Working Paper no. 2: The Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Textbooks on the Modern Middle East: A Critical Survey

This paper is the second in a series of working papers in which we report on the results of a multi-year research project designed to survey the textbooks that are most commonly used to teach about the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflict in colleges and universities.
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Introduction to Working Paper no. 2
This paper is the second in a series of working papers in which we report on the results of a multi-year research project designed to survey the textbooks that are most commonly used to teach about the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflict in colleges and universities. The working papers associated with this project were written for instructors who are seeking to make informed choices about textbooks for their courses on the modern Middle East.

The project is an outgrowth of the Annual Tel Aviv University Workshop on Israel and the Middle East organized under the auspices of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. Until now, the workshop has not addressed the textbooks that are used to teach the conflict in colleges and universities. Most college and university instructors would agree that textbooks are of secondary importance. Even so, textbooks do carry the authority of print. It is assumed that textbooks, just by virtue of the fact that they are printed and bound, have passed a certain test of objectivity and are fit for academic consumption. This is not to say that instructors endorse the text (although some do). And it does not negate the fact that many instructors intentionally choose textbooks that are flawed in order to generate lively discussions and debate and even teach analytical skills such as critical reading and critical thinking. Although textbooks can be used in many different ways, they are still dominant and powerful educational tools that shape students' views. We are convinced that most lecturers who assign a textbook for background reading or for reference prefer to assign a textbook that is balanced, objective and free of political agenda to the greatest extent possible. Such a textbook can supplement classroom lectures, discussions and other learning activities by providing factual background reading, and by serving as a useful reference.

We began with the assumption that some textbooks that cover the Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian conflict are better than others. And we acknowledge that “better” is a relative term. Certainly we have our biases and we aim to be transparent about that in this report. Firstly, we believe that in order to understand the conflict, one must understand the basic national narratives of both Israel and the Palestinians as well as the narratives of the Arab states involved. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is smaller but tougher to resolve. Unlike the Egyptian, Jordanian or Syrian narratives of the conflict, the Israeli and Palestinian narratives are narratives of an existential struggle. Moreover, even while there is a multiplicity of viewpoints within the Israeli and Palestinian societies, there are two, established, competing national narratives about the causes and the evolution of the conflict and it is critically important to understand them on their own terms. This is true even if the narratives are official propaganda, myth or nationalist ideology. While it is a useful exercise to scrutinize, challenge and deconstruct these narratives, it is still essential for the student of the conflict to understand the basic narrative of each side, not as it is known to academics in Western universities, but as it is known by the parties themselves. How do Israeli and Palestinian children, for example, learn about the history of their nation and the history of the conflict? This is essential to understanding how the parties view each other. It is essential for understanding public opinion at given stages and it is essential for understanding the context of decisions taken and statements made. We are convinced that an understanding of the basic national narratives is essential background information for  anyone seeking to better understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and no textbook on the conflict is complete if it does not allow the student to have this basic understanding.

Another assumption we have is that the student of the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflict is best served by a textbook that strives to portray the nuances, shades and complexities of ideas, events and people groups rather than a textbook that overly simplifies them. We assume that the readers of these textbooks are people who have taken a genuine interest in the subject and are seeking to establish or refresh basic knowledge.

Laying on that foundation, we designed a multi-year research project to identify the textbooks that are most commonly used to teach about the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflict, analyze those textbooks and compare them to a set of criteria designed to assess the quality of textbooks that relate to the history of the conflict. We will describe the advantages and limitations of each book in the survey, in line with the criteria, and formulate recommendations for textbook selection.