Dr. Arnon Groiss
Advisory Council on the Israeli-Palestinian schoolbook research project

Commissioned by The Council for Religious Institutions in the Holy Land

Comments on:

“Victims of Our Own Narratives”

Report of Israeli and Palestinian Schoolbook Research Project

Released February 4, 2013

General Background

The following are my initial comments on the said report in capacity of my past research experience of Palestinian, Egyptian, Syrian, Saudi Arabian, Tunisian and Iranian schoolbooks between 2000-2010 and having been a member of the said project’s Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP), with other distinguished scholars, though I speak for myself only.

I wish to start my comments by expressing my deep appreciation and gratitude to professors Bruce Wexler, Sami Adwan and Daniel Bar-Tal, as well as to their research assistants for this huge project which was carried out under uneasy circumstances, both technical and political. This project was, in my opinion, a systematic and comprehensive effort to bring about a new kind of study of a problematic issue, based on innovative techniques in both fields of data collection and analysis. No one who has been acquainted with this complicated operation can dismiss its results offhand.

It is worth noting that I, like all other SAP members, was not part of the actual research on the ground and was not aware of the results until, for the first time, I was given a partial version last May, in the SAP two-day meeting in Jerusalem. Some of us, including myself, expressed their views regarding the findings and it was then understood that work on the project was to continue.

Again, we, the SAP members, were not involved in the research activity.

Moreover, it was only a few days before the February 4 release of the report that I was first given the 522 Palestinian quotes for perusal. Having compared them to the quotations appearing in other research projects, I realized that some forty meaningful quotations, which other researchers in former projects, including myself[1], incorporated in the material and used them in forming their conclusions, were missing.

The research team rejected my suggestion to add them to the existing quotes that had been already gathered.

I waited to see the released final report on February 4 and read it with the Israeli quotations. I can now say that I am familiar with the results to a degree that I am able to write my initial comments. I hope to present you with a more detailed paper later on.

Selection of the Study Material

As I have already noted, the source material gathered for the purpose of analysis leaves out some significant items that may have enhanced the understanding of the general attitude of the PA schoolbooks to the Jewish/Israeli “other” and to the issue of peace with this “other.” For example, highly demonizing pieces were not included, under the pretext that they were not explicit enough. Thus, a piece saying “Your enemies killed your children, split open your women’s bellies…” was rejected because it did not mention Jews or Israelis and was actually written in the early 20th century. Its appearance in a Palestinian textbook of today with its obviously serious consequences did not change that decision. Similarly, a piece talking of “invading snakes” was also discarded since no Jews or Israelis were mentioned there, as if someone else was intended, who is not involved in the conflict. Another pretext was that the books concerned were “Holy Scriptures” and, as such, could not be touched. Well, they were not. They were simple textbooks of religious themes with scriptural and non-scriptural material and the anti-Jewish expressions there were non-scriptural.

On the other hand, an explicit denial of the existence of Jewish holy places in the country was not included too – with no clear explanation. That was the case as well regarding a specific text placing Palestine instead of Israel as the sovereign state in the region, regarding a piece clearly stating that both sides of the Green Line were occupied territories of Palestine – that is, Israel within its pre-1967 borders and the territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and regarding a chart of Palestine’s population in 1999 that included the Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, in Israel-proper (called “the Interior” just to avoid the expression of “Israeli pre-67 territory”) and even the Diaspora, while the 5.5 million Jews were not counted.

I just skimmed through the Israeli quotes and I did not find similarly prominent missing items there.


I have found deficiencies on both levels of definition and actual use. On the first level, categorization was restricted to very general themes, leaving out important issues such as open advocacy of peace/war with the “other,” legitimacy of the “other,” etc. Regarding legitimacy, I was disturbed to discover back in May that Prof. Bar-Tal had developed a specific definition of delegitimization as “categorization of groups into extreme negative categories which are excluded from human groups.” He further put dehumanization and out casting among the varied phenomena of delegitimization with expressions like “Vandals” and “Huns” as examples (see his article in Journal of Social Issues, 46 (1) pp. 65-81). Thus, the real cases of ignoring the “other” deliberately without degrading him slipped away from scrutiny. I was among other SAP members who questioned that peculiar definition in May, but to no avail, and all we lastly had was a paragraph on page 49 of the report which mixed between casual non-reference to the “other” and systematically denying him any status.

On the actual usage level I have encountered several misplacements which blur or even distort the picture. For example, under the category of positive description of the “other” we find a piece from a PA Christian Education textbook which describes the Sabbath observing Jews. But when one reads further one discovers that those observing Jews were so fanatic that they refused to cure the sick on that day. It was Jesus Christ who acted against their position and did the opposite. The place of this item is, obviously, in the category of negative description of the “other.” Other “positive” references to Jews in Palestinian schoolbooks are those praising Moses or Abraham, etc. But one should remember that they, as well as David, Solomon and other traditional Jewish figures, are actually detached in Islamic tradition from their Jewish environment and looked upon as God’s prophets and, thus, more Islamic than Jewish. By no means should positive texts in which they feature be regarded as positive description of Jews.

The meaning of all this is that if we take away all these few items from the said category we would leave it empty or almost empty, with major implications on the overall assessment of the attitude to the “other.”


