There are perhaps few better ways to gauge the probable socio-cultural attitudes of Syrian nationals currently between the ages of young adulthood and late middle-age regarding Jews and Judaism than by examining the content of the state-issued textbooks comprising the curriculum for state-mandated education in Syria.
Although questions of methodology and practice are certainly important (e.g., “how” the material is taught), as are potentially “extra-curricular” sources of information (social media, etc.), the material itself is nevertheless central to a clear and accurate understanding of Syrian perceptions, within the cohort studied, regarding Jews and Judaism. As the following study will demonstrate, the state-mandated educational curriculum in Syria has, since at least 1967, presented a consistently aspersive and defamatory model of Jews and (albeit, to a lesser extent) of Judaism itself.
Established by the governing Ba’athist party in 1967, the current school curriculum is the product a joint socio-cultural initiative established amongst the nations of Syria, Jordan and Egypt of the same year. Beginning in “primary” school (corresponding to 1st through 6th grades), and continuing through three years of “lower-secondary” school (roughly 7ththrough 9th grades) and the final three years of “higher-secondary” school (10th through 12th grades), Syrian students are taught to believe that Jews are destined both for temporal “elimination” in this world, and “hell” in the subsequent after-life. Indeed, after reviewing sixty-eight separate state-issued Syrian school textbooks from the academic year of 2001, Dr. Arnon Groiss of CMIP (Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace) has categorically stated that:
Not a single word in favor of the Jews is to be found in the Syrian textbooks. The Jews are denied the characteristics of a nation, they are detached from their ancestors and from the land of Palestine, and their religion is racist. They are portrayed as enemies of the Arabs since antiquity, of Islam since its inception, of all mankind, of the prophets and of God himself. The hatred of the nations of the world towards them is justified. The Holocaust is justified… [and] its magnitude is exaggerated by the Jews. There is one passage in the textbooks that calls for their elimination.
These attitudes towards Jews within the Syrian educational curriculum emerge from two mutually-informing and coterminous sources: Islamic self-identification and Arab nationalism. As Joshua M. Landis, author of the study “Islamic Education in Syria: Undoing Secularism” (Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University, November 2003) has shown, the rubric governing the content of Syrian school textbooks follows a rigidly Sunni Muslim interpretation of both civic and religious identity, wherein Syrian identity is inseparable from membership within both the larger Arab and Islamic Ummas (i.e., “peoples” or “nations”).
From one perspective, this rigidity is partly due to political necessity. As members of the minority Alawite Sect of Islam, it has behooved the ruling Ba’ath leadership (in power since staging a successful military coup in 1963) to present an educational narrative wherein doctrinal differences between Shiites (such as Alawis and Ismailis) and the majority Sunni population are glossed over in order to present a unified model (Arab and Muslim), over and against those existing outside of this cultural, national and religious model (i.e, Judeo-Christian, Western, secular, etc.).
Indeed, despite the millennial presence of a Christian minority of Syrian nationals (current data suggests this population to comprise roughly 10% of the population), the nationalization of both the Syrian educational system and its curriculum since 1967 has meant that all Syrian nationals, regardless of confession, have been compelled to send their children to primary schools in which the curriculum stresses the centrality of an orthodox Sunni worldview to Syrian national identification.
Starting at the primary school level, religion classes (suff ad-diyana) are compulsory, and comprise the memorization of suras from the Qur’an and hadith (a supplementary collection of anecdotal sayings and teachings attributed to the prophet Mohammed), as well as instruction in Islamic doctrine and ritual observance. As recently as the 2002-2003 academic year, the primary school textbooks prepared by the Syrian Ministry of Education bear the title “Islamic Education,” and feature curriculum material which, in some cases, have remained unrevised since at least 1981.
Throughout, the content of these textbooks, from the 1st through 12th grades, has stressed the uniform nature of Ba’athist political values and aims, and those of the greater Islamic and Arab Ummas. Specifically, the worldview presented is one in which Syrians must struggle to preserve these values and aims against the deleterious influences emanating from “outside” sources, such as the secular Western democratic model, with its attendant civic freedoms and focus upon unalienable individual rights.
In particular, Syrian schoolchildren are taught that their identity as Syrians is inseparable from their identity as Arabs, and that this selfhood is again inseparable from Islam. This model of identity is based primarily upon a framework of membership which stresses group membership over and against individual self-determination, and is further linked to a teleology in which members are exhorted to carry the Islamic “message” to non-Muslims worldwide, in order that those outside Dar al-Islam (literally, “House of Islam”) may be proselytized, and thus “elevated”.
Indeed, Syrian students are reminded throughout their compulsory educational career to regard Syrian nationhood in theocratic terms, wherein socio-political identity is ultimately based upon divine (Islamic) authority.
With this basic understanding of the Syrian educational worldview in mind, we can now look at the specific attitudes towards Jews and Judaism which have been consistently propagated in the school textbooks since 1967. As adumbrated earlier, the texts offer an initial distinction between the religion of Judaism and its contemporary adherents. Judaism as a faith is regarded as representing the initial historical expression of Divine Revelation; its earliest expounders (i.e., the Prophets of the “Old Testament) are revered as divine messengers of an Absolute Truth only ultimately revealed through the Prophet Mohammed and the Qur’an.
Developmentally, these initial revelations by the Jewish Prophets were subsequently superseded by the Revelation of Christianity (Jesus is likewise considered a Prophet), which in turn was ultimately superseded by the Revelation of Islam, the final and perfected Revelation of God’s laws for mankind. As such, the continued presence of Jews (i.e., adherents to Judaism) is considered by the textbooks to represent a self-conscious rejection of the Divine Truth embodied in Islam.
