Education in and about Israel-Palestine

Writing about Israel-Palestine feels totally different for me than writing about any other issue in the world today. No other conflict has boiled for so long, has cost so much suffering on both sides and seems so insolvable. It is easy to become frustrated and so many apparently have. As much as both people on both sides would simply like to forget about each other so impossible it is to actually do so – now as well as in the future.

A way to justify oneself  to push conflict away is to claim that after all it is a military conflict which requires a military solution. “What can I do and indeed what do I have to do with it?” is a question that is often asked. The answer is “a whole lot”. Saying that this conflict is only about the military leaves out the large role that the society plays. Such a statement is especially inadequate if one takes into consideration that Jewish side almost every Jew becomes part of the military – if only for a limited amount of time. During that time, as well as afterwards, however it is difficult if not impossible to draw clear lines between Jewish civilians and soldiers in relation to the conflict.

On the Palestinian side  the issue is certainly not all about the authorities either for it is the civilian population that is responsible for the tension with the soldiers and the terror attacks. government and the army for a lot of the tension has been created at the checkpoints within the West Bank and how the soldiers are treated who are operating in Palestine. The conflict is much closer to Palestinians than to Israelis in the form of the occupation. A Jew living in Tel Aviv could possibly forget about the issue completely after the army whereas the Israeli army, in practice if not in theory, does not refrain from operating in any area in Palestine. This makes it that much more vital to be educated about the conflict and  to find ways to handle the subject in a positive way for the Palestinians.

Thus the conflict is at least as much about the people as it is about the military and the government and particularly it is about how the people in both societies view the other respectively. It will be impossible to forge peace, much less live in peace alongside each other if the conceptions of each other are filled with hatred and distrust.

To get to know what the people think it is not far fetched to look at what they are taught in school. The guiding question for my inquiry into what  the general population of one side knows about the general population of the other has thus been: “What are the Palestinians thaught about the Israelis and what are the Israelis taught about the Palestinians?”

I was certainly not the first to have that idea. Several articles have been written about the exact same topic and several studies have been conducted about the textbooks that both countries use. All of this previous work does not render this article obsolete however, for in this conflict it seems virtually to be always possible to come up with new perspectives and go deeper into the complexity. It might be unsurprising therefore that through the ten interviews that I have conducted I have come to yet distinct findings from other articles and from the various sources that I have consulted.

Unfortunately, neutral evidence in this conflict is something that is very hard to find and thus there are various layers of “facts”. Third party studies analyzing the official textbooks have been insightful- however equally varying in the conclusions that they have reached.

“[… A] study funded by the American government that compared Israeli and Palestinian textbooks found that both sowed negative stereotypes of each other. ” After ploughing through nearly 30,000 pages of text, the researchers found that 49% of texts dealing with Palestinians in Israeli state-issued schoolbooks are negative; in government-funded Orthodox Jewish academies the figure rises to 73%. One such textbook depicts Arabs as “bloodthirsty” and “a nest of murderers”. In Palestinian textbooks 84% of the references to Israelis are negative. In both Palestinians and Israeli state schools the books promote “martyrdom-sacrifice through death”.

This view is supported by Nurit Peled-Elhana’s relatively popular book “Palestine in Israeli School Books” on the Israeli side, but many researchers disagree with her. On the Palestinian side many studies found that Arabic textbooks were not fair in their depiction of the other side but “did not preach anti-Semitism” either. A comprehensive three-year study (2009–2012), regarded by its researchers as ‘ the most definitive and balanced study to date on the topic, even found that incitement, demonization or negative depictions of the other in children’s education was “extremely rare” in both Israeli and Palestinian school text.

A balanced view on the subject might be expressed by this study which found that, while most schoolbooks on either side were factually accurate, both Israel and the Palestinians failed to adequately and positively represent each other and “[…] usually described each other in negative, unflattering terms and typically cast one another as the “enemy.” Furthermore, omitting the borders of the other entity which the “vast majority of maps in Palestinian and Israeli schoolbooks” do is not helpful – to say the least.

