What Palestinian students are taught in the classroom and what textbooks they read have somehow become a major issue in the current debate on ways to end the cycle of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Clinton drew attention to it in remarks to the Israel Policy Forum in New York a few months ago, thereby endowing it with a measure of credibility. He called on the Palestinians to change the `culture of violence and the culture of incitement that, since Oslo, has gone unchecked.’ The President went on to say: “Young (Palestinian) children still are being educated to believe in confrontation with Israel.” Repeated often enough, this charge is now considered valid within American and even some European policy circles.

The Palestinians have been quickly charged and convicted in the court of world public opinion in total disregard of the facts, the effects of this campaign have already been nothing short of disastrous. In December 2000, faced with strong parliamentary pressure during an election time, the Italian government informed the Palestinians that it can no longer finance the development of the new Palestinian school curriculum. At the same time, the World Bank also informed the Palestinian Ministry of Education that money allocated to the development of school texts and teacher training will have to be diverted to other projects. This rush to judgment has led to similar reactions by a number of other donor countries.

The focus on Palestinian textbooks implies avoidance of other more important issues. More than a quarter of all Palestinians so far killed by the Israeli army are students under the age of eighteen. The Palestinian educational system has suffered serious setbacks because Israeli imposed closures prevent students and teachers from reaching their schools for long periods of time. Finally, there is no debate or even the slightest bit of international concern about the possible psychological effects of violence and trauma on Palestinian school children.

Normally, international agencies are quick to send mental health professionals to various war-torn regions of the world to help children cope with situations of extreme stress. The Palestinians have had to cope on their own, with limited resources, without international assistance. A few months ago, I tried to convene a small group of people to discuss what can be done to help schoolchildren cope. We discovered, to our amazement, that the international agencies such UNICEF and others that we would have turned to for assistance had evacuated their personnel.

Palestinian mental health professionals, who are few and far between, and school counselors report numerous cases of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among school age children, especially those whose homes and schools are near the points of confrontation. Symptoms include depression, disturbed sleep and nightmares, difficulty concentrating and remembering things especially in schoolwork, diminished interest in enjoyable activities, emotional detachment from parents and friends, bedwetting, and an increased state of alertness. The Palestinian educational system simply cannot cope with the problem. Severe cases of shock go untreated because of the lack of skilled professionals.

Where does the charge that Palestinian schoolbooks promote incitement come from?

The principal research director, Itamar Marcus, is an extreme right wing Jewish settler who lives in Efrat. The outfit is a Jewish-American NGO called the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace. Their web site contains full texts of their work including a study of “The New Palestinian Authority School Textbooks (2000-2001).” The basic conclusion is the following: Ever since the PA (Palestinian Authority) became responsible for education in 1994, Palestinian children have been learning from their schoolbooks to identify Israel as the evil colonialist enemy who stole their land. The new PA schoolbooks fail to teach their children to see Israel as a neighbor with whom peaceful relations are expected. They do not teach acceptance of Israel’s existence on the national level, nor do they impart tolerance of individual Jews on the personal level.”

Deborah Sontag of the New York Times visited a Palestinian classroom in Ramallah on September 7, 2000. Interestingly enough, my own six-year old son happens to attend this school and is in this same classroom. It is obvious from her text that Ms Sontag was primarily looking for evidence to possibly substantiate the charge. She finds none. Instead she draws a thorough picture of the pedagogical dilemmas facing Palestinians in dealing with complex historical issues. As a father who closely monitors what his son learns at school, I also find no evidence of anti-Jewish incitement in what he is being taught. As a Palestinian-American academic, in Ramallah trying to establish an educational research and development center whose primary objective is to help improve the quality of Palestinian schools, I also find no evidence of brainwashing or anti-Jewish incitement in the new texts produced by the Palestinian Authority. My concerns are primarily ones of quality. I would like to make sure that, now that the Palestinians are in full control of their educational system, they will produce a first rate curriculum that allows their children to compete in the modern world.

Other Israelis who examined the new Palestinian textbooks arrive at a different conclusion. Writing in Haaretz (January 2, 2001), Akiva Eldar says: “The Palestinians are being rebuked where they should in fact be praised. For this school year, the Palestinian Authority has, for the first time ever, printed its own textbooks. A research team from the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, led by Dr. Ruth Firer, has established that the new books are `freer of negative stereotypes of Jews and Israelis, compared to Jordanian and Egyptian books.’ The defense establishment has investigated and confirmed this finding.” Quoted in Le Monde Diplomatique (Elisa Morena, April 2001), Dr. Firer attributes a political motivation to the right-wing researchers at the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace who, she says, have no educational or methodological skills and only want to prove that it is impossible to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

Dr. Firer’s Palestinian co-researcher, Dr. Sami Adwan of the Education Department at Bethlehem University, responds to Marcus’ allegations (Haaretz, January 2, 2001): “How can a Palestinian write in a textbook that Israelis or Jews should be loved, while what he is experiencing is death, land expropriation, demolition of homes and daily degradation? Give us a chance to teach loving.” Dr. Adwan correctly points out that “what children see on the street, on TV and on the Net has a far greater impact than any book.” It is indeed frightening that a small extreme right- wing organization, producing shoddy work, can help shape the agenda in a rather complex conflict and eventually have such far-reaching impact on governments throughout the world.

Fouad Moughrabi Professor (on leave) Dept of Political Science University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Director, Qattan Center for Educational Research and Development Ramallah Tel. 972-2-296-3281 (or) 972-2-296-3276

This article was first published on April 12, 2001 on infopal — The Independent Palestinian Information Network