California on the frontlines of textbook battles

Murray Zucker knew a good thing when he saw it. And this was not a good thing.

His son David was being subjected to anti-Israeli materials — at a public Santa Rosa high school no less, with a teacher who endorsed every word of a lesson plan called “The Modern Middle East.”

Among other things, “The Modern Middle East” includes an exercise that has teachers divide the class into “Jeds” and “Pads,” representing Jews and Palestinians. The Pads are grouped inside a central area, meant to represent Palestine, while the Jeds are dispersed around the room.

Students then debate whether the Jeds should immigrate to the “Land of Pad.” Teachers are directed to show favoritism toward the Pads, guiding the class to see the Jeds as aggressors who succeed in taking over land that belongs to others.

The four Jewish students in a ninth-grade class of 30 pupils felt “powerless and marginalized and unrepresented,” said Zucker, who was so troubled he withdrew his son from public school and sent him to Jewish day school. His son is now a freshman at Brandeis University.

Parents’ complaints in the Bay Area led to an analysis headed by Jackie Berman, an educational consultant at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

The report, issued two years ago, concluded that the teaching materials are studded with “misinformation, manipulation, omissions of key facts, oversimplification of complex issues, historical inaccuracy and lack of context.

“As a result of the bias, a potential exists for the creation of a hostile environment in the classroom against Jewish students.”

With a debate under way over evolution and intelligent design in science textbooks, a less-publicized battle is being waged in California over the content of social studies and history materials — some of which are pro-Islamic, anti-American, anti-Israeli and even anti-Jewish.

The state Board of Education is in the final stages of selecting history and social studies materials for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The board is slated to make its final selection Thursday, Nov. 3.

The process, which takes place every seven years, determines which books make the mark, enabling local school districts to use state funds to purchase them.

With the political, educational and financial stakes so high, publishers, special interest groups and educators take the process as seriously as any political campaign.

Among the contenders is “History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond,” a seventh-grade textbook, with other course materials, published by the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute.

The course was piloted in Scottsdale, Ariz., earlier this year. But after a series of protests from parents — who objected to what they saw as distortions of Christianity and Judaism, with an overarching positive spin on Islam — the publisher decided to stop the trial.

The book was developed to meet California standards. The state has mandated the study of religion since 1987. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are studied in the sixth grade, and Islam is covered in the seventh grade.

Meanwhile, the institute has pulled “The Modern Middle East.” The material is still for sale, however, and copies already in circulation likely will sit on classroom shelves for years to come, according to educational experts.

Both “The Modern Middle East” and “History Alive!” have been on the market since the early 1990s, a period that began what one reviewer has termed “the Islamization of the textbooks.”

Analysts say today’s history and social studies textbooks and supplementary materials sow positive propaganda about Islam, the Palestinians and the Arab world, while denigrating — in subtle and not so subtle ways — America, Israel, Judaism and democracy.

Distributed in public elementary, middle and high schools, the materials are paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

Tax money actually pays for those materials twice — once at the state or local level, where the materials are purchased, and again at the federal level, where some universities with federally funded Title VI National Resource Centers focusing on the Middle East help produce, promote and endorse such materials.

In their quest to expand coverage of Islam and non-Western civilizations — laudable, given 21st-century geopolitics — textbook publishers have distorted history, according to Gilbert Sewall, the former education editor of Newsweek and author of “Islam and the Textbooks.”

In late September, he reiterated his concerns in a letter to the California curriculum commission in advance of its public hearings on teaching materials by 12 publishers for grades K-8. The curriculum commission advises the state Board of Education.

“Islamic pressure groups have been working energetically for 15 years to scrub the past in instructional materials,” Sewall wrote. “Textbooks either gloss over jihad, sharia [Islamic law], Muslim slavery, the status of women and Islamic terrorism — or omit the subject altogether.”

Sewall, who has testified in Congress on the issue, has said that the textbook industry has come to be dominated by four main publishing companies— Pearson, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt and McGraw-Hill — with an estimated 80 percent share of the market.

In his recent letter, Sewall said that, starting in the early 1990s, the publishers “allowed Islamic organizations — notably the Council on Islamic Education — to strong-arm them and in effect act as censors.”

The Council on Islamic Education was one of many groups that consulted on the “History Alive!” course, even though it is not listed as such, said Liz Russell, the development director of the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute based in Rancho Cordova.

Beyond the council, another scholar who consulted on “History Alive!” is Ayad al-Qazzaz, a sociology professor at California State University at Sacramento who was co-editor of the “Arab World Notebook.” That’s the predecessor of the “Arab World Studies Notebook,” a widely used teaching manual that has been banned in at least two school districts because of what critics identify as pro-Islamic propaganda and anti-Israel distortions.

Many states have a textbook-adoption process, but those in California and Texas are the most important since those states have huge populations. In fact, some school districts in California buy more books than entire states.

“Texas and California are the states in which publishers introduce new textbooks,” Sewall said. “By looking at what’s available in California today, we will know what’s going to be available in the nation tomorrow.”

“History Alive!” and “World History” were among the nine programs that California’s curriculum commission recommended to the state Board of Education after its public hearings last month.

Berman of the San Francisco JCRC said she believes the Council on Islamic Education has been so influential because it has been proactive in getting its views across, especially when it matters most — as a book is being compiled.

“It’s perfectly legitimate” for the council to want American students to have a positive view of Islam, she said. “If you look at the textbooks, you see they have been very effective.”

The Jewish community, in contrast, “hasn’t been at the table. The publishers have not been getting a unified, well-articulated point of view” from the Jews, she noted.

Berman and her team recently created the Institute for Curriculum Services to serve as a resource center for Jewish subject matter in school curricula.

Their review of some sixth-grade books that California is considering for adoption turned up inaccuracies and troubling depictions of Jews and Judaism.

The institute cites as an example “the depiction of Passover as a celebration of the deaths of the Egyptian firstborn instead of a celebration of the Jews’ escape from Egyptian slavery.”

Their reviews say that “many of the texts contain narrations of the Crucifixion that blame or clearly implicate the Jews, presentations of the parable of the Good Samaritan that identify uncaring passers-by as Jews, and Paul as a persecutor of Christians when he was the Jewish Saul — all of these have been used throughout history as a means of implanting anti-Semitism in young minds.”

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