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The International controversy regarding Palestinian textbooks


[Delivered at the Georg-Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, 9 December 2002 by Nathan J. Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, The George Washington University.  The views expressed in this lecture are those of the author alone.]


What and how do we teach children about the past?  Such questions are often debated angrily among political leaders within national communities; in the especially heated atmosphere of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict they are debated angrily between leaders of the two national communities as well.

The noise of this debate obscures the more fundamental question that educators rather than politicians are likely to raise: why do we teach children about the past?  Two motives are often put forward.  First, we teach children to know who they are by teaching them about their collective past.  The task is to inculcate group identity and national virtues.

A second, and quite different, answer is that we teach children in order to develop them into individuals capable of contributing to the well being of society.  This perspective turns attention from the group and the nation to the individual; the virtues in question go beyond national identity to creativity and critical thought. 

These two different answers can lead to sharply different orientations toward teaching the past, especially in societies where history is much contested terrain, where the security of the society is deeply threatened.

I come from a society that, in comparative terms, does not lack security or self-assurance.  Still, a personal experience helps illustrate the complexities of the issue even in such a setting.

The mid-1970s, when I was in secondary school, were an unusual and, in many ways, uncomfortable period of self-reflection in American society.    Among the topics exposed for extensive public discussion for the first time was the wartime decision—then three decades old—to hold Americans of Japanese descent in detention camps while the United States fought against their ancestral homeland.  The topic was highly sensitive—it suggested discomfiting parallels—but seemed historically distant, even in my hometown of Seattle, which had a significant Japanese population.

That sense of distance was undermined for me when a teacher in my school invited the parent of a classmate to speak on her experiences in a detention camp.  Our teacher supplemented this personalization by having us read some of the debate in early 1942 about what measures to take.

My teacher seemed then—and in some ways seems still—quite daring to me.  The episode remains now, a quarter century later, very difficult either to teach or to avoid.  And it leads to a more general question: if schools are to socialize their students into a society, how are they to approach sensitive questions that divide adults deeply?  How are they to teach those episodes that might even lead some to go beyond questioning an idealized and sanitized portrait of their society to developing a far harsher evaluation?

Yet when I compare how my society has wrestled with its demons in this and similar cases, I am struck immediately by how much America has been lucky in this regard, for two reasons.  First, episodes like this can be safely put in past.  The internment of the Japanese or the institution of slavery do relate to current questions about race and ethnicity in the United States, but one can still speak of them with a sense of historical distance.  What of those countries where the wounds and controversies are even deeper and far more immediate?

Second, the ideals of the American Republic—not at its beginning but at least as they are understood today—seem incompatible with such practices as slavery or racial discrimination.  That makes it possible to reject some parts of the historical legacy of America while actually affirming the current American self-understanding.  Slavery and its abolition, for instance, can be fit easily within a narrative of national progress in which Americans increase their acceptance of the ideals of equality and democracy on which the Republic was founded.  Such a narrative is able to combine a nationalist mythology with a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths. Once developed, it may or may not do violence to the historical record, but it makes slavery safe for schools.

But what if we move to other societies where conflicts seem never to end?  And what if some nationalist symbols cannot be detached so easily from the troublesome parts of the past?  What if nationalist narratives so thoroughly incorporate struggle and conflict that history is not only very much present but also impossible to sanitize?

In 1999 and 2000, I lived as a guest in a society that had faced these questions for half a century (Israel) while conducting research on another society (Palestine) that was confronting them for the first time.  While my topic here tonight is Palestinian education, allow me to mention two instances on the Israeli side that illustrate the sharpness of these problems.  My son was a fourth-grade student in a Tel Aviv school; toward the end of the year, the class focused on Tel Aviv as a city and its history.  In that context, my son’s class was taught a song about a watchman guarding the city; the song lauded the guard for beating an Arab and quoted him approvingly, “Get out of here, ‘Abd Allah.  You should die, God willing, but just not in Tel Aviv.”  My wife and I were horrified at the song and complained to the teacher.  The teacher reacted as I might expect an American teacher would if confronted with a racist text: she apologized and agreed to drop the verse in question and then—and here is where she showed the attitude I would have expected in my native land—explained that the song sheet was old; it was a product of another era.  I learn from the work of Elie Podeh and others that the teacher’s characterization of the song as the product of a past era was probably accurate.

