The Portrayal of Arabs in Textbooks in the Jewish School System in Israel

By Abu-Saad, Ismael | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Winter 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Portrayal of Arabs in Textbooks in the Jewish School System in Israel

Abu-Saad, Ismael, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


THREE DOMINATING INFLUENCES IN the portrayal of Arabs in the Ministry of Education-approved textbooks of the Jewish school system in Israel are: 1) orientalism, 2) the Zionist mission to build a Jewish nation-state in Palestine, out of which the on-going Israeli-Arab conflict emerged, and 3) an Israeli-Jewish frame of mind determined by a victim or siege mentality.

"Orientalism" is based on the concept developed by the late Professor Edward Said (1978) that refers to the way in which Eastern cultures were viewed, described and represented by Western academic scholarship, politics, and literature. Said's main critique was aimed at how the Western economic, political and academic powers developed a dichotomized discourse in which an inherently superior West was juxtaposed with an Eastern "Other" according to terms and definitions determined by the West itself. Orientalism created an image of the Orient as separate, backward, silently different, irrational and passive. It was characterized by despotism and resistance to progress; and since the Orient's value was judged in terms of, and in comparison to the West, it was always the "Other", the conquerable and the inferior. Orientalism emerged during the era of European colonialism, and lent crucial support to the colonial endeavor of a 'superior' Europe conquering and bringing enlightenment, progress and civilization to the inferior, unenlightened inhabitants of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Americas and Australia. When the question of the potential injustice of displacing the Palestinians in order to establish a Jewish state in Palestine was raised, Winston Churchill responded:

      I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final
   right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a
   very long time.... I do not admit that a wrong has been done
   these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade
   race, or at any rate, a more world-wise race ... has come in and
   taken their place (quoted in Prior 1999, 192).

European orientalist discourse perceived and depicted Palestinian Arabs as less than fully or equally human, and this same perspective shaped the approach and attitudes of the European fathers of the Zionist movement, toward the indigenous Arab population in Palestine. For example, when the head of the colonization department of the Jewish Agency asked Chaim Weizman what he thought about the indigenous Palestinians, Weizman was quoted as saying: "The British told us that there are some hundred thousand Negros ['kushim'] and for those there is no value" (Masalha 1997, 62). These attitudes permeated the early Zionist settlement movement in Palestine, and went on to color the way in which Palestinian Arabs were depicted in the textbooks of the pre-state schools of the Jewish Zionist settlements.

The second and closely related influence to have a dominant and longstanding effect on the portrayal of Arabs in Israeli Jewish school textbooks is the mission of the Zionist movement. This nationalist movement was developed by a group of the Jewish intelligentsia in Europe in the late 1800s with the goal of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Zionism was based on the premise that Palestine was a territory which belonged exclusively to the Jewish people due to their presence on the land during biblical times. The Jewish settlement of Palestine was presented as an ideological and moral project that also provided a solution to the anti-Semitism that had plagued the Jews in their European diaspora communities (Yiftachel 2003). The Zionist movement, portrayed Palestine as a "land without a people, for a people without a land," and the Zionist immigrants to Palestine as pioneers coming to conquer an inhospitable environment, and make the barren desert bloom (Masalha 1997). With the rise of the nation-state in Europe in the 19th century, textbooks--and history textbooks in particular--were used by the state to glorify the nation, consolidate a national identity, and justify the state's social and political systems.

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