Reports on Palestinian kids hatred grossly exaggerated

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“Where do persistent reports of incitement in Palestinian textbooks come from?” asks Nathan Brown, a Jewish professor of political science at George Washington University.

“Virtually all can be traced back to the work of a single organization, the ‘Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace,'” founded by Israeli Itamar Marcus. Those involved “rely on misleading and tendentious reports to support their claim of incitement,” writes Brown, in a 2001 report delivered at Israel’s Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace.

The charges of Marcus are often grossly exaggerated. As with most reporting, he passes on some useful truths — albeit with a one-sided approach.

His work is anecdotal — hardly social science — based on the statements of a few people, including small children. Quoting selectively is a good way to accuse and stereotype an entire people but not in seriously analyzing a situation. 

Marcus and a few others who follow his model have been pushing their opinions in numerous periodicals, including a Jan. 9 op-ed piece in j. by Marcus and Barbara Crook headlined “For Palestinian kids, the lesson is hate.”

While the column referred to television statements from a few children, which are certainly startling, his methods are the same: Piece together anecdotal incidents, disregard true proportion and frequency of occurrence and make them bigger than life.

We have been discouraged by the reported teaching and indoctrination of hate for Israel and Jews, even desires to drive us from the Holy Land. They convey the impression that the Palestinians are not ready for peace. With faded dreams and increased fear, many of us have invested our hopes with Washington.

So in response to pressure from Congress to investigate, the U.S. government commissioned the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information to convene a team of professional educators — Israeli, Palestinian and American. Their 2003 report concluded: “While there are many areas for improvement in the Palestinian textbooks, it can be said that these new textbooks do not incite against Israel or against peace.”

If the Palestinians can find room for improvement, so can the Israelis. In “The Arab Image in Hebrew School Textbooks,” an article drawing from his study of 124 textbooks, Professor Dan Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University reports that “over the years, generations of Israeli Jews were taught a negative and often delegitimizing view of Arabs.”

Bar-Tal found some positive Arab images. But he reports two major themes of Arab characteristics. One taught “primitiveness, inferiority in comparison to Jews.” The other related to “their violence, to characteristics like brutality, untrustworthiness, cruelty, fanaticism, treacherousness and aggressiveness.”

Referring to Israeli texts of the ’80s and ’90s, Bar-Tal reports: “Geography books for the elementary and junior high schools stereotype Arabs negatively, as primitive, dirty, agitated, aggressive, and hostile to Jews … history books in the elementary schools hardly mention Arabs … history textbooks of the high schools, the majority of which cover the Arab-Jewish conflict, stereotype the Arabs negatively. Arabs are presented as intransigent and uncompromising.”

“The parents and the grandparents of the present generation,” says Bar-Tal, “were provided with the same negative image of the Arabs in their school textbooks as we see today, within the context of the prolonged Jewish-Arab conflict. One might add that it takes many years to rewrite school textbooks and a few generations to change the societal beliefs about the stereotyping and delegitimization of the Arabs.”

This year, the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem is diligently preparing its own study of Israeli texts and curricula to balance and supplement its earlier Palestinian studies.

Professor Ruth Firer of Hebrew University and Palestinian Professor Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University also decided “it is important to compare the Israeli and Palestinian textbooks to each other, rather than to look at only one set by itself, in order to get a complete picture of the role they play in peace education, or the opposite.” They did that in a study sponsored by Hebrew University’s Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, and by the United States Institute of Peace and UNESCO.

Adwan and Firer reported: “While we argue of course, that school textbooks are an important element in peace education, the main ‘textbook’ is life outside schools and the oral presentations by teachers that reflect the public’s general feelings. Currently, such oral and real-life instruction is far from conveying genuine peace education messages. Since the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has not been resolved, modifying textbooks is problematic. As part of a true peace process, both Palestinians and Israelis have to revise their textbooks to clearly reflect the values of peace education.”

It certainly seems correct that peace will require educational reform. But if we can trust the various academic studies of the topic, the Palestinians are hardly as guilty as we’ve been led to believe, nor are the Israelis as blameless.

After my dozen years of Jewish-Palestinian dialogue in hundreds of meetings, I know Arabs and Jews — equally — always begin by recognizing only their own narratives, pain and dream. It is in the listening — Sh’ma — and honest studying that we come to truly understand one another and our whole shared story. And become more human, more informed.

Textbooks need to improve. So do we — and so do our neighbor Palestinians. We can, and we are.

Lionel “Len” Traubman is a retired San Francisco pediatric dentist and co-founder of the 11-year-old Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group. He lives with his wife, co-founder Libby Traubman, in San Mateo.