Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Are Israeli textbooks racist?

From The Guardian, August 7:

Nurit Peled-Elhanan, an Israeli academic, mother and political radical, summons up an image of rows of Jewish schoolchildren, bent over their books, learning about their neighbours, the Palestinians. But, she says, they are never referred to as Palestinians unless the context is terrorism.

They are called Arabs. "The Arab with a camel, in an Ali Baba dress. They describe them as vile and deviant and criminal, people who don't pay taxes, people who live off the state, people who don't want to develop," she says. "The only representation is as refugees, primitive farmers and terrorists. You never see a Palestinian child or doctor or teacher or engineer or modern farmer."

Peled-Elhanan, a professor of language and education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has studied the content of Israeli school books for the past five years, and her account, Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education, is to be published in the UK this month. She describes what she found as racism– but, more than that, a racism that prepares young Israelis for their compulsory military service.

In "hundreds and hundreds" of books, she claims she did not find one photograph that depicted an Arab as a "normal person". The most important finding in the books she studied – all authorised by the ministry of education – concerned the historical narrative of events in 1948, the year in which Israel fought a war to establish itself as an independent state, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled the ensuing conflict.

The killing of Palestinians is depicted as something that was necessary for the survival of the nascent Jewish state, she claims. "It's not that the massacres are denied, they are represented in Israeli school books as something that in the long run was good for the Jewish state. For example, Deir Yassin [a pre-1948 Palestinian village close to Jerusalem] was a terrible slaughter by Israeli soldiers. In school books they tell you that this massacre initiated the massive flight of Arabs from Israel and enabled the establishment of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. So it was for the best. Maybe it was unfortunate, but in the long run the consequences for us were good."

Children, she says, grow up to serve in the army and internalise the message that Palestinians are "people whose life is dispensable with impunity. And not only that, but people whose number has to be diminished."
Since her book has not been published, it is difficult to look at how much bias this "political radical" has imbued her research with. But it is clear that one must take her "research" with a grain of salt given her extreme views.

But even without reading her book, we can see that she is not telling the truth about the characterizations of Arabs in Israeli textbooks. Because she first floated this issue a few years ago, after having only examined seven textbooks, and CMIP wrote a lengthy paper destroying her thesis - mostly based on an examination of those very same textbooks! Here are just the points about her assertion that Palestinian Arabs are simply not shown in the textbooks:

Is it really true that Israeli textbooks never show Palestinian faces? Here are some examples to the contrary, taken just from the books examined by Dr. Peled-Ehanan. In Book 5 on page 370 there are two photographs of Palestinians plowing their land and walking on a Jaffa street at the beginning of the 20th century. On page 372 we see Bedouins making coffee, and on page 373 – Palestinians leading a camel caravan loaded with oranges bound for Jaffa for export. On page 375 there is a photograph of two Arabs talking to a Jew in Jaffa. In Book 2, on page 166 there is a photo of Temple Mount in Jerusalem showing a group of demonstrators against Jewish immigration. A photograph on page 313, showing a Palestinian family leaving its village in 1948, has already been mentioned. Book 3 features a photograph of the Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini on page 93; and one of the late Chairman Yasser Arafat shaking hands with the late Prime Minister Rabin in Washington on page 256. The two photographs reappear in Book 4, on pages 95 and 322 respectively. We mentioned earlier the photograph of the shocked family of Palestinian refugees on page 267. Book 1 has a photograph on page 202 of a man driving a tractor or similar machine in the Arab sector of Nazareth. In Book 6, page 17 we see a photograph of Christian Palestinians praying in a church, and another one of Druze religious leaders gathering in a house of prayer. Dr. Peled-Ehanan's claim regarding this point is clearly false.

As for what she calls ‘racist cartoons’, these would more properly, and in less inflammatory language, be regarded as ‘stereotypical illustrations’. There are some four or five of those appearing in Book 1. This is an illustrated book, full of cartoons and illustrations of various
kinds. We may notice that cartoons of ridiculed figures are reserved in the main for Jews. So, for example, there are two graphs where Arab males and females are represented by stereotypical figures while Jewish males and females are represented by ridiculous cartoons.”
There is also a cartoon figure of a Jew quarreling with a stereotypical Arab over a map of the country.

