New research: Jews, Israel suffer unfair hits in U.S. textbooks

If your child brought home a history book that said Jesus was a Palestinian, or that Jews contributed little to the arts and sciences aside from Old Testament poetry, how would you react?

Would you rush to the principal’s office, tear out the pages or do nothing?

According to local demographers Gary Tobin and Dennis Ybarra, co-authors of “The Trouble With Textbooks: Distorting History and Religion,” most parents opt for the last choice.

The book is a five-year study that documents examples of distorted views of religion and the Middle East in children’s textbooks widely used throughout the United States. The authors hope that their book will make school officials, state legislators, parents and the Jewish community more aware of this issue.

“This is a problem that, until very recently, has not been on the Jewish community’s radar,” said Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, which is based in San Francisco. “We expect this book to be a wake-up call about anti-Jewish and anti-Israel misrepresentation and propaganda in our classrooms.”

With assistance from two S.F.-based organizations, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Institute of Curriculum Services, Tobin and Ybarra dissected 28 history, geography and social studies textbooks typically used in sixth through 12th grade classrooms.

The 28 textbooks were selected to represent a variety of publishers, grade levels and educational material, Ybarra said.

Scouring the books cover to cover, they searched for buzzwords such as “Israel,” “Judaism” and “Jew.”

Their search revealed more than 500 passages, which they then further analyzed. Many of those selections, according to Ybarra, “tended to be critical of Jews and Israel,

disrespectful about Christianity, and rather than represent Islam in an objective way, tended to glorify it.”

While praise for Islam in U.S. textbooks might sound surprising, Ybarra explained it by pointing to two things: sloppiness in academia, and a propensity for textbook writers’ to consult with Islamic experts — something they don’t do with Jews or Christians.

The authors’ findings revealed the following anti-Israel sentiments, which they cite in their book: the founding of Israel was a successful Jewish terrorist campaign; Jerusalem is more holy to Muslims than to Jews who have no religious ties there; and the Sept. 11 attacks were a result of U.S. support for Israel.

Tobin and Ybarra also present a hypothesis that textbooks continue to depict Jews and Judaism as inferior to Christians — an argument generally rejected by Christians and Jews alike.

The authors also uncovered inaccuracies in supplemental materials, concluding that these additions often slide past publishers, whereas textbooks go through a vetting process to prove they are consistent with educational guidelines.

Tobin and Ybarra’s research begs the question: How stringent are the publishing companies that approve textbooks for use?

“It varies statewide,” Tobin said. “There certainly is a need for greater scrutiny of the textbooks as a product. We are calling on the textbook industry to do a better job of regulating itself.

“They have, within their own structures, the ability to do better fact-checking to make sure biased writers are not creating copy.”

Of the 50 million children enrolled in public schools nationwide, 6 million live in California, according to Aliza Craimer Elias, director of project development and national outreach with the ICS, a national institute founded by the JCRC in 2005.

With so many students, California drives the textbook publishing industry, along with Texas.

Textbooks usually set the tone for classroom lessons, guide curriculum and provide a foundation for test questions.

“We believe publishers want to get it right,” Elias said. “They’re not out there to get the Jews. Our approach is a cooperative one and it’s been very positive working with them.”

California replaces its textbooks every six years, Ybarra said, and the long replacement cycle is likely to impede the immediate removal of the textbooks in question. Tobin and Ybarra said that the process of working with school districts to replace the incorrect materials is going to be a long one.

Tobin added that it is essential that the Jewish community prepare its own curricula that are accurate about Jews and Israel, and promote and disseminate them to teachers. Jews have been slow in their response to this problem, he said, particularly because they are not used to dealing with it.

“Some things we have been good at, some not,” Tobin said, noting the Jews’ equally slow reaction to anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses. “We have not been good at pro-Israel advocacy in America’s schools and other institutions in the United States.”

Meanwhile, he added, Muslim organizations have become quite active in making sure publishers don’t put out any textbooks with “anything that has the appearance of being anti-Muslim.

“The Jewish community has been asleep at the wheel, which is probably why this initiative has begun in San Francisco. They have awakened.”

“The Trouble With Textbooks: Distorting History and Religion” by Gary Tobin and Dennis Ybarra (209 pages, Lexington Books, $21.95)