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Saudi Arabia’s Children Are Learning From Anti-Semitic Textbooks

The House Foreign Affairs Committee made history this past week by taking serious action for the first time ever regarding Saudi Arabia’s anti-Semitic state textbooks.

The bipartisan Saudi Educational Transparency and Reform Act (H.R. 554/S. 357) is the product of bipartisan cooperation between U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson (R-SC) and William Keating (D-MA). It would finally require the U.S. to take a proactive approach to monitoring and calling out the systematic incitement to hatred and violence in the Saudi curriculum.

This bill was already endorsed in the last session of Congress by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as well as a broad range of civil society groups, including the ADL, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, the Project on Middle East Democracy, the Council on Global Equality, and Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain.

This is because what Saudi Arabia teaches in its textbooks matters, and not just for the kingdom itself.

According to a State Department-funded study, assorted religious schools have adopted Saudi state textbooks in a variety of countries around the world. These texts were even adopted at one point in territory controlled by ISIS. By dehumanizing non-Muslims and other vulnerable groups in the name of God, these textbooks exacerbate Mideast instability and make it harder to combat terrorism.

In order to help address this issue, ADL published a comprehensive report in December on incitement in Saudi Arabia’s state textbooks for the 2018-2019 school year, and the findings were disturbing.

Despite claims of comprehensive reforms in this area, we found that the kingdom’s 2018-2019 curriculum still encouraged hatred or violence against Jews, Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, women, gay men, and anybody who converts away from Islam. All were subject to some degrading or dehumanizing characterizations and described as targets for violence.

Now, after reviewing the kingdom’s newest edition of these books that were published for the fall of 2019, it is clear the kingdom has failed yet again to expunge most of the objectionable content.

The kingdom did remove all three passages that were featured on the cover of ADL’s last report, as well as a handful of other problematic lines about Christians, Shi’ites, or women. However, it is deeply disappointing that the majority of hateful passages that we highlighted last year remain intact.

The Jewish people are still particular targets for such educational anti-Semitism, even as the kingdom pursues important efforts at détente with Israel and engagement with Jewish communities around the world.

The fall 2019 Saudi curriculum continues to teach a religious narrative that judgment day “will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews” and “kill them.” The kingdom’s fall 2019 textbooks on the Hadith and Islamic Culture also claim that a “main goal” of most Jewish organizations today is to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque, and suggest that the Jewish religious connection to the Holy Land is a forgery.

Additionally, the kingdom’s textbooks still propagate anti-Semitic conspiracy theories by teaching that Zionist Jews use control of media, money, politicians, women, and drugs as part of a supposed scheme to conquer much of the Arab world.

More broadly, a Saudi high school monotheism textbook for the fall of 2019 teaches that Christians and Jews are “the enemies of Islam and its people” and even the enemies of God. These books still explicitly instruct students to hate such non-Muslims and even recommend violence against them unless certain extenuating circumstances apply.

The kingdom’s monotheism textbooks likewise continue to admonish against closeness to Shi’ite Muslims. They teach that it doesn’t matter what good deeds somebody may do in life if they adhere to Shi’ite Islam, and that faith in Shi’ism is sometimes a justifiable reason to fight somebody.

Yet the textbooks reserve their most violent content for men or women who engage in adultery, men who have sex with men, and anybody who mocks or converts away from Islam. Saudi Arabia’s state textbooks still teach students that all of these people should be killed.

Saudi Arabia assured the U.S. in 2006 that all of this content would be completely removed from its textbooks by the start of the 2008 school year. Yet because of inconsistent follow-up across multiple American administrations, no consequences were ever imposed for failing to meet this goal by over a decade.

The Saudi Educational Transparency and Reform Act would finally change that. This bipartisan bill would ensure that resolving such educational incitement is treated by the U.S. government as one of the priorities in its alliance with Saudi Arabia once and for all.

David Andrew Weinberg is the ADL’s (Anti-Defamation League) Washington Director for International Affairs.

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