A new approach to history textbooks that has been championed by peace-activtists on both sides is to read the historical narratives side by side. The most famous attempt at doing so has been made by PRIME under the leadership of Prof. Sami Adwan of the University of Bethlehem and Prof. Dan Bar-On of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. A preview of the English version of this dual-narrative textbook might be found here. These text-books have not made there way into the education system on either side however.

One reason for this the political climate on both sides. In Israel in particular the new education minister Naftali Bennet, who is the leader of the right-wing religious “The Jewish Home” party does not at all show or encourage such moderate behavior. Rather to the contrary as evidenced by their current attempt to force the Israeli curriculum (alongside the problematic textbooks) on Israeli-Arabs from East Jerusalem.

While my research about textbooks have uncovered one aspect of the issue from which one might get a certain opinion, the interviews that I have conducted have shown another.

On the Palestinian side the students reported that they only learn historical facts, for example about the Balfour declaration or when the Six Days war happened and allegedly even about the Intifada. That is very different from what one would think when looking at the results of the studies or even the dual-narrative textbook. According to the teacher I have interviewed this is because Fatah, which are controlled by Israel, have to approve the curriculum and what is officially taught.

Thus the topic is generally open to what the teachers are telling the students. Doubtlessly there are some teachers who call the Jews criminals and worse. Some of those teachers have been in Israeli prisons as “[a]lmost every Palestinian has a relative in jail—or has been there himself”. They report that prison changed them and made them deeply embittered against the Israelis.

However, most teachers will only talk about the topic in the most abstract term because they are afraid of being “interviewed” by officials for their opinions. Several teachers who have voiced problematic statements about Israel in the classroom will be visited by a Fatah official with potentially serious consequences.

Enforcing a punishment for teachers who talk about these taboos is something that the Palestinian authorities feel obliged to do because the Israeli government is in control of the Palestinian tax revenue, which includes the salaries for the teachers. Withholding the tax revenue, as it has done in the past, also means that the teachers do not get paid – including teachers that I have had interviews with.

Therefore, even though there is no written rule that prevents teachers talking about the subject it is simply safer to ignore it and thus many students are not formally educated about the conflict which is nonetheless continuously surrounding them. Consequently, it is only in university, where compulsory courses are taken atthe beginning, that the issue is discussed with any degree of depth.

On the Israeli side the problem is further augmented by the fact that there are three different kinds of school systems.

  • There is the state-secular education system in which 2011/12 56% of the students were enrolled.
  • There is the state-religious education system, which generally has a far greater emphasis on religion and teaches it in addition to normal other classes and in which in the same year about 19% of students were enrolled.
  • And finally, there are the “recognized” schools that operate outside the state education system which compromise mainly ultra-orthodox education for studying their version of Judaism – and almost nothing else.The ultra-orthodox schools are virtually only focused on Jewish bible-studies and will not mention the conflict at all – just as they don’t teach English or sciences.

The real difference that matters is between the state and the state-religious schools. The latter are where most of the problems in the conflict on the Israeli side stem from. Teachers as well as textbooks inside these schools will voice opinions along the lines of “this is our land because it is the promised land of the bible and if the Arabs suffer becaues of it that is their problem.”

Religion in the state-secular schools on the other hand does not have any reference to the Palestinian as the bible is viewed only as a document and not as a divine revelation. Teachers will address any questions that will come up regarding the conflict and regarding the settlements, for example where settlements have been built in biblical places, but the relation of the conflict and the bible are not part of the curriculum. The state schools are not without their problems either, however.

What is very carefully studied in history class is the Holocaust and the Zionist movement. The first waves of aliya (literally ascent meaning “coming back to the Holy Land) and the establishment of kibbutzim and moshavim are taught just like students learn about Herzl, Weizmann and Ben-Gurion. The events of ’48 are called the “War of Independence” and any reactions of Arabs are seen from a one-sided uncritical narrative. Overall the Arabs attacked and the Jewish only defended themselves. Partially it is taught that the Arabs mostly left their homes voluntarily and without being expelled. In some schools history education ends with the Yom Kippur war of ’73.

