U.S. Anti-Semitism Envoy Faces Resistance to Arab Textbook Changes

By Ron Kampeas (JTA)

Published July 12, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s envoy for combating anti-Semitism, was heartened if skeptical when some Arab officials pledged to her that they would remove anti-Semitic tropes from their school curricula.

She was frustrated when they hemmed and hawed. And she was outraged when they outright refused to do so.

Rosenthal visited Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia last month on a mission to persuade officials in those nations to remove from their textbooks intolerance aimed at non-Muslims and to introduce positive references to Judaism.

The most common response, she said, was avoidance and of a hoary variety: Talk about Jews almost inevitably led to grievances about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

“As soon as a conversation about religious tolerance becomes tense, they shut it down or they go to Israel-Palestine,” she told JTA in an exclusive interview after the trip.

Rosenthal, who is Jewish, met with Education Ministry and other government officials in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In Lebanon, she met only with civil society groups promoting interfaith dialogue, in part because she was limited to a few hours in the country for security reasons. Meeting with Lebanese government officials has become sensitive for U.S. officials now that Lebanon’s Cabinet includes members of Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

Rosenthal’s signature achievement on the trip was extracting from Saudi officials a pledge to remove anti-Semitic references from curricula, including some apparently rooted in the notorious forgery positing Jewish world domination, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

“I got commitments from the ministries of education and culture that they were ready to work with us,” she said. “I am taking all of this at face value.”

A Saudi Embassy spokesman in Washington did not return a request for comment.

Rosenthal said a typical initial response in Saudi Arabia was for officials to challenge her to produce evidence of intolerance. When she did – for instance, a passage describing Jews as the spawn of “monkeys and pigs” – she was told the book was outdated and no longer in use.

Rosenthal told Saudi officials the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor was planning a study of Saudi texts and would assess which countries have schools using the textbooks, as well as whether the texts promote intolerance. Saudi textbooks with offensive passages relating to Jews, Christians and women have been found in use as far afield as Argentina and Pakistan.

Rosenthal said the grantees that would carry out the study had yet to be selected.

“It was positive in the sense that they all said the right thing,” she said of the Saudis. “They’re claiming all the bad stuff has been taken out. We’re going to do an honest academic review and see what’s there.”

More disappointing, Rosenthal said, were her encounters in Jordan, particularly with a high-level Education Ministry official who resisted any suggestion that Holocaust studies be introduced into the curriculum.

“This is how it ended: We’re having this semi-tense conversation about this dismissal of the Holocaust, and he says, ‘We are not teaching that this didn’t happen,’ ” she said.

A Jordanian Embassy spokesman in Washington declined comment. Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel.

Rosenthal also confronted officials of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the body that cares for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, about their failure to teach U.N.-created Holocaust materials.

A high-ranking official with UNRWA told JTA that the agency is bound by agreements with host countries to use local textbooks. Additionally, in some areas – notably the Gaza Strip – UNRWA officials have faced threats from Islamist groups for reports of plans to introduce Holocaust and tolerance teaching into the curriculum.

In Lebanon, Rosenthal sought out organizations that seek to promote tolerance among the “Abrahamic faiths” only to find that Judaism was not included.

“It turned out ‘Abrahamic’ meant Islam and Christianity,” she said.

Rosenthal offered to assist the groups in bringing lecturers who could teach about Judaism.

She subsequently learned that one of the groups she addressed – Adyan Village, which is partnered with Notre Dame University – brought in an Eastern Orthodox nun who had some knowledge of Judaism.

Rosenthal told JTA that her most moving visit in Lebanon was to the site of a synagogue in Beirut that the country’s tiny Jewish community is endeavoring to restore.

“They were nervous about showing it to me, and they feel extremely vulnerable – my guide told me that his business clients don’t even know he is Jewish,” she said. “Their hope is that it will be ready by Rosh Hashanah, but builders and contractors find out they’re working on a synagogue and don’t come back.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.