Wayne David pay attention to racist Israeli textbooks as well

Wayne David, Labour MP for Caerphilly

JVL Introduction

At 13.46 on Wednesday 11 February Jewish News published a report of an investigation into UK funding of Palestinian textbooks that, “taught incitement, hatred of Israel and glorification of terrorism”. By 17.19 on the same afternoon they were able to report that Wayne David, Shadow Minister for the Middle East, was going to raise the matter with the Government at “the first opportunity I get”.

This is commendable alacrity but Mike Cushman wrote to David to ask whether he had ever raised the consistent negative portrayal of Palestinians in Israeli textbooks and the presentation of the Israeli view of the situation as unquestioned. Mike wrote on Saturday, 13 February. At the time of posting he has not received a reply. If and when he receives a reply we will append it to this post.

Dear Wayne David

I read in Jewish News that you intend to raise the question of Palestinian text books in the Commons as a matter of urgency.

I wonder whether you have expressed concern in the House or elsewhere about the dire nature of Israeli school books. There have been a number of studies which draw attention to the consistent negative portrayal of Palestinians in the books and the presentation of the Israeli view of the situation as unquestioned.

Akiva Eldar has written

Israeli public diplomacy is about to lose one of its trump cards — the argument that “Palestinian” textbooks are fraught with incitement and delegitimize the other side. This card is always played after the “there-is-no-Palestinian-partner” joker. A new US-government-funded study undermines this argument, to great uproar in Israel. The study reveals that though Israeli textbooks don’t contain explicit incitement, they are guilty of marginalizing the other side. It may be that the Palestinian side has more incitement towards hatred, but when it comes to the Israeli side, incitement sometimes comes in the form of erasing “the other.” In other words, “We’re the only ones here, and the other side has no history, geography or political existence.”

Nurit Peled-Elhanan of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has written extensively on this. Her book ‘Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education’ is widely cited. There is a useful review of it in Holy Land Studies which gives a good summary of the content.

The review gives illustrative quotes, such as:

…in the major school books from 1996–2010, including the ones Firer and Podeh praise for being more balanced and less dogmatic, Palestinians are still represented – visually and verbally – either in racist stereotypical ways or not at all, namely either as [an] ‘impersonalized’ negative element or as a ‘blind spot’, excluded from where they should have been, from where one can guess their existence, like a missing book on the library shelf. (p. 69)

…the representation of Palestinians in Israeli school books enhances ignorance, both of the real social and geopolitical situations and of the geographical and historical discourse….With such distorted pictures and skewed maps firmly fixed in their minds, Israeli Jewish students are drafted into the army, to carry out Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, whose life-world is unknown to them and whose very existence they have been taught to resent and fear. (p.232)

Her paper in Discourse & Society Legitimation of massacres in Israeli school history books is a disturbing read. The abstract concludes:

The article argues that Israeli mainstream school books implicitly legitimate the killing of Palestinians as an effective tool to preserve a secure Jewish state with a Jewish majority, and suggests that this legitimation prepares Israeli youth to be good soldiers and to carry on the practices of occupation in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Nurit concludes her paper saying:

School history books prefer the creation of a ‘usable past’ over accuracy (Wertsch, 2002: 45). They usually command the students to forget what Ricoeur (2004) calls ‘the other drama’ – that of the victims and their circumstances – and look ahead of massacres and other catastrophes, to the favourable consequences for the nation. This way, they teach the students the discourse of power, of politicians and generals, and put at stake ‘the disciplinary politics of truth’ (Coffin, 1997: 201).

Van Leeuwen (2007: 94) remarks that there is a close connection between degrees of representational truth and degrees of social obligation. The social obligation of Israeli school books is to function as a sort of ‘supreme historical court’ whose task is to decipher ‘from all the accumulated “pieces of the past” the “true” collective memories which are appropriate for inclusion in the canonical national historical narrative’ (Podeh, 2002: 3). Massacres are inserted into the Israeli–Zionist collective memory as the ‘founding crimes’ of the nation, in a digestible way that exonerates the state of Israel from all blame regarding Palestinian ongoing Naqba.

The overall claim of all the reports about massacres is: positive outcome (for us) may condone or overlook evil (done to them) or: so much pain (inflicted on them) is tolerable if it prevents a much greater pain (for us).

