Jewish Political Studies Review
By Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld
How American Textbooks Mislead on Jews and Israel
Book Review: The Trouble with Textbooks: Distorting History and Religion
In recent years there has been increasing analysis of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic events, as well as biased academic teaching, on American campuses. Little however is known about prejudiced teaching in high schools. Evidence of its extent is mainly anecdotal.
One source of information on this topic is Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice-president of the Orthodox Union. The organization's youth group, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), has developed culture clubs in over 150 public schools across the U.S., and reaches thirty thousand Jewish youngsters. Weinreb says, "we find that many children are very anti-Israeli. They have been very much brainwashed by an extremely anti-Israeli educational establishment."
Anti-Semitic incidents in American schools receive more press attention. In October 2008 one which took place at the Parkway West Middle School in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield was even internationally publicized. Students there announced a "Hit a Jew Day," on which they struck Jewish classmates.
Many books used in schools are a major source of biased anti-Israeli teaching. Fifteen years ago Mitchell Bard published a study on eighteen of the history textbooks most widely used in American high schools, Rewriting History in Textbooks. He found them "full of factual errors, oversimplification, omission, and distortion, consistently to the detriment of Jews and Israel. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that the authors are prejudiced."
Bard added that "high schools are, as far as anti-Israeli teaching is concerned, even worse than universities. This problem has grown since the Arab terrorist attacks of 9/11. They prompted a desire to better understand the Muslim world. The people who are producing the information about it in textbooks are largely funded by the Saudis. They are presenting a version of Islamic history that is often very selective, to put it mildly. We have tried during the last couple of years to produce texts on the history of Israel and found it surprisingly difficult to get them into public schools."
Dr. Gary Tobin and Dennis R. Ybarra's new book, The Trouble with Textbooks: Distorting History and Religion, confirms Bard's findings. It makes an important and updated contribution to understanding better the dangers which teaching bias may present to American Jewry. Dr. Tobin is President of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, and Dennis R. Ybarra is a research associate there. Their research for the book reviewed twenty-eight high school textbooks from major publishers, focusing on four subjects: Jewish history, theology, and religion; the relationship between Judaism and Christianity; the relationship between Judaism and Islam; and the history, geography, and politics of the Middle East.
The authors' analysis provides a long list of mistakes, propaganda themes, and slanted information which have found their way into these textbooks. Tobin and Ybarra conclude that textbooks are frequently critical of Jews and Israel, while viewing Islam uncritically. So, for instance, Islam is presented in several textbooks as "revealed to Mohammed." The same texts do not use the term "revelation" for either Judaism or Christianity. One book states regarding the Ten Commandments that Moses "claimed" to have received them from God. Another says that Christians "believe" that Jesus was the Messiah (85).
The authors also found that Arab and Muslim interest groups try to whitewash and glorify all things Islamic and promote Islam. These organizations attempt, sometimes successfully, to push the Palestinian narrative. Their discourse promoting a whole array of lies has permeated American textbooks. Several of them obfuscate or minimize Palestinian terrorism, or even justify it. One book tries astutely to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state (92).
One textbook says that Jesus lived in "Northern Palestine." Yet the term Palestine came into use only much later. The authors rightly see in the inappropriate use of the term "ancient Palestine" a red flag indicating distortion. The myth that Jesus was a Palestinian is also presented. On the refugee issue, one text falsely says that Israel put the Palestinians in refugee camps (125), when in fact this was done by the Arab states who occupied parts of the former Palestinian Mandate and those to which the refugees fled. Most books do not mention the Jewish refugees who came to Israel (126). Several textbooks state that the Second Intifada was a spontaneous uprising, despite all the proofs from the Palestinian side that it had long been planned (149). The number of major fallacies and omissions is far too long to be itemized.
Tobin and Ybarra write: "Historical revisionists and their anti-Western, anti-American and pro-Palestinian perspectives have found their way into textbook content and are largely consonant with the Arab narrative." They also mention that "some textbooks enthusiastically recommend their works to students"(150). A major conclusion that arises from this book is that while there is an increased need for better information about the Middle East many publishers and educators disseminate politics and propaganda disguised as scholarship.
It is the combination of many parents' blind trust in schools together with indifference to what their children are being taught which makes correcting this problem so difficult. It will take many years at best to change the situation significantly.
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. Manfred Gerstenfeld, "The Orthodox Union and its Challenges," an interview with Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Changing Jewish Communities 23, 15 August 2007.
. Jim Salter, "Mo. Students Face Punishment for ‘Hit a Jew Day,'" Associated Press, 23 October 2008.
. Manfred Gerstenfeld, "Introducing Israel Studies in U.S. Universities," an interview with Mitchell Bard, Changing Jewish Communities 39, 15 December 2008.
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Manfred Gerstenfeld is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the JCPA and an editor of JPSR.