That response resolved the matter—at least to my satisfaction—but sometimes the past is not so easily detached from the present.  One week later, I accompanied my son in a fourth-grade class trip to the center of Tel Aviv.  Our guide for the trip began with explicating a mosaic on the interior wall of a Tel Aviv building we visited. The mural showed—and our guide made clear—that Tel Aviv was created by a group of Jews leaving the primitive Arab town of Jaffa and created their own modern city.  An effort to develop civic and national pride based was based here on a subtle but real denigration of Israel’s Arab citizens and Palestinian neighbors—this was an approach certainly unlikely to create a sense of respect for the descendants of the people whom, according to this story, Jews had fled in disgust a century ago.  Jaffa—while it is actually a part of the Tel Aviv municipality—was not a part of its history except in the most negative sense.  The past here is too much bound up to the present.

I said I was a guest in Israeli society, and it must now seem as if I was quite a rude one, too: far quick to point out my hosts’ flaws.  But actually I was—and continue to be—deeply impressed with how willing Israelis were to debate their past: arguments were noisy and sometimes nasty but far more introspective than I might have expected.  Israelis—and especially Israeli educators—should be praised for their willingness to confront such difficult issues.  I think outsiders sometimes have to hold back and allow internal debates to take their natural course. 

In a sense, then, my criticism of the repudiation of Jaffa is telling.  But is it fair?  Is it realistic?  If we pursue it, are we pushing too hard at what must be seen as an extremely inopportune moment?  Can a society based on a nationalist ideology easily extricate its nationalist narrative from such negative images?  Can we really expect people to approach their cherished myths about the past with a critical eye at a time in which struggles rooted in the past assault them every time they read a newspaper, sit in a café, or board a bus?  Anita Shapira, a leading historian of Zionism, argued recently that many of those involved in attempting to bring critical approaches to textbook writing were expecting too much when compared with other countries: “[P]roblems which have remained unsolved since [1948] are the root of today’s troubles. When we compare ourselves to…other countries, it is hard to escape the feeling that perhaps we are dashing our myths too soon.”

As a parent and as an educator, I hope that Professo Shapira is wrong.  I hope we can move beyond such myths.  But as a scholar and an outsider, I have to confess she is probably right.  Even if we must eventually move on, this is a very difficult time to take up that task.

Israeli and Palestinan educators have been assigned the task of explaining to children what adults have difficulty understanding.  And they are to do so while simultaneously forming loyal citizens and critical thinkers.  Both are therefore deeply involved in noisy and bitter debates about what (and, more subtly, how) to teach children about their national identity.

The increasingly heated nature of discussions is easy to understand.  Indeed, the ugliness and violence that have charactized the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians gives us little hope that education, curricula, and textbooks can be an oasis of civility.  In its current phase, the conflict has taken the form of a dirty war indeed.  We should not be surprised when tendentious claims and hostile propaganda emerge and find textbooks an attractive battlefield for conflict.  Perhaps we could even encourage the parties to hurl insults and falsehoods at each other if only it would substitute for, rather than encourage, the use of more dangerous weapons.

My task this evening is to focus not on both sides but only on one (the Palestinian) and to examine the international controversies generated in the battle over Palestinian textbooks.  And here we run into an interesting feature: the debate over Palestinian textbooks and curriculum is many decades old, but the Palestinians themselves have been observers more than participants until quite recently.  It is only since 1994 that they have had to confront the difficult questions that textbook-writing can pose in a situation of conflict.  Their record is far from perfect, but the textbooks are far less incendiary than they are often portrayed.   Indeed, their primary response has been to remain silent on critical issues, based not simply on their sensitivity but also their unresolved nature.  This may be unavoidable at present.

More interesting, perhaps, is that there are some positive signs and some remarkable parallels between the internal Palestinian debates and the internal Israeli debates.  Those Palestinian debates are less noisy and less noticed than the Israeli ones, so one of my tasks tonight will be to bring them to your attention and show their relationship to the international controversy.

