Teaching Hostility: The Representation of Palestinians in Israeli Schoolbooks

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Upon entering an Israeli school, one is immediately struck by slogans that proclaim “Love the other,” “Respect differences,” and “The Other Is Me!”[1] However, in view of the fraught inter-group relations prevailing in the country, the separation between Jewish and Arab schools, the quota set for Ethiopian Jewish children, and the exclusion of children of foreign workers and economic migrants, one may wonder, who are these “others” that Israeli children are encouraged to respect, love, and identify with?



The only thing that unites the antagonistic Jewish ethnic groups in Israel is fear of the enemy and the quest for a Jewish national “purity” along with the belief that only a Jewish majority and a strong Jewish army can prevent another Holocaust, this time perpetrated by the Palestinians or other Muslim powers, such as Iran.

The most recent civic studies textbook Being Citizens in Israel: A Jewish Democratic State (2016, 15) reiterates time and again that the Jews must maintain their majority in the land of Israel/Palestine called Eretz Israel, because “our people still bleeds,” and the state of Israel with its strong army ensures that the Jews will not once again become a minority that can easily be exterminated by hostile majorities. The book asserts that “the Holocaust that befell the Jewish people during WWII is proof of the existential need to found a state where the Jews can live in security.” (31, 325).

The book explains that the Law of Return, which entitles every Jew in the world to Israeli citizenship upon arrival, serves to safeguard the Jewish majority, because this majority is not secure as long as the borders of the state have not been defined to Israel’s satisfaction and the Palestinians’ demand for an equivalent right of return has not been buried  (ibid.).

Securing a Jewish majority justifies violating international law and decisions as Going the Civil Way (2012, 250) declares: “Upon the founding of the state of Israel, many Arabs fled the land. The state does not allow them to return and reunite with their families in order to secure the Jewish majority”.


Rhetoric of Victimhood and Power

The Jewish army as the epitome of Zionism’s victorious response to Nazism is heralded in the Minister of Education’s communications to teachers and students. On September 1,2020, he emphasized the values of Zionism: “love of the land and of the nation, the importance and uniqueness of the Israeli army.”

And on Holocaust Day 2020:

“… How long it took for this nation to cover the distance from the lonely shoe of a baby girl in Auschwitz to an IDF military tank? It took only three years! Three years. This is the wonder of  [our] resurrection.”

Although these letters were circulated to all teachers and students, it was clearly addressed solely to Jewish students and teachers. The 20% Palestinian-Israeli teachers and students were obviously excluded.

However, civic Studies schoolbooks assure students that a democracy can be an exclusionary and segregationist Ethnocracy: “There is no contradiction between the fact that Israel is a civil nation of citizens [in which] several ethno-cultural minorities live and that the only nationality that enjoys self-determination is the Jewish one.”(Diskin 2013,165).


Jewifying the Land

Schoolbooks justify the ongoing endeavor to distance Palestinian citizens from the land by the need to “Jewify” the entire country.

“[we must] preserve the national land and protect it from illegal invasion by the  non-Jewish population, to acquire  land for development in order to prevent [the formation of] a territorial sequence of non-Jewish settlements,  lest an Arab sequence brings about the detachment of the Galilee from the state of Israel.”[2]

Israeli Palestinian citizens and their culture are erased from the Israeli scene altogether and consequently from schoolbooks. Even those that teach Arabic as a second language, in which 529 photographs as well as texts were found that addressed various populations, none of which represented Arab-Israeli people.[3] The Palestinian inhabitants on both sides of the unmarked international border are missing from maps, photographs, and graphs as well as from reports about art, economy, science, and literature. They are mentioned only in the context of the problems they constitute for Israel.

In the Geography textbook People in Space (p. 76), a graph depicting the average marriage age for women as one of the characteristics of development, manages to register Israel as the last bar in a series of “developed countries” thanks to a minuscule footnote that explains: * Note: The Israeli data refer only to the Jewish population.”

The absence of Palestinians from the landscape is best manifested through cartographic silence (Henrikson 1994, 60).

Israel in the 21st Century 2009: The proliferation of Arab population in Israel 2005:

This map shows the relative size of the “Arab population,” namely of the Palestinian citizens within the state of Israel. The impression gained is that these “Arabs,” penetrate “our” cities, and fuse with us, encroach upon us. Thus, the map seems like a warning or a call for action. The colorless West Bank on this map is depicted in the legend as “an area for which there are no data,” in other words it is “terra nullius” empty of people and ready to be populated.