Apart from history class, civics education is virtually the only place where the Arabs or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be mentioned in state schools. Here value is placed on democracy and what a constitution signifies and that markedly emphasizes that Israeli-Arabs are full citizens – however Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are (almost) not mentioned in the curriculum. Itis up to the teacher if these issues including current issues such as the incident of the Amona settlement are discussed in class.

Under Bennet a new Civics textbook has been introduced which has been the cause of a lot of criticism and debate. Even though there have been revisions made “the final version of the book has a distinct right-wing, nationalist, Orthodox slant“. Although there are two other Hebrew civics books, it is the only one translated into Arabic and is material for the mandatory matriculation exam.

Something that is shocking to Palestinians and shows the inadequacy of the Israeli education system is that according to some students in many schools even saying the word kibush (occupation) aloud is considered an extreme political view. All one learns about the West Bank is that the Israeli control and command it reasons of safety ever after they have earned it in the war of ’67.

The conditions of the occupation and the suffering, the bitterness and the frustration of the Arabs in the West Bank and within Israel are not discussed. When these sentiments erupt, as they did in the two Intifadas and still do in terrorist attacks, this violence seems arbitrary and completely unreasonable to the Jews.

Like on the Palestinian side, the Israeli education system with regards to the conflict and “the others” is up to the individual teacher and most teachers, even the leftists, will be very careful to discuss the issue. There is of course the room and the possibility to talk about it but one is still bound to go through the curriculum and meet learning objectives.

One very positive peculiarity about Israeli education or Israeli society in general is the mechina programme. Between high-school and army there is the opportunity to spend a gap-year in a community learning in various ways about the context they live in. Several organizations provide with the financial help of the Israeli government different one year programs according to their political and religious outlook.

They all have a few things in common however. Among others, they are considered preparation for the army and thus include physical exercise, team-building and leadership tasks. They all offer courses in different subjects and especially focus on Israeli society. Even within left-leaning mechinot (pl.) however are the social issues concerning Arabs that are discussed only extended to the Israeli-Arabs however. Lastly, there is also a volunteer element to most if not all mechinot where caring for elderly Bedouin (Israeli-Arabs) seems to be a very common occupation.

Most of the mechinot also organize a one or two week tour through the West Bank where they try to expose the participants to as many sides of the conflict as possible, especially through talking to the leaders of organizations. The selection of interactions is of course based on the political and religious agenda of the mechina. What is startling is that even the left-wing mechinas rarely, if ever, include meetings with Arabs especially not normal Palestinians.

An interviewee reported that he felt relieved at coming back from this trip to the West Bank and deliberately tried to put  the whole conflict out of his head over the week. This is reminicent of most of the attitudes that even not-socially engaged people in Israel have.

These mechinot are a wonderful thing in my eyes and I think something that should be replicated in other countries, however even the left-wing mechinot leave out the problem of the Israel-Palestine conflict for the most part.

The (former) students and teachers that I have talked to have all been moderate and already thinking about the issue. Probably I would have had a hard time to get an interview with them if they had not been so open-minded. They have told me about their experience of what it is like to address the issue from a liberal/pluralistic perspective and the hardships they face.

A Palestinian teacher mentioned how it is difficult to encourage empathizing with the Israelis when one of their classmates has a few weeks previously been shot by a Jewish soldier. Within Israel a teacher has been brought to a trial for voicing his left-wing opinions in class and media reports about terrorists make it hard to build empathy. I have experienced first-hand how scared many, and even highly rational and reflective, Israelis are to pass through locations infamous for many stabbing incidents.

What all these teachers can agree upon is that not talking about it and even refusing to address it when asked, as some teachers choose to do, is not the best option. These questions go on inside the heads of the students and they want out. Rather than getting any ideas, as according to probability some almost inevitably will, it is best to bring these thoughts out to light in order that they can be examined critically. Excluding or sidelining the topic from the curriculum however makes it difficult for teachers as their job is primarily to go through with their material.

In the interviews not only the aspect of what is happening has been discussed but also what should happen. It is important to me to include them as cynicism can never be allowed to be the answer. Some of these suggestions are stated below.

