As the EU struggles to influence challenging developments in its neighborhood, the last thing it needs to do is divert its focus to totally wrong priorities. One such example is the current EU concern for Palestinian textbooks, promoted by European Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi and Israeli-aligned lawmakers in the European Parliament.
The new Israeli government has explicitly promised continue to build illegal settlements and not allow the two-state solution, a cornerstone of the EU’s policy on the conflict.
However, the Brussels institutions are spending more time on a completely different peripheral issue: a EU-funded study on Palestinian Authority textbooks, published in June by the Georg-Eckert Institute of Germany.
Several European Parliament committees are taking part in the debate on the issue this month, following closed-door meetings of EU-27 diplomats in early summer.
The study aimed to assess allegations that the Palestinian curriculum promotes hatred and violence against Israel. Defenders of Israel have made such claims for many years, using selected examples with a great deal of twist. Some Western politicians have always taken such claims at face value rather than critically treating them as part of Israel’s own nationalist narrative.
Although previous international studies, such as a 2013 study funded by the US government., refuted the broad allegations, the EU agreed in 2019 to fund a new study.
But unlike the US-funded study, which compared Israeli and Palestinian textbooks (and found broadly similar levels of prejudice on both sides), the EU set out to examine textbooks only on the Palestinian side.
This went against the track record of the Georg-Eckert Institute, which had hosted bilateral German-French, German-Czech and German-Polish textbook commissions to accommodate conflicting narratives through mutual dialogue, but now agreed to take a unilateral approach. .
What Israeli researcher Assaf David commented, “[t]The very idea of examining only Palestinian textbooks with a fine-toothed comb, while completely ignoring its mirror image in Israeli textbooks, is fundamentally biased. “
According to American political scientist Nathan Brown, “[t]The analysis is written as if Palestinian textbooks could not be understood except based largely on how Israelis might view them, but without treating Israeli textbooks in the same way. “
Despite these flaws, the resulting study once again moderate accusations a lot. It does not state or show evidence that Palestinian textbooks incite hatred or violence. It documents debatable trends, such as omissions of Israel on Palestinian maps or positive depictions of the Palestinian armed struggle decades ago, but those reflect similar phenomena in Israeli society and school books.
Through a review of more than 150 PA textbooks, the study provides two examples characterized as anti-Semitic, but adds that both have been positively altered or removed in recent editions of the books.
Commissioner Várhelyi, in charge of the EU neighborhood, has also tried play the problem. Despite the moderate results of the study, he committed to increase pressure in the Palestinian Authority to amend the textbooks “in the shortest possible time” on the basis of a “roadmap” with “incentives” and a process of “selection and monitoring”.
The Hungarian Commissioner’s interest in broadening the issue cannot be seen in isolation from that of his country. special alliance with israel under Viktor Orbán. During the last years, Hungary blocked almost all EU foreign policy statements criticizing Israel.
Here is an additional hypocrisy. Last year, the Orbán government introduced a controversial new school curriculum in Hungary, which includes mandatory reading of anti-Semitic authors. Imre Kertész, a world-renowned writer on the Holocaust, was in turn removed from the reading list.
This does not seem to worry MEPs who are expressing outrage at the Palestinian curriculum.
Real problems with the Palestinian Authority
Meanwhile, there are real and serious problems with the Palestinian Authority that require the attention of the EU.
Following the cancellation of the Palestinian elections scheduled for May, President Mahmoud Abbas is leading the Palestinian Authority down an authoritarian path, suppressing protests and deepening intra-Palestinian divisions. Making textbooks, instead of these fundamental issues, a central theme in EU-AP relations would be totally out of place.
Anti-Semitism and direct incitement to hatred and violence should be red lines, but the study found hardly any. So what will the EU push to change? Will you ask to tone down the emotional depictions of Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinian children instead of working to end Israel’s occupation? Eleven children have been delicate and more than 500 injured by Israeli forces in the West Bank alone since May. There is a point where textbook “improvements” turn into censorship, and Palestinians decide what to say about their history and lived experiences.
The whole idea that Palestinian anger toward Israel is driven by textbooks rather than the daily injustices that Palestinians suffer under their occupation shows a basic lack of empathy.
While both sides tend to omit the other from their textbook maps, Israel’s sprawling settlements are erasing any chance of a Palestinian state on the ground. This leaves in place the endless Israeli occupation and ethnic domination over the Palestinians, recently branded by Human Rights Watch as complying with the legal definition of apartheid.
Getting the EU bogged down in one-sided textbook reviews is a perfect way to deviate from that chilling development.