Palestinians are never presented in schoolbooks as human beings with whom we can identify or seek to become close to, and the very few photographs that depict them are invariably “evidence” of terror and backwardness (Peled Elhanan 2012). Their stereotypization fixes them in the unchanging “race” that was assigned to them.

Following is an example of this practice:

“The Arab society is traditional and objects to changes by its nature, [it is] reluctant to adopt novelties […]. The Arabs refuse to live in high-rise buildings and insist on living in one-storey land-exploiting houses.” (Geography of the Land of Israel 2003, 303).

 The Palestinians who remained on the land in 1948 are frequently defined as obstacles on the way to a purely Jewish state. They are “our” problems: the refugee problem, a “developmental problem,” a “demographic problem” and a “security threat.”  These problems often act as “a self-directed phenomenon, independently of human action or cause.” (Van Leeuwen, ibid.) Following is an example from the schoolbook The 20th Century ((Barnavi 1999, 184).

“Although Israel emerged victorious from the war of survival that was forced upon her, for more than a generation the Palestinian problem would poison the relationship between Israel and the Arab world, and with the international community.”

By defining Palestinians as a problem Israeli schoolbooks set them in a hierarchy that justifies their removal while legitimating Jewish superiority and the privilege of the Israeli colonizer to “usurp of indigenous land and goods”(Memmi 2005).

One measure of segregating Palestinian citizens is the Law of Citizenship according to which Palestinian married couples that constitute of an Israeli citizen and a Palestinian subject from the Occupied Territories require a permit to live together. The law, which was renewed and approved on March 2022, is legitimated in all Civic Studies schoolbooks. Here is one example:

“Some defend the law in the name of Israel’s Defensive Democracy and Israel’s right to eliminate the danger of terror attacks. Some commend the law for nationalist reasons and the need to prevent Palestinian immigration and maintain the Jewish character of the state. […] The Supreme Court ruled (by 6 against 5) that the law is constitutional. […] and that “human rights are not a recipe for national suicide because the loss of human life cannot be rectified” (Shahar 2010).[4]

Being Citizens in Israel (2016, 68) asserts likewise that “Human rights are not the scene for national extermination. [They] should not be turned into the hatchet that would wipe [the state] out.”

The objective of removing Palestinian citizens from the land legitimates the current occupation and the permanent confinement imposed by the military government of 1948-1966 on all Palestinian citizens. Schoolbooks justify this period of ongoing siege by the overriding need to keep as much land as possible in Jewish hands:

 “The military government helped Jewish settlement all over the country and prevented Arab seizure of vacant lands.” (Shahar 2010, 138).

These “vacant lands” or “state land” were confiscated from the Palestinians.

The practices of the Occupation such as the separation wall, check-points, targeted assassinations, administrative detention (“detaining a person without trial, without being able to meet a lawyer for an indefinite span of time,” Going the Civilian Way 2012)) house demolition, confiscation of land, curfew, and the use of “mild” physical and psychological pressure (“not torture,” ibid.) are explicitly rationalized and legitimated in the name of our “defensive democracy”.


Blaming the Victim

Schoolbooks present Palestinian ethnic cleansing as a result of the Palestinians’ own choice to leave or abandon their land and portray them as bearing the guilt for their discrimination and loss of life. For example:

“When you go to war you cannot lament your defeat.” (Diskin 2013,200)

Or: “The Arabs brought this upon themselves for they fought the Jews to destruction.” (Blank 2006, 323)

According to Israeli political discourse and schoolbooks Palestinians are killed either because they don’t do as they are told or by mistake. Some books offer technical explanations but none provides any testimony of victims. Following are some examples:

Regarding the Deir Yassin Massacre of 1948:

“The loud-speaker encouraging the inhabitants of Deir-Yassin to leave the village did not work […] the people did not leave the village and this is the reason why the number of casualties among them was so high.” (Naveh et al. 2009, 113)

Regarding the Kibya Massacre in 1953:

“The soldiers did not know that people were hiding in their homes that night.”  (Bar Hilel and Inbar 2004, 244)


