The proverbial Martian taking his (her? its?) first look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be forgiven for thinking that both sides would be happy to welcome the recent publication of a report on Israeli and Palestinian textbooks that found that neither side demonizes the other as much as might be expected, with Israeli textbooks, overall, scoring slightly better. The study was funded by the US State Department, directed by a highly respected (and Jewish) professor at Yale, and contained numerous safeguards to prevent bias or preconceptions affecting the study. The study and related documents are available here.
Don’t Know Much About History…
The Martian, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, would be wrong. The Israeli Minister of Education fiercely attacked the study. An article in YNET explains the Israeli objections here; just google “Israeli Palestinian schoolbooks” and you’ll find more attacks on it from “pro-Israel” sources than you can read.
This is a new battle in the “War of the Narratives,” in which I and many others have been combatants for quite awhile. Most of our salvos appear in academic books and journals that are behind paywalls; one that is freely available is a Bitterlemons segment on the subject from a few years ago here.
Israelis believe that they have been winning the war of the narratives. A number of studies appeared in the 1990s, of which many (but by no means all) mostly reported that the (then new) Palestinian textbooks incited continually against Israel. Since then, most Israelis and those American Jews who are interested have believed that Palestinian textbooks are bursting with anti-Israel incitement, something very often mentioned by Prime Minister Netanyahu and other leading rightwing politicians. The new study, by contrast, reports that although no one could say either side is exactly generous to the other, the situation is not nearly as bad as Israelis think.
I am not an expert in textbooks or pedagogy and can’t evaluate the methodology professionally. However, I did go to the press conference in Washington D.C. on Feb. 6, just after the study was released, which featured the Israeli, Palestinian, and American directors, namely Prof. Dan Bartal of Tel Aviv University, a highly respected psychologist who has worked on many joint projects for years; Prof. Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University (a professor of education with whom I worked in the 1990s when I was at the Truman Institute of Hebrew University); and Prof. Bruce Wexler of Yale. They explained their findings and methodology and I found their responses to the criticisms of their work eminently convincing. (I don’t claim to be disinterested in this; please check it out for yourself.)
Is this more than a minor academic spat in the context of continual battling over every aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? I think it is, and it goes to the root explanations of why the peace process has gone nowhere in years. The fundamental issue is lack of trust. Polls, the last election, and every other metric have shown for years that majorities on both sides want a two-state solution but are convinced there is no peace partner on the “other” side. In other words, there is no trust.
The respective narratives of the two sides are both a cause and effect of the situation. They are a cause because large majorities on both sides grow up with and hear only one side of the story. As the study emphasizes, neither narrative invents facts or incidents that never happened; each just gives a one-sided explanation that invariably paints the other side as duplicitous, brutal and unreasonable, and its own side as having always gone the extra mile for peace but having been continually rebuffed. It is an effect because this is a self-perpetuating process: each side’s partisans expect the worst of each other; their sense of self-righteousness depends on it.
As the weaker party, the Palestinians are understandably relieved that a highly-credentialed study puts their textbooks more or less on a par with Israel’s. As the stronger party, with a caretaker government in which many of its leaders reject the two-state solution out of hand (the new government has yet to be formed), Israel absolutely does not want to be seen – by its citizens or anyone else – as comparable to the Palestinians. Too much of this government’s policy rests on Israelis believing that the Palestinian Authority and most Palestinians continually delegitimize Israel.
I should emphasize that the study does not by any means find that either side’s textbooks are “fair and balanced” (excuse the expression). Rather, both tell their own story and make little attempt to present or understand the other side’s. But the demonization, caricaturization and delegitimation that most Israelis believe is pervasive among Palestinians, was rare or absent. This itself calls into question a major part of the “no partner” narrative so common in Israel today.
The solutions to the conflict can only be political. But the political constraints rest on raw belief and emotion – and often ignorance. This study is a major blow at that foundation – which is why its conclusions should be widely publicized and its credibility emphasized in every possible forum.