Schooled as Martyrs

"The noble soul has two goals: death and the desire for it." "He fell as a martyr and irrigated the land with his pure blood." --"Our Beautiful Language", Palestinian Authority text book for 11-12 year olds

"From history books and maps to simple grammar exercises and language lessons, Palestinian children are being inculcated with hate for Israel and the Jewish people. You cannot preach peace while you are teaching hate." -- Sen. Hillary Clinton, (D-NY); June 15, 2001

Has Yasser Arafat "opted for terrorism", as Israel's Ariel Sharon charged Monday? The question does not merely address whether the Palestinian leader knew of this weekend's attacks. It also asks: how much has Mr Arafat, in his years building the new government of the Palestinian Authority, promulgated a culture that is fertile ground for suicide terrorists?

More than one might like, is the answer that emerges from a study by Arabic scholar Goetz Nordbruch published on Sunday night by the Middle East Media Research Institute (www.Memri.org), a Washington and Jerusalem-based nonprofit dedicated to providing objective translations of the Arab press. In "Narrating Palestinian Nationalism", Mr Nordbruch, a German who is an alumnus of the University of Damascus, reviews school textbooks developed for 6 year olds and 11-12 year olds following the Oslo Accord.

Under agreements following Oslo, both Israel and the PLO were required "to foster mutual understanding and tolerance" and to "abstain from incitement including hostile propaganda." As a response, 20 new textbooks were developed at the Curriculum Development Centre in Ramallah. The books, Mr Nordbruch concluded, are something of a mixed bag. They don't contain much outright incitement. But they do three troubling things; teach racialism, "impugn the Jewish character all along to the present day," and most dangerously, nurture "the wish for self-sacrifice and martyrdom among the youth."

For starters, there is a chapter in the book for older children entitled "The Human Race and its origins." It seeks to classify humans by racial category, such as "Negro", "Caucasian" or "Mongols." ''People," the text reads, "are divided into various species [ajnas] which are characterized by specific physical features." Such cranioscopy-based, as Mr Nordbruch notes, on long discarded racial theories, validates prejudice in a place where obliterating it should be a primary goal.

Even more disconcerting is the image of the Jewish people. They are portrayed not so much as a people with a right to their own statethe view acknowledged in the Oslo accordbut first of all, via a history lesson, as betrayers of Christ and Christians. Thus a first grade book describes Pontius Pilate's sentencing of Jesus. There is even an illustration, creepily reminiscent of Medieval jew-baiting material from Europe, of the famous Judas Kiss.

When it comes to Israel, notes MEMRI's president Yigal Carmon, the books fail to acknowledge its existence. Maps of Palestine for example include all of what is now Israel; Israel as a state (in any form) and Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv are not depicted. This is a vision of the region more hostile to Israel than anything agreed upon at Oslo.

Worst of all though -- at least in the context of the weekend bombings -- is the attention the books dedicate to the notion of martyrdom. There is an educational unit on "the honorable martyr", Hamza Ibn Abd Al-Muttalib, a contemporary of Mohammed's; the unit is there, the text says, to confirm "the honor of martyrdom and martyrs". This tradition, notes author Nordbruch, is linked explicitly to the present day, with a chapter on "Prison Literature" (Palestinians in Israeli jails) and a section on the Intifida. As Mr. Nordbruch points out, the material totally disregards the wrong of the violence. What's more, the textbooks challenge young people to participate in Intifada with leading questions such as "What steps can be taken against the expropriation of Palestinian territory?".

Author Nordbruch takes pains to note that these texts are less inflammatory than much of the instruction that goes on in the Arab world. Still, when we ask where Palestinian suicide bombers may learn about martyrdom, the answer has to remain: in school.

© Copyright 2001 Financial Times

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