Legitimating Killing

Most Israeli schoolbooks legitimate the killing of Palestinians by means of consequential explanations, namely on the strength of the far-reaching positive consequences for Israel, which are turned a-posteriori into a cause (Peled-Elhanan 2012). The Kibya massacre, during which general Ariel Sharon – later prime minister of Israel – and his notorious unit 101 demolished an entire village and its inhabitants as an act of revenge for the killing of a mother and two children in Yahud, “brought about some [sense of] security to Jews in their homes”[5], “restored the morale and dignity of the army and helped it become a vigorous deterrent army whose long arm can reach the enemy deep in its own territory.” (Inbar 2004; Blank 2006)

Palestinian casualties are never referred to as “victims,” and when soldiers are sent to kill them “they are told to shoot targets, which fall when they are hit.” (Bauman 1989, 103) For instance, in Blank’s schoolbook (2004:244) we read that:

“Most of the raids were aimed at civilian targets, and included stake-outs and incursions deep behind the border lines.”

Eliminating these superfluous or the threatening others does not destroy anything but rather creates something new and positive. Thus, alongside reports of Palestinian deaths in schoolbooks we invariably find depictions of achievements, improved conditions, and salvation of the Jewish people. For example:

“In the months thereafter (the Deir Yassin massacre) the Jewish yishuv was privileged with successes.” (Tabibian 2001)


“Although the massacre of Deir Yassin did not inaugurate the panicked flight of Israel’s Arabs[…]it accelerated it greatly. The flight of the Arabs resolved a terrifying demographic problem and even a moderate person such as [the first president] Weizmann spoke of it as “a miracle.” (Barnavi 1998, 184)

Visually, the killers are always portrayed as legendary figures and role models for Israeli youth (Peled-Elhanan 2012), and are hailed verbally as upstanding moral and loyal citizens (Naveh et al. 2009, 204).



Schoolbooks in Israel inculcate a settler-colonial logic of exclusion and elimination (Pappe 2012) as the only logic that applies to the relationships with Palestinian co-citizens and colonized neighbors. They employ racist discourse to describe these “others” as deserving confinement, distancing, and elimination (Peled-Elhanan, 2012), thus promoting “elite racism” (Reisigle and Wodak 2001), which is a strain of racism that is dictated from above and is inculcated through schoolbooks, the press, parliamentary speeches, and history books.

Institutionalizing the “otherness” of the Palestinians through the erasure of their memory, their representation as primitive nomads and potential terrorists, and the visual depiction of the “terra nullius” narrative, along with the overriding rights endowed to the Jews by the Holocaust and the Bible, provides moral justification for the occupation of Palestine and Israel’s oppressive practices.

The Palestinians’ stereotypical portrayal in schoolbooks seeks to justify the direct and structural violence to which they fall victim and render it acceptable. Moreover, this cultural violence affects not only Palestinian citizens and subjects but also Israeli school children. The inculcation of fear and racism with regard to neighbors and co-citizens, and the legitimation of colonialist violence harms the students by turning them into heterophobic beings, who regard others as non-human or at least less human than themselves, and renders them prone to inflict violence without scruples (or sometimes with scruples) once they are drafted into the army, believing that this is the way to save their people from another shoah. In order to persuade these youngsters that the transgression of the laws and norms they were taught to respect and obey is legitimate, the books reproduce biased narratives that do not invite discussion or questioning, employing a religious and political-legal legitimating discourse while foreclosing the “other version” – that of the victims.

The interest motivating this distorted representation of Palestinian citizens and subjects appears to be to ease the path of the students into military service, during which they will be required to commit acts that contradict all the values and norms they have been taught to respect, especially those regarding human rights to freedom, dignity, and a fair trial. The one-sided, simplistic, and biased presentation of the enduring occupation and the permanent state of exception in which Palestinians live, likewise attests to the interest of the authors to show Israel’s future citizens how their state defends itself against accusations on the part of human rights defenders and international law. Given all this, it is no surprise that the state of Israel has never encouraged “peace education” or any official mixing between Jewish and Palestinian-Israeli students. This also explains the prohibition to use the two series of the joint Israeli-Palestinian textbooks that juxtapose the two official narratives against one another.[6]

[1] The Other is Me is a nation-wide project launched by the Ministry of Education. See ms.education.gov.il/EducationCMS/Units/ui/

[2] The Geography of the Land of Israel. 2003, 240.

