Inside Palestinian and Israeli Schools: A Roundtable Discussion of K-12 Curricula in the U.S., Palestinian, and Israeli Classrooms
Israeli schools

A recent 2020 study at Tel Aviv University found that Palestine and Palestinians are not mentioned in Israeli school textbooks, rendering Palestinians invisible to them. Consequently, many Israeli children do not learn the history of Palestine, and they learn to view Palestinians as threats rather than neighbors.

Israeli-American author and activist Miko Peled hosted a round table discussion to understand and compare K-12 curriculums in Israel, Palestine, and the United States. Peled and panelists Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, Norfolk University; Dr. Nurit Peled-Elhanan, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and Dr. Ilham Nasser, Former Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Education in Palestine, sought to understand how Israel and Palestine are described in the different curricula and how those narratives affect society.

Peled and the panelists show us how American, Israeli, and Palestinian curricula are far from neutral when teaching about Palestine and Palestinians. This lack of neutrality creates divisions between Palestinians and Israeli settlers and validates ethnic cleansing.

Master Narratives in Israeli and Palestinian Classrooms

The roundtable discussion illuminated how master narratives are employed in American, Israeli, and Palestinian classrooms. Teachers emphasize the importance of sharing, cooperation, and avoiding all forms of violence and bullying to make schools a safe space for learning. However, educational curricula and textbooks have been found to promote dominating political agendas which contradict those ideals.

Peled-Elhanan shared maps from Israeli textbooks which only showed Jewish cities–hiding Palestinian cities–and even used imagery that emphasized the Palestinian presence as a threat. She described the way these edited maps are employed to create mental maps which influence students’ worldview. These maps show how Palestinian erasure create divisions among people and can result in violence.

(A slide from Peled-Elhanan’s slide): This map shows only Jewish cities, and it marks Arab populations in red and overlaying Jewish cities, symbolizing the Palestinian population as a threat to Jewish people.

Master narratives distort and erase marginalized people from history. It is clear that a curriculum in both Israel and the Palestinian territories which not only acknowledge each other but embrace the existence of diverse peoples will be imperative to forging a lasting peace. Rethinking the Israeli/Palestinian relationship requires a foundation of balanced and tolerant educational curricula.

Master Narratives in U.S. Classrooms

Peled’s previous webinar on the American education system uncovered how the curriculum taught about Palestine as a biblical reference, rather than a historical reference. American curriculums have maintained anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and anti-Palestinian slants due to the vast influence of extreme Zionist groups. Newby-Alexander envisions a future model of curriculum which would be devoid of those agendas and instead reflect the realities of history. She served as the co-chair of the Virginia Commission on African American History Education in the Commonwealth, which made recommendations for improving the way African American history is taught in Virginia schools by moving away from older master narratives.

Palestinian Erasure in Israeli Classrooms

Dr. Nurit Peled-Elhanan’s research is fueled by the question “How do nice Jewish [children] reach this point [of committing violence against Palestinian children]?” She found the answer to this difficult question in the Israeli school curriculum. Peled-Elhanan’s study of thirty textbooks showed that they legitimatize Israeli state apartheid. She finds that the textbooks explain Israeli control of the land as the only way to guarantee the prevention of another Holocaust, equating Palestinians and Arabs to the Nazis. Much like the Jewish people under Nazi Germany were abstracted into “the Jewish Problem,” the Israeli curriculum refers to Palestinians as a problem: a “refugee problem, developmental problem, demographic problem.”  To see the implications, imagine if U.S. textbooks referred to Blacks as a demographic problem.

(A slide from Peled-Elhanan): This image from an Israeli textbook shows how “Jews and others” are pitted against the “Arab population” with Jews, others, and Arabs as unexplained categories. The Arab population is represented by racist caricatures, implying a traditional and backward culture against a modern Jewish culture.

Palestinian Erasure in Palestinian Classrooms

Dr. Ilham Nasser’s research also found that textbooks in Palestine are highly reviewed and controlled by Israel, the United States, International Non-Governmental Organizations, and donors. The curriculum does not mention Palestine or Palestinian nationalism, and Nasser has found that Palestinians criticize the curriculum for being “too sanitized.” However, Israeli soldiers visit Palestinian schools and interrogate children daily to ensure conformity to the master narrative.

Nasser participated in a grassroots effort to establish a national curriculum for Palestinian kindergarten classes in 2017-2018. This group included a unit called “The Beautiful Palestine” in order to strengthen Palestinian identity in these youths; however, they were asked to “tone it down.” Nasser describes wanting to teach about the beauty of Palestinian cultural tradition of picking olives, but “when you talk about olives, you cannot talk about the destruction of olive trees by the settlers.” 

Consider hosting an exhibit to counter U.S. master narratives about Palestine.

To learn more, visit the Promised Land Museum and discover these top resources.

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