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Jul 2011 Journal

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Letter from Israel

A chance encounter led me to the offices of IMPACT, the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, where I was able to learn about their work and see for myself the fruits of their labour from their acting director, educational counsellor Shelley Elkayam.

Situated in a building on the Hebrew University’s leafy Givat Ram campus, the Institute, which is apolitical and funded entirely by donations, was set up by a group of experts in 1998 after the signing of the Oslo Accords, as a result of the growing awareness among scholars and intellectuals in Israel and abroad that more than paper agreements was needed to alter the hearts and minds of the peoples of the region.

The process of obtaining textbooks from Arab countries is not always easy but, once these reach the Institute, they are subjected to a rigorous process of analysis. This is undertaken by scholars from various disciplines who are fluent in Arabic. The analysis involves identifying passages in the books according to their compliance (or rather non-compliance) with UNESCO recommendations regarding tolerance, understanding and respect for ‘the other’ in the school curriculum.

Most of the textbooks, such as those from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Lebanon, vilify non-Muslims in general and Israel and the Jewish people in particular. The one ray of hope in recent years has been from pre-revolutionary Tunisia, where a forward-looking minister of education, a former member of the opposition who was taken into the government by President Ben Ali, introduced a progressive curriculum which promoted tolerance and acceptance of ‘the other’. Possibly the youngsters who were educated in that system were instrumental in removing the dictatorship, which was not in accord with the principles they had absorbed at school. But, again, while many of those who were active in the recent revolutions and demonstrations in other Arab countries were young people, they did not all have a similar educational background.

Particularly telling is the Hamas web magazine for children, Al-Fateh, which mirrors the Hamas movement’s ideology, preaching hatred and condemnation of ‘the other’, while indoctrinating its young readers in Jihad, annihilation and self-destruction by advocating the cult of martyrdom. The Holocaust is castigated as a Jewish lie propagated in order to evoke sympathy for Zionism and, of course, the Jews are decried as usurpers who have no place in Palestine.

The textbooks of the Palestinian Authority delegitimise the Jewish and Israeli ‘other’ by denying the historical and religious presence of Jews in Palestine and opposing recognition of the State of Israel. They demonise the ‘other’ by ascribing dubious and nefarious characteristics to Jews (never portrayed as individuals) and the State of Israel. In addition, they present a biased view of the Middle East conflict by assigning exclusive blame to Israel and absolving the Palestinians of any responsibility for it, as well as stressing the ideal of a violent struggle of liberation rather than advocating a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The West and Western civilisation are anathema according to the curriculum of textbooks from Iran, where America is defined as ‘the Great Satan’ and Israel is demonised as a usurper and the killer of Palestinian children. In Egypt, in the wake of that country’s peace agreement with Israel, there was a shift towards approbation of peace as a positive value and this was reflected in textbooks, where a move towards greater acceptance of ‘the other’ was promoted. Attention was also focused on the need to maintain good relations between Egypt’s Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian community. It is too soon to tell whether this will continue to be the trend in Egypt - let alone what will happen in the other Arab countries.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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