By Ben White
Last month saw yet another attack on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the body supporting Palestinian refugees in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) and wider region.
“New UNRWA textbooks for Palestinians demonize Israel and Jews” ran the headline in The Jerusalem Post on 28 September, in a piece on a new “study” funded, carried out and published by the Los Angeles-headquartered Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the anti-Islam, Daniel Pipes-led Middle East Forum, and the Jerusalem-based Centre for Near East Policy Research (CNEPR).
There was one problem, however: almost 90 percent of the books cited are not being used in UNRWA schools. As UNRWA pointed out, the “inaccurate and misleading” report included books that “were phased out when the Palestinian Authority changed their curriculum and textbooks starting in 2016”. Some of the books are for grades not even taught in UNRWA schools in the oPt.
The shoddiness of the research should be a source of embarrassment for the groups behind it, but that is unlikely. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre regularly disseminates ludicrous smears against anyone or any entity that threatens Israeli impunity, while the CNEPR is headed by David Bedein, a West Bank settler obsessed with attacking the UN.
Accusations that Palestinian schoolchildren are ‘taught to hate’ are a staple of pro-Israel propaganda. As far back as 2001, American political scientist Nathan Brown wrote that “the charges against it [the Palestinian curriculum] are often wildly exaggerated or inaccurate”.
The “myth of incitement” has long since been rebutted by the PA itself, and even a US government-funded study in 2013 – boycotted by Israeli authorities for including their textbooks too – “undermine[d]” claims “by the Israeli government that Palestinian children are educated ‘to hate’”.
Just last month, the UK government rebuffed Israel lobbyists seeking to follow up an April 2017 report on the Palestinian curriculum, which generated familiar headlines about incitement and hatred. The report, a government minister noted, was “not objective in its findings”.
While the Palestinian education system in the oPt faces constant accusations and smears, Israeli textbooks are rarely subjected to anything like the same scrutiny. Yet it is Israeli textbooks that use maps showing the West Bank as Israeli territory, disappear the Green Line, and erase Palestinian population centres.
In 2016, Israel’s Education Ministry unveiled a new high school civics textbook that closely ties “Israeli statehood to Jewish teachings”. It contains “little more than a few dismissive references to Arab culture”, while Muslims, the majority of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, are mentioned in “two short sentences” – which “mainly accuse them of discriminating against and oppressing women”.
In 2011, Israeli academic Nurit Peled-Elhanan, published a major study of Israeli textbooks, concluding that Palestinians are systematically dehumanised. “The Arab with a camel, in an Ali Baba dress. They describe them as vile and deviant and criminal, people who don’t pay taxes, people who live off the state, people who don’t want to develop”, she told The Guardian.
The only representation is as refugees, primitive farmers and terrorists. You never see a Palestinian child or doctor or teacher or engineer or modern farmer, she added.
After studying the content of Israeli school books for five years, Peled-Elhanan’s conclusion was grim: “Students leave high school knowing nothing about the history and borders of the state, and seeing Palestinians as intruders, and then have to go out and control and sometimes kill them”.
There are two main elements to the political context for the new ‘report’ on Palestinian textbooks and UNRWA. First, are ongoing efforts to target UNRWA and the UN more widely, on account of alleged ‘anti-Israel’ bias.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre report was discussed on Capitol Hill with Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado). Lamborn subsequently wrote a piece for pro-settler news site Arutz Sheva, insisting that “all funding for UNRWA should be cut until reform conditions are met”.
Second, the charge of Palestinian ‘incitement’ continues to be a central plank in the Israeli government’s propaganda talking points, repeated ad nauseam internally, in the Israeli media and parliament, and externally, to foreign diplomats and journalists.
As settlements expand, under the watch of an Israeli government run by an alliance of bashful and proud opponents of Palestinian statehood, claims of ‘incitement’ and Palestinians being ‘taught to hate’ play an important role as a distraction, a way to divert attention from Israeli rejectionism.
Yet perhaps what is particularly striking in this regard is the content of this latest ‘report’, with textbooks criticised for simply giving an account of historical events, such as the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the Nakba and the colonisation of Palestinian land.
It would seem that the likes of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and Middle East Forum will not be satisfied until every Palestinian class starts the day with Hatikvah, and every Palestinian schoolchild heads home praising the Zionists for making the desert bloom.
The continued attacks on UNRWA, or the Palestinian education system, are delusional or disingenuous. Palestinian refugees’ rights aren’t dependent on an agency, and there is no occupation without resistance. Palestinian children get their ‘lessons’ in military court rooms and at checkpoints; their ‘teachers’ are the soldiers who kill and jail their relatives. Israeli and Palestinian textbooks alike simply reflect the reality on the ground – that of coloniser and colonised.