictures or drawings, you do not see black Jews.
When you speak about integration of new immigrants, you speak about “Sasha” the Russian girl who was integrated really well. You don’t see the Ethiopians. They are, after the Arabs, the ones who are excluded completely.
If they are going to be mentioned, it is as percentages, as problems to be solved, like the Arabs. They are not going to be solved by being eliminated, because they are important for demography. The way to solve their problem is to ignore them completely.
Do you think Jewish identity has become more racialized than it was in the past?
Of course. I mean, it came with Zionism — they had not conceived of black Jews when they started. But many of the early Zionists came from Eastern Europe, and they were called the “Ost Judden.” They were the “Eastern Jews” and they were inferior to the “Western Jews,” from Western Europe.
So they westernized themselves when they came, toward the other Jews. The funny thing is, those early Zionists said they perpetuated a western culture, but they had never met a western culture until they came here. The only people who came with Western culture were the Jews from Arab countries, because they studied in French and British schools.
But when Jews came from Arab countries, they had to give up their Arabness — to give up their culture, their music, their habits, their clothes, their accent. They really worked on that. It is all part of the same racism. It is white supremacy.
Your book discusses Israeli textbooks up until 2009. What has changed in the last two years?
In 2010, when Gideon Saar became Minister of Education, things became much worse. There is a new subject now called “Israeli culture” that everybody has to study. There are about 15 to 20 new textbooks on the subject and they are compulsory.
And there are no Arabs there at all. Even when they say “Jerusalem, the city of three religions,” you see “Christians and Jews,” you do not see Arabs. They all deal with democracy, human rights, and peace all over the world — Chinese, and Indian and African rituals of peace — but it is an Arab-less world.
They are nonexistent. One geography book that talks about refugees used to have a picture of the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, and they spoke about Palestinian refugees a little bit. “Jewish and Arab refugees as a result of the wars,” something like that. Now they changed it, and they speak about Darfur instead. This is the way to completely de-Arabize the area.
Is it possible to make a textbook in Israel that actually presents the Palestinian narrative without refuting or marginalizing it, and allows Israeli students to question the military and state’s narrative?
I tried with a Palestinian colleague to form a group, and write an alternative book. But then the Gaza raid started and it fell apart. Now I got an email from someone saying they want to revive it, and they want my consultation. Of course it’s possible.
What would such a book look like?
The book should be the history of the place. Here, students do not learn about the Middle East at all. They learn about Europe because we are supposedly part of Europe. I want to teach what happened here in the last one hundred years, from all points of view.
Because today, it is only about wars — how many we killed of them, how many they killed of us. But literature, culture, customs, history — they do not know anything. Palestinians do not know their own because they are not allowed to learn their own, and Israelis do not know theirs.
Something has to be done. There are several books that give the two narratives of this place. One of the prominent ones is called “Learning the Narrative of the Other.” In that book, they show the Palestinian narrative on one side, the Israeli narrative on the other side, and the students can write whatever they think in the middle.
They study that book all over the world. In France, 22,000 copies were sold to schools after being published. It is a wonderful example of conflict resolution. The UN gives a lot of money to schools that study conflict resolution. Here they never heard of it.
When I teach about this, my students say once they know they cannot un-know. But work has to start from the bottom.
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