This evening I will:

·         Discuss the history of the controversy over Palestinian textbooks;

·         Explain that while I do not find the current Palestinian books above criticism, the campaign against them has been enormously unfair;

·         Shed some light on the internal Palestinian debate over curriculum; and

·         Suggest some tentative steps we might take to move forward, even in the current dismal atmostphere.



I.          Let me first begin with my first topic, the history of the controversy.


An international controversy over Palestinian curricula and textbooks has erupted at three moments, each time more virulently than the last. 

The first moment came during the period of the Mandate, when the British authorities converted a public educational system based on local religious education with a small number of elite government schools into a national educational system for Palestinians.  (The Jewish population had separate systems).  Palestinians clashed with the mandatory government in the educational arena in several ways.  First, they regarded it as underfunded and complained that it expanded too slowly.  Second, they claimed that the most sensitive positions were always in British hands, giving Palestinians little control over what and how their children were taught.  Third, the curriculum drew criticism on nationalist grounds.  There was no attempt to introduce a British curriculum; indeed, mandatory officials worked with the pre-existing Ottoman curriculum and turned generally to Egypt for modifications.  Yet the curriculum for some subjects (especially history and geography) seemed to some Palestinians to be inappropriately oriented toward Europe, and contemporary history was judged as too sensitive to broach in the classroom.  Palestinians complained about the curriculum but made little progress in shaping what their children were taught.

The second moment came after the 1967 war.  Between 1948 and 1967, the West Bank was fully annexed by Jordan and its schools therefore followed the Jordanian curriculum.  Gaza, on the other hand, was not annexed by Egypt, but the Egyptian authorities brought their curriculum and textbooks rather than develop a distinct educational system..  In 1967, when Israel gained control of these areas, it complained that the books in use contained passages that were not only hostile to Israel but deeply anti-Semitic as well.  It moved to suppress material that it found offensive and even worked to convert government schools in East Jerusalem to the curriculum followed in Israeli Arab schools.

I have not seen the Jordanian and Egyptian books from that era, and I have learned from hard experience that one should not take any statements on the contents of books at face value—the matter is so highly charged politically that misleading and false statements are common.  Nevertheless, the tenor of the times suggest to me that Israeli claims in that period are plausible; indeed, I would be surprised if the textbooks were free of extreme hostility to Israel and Zionism—the states were, after all, at war—and anti-Semitic statements were hardly unknown at the time.

In this case, two international organizations were caught up in middle of the debate, where they remain to this day: UNESCO and UNRWA.  Israel complained that Egyptian and Jordanian books were offensive; Egypt and Jordan complained that Israel was blocking entry of their material into Palestinian schools.  UNESCO was drawn in because UNRWA schools in the West Bank and Gaza were at risk of losing all educational materials.  UNESCO therefore agreed to mediate the conflict by reviewing the books, certifying those that it found unobjectionable as appropriate for use in UNRWA schools.  It also intervened with the countries publishing the books, sometimes persuading them to make some modifications.

This was hardly a complete solution.  It only covered UNRWA schools and even for those, Israel did not accept UNESCO review as authoritative.  Israel carried out its own review of the imported Jordanian and Egyptian books, removing those books, pages, or passages it found offensive.  Palestinian educators claim that Israeli review was arbitrary, slow, and excessive.  As with the Israeli complaints about the books, I find Palestinian claims plausible but have neither sought nor found any direct evidence supporting them.

In Jerusalem, a less noisy conflict ensured, but it was ultimately resolved or at least deferred.  Initially, Israel required that government schools convert to the Israeli Arab curriculum, but a steady desertion of those schools by Palestinian families finally led Israel to relent and allow all Arab schools in east Jerusalem to revert to the censored Jordanian curriculum.

These solutions did not answer Palestinian complaints that the curriculum was based on denial of their national identity, but the issue still slumbered for over two decades.  It began again in the late 1990s, however, and seems to generate increasing heat but diminishing light with each passing year. 