The determination of the books to justify the wrong by creating legitimating narratives can also explain why in none of the reports do we find what La Capra (2001: 125) calls emphatic unsettlement, which is ‘the response of even secondary witnesses (including historians) to traumatic events [ … ] that should register in one’s very mode of address’. In the Israeli context, empathy towards Palestinians risks resulting in the de-legitimation of the national narrative and is therefore inadmissible.

Israeli students embark upon their military service with the conviction that empathy is race-related and has no place in the relationships between themselves and their neighbours who are given to their mercy, and that utility is the only criterion that should guide them in their conduct. This credo is manifest in the words of Yossi Bailin, one of the leaders of the Zionist left, who in pleading for the government to stop the carnage in Gaza in 2009, said: ‘It is inhuman, it is un-Jewish, but above all it is ineffective’.

Dan Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University studied 124 textbooks used in Israeli schools and published his findings as ‘The Arab Image in Hebrew School Textbooks’. He concluded that generations of Israeli Jews have been taught a negative and often delegitimizing view of Arabs. He claims Arabs are portrayed in these textbooks as primitive, inferior in comparison to Jews, violent, untrustworthy, fanatic, treacherous and aggressive. While history books in the elementary schools hardly mentioned Arabs, the high school textbooks that covered the Arab–Jewish conflict stereotyped Arabs negatively, as intransigent and uncompromising.

I do not know how thorough the current report on Palestinian texts books is but an earlier similar study was found to be woefully inadequate as this article in the Jewish News of Northern California shows:

“Where do persistent reports of incitement in Palestinian textbooks come from?” asks Nathan Brown, a Jewish professor of political science at George Washington University.

“Virtually all can be traced back to the work of a single organization, the ‘Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace,’” founded by Israeli Itamar Marcus. Those involved “rely on misleading and tendentious reports to support their claim of incitement,” writes Brown, in a 2001 report delivered at Israel’s Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace.

The charges of Marcus are often grossly exaggerated. As with most reporting, he passes on some useful truths — albeit with a one-sided approach.

Any problems with Palestinian text books should be addressed but not without the context in which they are produced which includes the systematic bias, amounting to propaganda, in the books issued to Jewish Israeli children. To address problems with Palestinian books only is to be part of an ongoing exercise to distort the narrative and to become, in Akiva Eldar’s words, an agent of Israeli public diplomacy.

Yours sincerely

Mike Cushman
Streatham CLP

Comments (6)

  • James Simpson says:

    Is there a real problem with incitement to hatred in Palestinian school textbooks? This piece seems to admit there is but doesn’t specify or link to any information about it. If we’re to conduct a real debate about it, we need to know which textbooks, what is in them and who wrote it.

  • Good work, thank you!

    There has been a study about racism in Israeli textbooks. It was published in a book by Dr Nurit Peled-Elhanan (Hebrew University Jerusalem). The book couldn’t find a publisher in Israel in Hebrew for obvious reasons, so ended up in English. Dr Peled-Elhanan also wrote this 2013 article on exactly the same topic you’re raising: (https://electronicintifada.net/content/biased-new-study-skirts-around-racism-israeli-school-books/12189) you might want to look at to support this important campaign.

    The persistent and emotive bias in favour of Israel and the silencing and demonising tactic of labelling Israel critics antisemites, are not just a matter of theoretical fairness or justice. They are tools that aid and abet a settler-colonial regime with its inevitable and inherent apartheid and ultimately an incremental genocide. In other words, it’s not going to be difficult to eventually declare supporters of Israel at best as racists or at worst as collaborators with a crime against humanity. Hopefully the ICC will contribute to this movement. Having only been recently become aware of your group, I really appreciate your good work.

  • John Bowley says:

    Thank you, Mike. It is hard work to tell the truth against persistent whoppers.

  • Dave Clinch says:

    Nurit Peled Elhanan Palestine in Israeli Schoolbooks. Ideology and Propaganda in Education 2012

    Dr Samira Alayan, Nurit’s colleague at the Hebrew University has researched similar for Israel in Palestinian schoolbooks. She found no evidence of hatred of Israelis unlike the erasure of Palestinians in Israeli school books.

  • Dave Clinch says:

    Dr Samira Alayan is contactable along with Nurit Peled Elhanan re education in both Palestinian and Israeli schoolbooks


  • Dave Clinch says:


    Nurit Peled Elhanan speaking about her book.

Comments are now closed.