A conversation with Professor Nasser

FDU’s own Riad Nasser was part of an international team of scholars whose research on Israeli and Palestinian textbooks has been making headlines lately in outlets like The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Slate.com. As an Israeli Palestinian, Nasser has seen both sides of the constant conflicts in the Middle East. Nasser is a professor of sociology at the College at Florham.

FDU: Tell us a little bit about the study…

RN: The study was begun in 2009.  It had one main goal which is to answer a simple question: how do Palestinian and Israeli textbooks used in each community's school system portray the other?  The study examined 640 textbooks (492 Israeli and 148 Palestinian), counting cases of dehumanization and other negative imagery. 

FDU: What were the significant findings of the study?

RN: Contrary to popular belief, there are very few instances of dehumanizing characterizations of the other in Israeli and Palestinian textbooks.  However, as two sides of a conflict, each one claiming national rights on the same territory, both sides portray the other as enemies. For example, the study found that both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks omitted information pertaining to the presence of the other (e.g. maps).

FDU: What was your role in the research?

RN: I served as a member of the advisory team, which reviewed the methodology and formulated the research questions. For a few months in 2010, I joined the research team, but was unable to continue with it, due to the frequent travel obligations (the research team was meeting regularly in Jerusalem).

FDU: What was special about this study?

RN: There have been previous studies on Israeli and Palestinian textbooks, but this one was of a much greater scope than the others and used a much larger sample of textbooks. Past studies have focused on history, civics, and geography, while this study was far more comprehensive and also examined more categories, such as literature and language.  Overall, this study is a good contribution to the body of scholarship on the conflict in the Middle East. (Editor’s note: Professor Nasser has been doing textbook analysis for 15 years and has published two books and several articles on the subject, focusing on Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.)

FDU: Even before the study was published, there was substantial criticism of the study…

RN: RN: Yes, the Israeli Ministry of Education criticized it saying, "The clear impression formed is that it is a 'study' with predetermined findings that were reached even before it was professionally carried out, and it certainly does not reliably reflect reality." In my view, it was hard for the Ministry to see its own face in the mirror, and realize that their textbooks are similarly, biased. In addition, as often happens in conflict situations, each side believes he/she is better and far more superior to one’s opponent. This is what the Ministry added: "The attempt to create a parallel between the Israeli education system and the Palestinian education system is completely unfounded and lacks any basis in reality."

Setting aside the Ministry’s objections, in my view, the weakness of the study is in its omission of the power gap between the three parties, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Palestinian citizens in Israel and Jews in Israel. There is a nation under occupation, the Palestinian people in the occupied West Bank, and there is an occupying power, the State of Israel. There are also second-class citizens, the Palestinian minority citizens of Israel. These contextual facts and their impact on images of the Other, are not mentioned in the study. In the study, the occupier and the occupied are treated as if they were both long-established nations and equals (e.g. France and Switzerland). There was no mention of the power differences between the education system in Israel and Palestine. For example, the daily experiences of many Palestinians in the occupied West Bank with Jewish Israelis are limited to either Israeli soldiers at checkpoints or Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories. Similarly, Jewish Israelis no longer interact with Palestinians in their daily lives. Their only images of Palestinians are limited to Palestinians either as workers at construction sites, or as terrorists reported in the news.

FDU: What is the importance of textbooks in the ongoing conflict?

RN: There are assumptions that textbooks create; they help build a sense of self and a national sense of identity. However, the political campaign to change textbooks in the Middle East is misleading because it is based on the idea that if we can change the books, then everything will be fine. The reality the people on both sides live in is more important than textbooks. In my view, the reality on the ground has to change for images of the Other to change. 

Growing up in Israel as a Palestinian, I studied at a Palestinian school. In Israel, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports determines the curricula for all schools in the state, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. Israeli Palestinian scholars and educators have no say or control over the content of their schools’ curriculum.  There is little mentioning of Arab history and culture in the curricula, and history of Palestine is portrayed to students from a Jewish historical perspective.  Even, modern events such as the 1948 war, is little discussed in the textbooks.  Growing up, my friends and I knew the textbooks were not telling us the whole story about the 1948 war, for example. Our parents told us different things than the textbooks. The reality we lived in was different from what the textbooks mentioned.  

This doesn’t mean that textbooks are not important, but they are not causing the conflict—they are an outcome of the conflict. There are much bigger issues under the surface than the textbooks themselves. 

In short, it is true that school textbooks are influential, among other factors, in the process of socialization of the young generation.  We, particularly in our modern era, treat written words with more respect than oral reporting. For that reason, school textbooks, I would say are important. At the same time, personal and collective daily experiences are far more influential in shaping our perception of reality than any written text. 

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

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