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UK school textbooks on Middle East conflict altered to favour Israel: Report

Publisher says it is now pausing further distribution of the books which it had amended after a complaint from UK Lawyers for Israel
The fact that during the first intifada of 1987-93 the arms and fingers of Palestinian child stone throwers were broken by Israeli soldiers has been removed from the revised edition (AFP)

The international publisher Pearson has paused further distribution of two textbooks used by UK high schools after a group of academics said in a report that they distorted the historical record and failed to offer pupils a balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

The report found that alterations had been made to text, timelines, maps and photographs, as well as to sample student essays and questions.

It concluded that "school children should not be supplied with propaganda under the guise of education" and called for their immediate withdrawal.

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The textbook alterations were made last year after an intervention by the Board of Deputies of British Jews working together with UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI). 

The books, titled Conflict in the Middle East and The Middle East: Conflict, Crisis and Change, both by author Hilary Brash, are read by thousands of GCSE and International GCSE students annually. 

Pearson did not reply to requests from Middle East Eye as to whether Brash had agreed to the changes.

GCSEs are the academic qualifications studied for by UK secondary school students to the age of 16.

The eight-page report, by Professors John Chalcraft and James Dickins, Middle East specialists in History and Politics, and in Arabic, respectively, and members of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), found hundreds of changes to the textbooks - averaging three changes per page. 

'Independent review'

The executive of the National Education Union (NEU), the UK's main teaching union, has expressed its concern about the findings outlined in the report, as well as the editorial process which led to the changes.

The NEU has said it will be contacting the publishers for clarification.

The report noted that despite the scale of the changes the books carry no notice that they have been revised. 

In a statement sent to MEE, Pearson said: “Our core editorial principle is to support the teaching of this important period in Middle East history in a fair, neutral and balanced way.  

"We welcome feedback but we have robust processes in place to review any feedback – this is particularly important for such a sensitive period of time in history.  

"We commissioned an independent review of these books last year and the changes made were based on the outcome of that review. 

“We stand by our texts but had already taken the decision to pause further distribution while we discuss further with stakeholders.” 

Facts removed

The report highlights multiple examples of changes to the original text. In one example the original version says that "international law states that a country cannot annex or indefinitely occupy territory gained by force". This is the overwhelming international legal consensus. 

The revised version replaces this with: "Some argue that international law states that a country cannot annex or indefinitely occupy territory gained by force".

In another case, the original edition includes the statement that during the first intifada of 1987-93 "the arms and fingers of [Palestinian] child stone throwers were broken [by Israeli soldiers]". This fact is well documented. In the revised edition it has been removed.

The Deir Yassin massacre (in which Israeli forces killed at least 107 Palestinian civilians) is described in the original version of the International GCSE textbook as "one of the worst atrocities of the [1948] war". In the revised edition the word "atrocities" has been replaced by "acts".

With regard to Palestinian suffering under Israeli military occupation, the original version states: "To make money, many Palestinians had to work in Israel, where they did unskilled jobs even if they were well educated."

The revised version reads: "While some Palestinians benefited from higher wages from working in Israel, they often did less skilled jobs even if they were well educated." The report states that the "revised text thus unjustifiably removes the element of compulsion".

'Shocking and unacceptable'

The report found that many references to Jewish and/or Israeli violence and aggression have been removed or softened, while references to Arab and/or Palestinian violence or aggression have been systematically added or intensified.

In the original version of the domestic GCSE textbook there are 10 references to Jewish terrorism and 32 to Palestinian terrorism (in each case including use of ‘terror’, ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’).

After revision there are four references to terrorism by Jewish groups, and 61 references to terrorism by Palestinian ones.

Professor Chalcraft, one of the authors of the report, said: “Overwhelmingly, the changes which have been made to these texts add or substitute statements, information and interpretations which favour an Israeli narrative, and remove or replace those that support Palestinian narratives. 

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"The overall effect is to make these books dangerously misleading.”

Khaled Fahmy, professor of Arabic Studies, King's College Cambridge, said: “While it is laudable that Middle Eastern history books are regularly revised and updated, the manner in which these two school textbooks have been revised is shocking and unacceptable. 

"School textbooks should be revised based on the advice and expertise of academics and scholars, not by reviewers selected by an organisation of lawyers whose rationale is advocating for a foreign country.”

'We are pleased with the final material'

A statement issued by the Board of Deputies of British Jews in September 2020 described the process leading to the revision of the textbooks: “After initial constructive conversations with Pearson, the Board of Deputies worked together with UKLFI [UK Lawyers for Israel] to produce thorough comments on both textbooks, which Pearson have received and acted upon. 

"After detailed and lengthy process over a number of months, the books have now been published for students to use in the 2020-1 academic year."

Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: "We applaud Pearson for their openness to constructive feedback and willingness to revise these textbooks. 

"We are pleased with the final material, which gives a balanced and accurate portrayal of the Middle East conflict. 

"I would like to pay specific tribute and thanks to UKLFI for their hard work on this project and their collaborative effort with us to get these textbooks to where they needed to be.”

'Publisher should reassess these textbooks'

A spokesperson for the publisher refers to "a new edition" with regard to the textbooks, but there is no indication for the reader of the revised texts that these were new editions, or any indication of the extent of the revisions that had been made to the originals.

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Henry Maitles, Emeritus Professor of Education, University of the West of Scotland, said: “The amendments seem to me to take some perfectly balanced books and turn them into one-sided, biased resources. 

"It is important in dealing with contested issues that a balanced approach is taken. These changes take these textbooks away from this. 

"They are now in danger of being seen as propaganda. The publisher should reassess these textbooks and ensure that balance is returned to them.”

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