On the other hand, there is a stereotypical illustration denoting Jews by a figure of a rabbi reading the Torah, which represents the Jewish population in the same way as the Arab with a camel represents the Arabs in general. There is one case in which both Arab and Jew are represented by similarly drawn cartoon figures, each pulling the map of the country to his side, and one cannot tell who is who.

The same book also contains non-stereotypical illustrations of Arabs. On page 195 we see a mechanic at work and children at school, none with stereotypical characteristics. On page 196 we see a businessman wearing a suit and holding a pack of banknotes. This illustration is attached to a paragraph mentioning the rise of income levels in Arab villages. In a chapter about Arab cities in Israel we see an illustration of people standing in line, probably in a bank, and they are all dressed in ordinary clothes; the lady at the end of the line even wears a miniskirt.

If there are texts in which Arab society in Israel is presented as traditional and reluctant to change, there are others referring to it as dynamically changing. Here is one example: “Since the establishment of the State [of Israel, in 1948], this society [i.e., Arab society in Israel] has experienced modernization: The standards of education and living are rising constantly; agriculture, which has shifted to modern methods of cultivation, is no longer the main source of
income; most of the population works in the industrial, services, and commercial sectors; and one important change has taken place in the status of women – most women acquire education, and the number of women who work outside the homes is on the increase.”

Moreover, CMIP cited other textbooks that clearly showed the exact opposite of what Peled-Elhanan is claiming today:

The evidence we have presented, taken from the sources Dr. Peled-Elhanan did use, is more than sufficient for refuting her accusation of racism leveled at Israeli school textbooks. However, for an overview of the actual orientation of Israeli textbooks concerning the issue of racism one may well consider the references aimed at actively combating racist prejudice against Arabs – notably in language and literature textbooks – an elementary procedure in which Dr. Peled-Elhanan has no interest.

Here are some examples:

1) “Many people think that doves are peace loving birds. This view is incorrect; it is a prejudice: people believe it without checking. There are many prejudices. For example:

• The Jews dominate the world and exploit all its inhabitants.
• Black people are inferior; they are incapable of being scientists.
• The Arabs understand the language of force only.

Compile during the [school] year a long list of prejudices. Write them down in a special folder to be named ‘So they say, but it is not true: Prejudices’. Try to attach a fitting illustration or cartoon to each prejudice. Be ready to explain orally why these are prejudice.”
Did I Understand?, Grade 7, Part 5 (1993), p. 259

2) “The lady from the second floor opened her mouth and said that the Arabs are exactly like Jews. There are villains among them, as well as decent people, and they should not be labeled.

What’s the Connection? What’s the Interpretation?, [upper grades, Elementary School],
Part 2 (n.d.), p. 184

3) “Strange, I never played with an Arab boy before … Bashir and I ate together in the shade … after lunch we played more. Before we parted we had exchanged addresses and promised to write to each other. I hope we meet again.”
Windows 1: Reader for State Schools, [lower grades, Elementary School], (1993) p. 83

Had Dr. Peled-Elhanan seen such references, and a great many others in textbooks she did not bother to look at, she might have been less adamant in her position. Apparently, she preferred to look the other way.
It is clear that Dr. Peled-Elhanan is not being intellectually honest and is twisting the contents of the schoolbooks into her own extreme viewpoint.

If you want to know exactly how radical she is, here is what she said after her own 13-year old daughter was murdered by a suicide bomber in 1997 - during the Oslo process:

My little girl was murdered because she was an Israeli by a young man who was humiliated, oppressed and desperate to the point of suicide and murder and inhumanity, just because he was a Palestinian....[J]ust as my daughter was a victim [of the Israeli occupation], so was he [the suicide bomber]."
Which makes her a poster child for the Mondoweiss crowd.

(h/t jzaik)