Wednesday, October 29, 2003


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The recent Arab Human Development Report 2003, the second in an annual series written by Arabs for Arabs under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program, could be a giant leap forward for improving the quality of education in the Arab Middle East. It recommends bold strategies for improving the crumbling educational systems of the area through better governance, greater citizen participation, more government transparency, a larger role for women, better quality technical and scientific education, more qualified teachers, and encouragement of “free critical thinking” rather than “submission, obedience, subordination and compliance”.

Yet the Report ignores an issue that should be of great concern if “free critical thinking” is ever to return to this troubled neighborhood: religious and ethnic bigotry in primary and secondary education. Arab history and religious textbooks are not only anti-Israel; they are openly anti-Semitic. And in Israel, kids are still growing up with stereotypical misinformation – or the absence of information – about Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general. So if you’re in any doubt about how future generations of Middle Easterners will feel about their neighbors, you need only read some of what these youngsters are learning from their school textbooks.

Case in point: In Syria, a study by the Middle East Media Research Institute found that school children from the fourth grade up are taught that: Zionism is a form of colonialism similar to Nazism; Zionism endangers the Arab world and prevents its unification; Israel is an aggressive and expansionist enemy and is responsible for the backwardness of the Arab world; when young readers grow up, they must engage in holy war – jihad – against Israel and seek martyrdom…suicide attacks; Arab leaders who negotiate with Israel are spies and traitors; even outside Israel, Jews are a menace and should be exterminated. Books containing these passages are published by the Syrian Ministry of Education and are part of the official Syrian school curriculum.

Case in point: In Saudi Arabia, religious studies make up about 40 per cent of the school curriculum. The textbooks used in those schools are compulsory reading. They declare: Allah’s wisdom includes continuing the struggle between Muslims and Jews until the Day of Judgment; Jews and Christians, the enemies of the Muslims, will never be pleased with the Muslims and we must beware of them. These notions are expressed in public school texts. Those used in government-financed and private madrasses (religious schools) are even more vitriolic. Khalid Al Awwad, undersecretary of the Kingdom’s Education Ministry, says Saudi Arabia is revising its school curriculum to stress “peace and tolerance”, but denies that its textbooks promote violence.

Case in point: In Egypt, only one of two Arab states to recognize Israel, school texts contain much the same anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli, and anti-women rhetoric as is found elsewhere in the Arab Middle East. But, in addition, Egyptian schoolbooks virtually ignore the 6 per cent percent of the country’s population that is Coptic Christian. Indeed, when the Government of Egypt presents statistics on the religious composition of its population, Copts are grouped under “other”.

Case in point: In Iraq, Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University quotes a “quick quiz” from an Iraqi elementary school textbook, as follows: “What do you get when you add three rocket-propelled grenades and four Kalishnokov rifles?” The answer, according to Zimmerman, is not ‘seven’. It is “seven ways to kill the infidels.” Television news has devoted much too much time to trivia, such as images of aid workers cutting photos of Saddam Hussein out of schoolbooks by hand. But the effort to reform Iraq’s education system is more serious and far-reaching. The US Agency for International Development is working with contractors, including Iraqi educators and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), to rewrite schoolbooks beginning with math and science at a cost of some $65 million. Hopefully, Iraqis will play an increasingly central role in this process.

Case in Point: In the Palestinian Territories, school children until recently used Egyptian and Jordanian textbooks, revised by Israel to remove anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli content. These textbooks make no distinction between Jews and Israelis, as if Jews were monolithic. Many of them never refer to the Holocaust, while in a few revisionist authors assert that the number of those killed in the death camps was closer to one million, not six million. Now, the Palestinian Authority has begun to introduce its own texts, equally curious for their omissions: Israel’s right to exist is nowhere acknowledged, and in history and geography books containing maps of the Middle East, Israel is not shown. In these maps, the area from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea is called ‘Palestine’. Maps on administrative issues show the West Bank and Gaza Strip only, leaving the space inside the ‘Green Line’ void. Towns in Israel, such as Jaffa, Nazareth and Beer Sheba are mentioned as Palestinian towns only. Pictures of Jerusalem nearly always exclude the western part of the city. Israelis are rarely mentioned or shown at all; where they are, they are appear as soldiers with unfriendly faces (though not identified as Israelis).

Case in point: In Israel, textbooks used during the period following establishment of the State in 1948 and until 1967, ignored Arabs and the Palestinian people completely, for fear of “undermining the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise”. After the 1967 war, texts began to be replete with negative stereotypes of Arabs, who were depicted as savage…sly…cheat…thief…robber…provocateurs…terrorists.”
No information that might have cast doubt on Israel’s right to its homeland was included. While there were many demands from Israeli intellectuals for real change, it was not until the mid-1990s that Israel issued new history curricula for junior and high schools. According to Dr. Elie Podeh of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, these texts are far from flawless, but “are fundamentally different from their predecessors in that the artificial division between the world, Jewish and Zionist history has been eliminated…the narrative does not end in 1948 but continues into the present…the Arabs are no longer described in stereotypical terms…an attempt is made to understand the Arab point of view….” For example, Dr. Podeh cites a more balanced narrative relating to the ‘right of return’ issue for Arabs displaced by the 1967 War.

Can anything be done? Most of the large donors to Middle East educational reform – the World Bank, the European Union, the US Agency for International Development, United Nations agencies, and others – are trying. They sponsor endless workshops and conferences on how educational reforms can be achieved. They (very diplomatically) suggest changes in syllabi and curricula. They train teachers. They encourage more parent-teacher dialogue. They help open schools in the neighborhood to the 21st century by introducing computers and access to the Internet to the classroom. The response from most of the official recipients of this help – the governments of the region – comes in the form of lofty and idealistic speeches, followed by virtually nothing.

Why is this so important? Because the textbooks we read when we’re kids play a unique role in the kinds of human beings we develop into (witness the recent outrageous remarks of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad). As Elie Podeh points out: textbooks play a central role in forming the ‘national memory’. Until the neighborhood’s leaders begin to embrace that truism, national memory will not change. And until national memory begins to change, hope for any kind of sustainable Arab-Israeli peace will remain a na├»ve luxury. Hopefully, next year’s UNDP’s Arab Human Development Report will begin to address this crippling problem. If they fail, this ink of hatred will continue to flow into Middle Eastern textbooks and from there into young minds throughout area.