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Post Learning History: Palestinians
Created by John Eipper on 07/17/05 3:15 PM - learning-history-palestinians

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Learning History: Palestinians (John Eipper, USA, 07/17/05 3:15 pm)

Christopher Jones forwards " Getting Beyond the Rhetoric about the Palestinian Curriculum" by Nathan J Brown, professor of political science at George Washington University, "which confirms that CMIP is a Zionist hat organization".

In 1999, I began my research on Palestinian education by reading the only textbooks authored by the Palestinian Authority (PA) up to that point: a 1994 series on National Education that was to supplement the Egyptian and Jordanian books then temporarily in use.? My reading shocked me --? pleasantly.? I had heard so much about incitement and antisemitism in Palestinian textbooks that I was confused:? there was no mention of any location as Palestinian except for those occupied in 1967; no antisemitism; only brief and neutral references to Israel, and often awkward attempts to deal with sensitive political issues.? Then where had the persistent reports of incitement come from? A little digging turned up the ultimate source: an organization calling itself the ?Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace? (CMIP). The organization?s publications constituted virtually the only source in English?and certainly the most widely quoted one on the Palestinian textbooks.

As I dug a little more, I found a series of problems with the organization?s reports. Their method was to follow harsh criticisms with quotation after quotation purporting to prove a point. However, a close reading revealed that many quotations did not support the strong charges. And those that did came not from the 1994 books that I had read but from the Jordanian and Egyptian books that the PA was working to replace. Criticizing the PA for interim use of the books was certainly fair. But the CMIP neglected to mention that the Israeli government distributed the same books in East Jerusalem schools while it refused to distribute the innocuous 1994 ?National Education? supplements (because they were clearly written by the PA meaning that their use might have undermined Israeli claims to sovereignty in all of the city). Nor did the report mention the dramatic changes in the supplementary 1994 books. Similarly ignored was a richly documented Palestinian project to devise its new curriculum. A 600-page official report mercilessly criticizing existing educational practices had been published in 1996.In 1997, the Palestinian legislature and cabinet approved the Ministry of Education?s plan based partly on the 1996 report to write the new curriculum. Neither document contained anything anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic, so the CMIP showed no interest.

In short, the CMIP reports read as if they were written by a ruthless prosecuting attorney anxious for a conviction at any cost. I realized from the research of Israeli academics (and also from my own children?s experience in an Israeli school for a year) that a hostile and highly selective report on Israeli education might produce a similarly misleading result. Israeli educators in the secular schools have begun an effort to revamp their textbooks to rid them of stereotypes and incendiary material. The fact that the effort has not been completed and that religious schools have shown far less enthusiasm for the project would have left enough selections for a Palestinian zealot to compile quite a report. Since almost all Israeli maps mark no border between the West Bank and Gaza, such a merciless critic might be able to claim (inaccurately) that Israelis are unwilling to consider territorial compromise. Thankfully, no such report has been written. (And when the CMIP finally issued its own report on Israeli textbooks, the organization showed a hitherto hidden ability stress context and be judicious and understanding, even when discovering some fairly distasteful material.)

As I continued my research, I collected published and unpublished documents and followed public debates on the new curriculum being written. I interviewed figures in the Legislative Council, the Ministry of Education, the Curriculum Development Center, and NGOs.? I found an active debate on all sorts of issues that sounded oddly familiar to American ears. How could democratic values be taught without undermining the authority of schools and teachers? Should the curriculum concentrate on teaching a specific body of material, or should it foster independent and critical thought? Should books show non-traditional gender roles, or would that undermine accepted values?

Despite this very active debate, one issue was never treated in detail: how should ?Palestine? be taught? The first Palestinian-authored curriculum was to be an authoritative statement of Palestinian values. Exploring the relationship between Palestinians on the one hand and Israel, Zionism, and Jews on the other might logically be seen as central to any attempt to educate Palestinians about their past, their present, and even their geography. Yet educators and officials seemed to wish to avoid the subject, even in internal documents. When I pressed the matter in interviews, the explanation for this reluctance became clear: these questions were enormously sensitive and difficult. Palestinian textbook authors would likely do what their counterparts did throughout the world when confronted with controversial matters. First, where possible they would settle on official documents (such as the Palestinian declaration of independence of 1988) or matters where national consensus existed. Second, where no documents or consensus existed the textbooks would likely avoid the subject. Given the unsettled nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, there would be much to avoid.

