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[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
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
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
Second, the ideals of the
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 (
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
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
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
The second moment came after the 1967
war. Between 1948 and 1967, the West Bank was fully
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.
This was hardly a complete solution.
It only covered UNRWA schools and even for those,
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
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
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 “
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
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.
The primary practical effects of the harsh campaign were twofold. First, the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
§ 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.