There is no attempt to study the quotes more deeply and draw conclusions. All items were treated equally, with no one being evaluated and given a more significant status that the other. It seems that they were simply lumped together, counted and then the numbers spoke. It might be statistically correct, but, as we all know, statistics not always reveal the actual complex picture. This kind of analysis has produced a “flat” survey of the quotes, without any reference to their deeper significance (for example, looking at a demonizing text with no specific enemy as if it were a “neutral” literary piece). Also, all quotes were treated as separate items with no attempt to make a connection between two quotes or more in order to reveal an accumulated message (for example, concluding from the connected recurrent mentioning of the need to liberate Palestine, and the similarly recurring theme that Israel in its pre-1967 borders is “occupied Palestine”, that the liberation of Palestine actually means the liquidation of Israel). The reliance on item-counting alone also misses the realm of omissions which is extremely important in the case of societies involved in a conflict – especially if their curricula are funded by the international community (for example, the often mentioned case of absence of explicit discussion of possible peaceful relations with Israel).

I would now like to refer to two important issues dealt with in the report in a manner I would define as misleading.

First, the issue of borders on the map:. The report checked hundreds of maps appearing in schoolbooks of both sides and concluded that both tend to ignore the “other” either by erasing any boundary line between them or by refraining from labeling the territory of the “other” accordingly. In my opinion, this evenly distributed accusation is misleading, for the simple reason that there is no Palestinian state to be named on the map. The Palestinian Authority is an autonomous body under Israeli suzerainty legally and, as such, it could be described on the map as part of Israel. On the other hand, Israel has never officially annexed the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which enables Israeli cartographers to present these areas as separate from Israel-proper. Another possibility is indicating the PA’s “A” and “B” areas in different colors and such maps were indeed included in Israeli schoolbooks prior to the eruption of the second Intifadah. But since parts of these areas have been since reoccupied, this practice is also outdated. One can find in the Israeli schoolbooks all these variations of maps, and, in some of the cases, several of them within one book.

By contrast, the State of Israel exists as an independent entity recognized by the PLO by virtue of the Oslo Accord, and the widely spread tendency not to put its name on maps within PA schoolbooks calls for concern. There is no symmetry between the two parties and any attempt to show that there is – does not reflect the reality on the ground.

Also, the mere use of the names Judea and Samaria does not mean that Israeli schoolbooks oppose the creation of an independent Palestinian state. These have been the Hebrew traditional names of the two regions for centuries, much the same like Galilee and the Negev. Even when a Palestinian state is established, they will still be called by these names. By contrast, “the West Bank” is a newcomer in history. It is a Jordanian political term that is no longer valid.

Second, the report considers Jihad and martyrdom as values, which is acceptable academically, but it fails to evaluate their impact on the issues of war and peace in the context of the conflict. Frequent use of these values could be good indicators as far as the Palestinian attitude to a non-peaceful solution to the conflict is concerned, especially when they are not mentioned in the context of past events. From this particular point of view they should not be compared to Israeli texts talking of past IDF fallen soldiers.

General Conclusion

The report’s main results are as follows:

  1. Both sides have developed a national narrative in which the “other” is posed as enemy.
  2. The Israeli schoolbooks look better than their Palestinian counterparts in terms of their more positive and less negative description of the “other” as well as their more developed tendency for self-criticism.

These two points are not really new and scholars of textbook research in this region have been aware of them.

Other than that, the report provides us with further information about some characteristics of the schoolbooks of both sides.

But the main question, namely, to what extent is this or that party engaged in actual education for peace, if at all, has not been answered by the report itself.

It is answered by the crude quotations, though. Whoever reads the quotations taken from the schoolbooks of both sides finds the answer easily. Israeli schoolbooks – and I refer here to the books of the state school system only (both secular and religious schools) andnot to the Ultra-Orthodox schoolbooks, which are, in my eyes, below the universally accepted standards of peace education – include revealing texts of open advocacy of peaceful resolution of the conflict (the piece about Rabin, for example) and are totally devoid of calls for solving it violently. Alongside their treatment of the Palestinians as enemies, they provide texts that portray the individual Palestinian as ordinary, sometimes noble, human being with whom friendly relations could develop (for example, the pieces about the gardener from Qalqilyah, the villager who rescued the Israeli soldier in a road accident and the Arab families in Hebron that defended their Jewish neighbors during the 1929 massacre). Such texts balance the feelings of hatred that develop as a result of the conflict.

Israeli schoolbooks also give the students a fairly objective picture of Islam and Arabic culture (for example, the piece about the Egyptian Nobel laureate writer Najib Mahfuz). Even in the context of the conflict they show some understanding of the motives of the “other” and even recognize at times the Palestinian national movement.

The Palestinian quotations, on the other hand, show none of these traits. They do not contain neither an explicit call for peace with Israel nor a vision of a peaceful future alongside it; they speak of a struggle for liberation without specifically restricting that struggle to the areas of the West Bank and Gaza alone; that struggle is enhanced by the use of the traditional Islamic values of Jihad, martyrdom and Ribat; they recognize as legitimate neither Israel’s existence, nor the presence of its Jewish citizens in the country, nor the presence of Jewish holy places there; they describe the Jewish/Israeli “other” as wholly negative – at least in the context of the conflict – and those are mostly treated as a threatening alien group and never as ordinary human beings, with whom friendly relations could develop; and, in addition, there are some (implicit) demonizing texts against them.

All that has meaning. The report, unfortunately, has failed to convey that to the readers.

I strongly urge those interested in the subject to read the quotations and draw the conclusions themselves.

[1] I am reattaching the draft I already sent you before of a paper I wrote in conclusion of my ten-year research of PA schoolbooks as compared to other Arab and Middle Eastern ones, as well to their Israeli counterparts at that time.