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School Books Once Again on the Frontline of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Israel’s Eduction Ministry has been accused of adding an increasingly nationalist flavor to the country's school system through its choice of reading books for students.

by Harriet Salem
Mar 2 2016, 5:35pm

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks to Israeli sixth graders on their first day back at school in Jerusalem on August 27, 2012. Photo by Gali Tibbon/EPA

A book included on a new recommended reading list for Israeli high school students tells readers that Arabs wanted to throw all Jews into the sea — continuing a long-held practice by both sides of using education to instil mutual hatred in the next generation.

Adventures in the Rimonim Library: On a Rightward Pillard is among 148 titles put forward by Israel's Education Ministry as part of the annual "March of Books" project aimed at encouraging reading among children and teens.

In one chapter of the book, which tells the story of Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli — an influential leader of the religious Zionist movement — a character describes how in the period prior to the declaration of the state of Israel, Arabs wanted to "attack every settlement, to conquer the place, to burn all the houses and Heaven forbid to throw us all into the sea."

Another chapter dealing with the milking of cows of the Sabbath, a practice forbidden in Judaism but which can be got around by having a non-Jew do the milking, tells readers that Jews do not have Arabs living among them for fear "they might... harm us or spy on us."

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The inclusion of the book — which is labelled "anti-Arab and pro-theocracy" by Haaretz, a left-leaning Israeli daily — is the latest in a series of recent measures backed by Israel's right-wing Eduction Minister, Naftali Bennett, that have been seen as adding an increasingly nationalist flavor to the country's schooling system.

In December last year the Education Ministry sparked outrage in literary and liberal educational circles by banning a book that tells the story of an Israeli Jewish translator and a Palestinian artist who fall in love in New York, but eventually part ways when she returns to Tel Aviv and he goes back to West Bank.

Appeals to overturn the ban were denied by the Ministry which maintained that the book was not appropriate for teaching in Israeli schools because "intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity" and teenagers did not have the mental capacity to understand the "significance of miscegenation" (interracial relationships).

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In another incident three authors removed their name from one of Israel's main high school civics textbook, due to be published in May, claiming that an edit by the Education Ministry had rendered their work unrecognizable and given it a nationalist slant. In an interview with Army Radio, Bennett, who is also leader of the national-religious Jewish Home party, defended the ministry's changes to the book as "excellent" and said that he intended to further strengthen the Jewish element of Israel's school curriculum.

School curriculums and textbooks have long been a point of contention on both sides of the decades old Israel-Palestinian conflict, with both parties accusing the other other as using education as a means to teach the next generation to hate and fear each other.

2013 report funded by the US State Department looking at 168 books from the Israeli and Palestinian school systems found that both sides taught "unilateral national narratives that present the other enemy" while presenting their own community "in positive terms.. with goals of peace."

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The study — in which bilingual researchers analyzed some 3,000 units of data including poems, stories, illustrations, and photographs — found that 84 percent of the representations of Israelis in Palestinian educational texts were negative. The reverse figure, for negative portrayals of Palestinians in Israeli state-issued school books was 49 percent overall, rising to 73 percent for books used in government-backed Orthodox Jewish schools. 

Both presented each other as the enemy but in different ways. Israeli books tended to describe Palestinians as perpetrators of violent attacks who were seeking to destroy, rather than dominate, Israel. Palestinian books tended to describe Israelis as appropriating Palestinian resources and seeking to dominate, rather than destroy, Palestinians.

When it came to maps in school books, 87 percent of Israeli and 96 percent of Palestinian texts denied the geographical existence of the other entity, at least in part.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem

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