II.        Let me now turn my attention to my second topic, the current controversy.


The roots of the current controversy can be traced back to 1994, when the newly-created Palestinian Authority assumed control over education in Gaza and the West Bank (including, to an often unacknowledged extent, East Jerusalem).  The PA immediately took three steps:

First, it reached agreement with the Egyptian and Jordanian governments to maintain use of their textbooks on an interim basis.  In the process, the Israeli practice of censoring the books was ended, partly, it seems at the insistence of the Jordanians and Egyptians who had complained about the Israeli practice when it began, but also with the acquiesence of the Israelis who allowed the uncensored books into East Jerusalem.

Second, it rushed out a supplementary series of books for a new subject, “National Education” for grades one through six that were to educate schoolchildren about national virtues and civic responsibilities.  Oddly, Israel blocked these books to the extent that it could in East Jerusalem, because, while they were absolutely unobjectionable in content, their use—unlike the far more troubling Jordanian books that Israel did allow—would have implicitly contested Israeli sovereignty.

Third, it established a “Curriculum Development Center” to design an entirely new curriculum.  That body finished its work by presenting a comprehensive report in 1996.  The Ministry of Education used it as a basis for its own 1997 proposal which was then submitted to the Palestinian cabinet and the Legislative Council for approval.  An entirely new “Curriculum Development Center” was then formed to write the new books.  It began by producing first and sixth grade books in 2000, second and seventh grade books in 2001, and third and eighth grade books this year.  The process is to continue until the entire Palestinian school system has converted to the new curriculum

These three steps attracted very little international attention, though some international support was available for them.  In particular, UNESCO and some European governments assisted.  But most outside of Palestine did not even notice the Palestinian program, much less comment on it.

That situation began to change in 1998, when a new Israeli organization, the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, issued a blistering report on Palestinian textbooks, claiming that they are full of harsh political messages and anti-Semitism.  The Center seemed able to produce rich documentation in support of his negative portrait.

When that documentation was examined by others (including myself), however, a whole series of problems appeared.  Much of the quoted material was innocuous.  The Center’s reports made factual errors that were small in number but large in their implications.  Most troubling, however, was that the Center failed to inform its audience that the textbooks were Jordanian and Egyptian rather than Palestinian, that there was a well-established and well-publicized schedule to replace them, that Israel had allowed use of the same books in East Jerusalem, and that the interim supplementary series on “National Education”—the only books in use at theat time actually written by Palestinians—was free of any objectionable material.  The richly documented Palestinian debate on curricular issues was similarly ignored.  In short, if one really wished to measure the “impact of peace,” there was reason for hope in 1998—the peace process had led to some positive changes and there was some promise of more to come.  Indeed, the Center actively worked to obscure the real impact of peace—when an academic journal published an article that relied very heavily on the Center’s translations but falsely claimed that all the books were authored by Palestinians, the Center complained to the editor that it had not been given credit for the translations—but made no effort to correct the fundamental factual error underlying the article.  In short, the Center made not the slightest attempt to correct the misimpressions it had created; it merely wanted credit for them.

The report, while tendentious, misleading, and unreliable, attracted tremendous international attention.  It came out at a time of pronounced Israeli-Palestinian tension, and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu raised the issue at the 1998 Wye summit meeting with Presidents Bill Clinton and Yasser ‘Arafat.  Clinton raised the matter directly with ‘Arafat, and members of the American Congress and European parliament began to speak out on the issue.  Even governments and institutions that had nothing to do with the new books—like Canada, UNRWA, or the European Union—were hounded to eliminate funding that they had never given in the first place.

The primary practical effects of the harsh campaign were twofold.  First, the Palestinian Curriculum Development Center became a far less open organization, sometimes treating the new textbooks it was writing as state secrets.  On occasion, the new body took the commendable step of involving NGOs and outside experts in their work, but their primary reaction to criticism—silence—while understandable, probably aggravated the problem.

In 2000, immediately before the outbreak of the intifada, and a mere two weeks before an anticipated declaration of a Palestinian state (a declaration that never came), the Curriculum Devlelopment Center put into use its first set of books, for first and sixth grade.  The Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace rushed out a report blasting these new books.  If one read every word of the report, one could find a buried admission that—in the words of the report—“open  calls for Israel’s destruction found in the previous books are no longer present” and that “certain overtly anti-Semitic references defining Jews and Israelis as ‘treacherous’ or ‘the evil enemy’, common in the previous books, are likewise not present.”  But the report was carefully written to hide these facts—it mixed quotations from the new books together with ones from the old so that the tremendous changes were obscured rather than revealed; most readers thought that the passages from the old books were from the new ones and the Center made no attempt to correct that impression.  Some misleading techniques were used to find incitement and anti-Semitism.