Indeed, Syrian schoolchildren are presented with a consistent world-historical view, in which the Jewish rejection of Islam has continued from the 7th Century of the Common Era until today. Jewish tribes in the Arabian peninsula during this formative period of Islam (roughly the middle to late 7th century) are repeatedly mentioned as active enemies of Islam, intent on destroying the city of Medina (the initial focal point of Islamic learning, now within the nation-state of Saudi Arabia).
Descriptors such as “treacherous,” “disloyal” and “cunning” are regularly used in these texts in regards to the Jewish tribes of the Arabian peninsula during Islam’s early history.
Crucially, these negative characteristics attributed towards the Jews of Islamic antiquity are considered essentially immutable and continuous in historical terms. The Jews were and remain apostates and heretics, at most worthy of a lower temporal status if residing within the Islamic world (dhimmi), and unable to gain access to Heaven in the afterlife because of their own initial rejection of Moses’ Revelation on Mt. Sinai. In the modern era, the intrinsic moral depravity of Jews is presented within the textbooks as being directly and solely responsible for anti-Semitism in the Western world and the occurrence of the Holocaust. The Jews living in Western Europe during the 20th century are squarely blamed for their own demise, as a result of their socio-cultural unwillingness to assimilate, their avarice and greed, their treasonous behavior during WWI vis-à-vis their respective “host” nations, and their inherently criminal nature.
Thus, two common essay questions currently given to Syrian 10th-graders ask students to discuss, for example, the “reasons for the grudge of the nations against the Jews in the societies where they live,” or to discuss the Jewish “impact on Germany’s defeat in the First [World] War….”
The anti-Semitic canard of the Jew as the axiomatic “outsider” is consistently stressed in the Syrian textbooks examined by both Professor Landis and Dr. Groiss (the primary sources consulted for this essay). Unsurprisingly, this theme is also central to the textbooks’ view of Zionism and the modern State of Israel. Israel is never referred to as a legitimate or historically “real” nation; the Jews of antiquity and today within what is referred to as Palestine are portrayed as “occupiers” of land rightfully belonging to the Arab tribes and their descendants that the textbooks claim to be the “rightful” possessors of the geographical area. This assertion rests upon the popular claim throughout the Arab and Muslim world that virtually all the peoples of the ancient Near Eastern and North African world (such as the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Emorites, Canaanites, Berbers, etc.) were racially “Arab”. Just as during antiquity, the current Jewish “occupiers” of Palestine are foreigners and interlopers, colonialists whose appropriation of a land historically and rightfully belonging to the “native” Arab population has resulted in violence and unrest within Palestine and the region at-large.
The simplicity and consistency of this worldview, the offering of “historical” examples as an evidentiary or empirical demonstration of Jewish malfeasance, whether as parasites within foreign lands, both East and West, or as ruthless colonizers displacing and persecuting indigenous inhabitants, results in one clear message. As an 11th grade Syrian textbooks states:
The Jews spare no effort in deceiving us, being hostile towards us, denying our noble Prophet, inciting against us and distorting the Divine Books…collaborat(ing) with pagans and atheists against the Muslims because they see that Islam unveils their cunning ways and evil nature…(t)herefore, the logic of genuine justice decrees against them one verdict the carrying out of which is unavoidable. Their criminal intention should be turned against them by way of their elimination [isti’sal]. (quoted in “Islamic Education in Syria: Undoing Secularism”)
But what exactly does this “elimination” entail? What are its mechanics? Examination of the textbooks makes this clear: the waging of Jihad (“Holy War” or “struggle”) against both the Zionist occupiers of Palestine and, more broadly, anyone who poses a threat to the sanctity of Islam.
Although the term Jihad can have several connotations, the textbooks examined clearly intend the term to mean a violent, physical struggle against the enemies of the Arab and Islamic world. As Dr. Groiss has stated in this regard: “There is no dispute in the Syrian textbooks that the struggle against Israel is a Jihad, whether the Muslim holy places are involved in it or not.” Of perhaps even greater import for our current focus is the evidence within the textbooks which suggest that Jihad, as a requirement, is not limited to one geographical area, one territorial dispute, or a single socio-political “enemy.” Thus, while the textbooks examined stress the necessity of Jihad against the State of Israel and its inhabitants, these prescriptions can and should be read broadly. As one passage in an 8thgrade textbook directly states: “Jihad today is an individual duty of every Muslim….”
Clearly, Zionists and those who support the State of Israel reside not only within the borders of the State itself, but across the globe. And while not every American citizen, or every self-identifying Jewish-American citizen supports Israel, its political policies or even its current borders, the textbooks examined at the very least strongly imply the necessity of Jihad as a divinely mandated duty of all Muslims against all enemies, regardless of location or political persuasion.
It still remains to be seen what impact the potential immigration of tens of thousands of Syrian to the United States will have upon the safety and security of the American Jewish community of roughly between 6 and 7 million citizens. It is, however, indisputable that virtually each and every potential Syrian immigrant has been a participant in an educational framework which presents Jews as morally corrupt, criminally-minded, and socially poisonous. Considering the uniformly negative nature of this worldview relative to Jews as a whole, the stated intentions of the current U.S. Administration to accept large numbers of such immigrants should cause immediate concern for all who regard the individual freedoms of this nation as inviolable and insuperable.
Ariel Silbert and Charles Jacobs are the Research Associate and President of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, respectively.