Here again it is important to understandable that education cannot solve the issue in and by itself but it will doubtlessly be an essential part of it. These actions are important on a personal level and thus are valuable in themselves but also they are worthwhile as incremental efforts which cumulatively to make the peace overall more realistic.

The first step to having compassion with somebody else and being able to trust them is through understanding them. Without at least having a tiny grasp of what the national ethos and the collective traumas of the other side how can one understand their bitterness  and the existential fears?

The lack of the Holocaust (literally everything burned) and the history of anti-semitism in the Palestinian education curriculum like the neglect of the nakba (literally catastrophe), which is the Arabic term for the events of ’48, in Israeli textbooks is therefore leaving out the original and deep-seated sentiments on which both groups are feeding their anger and despair. To get educated about these topics therefore or to teach about them on the individual level is an important step.

Another step is to actually expose oneself to human beings out of flesh and blood of the other side. Visits and exchange programs are one of the easiest ways to foster mutual understanding and an ability to relate to the other side.

Currently most, if not all, points of contact for both sides are negative. As a Jew one is in contact with the Arabs only 1) as a soldier, 2) by the biased media tells one and through 3) school-textbooks.

As an Arabs one is in contact with 1) the soldiers at checkpoints and soldiers in the field, 2) settlers and 3) the media and what the Palestinian Authorities is telling them. It is different for Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians with a permission to work, as they have the opportunity to see the normal Israeli, but even most of those people don’t have a lot of interaction with Jews which could be called positive.

Finally, the most important step is to get more engaged in the issue overall as an individual. By trying to engage others as a role model and through deliberately being open and willing to have and start conversations about this issue one can become a multiplicator for positive change. Every teacher, every student, every parent – indeed everybody in the context one is in can become that.

Here, the value of starting out without having all the answers and an open mind which is trying to consider new and different viewpoints is something worth to be fostered on the individual level.  Even if one does not share such pluralistic opinions it is vital that a space for discussion is formed where people with such viewpoints are not labelled as traitors and collaborators. One does not have to start an organization to do that – just making this part of one’s daily life – or at the very least not hindering others if they choose to do so.

In conclusion, the education in and about Israel-Palestine is contributing to the enmity on both sides and, if anything, is fueling rather than abating the conflict. Part of this is done through a commitment to remain silent about the issue and address it as little as possible.

To some extent this representation of education in Israel and Palestine defies some principles that are seemingly common pedagogical wisdom. In most countries, one all too often one gets the impression in school that one is learning without any connection to the real world – studying into the void in a sense. In the Holy Land, there is this necessity to understand things in school which have a lot of connection with the real world – but this learning does not happen. However, not necessarily because there is no curiosity from the side of the students.

This conflict seems to be never ending and unsolvable in all its intricacy. Understandably that leads to a lot of frustration and to the feeling that it is better ignored than dealt with. Only that is only a short-term solution for a problem that will be there for all too long.

If we ever really want it to end and to have peace and trust between Arabs and Jews we have to start with this generation and we have to start right now!

It is close to impossible to get unequivocal facts about the conflict especially if they should be detailed for they are all coming from one perspective or another and all are biased in some way or another. Thus as a disclaimer I want to let the reader indirectly know about my own bias by stating that

  • I am learning Palestinian Spoken Arabic.
  • most of my friends and in general most of the people I know in the Holy Land, especially within my age group, are Israeli-Jews.
  • I am known for standing up against Islamophobia and argue against any generalizations against Arabs or Muslims.
  • the Austrian educational culture has conditioned me, with the right intention I think, to feel a deep, and even personal, guilt for the Holocaust.
  • finally, I have read the Torah and the Tannach as well as the Qu’ran (and the Gospels) and have had many conversations with believers of both faiths about their religion.

Furthermore, in this issue, more than in any other that I have come across so far, there are a myriad of distinct viewpoints based on generic experiences. It is therefore quite impossible to get all the viewpoints on this issue which in itself has so many layers to it. Any analysis, including this one, will lack inherently lack (major) viewpoints.


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