IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Finding a roadmap to teach kids about Mideast

Winston Churchill said, "History is written by the victors." What, then, is written in the history books of two cultures at war? NBC News' Jill Wagner reports on a new study that  examines Israeli and Palestinian textbooks to find out what each side says - and doesn’t say - about the other.
Israeli Army Escorts Palestinian Children Safely To School
Palestinian school children of different ages share a single class at the regional school near the Jewish settlement of Maon in February in the West Bank village of At Tawina. Uriel Sinai / Getty Images file
/ Source: NBC News

Winston Churchill said, "History is written by the victors." What, then, is written in the history books of two cultures still at odds?

A recent study conducted by Dr. Ruth Firer, an Israeli professor at Hebrew University, and Dr. Sami Adwan, a Palestinian professor at Bethlehem University, examines Israeli and Palestinian textbooks to find out what each side says — and doesn’t say — about the other.

In the Middle East, where the Arab-Israeli conflict has taken thousands of lives in just the last few years, the content of textbooks has always been a lightning rod for controversy, especially since Mahmoud Abbas was elected leader of the Palestinian Authority in January. 

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently declared, “Palestinian education and propaganda are more dangerous to Israel than Palestinian weapons.” Sharon has demanded that Abbas take steps to “immediately” replace the “inflammatory” texts. 

For his part, Abbas has told Israel it’s time to look in the mirror and change its own educational system.   

History dictates future
What has precipitated this focus on education? According to Dr. Herbert Kelman, the Richard Clark Cabot Research Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, education has become a litmus test, measuring how sincere a side is in wanting to make peace.   

“[Textbooks] tell you what is being taught to the next generation,” explained Kelman. “If you are really out to make peace, you should not be teaching your children hatred and delegitimizing each other.”    

According to Dr. Sami Adwan, a professor of education at Bethlehem University, education is extremely influential because of its enormous reach. “There are over a million [Palestinian] children in school,” he explained. “Imagine how powerful that is.” 

Differences over history textbooks continue to riddle nations the world over.

The incredible outcry and massive protests in China recently over new Japanese textbooks that Chinese critics claim whitewashes Tokyo’s atrocities and militarism during World War II, demonstrates just how raw emotions can be sixty years later.

Some Japanese, for their part have turned the table, criticizing China’s schoolbooks for portraying an unbalanced look at its own Communist history.

Unlikely collaboration
In an effort to counter just those sort of problems, when the Oslo peace talks were promoting an environment for cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in the early nineties, Adwan met Dr. Ruth Firer, a researcher at The Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace and a pioneer in textbook research. They decided to join forces and perform a comprehensive study of Palestinian and Israeli history and civics textbooks.  

Firer looked at the Israeli texts, Adwan studied the Palestinian books, and The Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Germany oversaw the project, acting as an objective intermediary.

Jonathon Kriener, a Research Fellow at the Institute explained, "The aim of reviewing Israeli and Palestinian textbooks is to make the debate over textbooks more rational, grounding it in scientific rather than political arguments.”

What Firer and Adwan found is that both sets of textbooks stick to their own narrative and version of events, do little to understand the other side, and therefore propagate the conflict. Narratives are particularly poignant in textbooks, explained Firer, “because they are aimed at youngsters, so they have to be made simply and clearly.”  

Different “interpretations” of significant events
According to Adwan, while many of the same historical facts are presented in all the schoolbooks, their “interpretations” are very different. 

Israeli texts, for example, treat the Balfour Declaration of 1917 — in which the British Foreign Secretary endorsed the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine — as "legitimate."  Palestinian texts view the same declaration as “illegitimate” and an example of “Western colonialism.”

The 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which established Israel as an independent state, is described in Israeli texts as the "War of Independence."  Palestinian texts, however, describe the same event as "al naqba" or "catastrophe.” 

“It’s black and white according to the sides,” explained Firer. “The question has to be, can the Israeli side include the catastrophe of the Palestinians? Can the Palestinians mention Israel’s struggle for independence?”  

Geography a landmine in disputed region
The teaching of geography is also extremely problematic in a region where borders are constantly changing, often contested, and at the forefront of the conflict. 

According to Adwan, many maps in Palestinian textbooks don't mention the state of Israel. At the same time, Firer found that Israeli maps often show the Green Line from 1967, but rarely show that Palestinian territories are on the other side. 

In Palestinian textbooks, maps use only Arabic names for cities and towns. Israeli textbooks use Biblical names. “You get a canceling out of any alternative for common ground,” said Firer, “because everyone thinks that places belong to them.”  

Also telling is the information excluded from both sets of books. The report found that Palestinian and Israeli texts downplay, or ignore entirely, periods of peace and co-existence. They also rarely recognize the victims and suffering on the other side.

According to Kelman, this “prevents people from developing a dynamic understanding of the conflict. If you present the situation as ‘they are the evil doer and we are the victims,’ you put the onus on the other side.” 

Constraints of education systems
However, while the study is critical of both Palestinian and Israeli textbooks, it found more self-criticism and self-analysis on the Israeli side. According to Kriener, "Israeli textbooks deal with history and society in a more complex and multi-faceted way than the Palestinian ones."  But it’s not surprising, he said, considering the nature of both educational systems.

Starting in the 1950s, the Palestinians used Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks. It wasn’t until 1994, when the Palestinian Ministry of Education was established, that a distinct Palestinian curriculum was created. “But this is a very slow process,” explained Adwan, “and writing and composing textbooks needs time and a staff with expertise.”

The Palestinians also have a smaller budget and a centralized system, where all schools must use the same textbooks.

Israel, however, operates under an open educational system, and although the Minister of Education gives recommendations and subsidies for certain textbooks, teachers can buy whichever they like. 

“Revisionist history”
During the late 1990s, “revisionist historians” began to influence Israel’s textbooks.  According to Kelman, they “were looking back at the history of the creation of Israel, and were willing to challenge some of what had been the dominant narratives.” 

Poetry written by Israeli Arabs started to be introduced in the curriculum, as were stories of Palestinian hardships and suffering. In one textbook that Firer studied, Israeli children were asked to write essays imagining themselves in the position of Palestinian refugees. 

However, with the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, Firer said “the inclination is to go back to traditional curriculum, focusing on the Holocaust and Zionism.” 

So where does this leave them? Can the educational systems ever be revamped to include the narratives of the other side while the Israelis and Palestinians are still at war? Can there ever be a real political peace plan when old stereotypes are being engrained in the next generation? Only time (and history) will tell.