In the Israeli-Palestinian public relations wars, it's conventional wisdom that the textbooks used in schools in the West Bank and Gaza breed hatred for Israel.
"They have textbooks that say, 'If there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left?" Newt Gingrich said when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination. "These textbooks don't give Palestinian children an education, they give them an indoctrination," then-Sen. Hillary Clinton said in 2007, based on criticism from an Israeli media watchdog.
But what if it's a lot more complicated -- and less one-sided -- than the vehement criticism suggests?
There's been evidence of this for years. In 2004, a study by an Israeli and Palestinian researcher of 13 Israeli textbooks and nine Palestinian ones found flaws on both sides. Other debunkers have pointed out that the original accusations were based on textbooks from Egypt or Jordan or incorrect translations.
This month was released the largest study to date comparing Palestinian and Israeli textbooks. Funded with $500,000 from the U.S. State Department and commissioned by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, a Jerusalem-based group of senior Islamic, Jewish and Christian religious figures, the study was conducted by Palestinian and Israeli researchers and designed by Yale psychiatrist Bruce Wexler.
The results are telling as much for the good news they bring as for the bad.
The lead researchers were Israeli professor Daniel Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University and Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University. They trained a team to analyze text books published in 2009 and 2011.
The Palestinians began with 148 books used in virtually all West Bank and Gaza schools. The Israelis started with 381 books from the Israeli state system, which includes both secular and religious schools, and 55 used in most ultra-Orthodox schools. Subjects examined included literature, history, Arabic, Hebrew, geography, civil and national education and religion. In other words, this study aimed for comprehensiveness.
It also aimed for rigor, with questions and ratings devised by professors Adwan and Bar-Tal. The questions covered the portrayal of historical events, war, conflict, peacemaking, reconciliation, religion, values and photographs, illustrations and maps. Data were entered blindly into a Yale University database, which meant researchers couldn't see how their entries were adding up as the study progressed.
And the findings?
Here's the good news: "Dehumanizing and demonizing characterizations of the other were very rare in both Israeli and Palestinian books." The research team found 20 extreme negative depictions in the Israeli state books, seven in the ultra-Orthodox books and six in the Palestinian books. An example from an Israeli book: A ruined Arab village "had always been a nest of murderers." An example from a Palestinian book: "I was in 'the slaughterhouse' for 13 days," referring to an Israeli interrogation center.
This could be a lot worse, right? Think of the recent revelation that Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi called Jews "descendants of apes and pigs," or of former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman's call in 2003 to drown Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea. Apparently there is nothing like that in any of the Palestinian or Israeli textbooks.
On other fronts, there is work to be done, especially in the Palestinian and ultra-Orthodox books. For example, 84 percent of the literature pieces in the Palestinian books portray Israelis and Jews negatively, 73 percent of the pieces in the ultra-Orthodox books portray Palestinians and Arabs negatively. Only 49 percent of the pieces in Israeli state schools do the same.
In an Israeli state school text, a passage reads: "The Arab countries have accumulated weapons and ammunition and strengthened their armies to wage a total war against Israel." In the ultra-Orthodox, it ratchets up: "Like a little lamb in a sea of 70 wolves is Israel among the Arab states." In the Palestinian case: "The enemy turned to the deserted houses, looting and carrying off all they could from the village that had become grave upon grave."
These statements aren't necessarily false, but they are one-sided and fear mongering and rarely balanced by anything sunnier. Palestinians and Arabs are portrayed positively 11 percent of the time in Israeli state schoolbooks and 7 percent of the time in ultra-Orthodox books. Jews and Israelis are portrayed positively 1 percent of the time in Palestinian books. The photographs and illustrations in the Palestinian books were far more likely to be negative than the ones in the Israeli books; there were also far fewer of them.
One striking characteristic of only the Israeli state books is a willingness to be self-critical. This evolution began in the late 1990s as textbooks began to admit that some Palestinians left their land within Israel because they were expelled and began to make reference to the Arab name for Israel's War of Independence in 1948: the Naqba, or Catastrophe.
State textbooks also began to ask Israeli students how they would have felt about Zionism if they'd been in the place of the Palestinians. There is still far less of this in either the ultra-Orthodox or Palestinian books. The Palestinian texts, for instance, don't deal in any significant way with the Holocaust or its relationship to the founding of Israel.
As for maps, 58 percent of those in Palestinian textbooks published after 1967 made no reference to Israel; the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea was labeled Palestine. In the Israeli state system, 65 percent of maps made no mention of Palestine or the Palestinian Authority; in the ultra-Orthodox system that figure was 95 percent. This captures how politicized the teaching of history and geography has become -- with both sides at times literally wiping each other off the map.
The Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't accept the study, let alone its results. "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," declared the Ministry of Education.
Professors Adwan, Bar-Tal and Wexler defended their methodology. "The sad thing to me is that it seems the Israeli ministry would rather maintain a propaganda point they know to be false than to get real change in the Palestinian books and in their own books," Mr. Wexler said. By contrast, he said, a Palestinian official apparently told U.S. diplomats that "these are the facts he needs to fix their books."
Sociologist Sammy Smooha of Haifa University, who conducts an annual survey of Arab and Jewish relations, says that the goal now should be to write textbooks that do more to expose each side to the other's narrative. "You have to engage with the other side's arguments in a serious manner and not just build up a straw man in order to break it."
A few years ago, Mr. Adwan, Tel Aviv University history professor Eyal Naveh and Israeli historian Dan Bar-On co-authored a book called "Side by Side" that presented a "dual narrative" of all major events in the region since 1917. Mr. Naveh calls the book "a successful failure." Though it was lauded by the international press and continues to sell abroad, it was banned by both the Israeli and Palestinian education ministries.
Perhaps this helps explain the modesty of the latest study's recommendations. The authors call for committees on both sides to examine current and future textbooks. Mr. Wexler said, "We're just asking each ministry to look at our report, to look at their books and to see if there are some things they might want to consider changing."
Emily Bazelon and Ruth Margalit write for Slate, where a longer version of this article first appeared.