In June, Germany’s Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research (GEI) published a long-awaited study on textbooks used in the Occupied Palestinian Territories school system.
The comprehensive 200-page study analyzed a large corpus of around 360 textbooks and teachers’ manuals for all subjects taught in grades 1-12, published between 2017 and 2019, after the textbook reform by the Ministry of Education of the Palestinian National Authority (PA). The study, funded by the European Union, applied UNESCO-defined criteria of peace, tolerance, and nonviolence in education.
The main goal of the study was to examine whether Palestinian textbooks promote peace, tolerance, and religious coexistence.
The main goal of the study was to examine whether Palestinian textbooks promote peace, tolerance, and religious coexistence, as well as whether the content of the textbooks addresses hate, violence, reconciliation, and human rights.
Previously, many Israeli right-wing organizations and lobbies have repeatedly accused the PA of publishing new textbooks that promote radicalization and examples of incitement. the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE), an Israeli right-wing lobby, was among the loudest critics of the Palestinian curriculum. Their reports have been particularly influential in the UK and among some EU circles, which expressed deep concern about IMPACT-SE’s arguments.
This is not surprising, as the EU and the UK have been the main financial contributors to the PA and the UN Relief and Works Agency, which runs schools in Gaza and the West Bank.
In a statement given to Inside Arabia, Catrin Schoneville, Public Relations Officer at the Georg Eckart Institute, explained that the study concluded that the textbooks express a narrative of resistance within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and display an antagonism towards Israel. Short stories, paragraphs, and images display the legitimization of violence in a limited number of cases. The report points out that there are significant differences between the subjects in this regard. However, Schoneville made clear that “incidents of explicit incitement to violence have not been found in the textbooks.”
According to Dr. Daniel Bar-Tal, Israel’s leading social psychology expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Professor Emeritus at the School of Education at Tel Aviv University, the story of the textbooks is a struggle over narratives that is as important as the conflict itself with Israel’s perspective being the dominant narrative widely accepted by many countries.
The story of the textbooks is a struggle over narratives that is as important as the conflict itself.
While Palestinian textbooks have often been under the spotlight of international attention, the latest GEI report triggered heated reactions, confronting interpretations, and criticism regarding its objectivity, methodology, and the broader context of the way research was conducted.
First, many observers have questioned the political considerations involved in the decision to examine only Palestinian textbooks, resulting from external pressures (from IMPACT-SE and other lobbies, the UK government, and pro-Israeli circles within the EU).
In this context, Dr. John Chalcraft, Professor of Middle East History and Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), sees the assumptions and rationale behind this study as tendentious. In his opinion, “the study assumes that Palestinian textbooks need to be singled out for special scrutiny, as it is falsely presupposed that Palestinians are more likely than Israelis to incite violence.”
Speaking with Inside Arabia, he also noted that “the study rests too heavily on the assumption that textbooks, rather than occupation or colonization, are the root of the conflict.” In his view, there is a “long-standing Orientalist stereotype that associates Muslims and Arabs with violence, and the study appears to accept this form of racism – it certainly does nothing to challenge it.”
Nathan Brown, a prominent expert on Middle Eastern affairs from George Washington University wrote that “the analysis is written as if Palestinian textbooks cannot be understood except by relying heavily on how Israelis might view them — but without giving Israeli textbooks the same treatment.”
However, Schoneville stressed that the GEI is committed to ensuring that academic work must remain independent and free from political, economic, or ideological interests. While the analysis and contextualization of political messages is part of the scholarly process and follows established research standards and theoretical frameworks, she assured Inside Arabia that GEI’s research was conducted independently of external political influence.
Although the GEI institute is a global authority in the field of international textbook research, “this is not the case when it comes to [the Palestinian-Israeli conflict], as the whole study comes just from one angle or point of view,” according to Dr. Samira Alalyan, Senior Lecturer and Researcher at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and expert on the Palestinian school curriculum, who also collaborated with GEI institute in the past.
The study focuses entirely on examining the textbooks from one side of the conflict, without conducting a comparative methodology.
This allegation has been precisely one of the apples of discord not just among experts but within the wider international public, as the study focuses entirely on examining the textbooks from one side of the conflict, without conducting a comparative methodology.
While Schoneville emphasized that comparative approaches are immensely important for the study of textbooks, she added that “GEI compared different educational themes within Palestinian textbooks, dedicating attention to differences between subjects and school years, but also to different ways of addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and included approaches of Global Citizenship Education or Human Rights Education.”
Nevertheless, some social scientists, like Giovanni Scotto, Associate professor of Sociology from the University of Florence, believe that “there are plenty of tools to analyze stereotypes, prejudices, and enemy images— both explicit and implicit— in these types of texts.” In his view, the study does not have to compare one’s enemy images with the others to have relevant results.
Dr. Werner Wintersteiner, director of the “Global Citizenship Education” master’s program at Austria-based Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt and founding director of the Centre for Peace Research and Peace Education, recalls that while the Eckert Institute published comparative studies as well (for instance on peace education approaches in Israeli and Palestinian textbooks in 2010), GEI’s study includes deeper research on Palestinian textbooks. He said that this fact alone is surely no proof to claim the report’s tendential aims, but it would be tendentious to use unfair criteria or to give one-sided interpretations of the data.
And yet, many observers believe the main flaw of the study is the lack of comparison with Israeli textbooks.