Here I should point out something odd about the criticisms that began to be voiced beginning in 1998: the Palestinians came under the most severe attack just as they were creating a curriculum that—from an Israeli perspective—was far superior to any that an Arab state had used in the past.  By late 2000, the attack clearly had nothing to do with the content of the books and everything to do with the bitterness of the second intifada.  But it could lead to bizarre claims: one purported authority actually testified in the US Congress that the “Nazis would have commended” the Palestinians for their textbooks.  I find comparisons between Israel and the Nazis odious.  And I find this kind of rhetoric just as detestable.  Those who call these books Nazi have no idea of what the word means.

With wildly inaccurate charges circulating, it did not take long before the Palestinian textbooks could be used to taint even those who were not associated with them.  A former American ambassador to Morocco, claiming expertise on UNRWA, stated that the United Nations funded the textbooks (it did not).  The European Union came under steady fire in the press for supporting the books. CMIP actually encouraged European parliamentarians to pressure the European Commission on the matter, even though the EU provided no funding for the books.  While some individual European states did provide funding to the Curriculum Development Center, the EU did not, leading an exasperated Chris Patten to declare: “It is a total fabrication that the European Union has funded textbooks with anti-Semitic arguments within them in Palestinian schools. It is a complete lie.”  Such protests did not stop the campaign from taking a bizarre form: a group of European parliamentarians worked to amend the EU budget to stop the funding (which it did not give in the first place) for books that removed anti-Semitism from the Palestinian curriculum.  They scored a victory of sorts in November 2001 when a rider was added to the EU budget insisting that EU-supported textbooks not contradict basic European values.  Because of the drumbeat of pressure over books, the EU finally conducted its own review of the books which concluded that “allegations against the new textbooks” were “proven unfounded” and that CMIP reports used quotations out of context and badly translated material “thus suggesting an anti-Jewish incitement that the books do not contain.”

To its credit, after 1999, the Israeli government itself held back from joining the campaign.  But the bitterness of the second intifada made the target too tempting, and in the fall of 2001, Israeli officials began to take the lead in denouncing the Palestinian textbooks.  The Israeli Foreign Ministry joined the lobbying campaign in the European parliament I just mentioned.  In March 2002, a cabinet minister issued a report resembling the Center’s work in tone, content, and method.  Given the intensity of feeling aroused by Palestinian suicide bombings and a general atmosphere of war, such propagandizing should be no surprise.  Strident and inaccurate wartime rhetoric is certainly not an Israeli invention and Israel’s adversaries are most certainly not immune from this disease.  It took dangerous form in this case, however, when Israeli military officials apparently began to believe their government’s claims.  On 23 April 2002, an Israeli intelligence officer justified the extraordinarily destructive takeover of the Education Ministry (in which computer hard drives were systematically removed, other equipment destroyed, and examination records taken) largely in terms of the textbooks.  She laid responsibility for the books at the feet of the Canadian government, later forcing an embarrassed Israeli embassy spokesman in Canada to repudiate the charge.

This is the state of the international controversy over Palestinian textbooks: in a sense, the content of the books does not matter; the controversy is driven far more by the broader conflict than by specific issues with the books themselves.  It may therefore seem to many Palestinians that the international battle cannot be won.  Far more important than any lessons the books impart to children are the messages they convey to a skeptical audience on the other side: as long as the textbooks do not repudiate the Palestinian point of view, they will always remain suspect in some eyes. 