In 2000, the first and sixth grade textbooks for the new, comprehensive Palestinian curriculum were completed. When I read the books, I found the reticence I had expected. For instance, the books handled the awkward issue of maps in a series of awkward ways. How should Palestine be represented? Was it the patchwork created by the explicitly interim Oslo Accords? Was Palestine the West Bank and Gaza alone which Palestinian leaders constantly insisted was their vision for their state, but which remained unrecognized? What of areas in pre-1967 Israel? Were those who fled those areas in 1948 not Palestinian? But if they were Palestinian did their home towns become non-Palestinian at some point? And what of the Arab population that remained? Should the textbooks do what many Palestinians do in order to make these distinctions in conversation?separate ?geographic? or ?historic? Palestine (the entire territory) from ?political? Palestine?the area of the prospective Palestinian state? These issues were difficult for adults to resolve, but the textbook authors were supposed to draw maps for children. The 2000 books tried various approaches. They sometimes resorted to a topographical map to avoid drawing any borders at all. And they also regularly drew a border between Israeli and the West Bank and Gaza?without labeling either side of the border or even explaining what the border was.

The 2000 books showed other forms of confusion. They praised Gandhi at length for his non-violence but also included a poem praising children who threw stones during the intifada. In a few areas they were bolder than I expected. They avoided any sustained treatment of Palestinian history or of Israel but they did delve briefly into matters that united all Palestinians (such as Jerusalem, the origins of the refugee issue, Israeli settlements, and home demolitions). In treating such issues, the books certainly contained material unfriendly to Israel, but they did not attack its existence or veer into antisemitism.

Yet when the 2000 books came out, the CMIP rushed out a report recirculating the old charges. The report was fairly cavalier in its prose and use of evidence, especially in that anything undermining its claims was overlooked. In 2001, the second and seventh grade texts were published, and the CMIP pressed its claims yet again. In some ways, this latest report is the most responsible, avoiding some of the misleading techniques of earlier documents (such as obscuring the difference between the old and the new books). Yet its strongest charges are simply unsupported by a fair reading of the books. For instance, the CMIP cites an ?implicit aspiration to replace the State of Israel with the State of Palestine.? No such aspiration is implicit in the books. Each textbook begins with a foreword describing the West Bank and Gaza as ?the two parts of the homeland??directly contradicting the CMIP?s claim. Nor does the CMIP mention that the Palestinian curriculum plan approved in 1997 envisions introduction of Hebrew as an elective language for secondary-school students?hardly an expected step for a curriculum premised on destruction of the Jewish state.

The CMIP has finally admitted that overt antisemitism has been removed, but it has buried its admission in such grudging and qualified prose that most readers missed the point. Oddly, just as the Palestinians moved to construct an entire curriculum free from antisemitism, international criticism (generally based on cursory readings of the CMIP report) gained increasing steam. Indeed, past criticisms of the Palestinian textbooks have been so widely and uncritically accepted that I generally receive either confused or highly skeptical stares when I present a less charged version of the books.

The harsh and tendentious campaign against the schoolbooks has obscured the real and significant improvements. But the worst effect of the campaign has been to make it difficult to make more accurate but far milder criticisms about the Palestinian curriculum. A true peace curriculum will probably have to come after, rather than before, a comprehensive settlement. But in the mean time, less hostile critics might persuade the Palestinians to be more direct in their treatment of Israel and Jews, more willing to engage students in thinking critically about issues of national identity and coexistence, and more explicit in the political assumptions underlying their treatment of such subjects. Exaggerated rhetoric, charges of anti-Semitism and racism, and denial of the significance of existing changes in the curriculum will hardly convince anyone further improvements are worth the effort.
The Palestinians will continue introducing their new curriculum, two grades at a time, over the next few years. If the past is any indication, we should expect a highly nationalistic curriculum that criticizes Israel ?s policies but not its existence. We should also expect that matters unresolved on the ground will remain unresolved in the texts. And as the conflict has turned increasingly violent since September 2000, the books will probably include more on perceived grievances against Israeli policies. To be sure, the Palestinian curriculum is not a peace curriculum. But neither is it a war curriculum or one based on antisemitism.

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