Dr. Chalcraft, along with other experts, agrees that a necessary comparative methodology is lacking due to a combination of false universalism and Orientalism. The survey itself is biased, especially since it solely scrutinizes Palestine, and mistakenly sets up the EU as a neutral arbiter. Moreover, Dr. Alalyan, who is very familiar with GEI’s work, also revealed that “there is no person within the Institute who speaks Arabic. And even if they do, they are not familiar with the situation [in Palestine] or [are] able to see the reality from the Palestinian perspective.”
Dr. Chalcraft further notes that the study assumes that the EU and its experts are fully equipped to police, censor, and adjust Palestinian textbooks and Palestinian experiences in line with abstract principles divorced from realities on the ground, silencing the voices of those who experience oppression, or who teach under conditions of occupation and infrastructural degradation.
A comparative review of the textbooks from both sides conducted by Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal and Sami Adwan, is an example of a balanced study.
A comparative review of the textbooks from both sides conducted by Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal and Sami Adwan, funded by the State Department some ten years ago, is according to many observers, an example of a balanced study. It has also been mentioned favorably by the GEI report. Thanks to plentiful financial recourses provided by the State Department, Bar-Tal and his associates have even approached two IT companies which over the course of the six months, developed a computer program that analyzed whole sentences and paragraphs of these textbooks to search for any problematic content.
After their research concluded that there were no major differences between Israeli and Palestinian textbooks, Israel refused to accept the results of the study. Bar-Tal responded to Inside Arabia, stating that “Israel delegitimized [him]” and “delegitimized the whole study.”
In Dr. Alalyan’s opinion, while new Palestinian textbooks need improvement, they do not call on violence or include stereotypes about Jews, but they do often mention the occupation— a term that some find problematic. However, she wonders what the international community expects from Palestinians, and how they should “write and teach about the reality they live in.”
Speaking to Inside Arabia, Dr. Alalyan also said that Palestinian textbooks published before 2017 followed the spirit of the Oslo peace process and had been written in a reconciliatory and optimistic spirit. “In these books, you can find the recognition of [the] 1967 border with Israel, the Green Line, as well as the recognition of [the] State of Israel. Moreover, textbooks even included the history of the Jews in Palestine and made clear separation/distinction between Jewish people and Zionists.”
The new textbooks that appeared in 2018, however, have ignored Israel and portray it as an occupier. The textbooks’ authors, who spoke to Dr. Alalyan, told her that since Israeli textbooks do not include paragraphs about Palestinians and do not even mention the presence of Arabs in Palestine before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, or Palestinian suffering ever since, they decided to simply ignore Israel and focus instead on the strengthening of Palestinian national identity.
Nevertheless, and despite its flaws, the study has not supported the claims of the Israeli right-wing organization IMPACT SE and even mentioned that the studies published by this group suffer from “generalizing and exaggerated conclusions based on methodological shortcomings.” Therefore, most of the experts agree that the study has been generally fair.
Despite its flaws, the study has not supported the claims of the Israeli right-wing organization IMPACT SE.
In this context, Dr. Chalcraft believes that the report did not in any way support the hyperbolic accusations surrounding Palestinian textbooks and given the appalling context, the textbooks come off as remarkably careful and restrained.
Prof. Wintersteiner in turn told Inside Arabia that “the study provides a quite positive, but a nuanced picture of Palestinian textbooks, highlighting that they basically fulfill the criteria of global citizenship education,” and “while the study finds some evidence for anti-Semitism and glorifying violence, it acknowledges the progress made in eliminating these elements of anti-Semitism and incitement to violence by the last textbook revision in 2020/2021.”
Wintersteiner also observes that the report criticizes the Israeli authorities for amending textbooks for East Jerusalem without making these amendments transparent for teachers and students. He noted that the study even states that “The removal of entire chapters on regional and Palestinian history fundamentally changes the national narrative.”
On the other hand, Schoneville from GTI said that Palestinian textbooks show an increased focus on human rights and a process of reframing national issues within a global political context, while references to human rights serve as a framework through which the textbooks address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
She added that “the textbooks mention human rights violations against Palestinians and support these assertions by reference to international conventions. This development has so far however been largely left aside in the debate about Palestinian textbooks and the perception of the report.”
The report was portrayed negatively by the media and pro-Israeli NGOs, who aimed to vilify Palestinians and cut off financial aid to the PA.
In Bar-Tal’s opinion, the report was portrayed negatively by the media and some pro-Israeli NGOs, especially in Israel who aimed to vilify Palestinians and cut off financial aid to Palestinian Authorities.
However, Scotto recalls that the study convinced both the European Parliament and the Norwegian government to continue funding the Palestinian educational sector, adding that most of the political criticism the study received came from European conservative sectors of politics, sympathetic with Israel and its current policy towards Palestine.
Hungarian EU Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi’s decision to devote so much attention to the issue of Palestinian textbooks only, and his pledge to demand that the PA amend them “in the shortest possible timeframe,” is explained by the close ties Hungary maintains with Israel— a policy established under its populist right-wing president Victor Orban.
The EU’s overall approach to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict has been nothing but shameful. By focusing on the relatively minor issue of the schoolbooks through a “splitting hairs” approach, while ignoring the reality on the ground, the European block is once again proving its impotence to respond to real challenges, especially after the recent war in Gaza. The EU, formerly regarded as a barometer for freedom and liberty in the world, is beginning to tarnish its credibility.