Why Textbooks Don't Matter That Much
Ori Nir on why the Palestinian-Israeli conflict depends on a lot more than school text books.
When I decided to major in Arabic at my West Jerusalem high school in the mid-1970s, my Arabic teacher sent me to East Jerusalem to purchase al-Munjid, the mother of all Arabic dictionaries. This behemoth encyclopedic Arabic-Arabic dictionary was imported from Beirut through Jordan for Palestinian students, and available only at two East Jerusalem book stores. The day after I bought it, I took this incredibly heavy book to school because I wanted the teacher to help me solve a mystery: Why was “The State of Israel” rubber-stamped on al-Munjid’s maps, not inside the Land of Israel but rather in the Arab Peninsula, in the Atlantic Ocean, in the Egyptian desert and on the shores of western Turkey?
The teacher laughed and explained that all books imported into the West Bank and East Jerusalem had to go through Israeli censorship. At the censor’s office, inappropriate material was removed and the stamp of Israel was re-introduced into maps that had formerly insisted on ignoring it by instead referring to the land as “Palestine.” Whoever was tasked with rubber-stamping Israel into this shipment of al-Munjids seems to have either been sleepy, sloppy or plain ignorant, my teacher chuckled in amusement.
I used to think about Palestinian high school students who bought al-Munjids from this same shipment. What did they think about this rubber-stamping exercise? Were they and their teachers as amused as we were, or did they view it as offensive? In their eyes, was stamping “State of Israel” on the holy town of Mecca offensive? Did it affirm their perception of Israeli “imperialism”?
Years later, when I actually met young Palestinians as a journalist, I realized how utterly irrelevant these questions were. Because, what really determines Palestinians’ perception of Israel, what defines their attitude toward Israel, is not what they read in textbooks or what they are taught in the classroom. Rather, it is what they see and experience on a daily basis. Their daily experiences are so much more powerful than ink on paper that they make the content of textbooks immaterial. Consider what is happening on the streets of the West Bank these days. Does anyone seriously think that the demonstrations have anything to do with school curricula?
Frankly, I never understood the obsession of American Jewish organizations with Palestinian textbooks—or the “balancing” fascination of others with what Israeli kids are reading and being taught in class. Do Palestinian children really need textbooks to hate Israel, when they are subject every day to the miseries of living under Israeli occupation? Do Israeli kids need textbooks when Palestinian violence and Arab rockets and rejectionism are so omnipresent in their lives? Most young Palestinians hate Israelis and most young Israelis hate Palestinians. And, believe me, it is not because of what they read in school.
Sure, it would be great if Israelis and Palestinians get more familiar with the other side’s narrative. And sure, the findings of a recent study showing that both sides’ curricula don’t incite students to violence are very encouraging. Sure, more positive, peace-seeking curricula could help, even if marginally, to open the hearts and minds of Israelis and Palestinians toward each other. But let’s get real: if you seek peace, the immediate imperative is not for Israelis and Palestinians to learn to like or respect each other, but to find a way to separate from each other into two distinct, independent states. After they negotiate a separation agreement, both peoples must develop ways – preferably through robust security arrangements—to maintain a peace settlement. Societal reconciliation will have to follow.
Should Israeli and Palestinian educators wait for a peace agreement to improve their curricula? Of course not. But Israeli, Palestinian, and American leaders must not wait for new textbooks or for transformed societal attitudes to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Just look at the current bloody developments in the West Bank.