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East Jerusalem school textbooks are a war of words

Palestinian Authority-issued books are vying with Israeli-edited versions in classrooms. Israel says some passages incite violence. Parents and teachers are incensed.

October 24, 2011|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • Israel's edited version of a first-grade math textbook for Palestinian students in Arabic-language schools in East Jerusalem, right, omits a Palestinian flag flying over a school that is featured in the Palestinian version.
Israel's edited version of a first-grade math textbook for Palestinian… (Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Jerusalem — When East Jerusalem teachers ask students to open their history books these days, pupils are wondering: Which one?

Two sets of textbooks are vying for the formative minds of thousands of Palestinian students in Arabic-language schools in East Jerusalem. One was written by the Palestinian Authority, and the other is a revised version reprinted by Israeli authorities.

It's a textbook war that underscores the long-running battle of narratives in the Mideast conflict, where the fight over the future is often rooted in understanding of the past, and schoolbooks can play a critical role.

At first glance, the textbooks, for the full range of course work, appear identical. But comparing the books page by page quickly becomes a game of Can You Spot the Difference? A small Palestinian flag flying over a picture of a school in one first-grade math book mysteriously disappears in the Israeli version.

Sometimes entire chapters or pages are excised. Other times it's just a word or line, leaving blank spaces that make passages incomprehensible and pages look like redacted CIA documents.

Although the Israeli government is demanding that schools use only its books, parents have gone class to class, backpack to backpack, to replace Israeli versions with the unedited ones. Officials estimate that most East Jerusalem schools are quietly using Palestinian versions, despite threats from the city to take action against schools that do.

Officials in Jerusalem, which funds about 50 public schools in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and provides partial assistance to dozens of private institutions, say they have the right to ensure textbooks are accurate, don't incite violence and respect Israel's legitimacy.

Much of the editing, they say, focuses on Palestinian poetry that promotes the role of children in the struggle against occupation or appears to glorify martyrdom. One eighth-grade textbook featured a poem that referred to the "ecstasy" of a child dying in martyrdom. Another stated that "if jihad could speak, it would call you to enter it."

Other cuts included a 10th-grade history lesson that described Zionism as a "racist" movement with "alleged" historical ties to the Holy Land. Another book featured a picture of a British Mandate-era postage stamp that had been digitally altered to remove a Hebrew inscription.

Palestinian parents, teachers and officials, however, say Israel's edits are politically motivated, essentially erasing all references and symbols relating to Palestinian identity, history and nationalism.

Among the cuts:

— Nearly all images of Palestinian flags, Palestinian Authority logos or references to Palestinians' right of return to homes they or their families fled during Israel's war for independence.

— An eighth-grade lesson about the environmental harm of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

— A reference in a 10th-grade history book to the 1969 arson attack against Al Aqsa mosque by an Australian fanatic.

— An entire chapter on Palestinian history, including a picture of Palestine Liberation Organization founder Yasser Arafat.

— Palestinian population statistics in a sixth-grade civics book.

Palestinian Authority officials say Israel is censoring content it doesn't like.

"These changes cause the text to lose its soul and its meaning," said Dima Samman, head of the Jerusalem unit of the authority's Education Ministry, which has provided the curriculum for East Jerusalem schools since 2001 under an agreement with Israel. Before that, schools used Jordanian textbooks.

For several years, Jerusalem officials made minor edits to textbooks used in public schools, Palestinian officials say, using a black marker or stickers to cover up Palestinian Authority logos and other content deemed objectionable. Then the city began reprinting the textbooks entirely, allowing authorities to delete content digitally and permanently after discovering that many students simply peeled off the stickers.

This year city officials announced that their edited books would be introduced into several dozen semiprivate schools in East Jerusalem, but they assured parents that the changes would be minimal.

When the latest Israeli-edited textbooks were distributed last month, parents and students expressed shock, saying the omissions were heavy-handed.

"They are testing us," said Abdul Karim Lafi, who heads a parents association in East Jerusalem that is organizing a boycott of the Israeli textbooks. "If we stay quiet now, eventually they'll cancel the rest of the Palestinian curriculum within a few years."

Israeli officials say the dispute is not about rival narratives or opposing political views, but about preventing students from being exposed to teachings they say promote violence, intolerance and hatred.

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