I do not wish to leave the impression that there are no grounds for criticizing the new books.  There are plenty.  They do treat Israel with a remarkable awkwardness and reticence.  Jews are mentioned primarily in a religious context (connected with the beginning of Islam) and not in a political context.  The silence on such issues is often more confused and embarrassed than it is hostile.  One example of this is how the books treat the city of Jaffa. In one unit, a book describes a Palestinian’s evacuation from the city in 1948.  Accompanying the unit is a picture of the old city of Jaffa with all of Tel Aviv lying unexplained in the background.  My son’s guide in an Israeli school could not explain Tel Aviv’s history except as a repudiation of Jaffa; the Palestinian books do not repudiate Tel Aviv, but they do not explain either.  They fall silent in critical cases. Those who give their lives for their religion and country are praised—but are suicide bombers or intifada activists an example of such praiseworthy conduct?  The books cannot even approach the subject.  The 2001 books, written during the intifada, show some anger as well, with students exposed to pictures of home demolitions and accounts of prison life.  The new books are very much results of the ambiguous status of Palestine and the conflict: they are products of neither a war curriculum nor a peace curriculum.  They are—or at least should be—subject to the same sort of criticism that one might expect to be directed at textbooks written during bitter unresolved conflicts.  Seen in that context, the books are far better than might be expected, given the current situation of visceral hatred and violence prevailing in the region.

But perhaps one of the biggest problems with the terms of the international debate was that it obscured the lively debate within Palestinian society on education. 


III. And here I turn to my third topic.


The debate I noted at the outset—over why we teach children about the past—has taken a fascinating form in the Palestinian context, though it has been almost unnoticed.  The voices of those who advocate cultivation of collective national identity are dominant in the Palestinian books, but those who favor a more individualistic approach focusing on cultivation of independent, critical thought, have articulated a powerful alternative vision.  Even before the Palestinians had written their first book, there were already those who wished to jump straight to where far more established nations have feared to step.  These reformers have not succeeded; the Palestinian educational system is designed to inculcate national identity and legitimation of authority more than independent and critical thought.  But this has led internal critics to launch a set of criticisms against the curriculum—that its subject matter and pedagogy is stale and authoritarian—far more devastating than the international controversy I mentioned.  Such domestic critics have had some impact and achieved a modest level of reform, but their fundamental charges against the educational system have not been answered.

Had outsiders—including Israelis—paid attention to the debate, they would have discovered some very encouraging signs—and even some ideas worthy of emulation in their own societies.  In the 1990s, even before the construction of the PNA, an alternative educational vision, concentrating on ideal citizenship and democratic practice, arose within the Palestinian educational community.  Deeply critical of existing educational practices, advocates of the new vision increasingly dominated public discussions of education.  The core of their alternative vision is to recast the question around which the educational system—especially pedagogy but also the curriculum—is based.  Rather than ask, “What body knowledge should students be taught?” newer approaches ask, “What kind of citizen do we want?”  The effect of posing this question is to justify a profound critique not merely of the substance of the existing curriculum but even more of prevailing educational methods.

The reformers could be merciless in their criticisms.  They dominated the first Curriculum Development Center and inspired much of the spirit of its 600-page report.  And it is difficult to imagine a harsher set of criticisms directed against any educational system: the 1996 report found existing curriculum and pedagogy to be overly abstract, authoritarian, unrelated to societal needs, destructive of the individual.

To be sure, the reformers knew enough to stay away from two subjects where the call for critical thought would have tread on overly sensitive grounds: nationalism and religion.  Indeed, what is most remarkable about both the official version and this progressive alternative is how little each want to deal with the sensitive nationalist issues: both have worked hard to avoid the most difficult questions.  Those outsiders who charge the textbooks with incitement here miss the point—on the most sensitive issues, the books sow confusion more than hatred.

Yet the message of the reformers was clear even if they lacked the boldness to say it.  Palestinian students must be taught not simply who they are but how to think critically about their past and present.

This reforming vision animated the 1996 report, but it found only limited voice when the textbooks were actually written.  What if the reformers were to become more successful?  Might this help foster a Palestinian identity—or set of identities—willing to reinterpret the past with an eye not only to violated rights and injustice but also toward peace and reconciliation?


IV. Let me turn now to my fourth topic: what steps is it possible to take now?


Any hope for significant movement in current political circumstances is probably unrealistic.  With the effects of conflict felt on a daily basis, what textbooks and teachers say is probably irrelevant in any case.  But in the longer term, the progressive alternative does offer an attractive vision.  The progressive educators argue for an educational system that does not simply inculcate the values of the past but prepares citizens to think independently and critically.  Students emerging from such a system would, if the vision is successful, show far greater ability to confront their past critically, and, more important, interact constructively with those who did not share their values and identities. 

