Is the Palestinian educational curriculum engaged in child abuse?
The accusation was raised by Prime Minister Netanyahu in a recent speech to the UN General Assembly. Describing the day of a typical 13 year old Palestinian boy called Ali, Netanyahu noted the exposure of Palestinian children to repeated instance of glorification violence and terrorism. “Sadly,” noted Netanyahu, ” Ali represents hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children who are indoctrinated with hate every moment, every hour. This is child abuse.”
But praising violence and terror are not the only forms such educational abuse can take. Teaching political myths as historic fact is also a violation of a basic educational responsibility.
The point was noted by veteran Israeli diplomat and negotiator Daniel Taub. Taub headed the Israeli side of the Culture of Peace negotiations with the Palestinians in the Annapolis peace process and was also a member of the Anti-Incitement Committee set up under the Wye River Memorandum. This trilateral committee, comprising Israeli, Palestinian and American representatives, was the first attempt to address the issue of incitement in the framework of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and address incitement in the political, legal, media and educational fields. As Israel’s representative on the Committee Taub he has followed the issue of Palestinian text books and educational curricula closely for many years.
“A recurrent theme, and a tragic one”, says Taub, “is the willingness of Palestinian educators to sacrifice their children’s education for a political agenda. When you knowingly rewrite historical facts, educationally that’s a betrayal of your children.”
The new political narrative often flies in the face of previous Palestinian teachings, notes Taub. “Palestinian text books were actually rewritten to rename the Tomb of Rachel the Mosque of a Moslem prophet. This was in direct contradiction to the Guide to the Temple Mount published by the Supreme Moslem Council in the 1920’s said that its identity as the site of Solomon’s Temple was “beyond dispute”.”
The lack of concern about providing a genuine education based on the facts sends a troubling message about the readiness of the Palestinian leadership to build a functioning society. In Taub’s words: “I often think that the truest test of a society’s intentions is what it teaches its children. Currently the curriculum gives us serious cause for concern.”
While educational materials may be a litmus test of the intentions of a society, as Taub suggests, they are also among the hardest element to change. Palestinian educational authorities zealously guard their ownership over these materials and reject attempts to intrude on their sphere of authority, even to prevent abuse or distortion of history.
“I served as the head of the Israeli side of the Culture of Peace track of negotiations with the Palestinians during this Orwellian rewriting of history” Ambassador Taub recalls. “Our negotiation team was charged, among other things, with examining the role played by schoolbooks and education systems in perpetuating the conflict. In examining textbooks, we chose to place particular emphasis on deliberate distortions of history for political ends”.
Another troubling aspect of the Palestinian textbooks was the fact that the key elements of Palestinian identity were negative, that is praising perpetrators of violence and martyrdom. This is the case not only in textbooks, but also in the common practice of naming school teams after suicide bombers and other militants. Taub noted that in the course of the negotiations he has urged his Palestinian counterparts to encourage the develop of a positive identity, focusing on individuals who had made positive contributions to Palestinian society. “Only if you have a ‘yes’ will you have the strength to say ‘no’ to negative trends and influences” says Taub.
Taub, who subsequently served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, recalled that he actually traveled to Northern Ireland with his Palestinian counterpart, Sufian Abu Zaida, where they learned that both sides of the Irish conflict insisted that history be taught honestly to school children. “We were impressed that notwithstanding the depth of feeling, both sides felt that the value of providing a proper education to their children was more important than any of the political issues that divided them” said Taub.
Returning from their trip, they developed a program for school textbooks to be reviewed by an independent committee of experts, but the program was rejected by the Palestinian leadership when it became public knowledge.
Considering this missed opportunity, Ambassador Taub quotes Senator Daniel Moynihan: “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”
The international community has also expressed concern about this phenomenon, since it suggests that while Palestinian leaders claim to have renounced violence, in practice official actions indicate otherwise. In particular, the US congress and a number of European parliaments have been expressing their concern about the Palestinian Authority prisoner payments which effectively reward violence and terror by linking stipends to the severity of the crimes committed.
International pressure to change the content of schoolbooks and remove hatred and incitement has however met with limited success. Taub considers this may be because the subjects have been presented as an element of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, with any changes to the curriculum being regarded as a concession to Israel. “I’d like to see the international community leave Israel out of the equation on this” says Taub. “they should tell the Palestinian leadership that we want to see your children having the best education they possibly can. And incitement and indoctrination can’t be a part of it.”