Textbooks keep the old hatred alive

26th January 1996 at 00:00
Middle East. This month Jordan's King Hussein paid his first official visit to Tel Aviv since his country and Israel signed a peace deal in 1994. The King pledged to struggle for "a future that is worthy of us, the children of Abraham and their descendants".

But while King Hussein is seen as a friend of Israel, Jordanian schoolchildren have been learning that a peace treaty between Muslims and Jews can only be temporary until "God's destiny" destroys Israel. One Jordanian history textbook declares that "the prophets Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had nothing to do with the Jews".

Last week the Palestinians went to the polls in their first general elections in the West Bank and Gaza, within the framework of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords. Yet some extreme right-wing educators working in Israel's state religious school sector (which educates a quarter of state pupils) have been telling their charges that it is a religious obligation to settle the West Bank with the Jews. Some Palestinian students have meanwhile been learning that the Israeli Galilee is actually part of Palestine.

Contradictions such as these have come to light in a major series about Middle East education published by the American newspaper Newsday. Entitled "Reading, Writing and Hate", it was prepared over six months by journalist Susan Sachs, who analysed all 330 state-approved geography, history, religion and civics schoolbooks used in Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian autonomous areas during the 1994-95 academic year. Many of Jordan's textbooks, and all of Syria's, had to be obtained unofficially. Syria denied her access to its schools.

Sachs found that Jordanian, Syrian and Palestinian schools avoided the issue of Arab-Jewish coexistence. Egypt, which has enjoyed a "cold peace" with Israel since 1979, marks the treaty in schools, but does not deal with coexistence, and still does not name Israel on school maps. Israel is the only country of those studied to encourage any debate about peace, Newsday found, but initiatives are optional, and have been largely avoided by religious schools. (Sachs' research preceded the assassination of Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin in November, which has touched off a new debate in Israel about democracy education in the religious sector.) Furthermore, Palestinians tend to be pictured in Israeli textbooks as quaint shepherds, while the majority in the cities are rarely mentioned, except as statistics. Israeli textbooks deal more with Israeli Arabs than they do with Palestinians, but the treatment tends to be superficial.

Sachs says the Jordanian education ministry's secretary general allowed the paper into the kingdom's schools on condition there would be no talk of peace, peace treaties, Palestinians, Israel, Islam, Jews, Christians, or religion. She claims Newsday representatives were subsequently expelled from the country for asking children about democracy.

In analysing the role played by Islamic fundamentalism in Arab schools, and the way Israel, once cast as a tool of western imperialism, is now more often demonised as the embodiment of the wicked Jew (and thus the enemy of Islam), Sachs exposes the strength of the Muslim brotherhood's foothold in education in Jordan in particular. It is ironic, in view of the fact that Israel's friendliest ties with an Arab state are with Jordan that Sachs found Jordanian textbooks to be the most viciously anti-Jewish of all those reviewed. Sachs quotes from a high-school religion textbook which says: "When donkeys stop braying and serpents stop biting, Jews will abandon their deceitful ways"; and that Jews are "the masters of usury and leaders of sexual exhibitionism and prostitution".

In Syria, ruled by the secular Ba'ath regime of Hafez al-Assad, children are taught that Israel is the obstacle to the realisation of the pan-Arab dream. A textbook for eight and nine-year-olds cites "our duty . . . to restore the raped portions of our land". Israelis, says Sachs, are portrayed as perpetrators of "beastly crimes and horrendous massacres" who dance drunk on Islamic shrines in Jerusalem.

One Israeli textbook for nine and 10-year-olds said there were "only a few people" in the Land of Israel when Jewish immigrants arrived early this century. (In 1914, an estimated 500,000 Arabs were living in Palestine). The Palestinian education minister, is meanwhile said to be contemplating teaching that Palestinians are descended from the Canaanites - to reinforce the idea that they arrived in the Holy Land before the Jews.

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