In the long term, then, the specific content of textbooks on issues of Israel, Jews, and war probably matter far less than external critics claim.  The set of “facts” that students will retain will come from parents, colleagues, and the immediate environment more than textbooks in any case.  But students equipped with the skills of democratic citizenship—the very skills the reformers wish to develop—will be far more likely to adjust to world in which national narratives may be questioned and to have constructive relations with those who subscribe to very different narratives.

This review of the international controversy regarding Palestinian textbooks reveals them to be an arena for conflict but not its source.

Can they, however, be part of the solution?  Is it possible that Palestinian education will help future citizens develop tools helpful to reconciliation and coexistence?  We must be careful not to ask too much of education and to have unrealistically high expectations about the ability of textbooks and pedagogy to transmit bodies of knowledge and foster modes of thinking.  It is far too much to ask educators by themselves to teach children to develop solutions that elude adults.  But it may not be too much to ask educators to contribute modestly to a solution.

Here—as much as it pains me as an American to admit this—those involved might turn to the parallel European experience.  Half a century ago, the European continent was reconstructing after fighting two extremely violent wars that were based partly on national differences.  It might seem that the rich European experience in addressing textbook reform might point to ways in which revision might serve the aims of coexistence.

With regard to the European experiences however, I have heard precisely the same reaction from Israelis and Palestinians in very different form: they both answer that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is very much alive and it is impossible to apply post-conflict techniques in the midst of ongoing violence.  Israeli diplomats will often complain that Europeans do not understand that they are engaged in an existential struggle; Palestinians complain that it makes no sense to teach peace while conflict rages on their doorsteps.

I think that when Palestinians and Israelis agree, it might be time to listen: a complete adoption of European models sets standards too high.  But we need not succumb to despair.  There are steps that can be taken—modest steps indeed, but ones that may prove quite valuable in the future.  What are the steps we can take?

§         Build on commonalities.  We should not be naďve.  There are many asymmetries in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.  In so many ways their situations are not comparable.  But they are fated to live with each other, and they do have some striking things in common in the educational field.  Let me prove this by reading you a list of complaints about the school system in both Israel and Palestine: schools are underfunded and physically dilapidated.  Classrooms are overcrowded.  Teachers have to spend too much time keeping order and not enough time teaching.  Teachers are no longer valued and respected as much as they used to be; this affects the quality and dedication of personnel available for education.  Teachers are underpaid.  Educational techniques in use are outmoded.  Teachers are forced to gear their efforts towards examination and students and teachers together tyrannized by the secondary school matriculation examination. Every single one of these complaints is commonly heard in both Israel and Palestine.  Israelis and Palestinians do not listen too much to each other, but if they did, they might be surprised.  On some occasions, teachers on both sides of the 1967 line have been on strike at the same time over the same issues.


§         Involve teachers.  Teachers are a remarkably self-critical lot and they will quickly discover the commonalities I speak of.  They must be involved, but to become involved they must have commitment from highest political levels.  That is absent now, but there was not enough attention to it when times were better.


§         Focus on pedagogy.  The textbook wars have led us nowhere and distract from the main issues.  The point is not to develop a single narrative among for both sides of this tremendous divide but to learn to live with difference.  And that can be done by focusing less on what is taught and more on how it is taught.  And here is where Palestinian and Israeli educators seem to be exploring similar paths—generally without knowing about each other.  And that brings me to my last point.


§         Meetings like this are important.  I say this not to flatter our hosts, who must be longing for the days when they dealt with simple matters like German-Polish reconciliation.  Instead, I say this because there must be venues provided where educators can explore ideas and exchange experiences far from the shouting in the region.


We should not expect miracles from these efforts.  Dialogue about textbooks is not going to resolve all the deep issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians.  There is little doubt that the determination and leadership necessary for a peaceful settlement does not exist now in Israel, in Palestine, and—to be fair in my harshness—in the United States.    I think the most that we can hope to do is to lay the groundwork so that when calmer voices prevail, they will find the path we now lay out in front of them.