[3] ייצוג-והנכחה-של-החברה-הערבית-בחומרי-לימוד-Representation and foregrounding of the Arab society in school curricula. 2.pdf (sikkuy.org.il). 2019

[4]See Neiman, N. N. Chairman of the Central Elections Committee of the 11th Knesset 1985. The quote is from Supreme Court Judge Aharon Barak. ע”ב 2/84 ניימן נ’ יו”ר ועדת הבחירות המרכזית לכנסת האחת עשרה, פ”ד לט(2) 225, 310 (1985)

[5] Avieli-Tabibian 2001; Domka et al. 2009; Naveh 2009

[6] The two series are: Sami AdwanDan Bar-OnEyal Naveh (editors). 2012. Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine.  Peace Research Institute in the Middle East. The New Press; and Learning about Each Other’s Narrative. 2007. The Van Leer Institute and Al Quds University.



The Cited Schoolbooks

Civic Studies

Alperson, Bilhah, Dubi Tamir, and Dana Shtrakman. 2016. Being Citizens in Israel – A Jewish Democratic State. Jerusalem: The Ministry of Education.

Diskin, Abraham. 2013. Israel in Politics and Government. Maggie Publishers, Israel.

Rothberg, Naftali. 2011. Values and Citizens. Civic Studies through Active Learning. Van Leer Institute and Rehes Publishers.

Shahar, David. 2010. Citizenship in the State of Israel.Tel Aviv: Kineret.

Geldi, Bina, Nisan Naveh and Asaf Matzkin (2012) Going the Civilian Way. Tel Aviv Rahes Publishers.



Avieli-Tabibian, K. 2001 The Age of Horror and Hope: Chapters in History for Grades 10–12. Tel Aviv: The Centre for Educational Technologies.

Avieli-Tabibian, K. 2009. Journeys in Time: Building a State in the Middle East. Tel Aviv: The Center for Educational Technology.

Bar-Navi, E. 1998. The 20th Century: A History of the People of Israel in Recent Generations, for Grades 10–12. Tel Aviv: Sifrei Tel Aviv.

Bar-Navi, E. and Nave, E. (1999) Modern Times Part II – The History of the People of Israel, for Grades10–12. Tel Aviv: Sifrei Tel Aviv.

Blank, N. 2006. The Face of the 20th Century. Tel Aviv: Yoel Geva.

Domka, E., H. Urbach, and Z.Goldberg. 2009. Nationality: Building a State in the Middle East. Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Centre.

Inbar, S. 2004. 50 Years of Wars and Hopes. Tel Aviv: Lilach publishers.

Naveh, Eyal, Naomi Vered, and David Shahar. 2009. Nationality in Israel and the Nations – Building a State in the Middle East. Tel Aviv: Reches Publishersץ



Aharony, Y., and T. Sagi. 2003. The Geography of the Land of Israel – A Geography textbook for grades 11-12. Tel Aviv: Lilach Pub.

Gal, Ofira, and Ofer Priel. 2011. Man in the Cultural and Social Space. A Schoolbook in Geography and Environment Development. For grades 10-12. The Centre for Educational Technologies and Ministry of Education Pub.

Greitzer, I. Z. Fine, and M. Segev. 2009. Israel in the 21st Century: Selected Chapters in Geography. For 11-12 grades. Tel Aviv: The Center for Education Technology.

Rap E. and Z. Fine. 1996/1998. People in Space A Geography Textbook for        9th grade. Tel Aviv: The Centre for Educational Technologies.


General References

Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Polity Press.

Galtung, Johan,  1990. “Cultural Violence.” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 27, 3: 291-305.

Henrikson, A. K. 1994. “The power and politics of maps.” In: Reordering the World: Geopolitical Perspective on the 21st Century. G.J. Demko and W.B.Wood (eds.). San Francisco: Westview Press, 50-70.

Memmi, Albert.1967. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston: Beacon Press,

Pappe, Ilan. 2012. “Shtetl Colonialism: First and Last Impressions of Indigeneity by Colonised Colonisers.” Journal of Settler Colonial Studies, vol. 2, 39-58. Issue 1: Past is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine.

Peled-Elhanan, Nurit. 2012. Palestine in Israeli School Books – Ideology and Propaganda in Education. London: I.B. Tauris.

Reisigl and Wodak. 2001. Discourse and Discrimination: Rhetorics of Racism and Antisemitism. Routledge.

Sikuy 2019: Representation and presence of Arab society and culture in Israeli textbooks.ייצוג-והנכחה-של-החברה-הערבית-בחומרי-לימוד-2.pdf (sikkuy.org.il)

Yiftachel, O. 2006. Ethnocracy – Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.






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