Israeli textbooks foster hate, says author

Critics say bias not unique to Israel, as Nurit Peled-Elhanan makes her case after researching school books published after 1990.

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TEL AVIV // One asserts that Israel's Palestinian citizens shun modernisation and are building houses illegally. Another alleges the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank steals water from Israel. And elsewhere, that Palestinians have been a "terrifying demographic problem" for Israel.

Such statements are part of mainstream schoolbooks in Israel that teach an "anti-Palestinian" approach in a bid to prepare Jewish children to be aggressive towards Palestinians once they serve in the army, according to a new book.

To be released this month in the UK, the book - Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education - is the first to publicly provide evidence that Israeli schools have racist textbooks, said Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University who has researched dozens of Israeli schoolbooks published since the 1990s.

"I was looking for reasons of why nice Jewish boys turn into monsters when they join the army," said Ms Peled-Elhanan, in an interview at her home just outside Jerusalem.

"They never meet Palestinians face-to-face as children, so the textbooks are all they know."

But her research has drawn fierce opposition among many Israeli academics who accuse her of extremist left-wing views and of stirring anti-Israeli sentiment abroad, where her ideas have been more welcomed by education-focused researchers.

Some critics say textbook bias is prevalent in many countries, including the US.

"The bias in America is white and protestant, just like here it's Jewish and Ashkenazi," said Zvi Bekerman, an Israeli professor of education.

Elie Podeh, a professor at Hebrew University, criticised Ms Peled-Elhanan in an interview with The National for ignoring"considerable improvements, such as the removal of references to Arabs as "robbers" or "murderers".

He added that some books address the emergence of the Palestinian national movement and acknowledge "certain cases of expulsions" of Palestinians during the 1948 war that created Israel.

In contrast, earlier versions avoided the topic of Palestinian refugees.

Ms Peled-Elhanan dismisses such changes as "cosmetic."

"The message is still the same. It says that we have to have a Jewish majority and all the means are kosher", she said.

She said she has been alienated by Israel's academic community and is never invited to schoolbook conferences. She added that during her candidacy for professorship several years ago, she was asked to produce a dozen recommendations, at least double the usual number, most likely due to her controversial views.

The research of Ms Peled-Elhanan, whose only daughter was killed at 13 in a Palestinian attack in Jerusalem in 1997, is also driven by her peace activism.

In 2001, she was awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for her human rights work.

Ms Peled-Elhanan's family is prominent in Israel's left-wing. Her father was a distinguished politician who controversially called for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza while serving as army general after the 1967 Middle East war in which Israel conquered those territories. Two of her three sons refused to carry out their army reserve duty and helped found Combatants for Peace, a group of former Israeli soldiers and ex-Palestinian militants campaigning for an end to Israel's West Bank occupation.

Ms Peled-Elhanan, whose home is on a hillside slope just under what used to be the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin - the site of a notorious 1948 Israeli assault that killed scores of Palestinians - said Israeli education teaches "hate and xenophobia towards Palestinians".

Her research cites one textbook saying the escape of Palestinians from Israel amid fears for their lives following the Deir Yassin killings "solved a terrifying demographic problem" for Israel.

The textbook added "even a moderate person such as [the first president Chaim] Weizman spoke about the flight as a "miracle."

The textbooks justify aggression towards Palestinians by showing it benefits Israel, she said.

The notorious 1953 Israeli massacre of dozens of Palestinians in the West Bank village of Qibya "restored somewhat the confidence of Israeli citizens" and rebuilt "the morale and dignity" of the army, one book says.

The textbooks attempt to convey Israeli dominance of the West Bank, she said. Some maps omit showing the Israeli-occupied territory as separate from Israel's recognised borders. Other maps that separate the two areas label the West Bank with its Hebrew biblical name of Judaea and Samaria.

A map of Jerusalem, titled The Historic Capital of the Jewish People, includes no Palestinian sites despite the city's eastern part being mainly inhabited by Palestinians.

Ms Peled-Elhanan says Israeli Palestinians, a fifth of the population, are looked upon as intruders rather than citizens.

Maps showing Israeli Palestinians omit key Arab cities such as Nazareth, or mixed Jewish-Arab towns such as Acre. One geography book says "the Arab society ...objects to changes by its nature," is "reluctant to adopt novelties" and that "modernisation seems dangerous to them".

She said the books portray Arabs as being primitive and clannish.

The most common photos of Arabs show a mustachioed, kaffiyeh-wearing male leading a camel, a group of refugees shown from a distance or face-covered militants, she added.

To be sure, Palestinian textbooks have also faced criticism for stirring an anti-Israeli sentiment.

Samira Alayan, a Palestinian researcher, said in an interview that history books don't mention the Holocaust or terror attacks against Israelis, claim Jerusalem belongs to Muslims and assert that "the Zionists came and stole Palestinian land".

For Ms Peled-Elhanan, there is little hope of making a change in Israeli education.

"Israel wants a de-Arabisation of the whole area," she said. "Authorities have been tremendously successful in teaching this and they know that they won't have good soldiers if they change the textbooks."