A new study weighed in on one of the hot-button subplots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Monday, saying schoolbooks of both sides largely present one-sided narratives but rarely resort to demonization.
Palestinians embraced the findings as a rejection of Israeli claims that their schoolbooks incite hatred of Israel, while Israel's Education Ministry denounced the three-year U.S. State Department-funded review of 20,000 textbook pages as politically motivated "libel."
Israeli, Palestinian and American academics who conducted the study said it set a new standard for objective textbook analysis. However, some Israeli textbook scholars said the interpretation of the data was skewed, letting Palestinian books off lightly.
Underlying the textbook debate are mutual fears and suspicions.
Israeli leaders have argued that the conflict with the Palestinians is not over land, but over Israel's acceptance in the region, and that peace is not possible until the alleged Palestinian incitement stops.
Palestinians charge Israel hides behind such claims to divert attention from continued settlement building on occupied lands and refusal to allow creation of their state.
The study, presented at a news conference Monday, said the books of both sides are flawed but on par with what is typical of societies in conflict.
"There's no hate speech. There is no incitement. There's selective narratives," said Palestinian scholar Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University, one of the lead researchers, along with Israeli Daniel Bar-Tal from Tel Aviv University and Bruce Wexler from Yale University.
The researchers noted that books in secular Israeli schools included far more information about the other side and more self-critical texts than those in Palestinian or ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools.
The study said Israeli and Palestinian books tended to describe negative actions of the other against their own community, while portraying their own community in positive terms. Books often lacked information about the religion, culture, economy and daily life of the other side. This lack, the study said, "serves to deny the legitimate presence of the other."
Historical events, while not fabricated, were presented selectively to present the own community's national narrative, the study said.
The study analyzed 74 Israeli and 94 Palestinian books, covering grades 1-12 and teaching social sciences, geography, literature, religion, Arabic and Hebrew. The Israeli books were from state-run secular and religious schools, as well as independent ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools. The vast majority of the Palestinian books were used in government schools, and only six in private Islamic schools.
Israeli and Palestinian research assistants were fluent in Hebrew and Arabic so they could analyze the books of both communities, Wexler said. Often, texts were reviewed by more than one person, and the data was fed to a Yale database in such a way that researchers could not be influenced by how the study was progressing, he said.
The study said the failure to acknowledge the other side is particularly apparent in maps of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, where the Palestinians hope to establish their state alongside Israel.
The Palestinians want their state to comprise the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in 1967. Currently, they run parts of the West Bank, but Israel retains overall control of the area. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Hamas militants now rule there, though Israel still controls much of the access in and out of Gaza. Israel has annexed east Jerusalem in a move that is not recognized internationally.
Israel was shown in only three of 83 post-1967 maps in Palestinian books, the study said. Of 258 maps in Israeli books that included the area between the river and the sea, 196, or 76 percent, did not indicate any borders between Israel and the occupied lands. Of the 62 maps that included a demarcation, 33 showed which areas are under Palestinian self-rule, while 29 maps showed borders with color lines, but did not refer to a Palestinian presence.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad welcomed the study as proof that "there is no incitement in our text books."
The deputy Palestinian education minister, Mohammed Abu-Zeid, said the Palestinians will take the study's findings to heart and make the needed changes, including a review of the maps.
"At the same time, we are in the stage of building our state and in such a stage, education focus on building the identity," he said, suggesting there would be limits to broadening the narrative.
Jihad Zarkarneh, in charge of textbooks in the ministry, said that as long as Palestinians live under military rule, their books cannot be expected to portray Israel in a positive light.
In contrast, the director of Israel's Education Ministry, Dalit Stauber, blasted the research as biased, unprofessional and "complete libel" intended to stain Israel's reputation.
She said it is absurd to argue that a reference to historical facts — such as Palestinians taking Israeli athletes hostage during the 1972 Munich Olympics, where the Israelis were killed — means presenting the other side in a negative light.
Stauber said Israeli history books approved by the ministry demarcate the Palestinian-claimed territories, and that maps in books teaching other subjects are not relevant in this case. She said the ministry is reviewing texts used in ultra-Orthodox schools.
Yossi Kuperwasser, a senior Israeli official who monitors Palestinian statements and actions for the government's "incitement index," argued that the Israeli curriculum educates to peace, but the Palestinian one does not. "Incitement to violence, to hatred, is the main obstacle to peace, and this has to change if we really are to have peace," he said.
Wexler, a Yale psychiatry professor, urged both sides to do better.
"One of the major recommendations — don't change your own narratives that are so meaningful to you ... but please put (in) some more information that will humanize" the other, he said.
The study was overseen by a scientific advisory panel, but five of the 19 panel members did not endorse the findings.
Two of the dissidents, Israeli textbook scholars Ruth Firer and Arnon Groiss, said they disagreed with the interpretation of the data.
Firer said the study did not sufficiently emphasize the achievements of books in Israeli secular schools in acknowledging the Palestinians.
In one of the Israeli books, for example, "there is a very nice chapter about Islam, very respectful," she said. "In Palestinian books, there is nothing about the Jewish religion or the Holocaust."
Groiss, a researcher, said he believes the new study was too soft on the Palestinian books.
The State Department said the study is one of several to receive grants from Washington, but that they are not endorsed by the U.S. government.