The topic of the anti-Israel content contained in Palestinian textbooks — the incitement issue, it’s called — has long been a controversial one for Israelis as well as American Jews. When she was the junior senator from New York in the early 2000s, Hillary Clinton made a point of pushing the issue, trying to get the Palestinians to moderate the tone of the books hundreds of thousands of Palestinian students are exposed to. While a State Department-funded study from 2013 found that Palestinian textbooks didn’t demonize Israelis, other studies concluded that a violent curriculum did in fact exist.
Now, on the eve of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ visit to the White House next week, the issue is back in view. But this time, the textbooks in question are the ones the United Nations — not the Palestinian Authority education ministry — uses to teach more than 300,000 children in its schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
In a textbook example of shortsightedness, Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority has in recent days flexed its political muscle in a bid to stop the UN from rooting out extremism in its school books.
While the main focus of the Abbas-Trump May 3 meeting will be the prospects for a peace deal, Trump should not pass up the chance to raise the textbook issue, especially given the leverage he has to possibly cut UNRWA funding.
UNRWA, despite its reliance on funds from Western states like the U.S. that abhor extremism, uses the same textbooks as other Palestinian schools. Among the problems with these books is that they relate to Israelis as occupiers, demonize Israelis and Jews and refer to sovereign Israeli territory as Palestine.
A few weeks ago it emerged that the textbook language was set to soften. Amendments were being planned for the curriculum in UNRWA schools, and they were to start using books that acknowledge Jerusalem’s importance to the three major religions and eliminate incitement. The plan was leaked, prompting contrasting reactions. Israeli military authorities had rare enthusiasm for UNRWA and its “positive revisions,” while Abbas reacted furiously, even suspending relations with UNRWA for a few days.
The PA’s Education Ministry declared that it intended to take steps to punish anyone who tried to change or “fool with” the curriculum and said that “any attempt to change the curriculum would be considered aggression against Palestine and as obliterating the national identity,” according to translations of Palestinian media by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Information Centre.
This tantrum by the PA was enough to leave the agency of the mighty United Nations with its tail between its legs. UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Pierre Krähenbühl, went to Ramallah and reassured Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah that his agency will continue to teach whatever curriculum it is given by the PA.
According to an UNRWA statement, the commissioner-general said that the production of this enriching material happens “in dialogue with the Palestinian Authority, in particular the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, and in full recognition of the right of Palestinian students to learn about their identity, history and culture.”
In the blink of an eye, UNRWA went from an agent for change in Palestinian education to an organization that tows the PA line and buys into the PA argument that books that incite against Israel are teaching a valid narrative. But of course, one must respect what it so delicately termed the “right of Palestinian students to learn about their identity, history and culture.” UNRWA was insisting on moderate values, at least on the pages of textbooks; it’s now asserting the right of Palestinian politicians to dictate whatever narrative they want for internationally funded schools.
UNRWA had been serious about making changes, but the political backlash has derailed the process, I’m told by a source familiar with the discussions.
UNRWA is an agency with deep problems. It has been mired in scandals, including the (apparently unapproved) use of its facilities by militants during the Gaza War in 2014 and, most recently, the news on Saturday that staffer Suhail al-Hindi had left a job at its Gaza office. He had been suspended since February, when Israel alleged that he had been elected to a leadership position in Hamas.
The ending of al-Hindi’s employment and moves to reform the curriculum seems to have been part of a cleanup for the Trump era.
The Trump administration has generated fear in UNRWA — fear that funding could be reduced. The original plan for curriculum change appears to have been put together against this backdrop, with the hope that at least trying to take some action on the school book issue would help shield UNRWA from funding cuts.
The task before Trump now is to demand that Abbas’ PA stops standing in the way of UN schools for Palestinians becoming more moderate.
Trump can’t allow UNRWA officials to shrug and say that “we tried.” He can’t allow them to say that PA pressure derailed the plan, and meet with Abbas without dealing with these pressures. He should lay down the law to Abbas, and demand he tells UNRWA that the textbook reforms are back on. There are times when Trump’s forthright style may be used for good, and this is one of them. The curriculum of 300,000 youngsters is too important to be ignored.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.