Banned Textbook Offers a Lesson in Mideast Politics

By Nathan Jeffay

Published November 24, 2010, issue of December 03, 2010.
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As Israelis and Palestinians spent recent weeks blaming each other for the breakdown in peace talks, they have found themselves in agreement on one thing: Education ministries on both sides have banned a history textbook that they deemed unsuitable for their students.

Two Narratives Co-exist: The textbook tries to present both the Israeli and Palestinian views of history side by side.
PEACE RESEARCH INSTITUTE IN THE MIDDlE EAST
Two Narratives Co-exist: The textbook tries to present both the Israeli and Palestinian views of history side by side.

What is found inside the textbook that has aroused the ire of education officials in the opposing camps?

The book, “Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative,” is a joint Israeli-Palestinian production by the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East, funded by nongovernmental organizations and several Western nations, including the U.S. On the left-hand side of each page, it presents the history of the region through an Israeli narrative, and on the right-hand side, through a Palestinian narrative. A middle column is reserved for students to write their thoughts.

The book comes after years of complaints by both sides about how the other recounts their common history of conflict: Israelis allege that Palestinian textbooks engage in incitement and deny the Jewish connection to the region. Palestinians charge that Israeli textbooks elide the scope and depth of Zionist efforts historically to drive Palestinians off the land and erase the history of their presence.

Haifa University education professor Ilan Gur-Ze’ev, who was not involved in writing the project, said that the book could offer an antidote to “ethno-centric” attitudes on both sides that contribute to making peace difficult. “It’s typical that the political leadership on both sides is not interested in edifying the critical attitudes of students,” he said.

In October, the Israeli Education Ministry summoned Aharon Rothstein, principal of Sha’ar Hanegev High School, near Sderot, to meet with ministry representatives. Following the book’s release last

year, Rothstein’s had become the sole Israeli school to use it. A group of 15 students in 11th and 12th grade at Sha’ar Hanegev were reading it for an extracurricular history-enrichment program. A few weeks before the summons, the Education Ministry’s chief of pedagogy, Zvi Zameret, had learned that the book was in use and decided to ban it.

Also in October, the Palestinian Education Ministry learned that the Arabic version of the book was being taught in two of its schools, and banned it.

As a result of the two bans, almost the entire print run of the book — 2,000 copies; half of them in Hebrew, half in Arabic — sits in a warehouse in Beit Jallah. Eyal Naveh, one of the authors, told the Forward that he and his co-authors had developed and published the book without consulting ahead of time with either the Israeli or Palestinian education ministries and “without any market concern.” Their priority, he said, was to “show that such an option exists” regardless of whether it sees the light of day. They plan also to publish an English edition for use in the United States, he said.

Naveh, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, argued that it was particularly troubling that the Israeli Education Ministry had banned the book from an optional extracurricular class, one that runs in addition to the normal history curriculum. “We didn’t think that in a democratic state, one needs official approval for an extracurricular activity,” he said. More broadly, he said, “It’s not legitimate in a democratic state to ban books.”

But Education Ministry spokesperson Michal Tzadoky told the Forward that schools may only use books that have been approved by the ministry. It is normal practice for schools to use only approved books. “The textbook at Sha’ar Hanegev did not get permission for study,” she said. She declined to comment further.

In Israel, there has been some public support for the Israeli ban. The center-right Jerusalem Post argued in an editorial, “Though we normally oppose book banning and back the free exchange of ideas, including openness to alternative opinions and views, we nonetheless support the Education Ministry’s decision.”

Its reasoning was that the book “is based on the dangerous post-modernist premise employed by ‘new historians’ and post-Zionists that there are no such things as objective historical truths. This is not the educational message we should be giving to our high school students.”

Ronen Shoval, chairman of the right-wing Zionist advocacy group Im Tirtzu, said he considered the book to be a “joke.” Shoval, who said he had not read the book, dismissed the notion of including the Palestinian narrative in a textbook for Israeli students.

“We fully support the decision that in schools they teach history in history [class]. If you want to learn about things that are imaginary, learn them in literature,” he said.

He described as “ridiculous” the claim that banning the book from schools was a violation of freedom of speech. “There is a difference between freedom of speech and what you teach with government money in high schools,” he said. “We need to distinguish between those things.”

Reached several times, Basri Saleh, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Education Ministry declined to speak with a reporter, saying he would make himself available later. He had not done so by deadline.

Ben-Gurion University psychologist Shoshana Steinberg, a member of the team behind the book, said that critics underestimated the ability of students on both sides to grasp the book’s complexity. In pilot testing of the book, she reported, children “felt that their own narrative was challenged, and they were more interested in the details of their own narrative.” According to Steinberg, “Somehow [the book] did the opposite of what was feared”: Students became “even more confident that their narrative was right.”

Rothstein declined to comment for this article; he still hopes to win the ministry round and does not want to jeopardize his chance. Bethlehem University education professor Sami Adwan, the initiator of the book on the Palestinian side, also declined to comment.

But Gershon Baskin, founder and co-director of the only joint Israeli-Palestinian think tank, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, said that while he considers the book “a very impressive work,” he suspects it may never see the light of the classroom. “This is a book that will never be used, or maybe only after we’ve reached peace,” he said.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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