Nurit Peled-Elhanan Ambreen Agha

Nurit Peled-Elhanan is an Israeli academic, activist, and a laureate of the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights and the Freedom of Thought awarded by the European Parliament. Her work focuses on the semiotics of and rhetoric in Israeli school textbooks, which she claims depict Palestinians as “terrorists, refugees and primitive farmers.” Her book, Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education, published in 2012, is a nuanced depiction of certain national and religious ideological aspirations that have come to be manifested in officially sanctioned textbooks for Israeli Jewish children, which in turn are the same books that Palestinian children study, as the same books are translated to Arabic. 

I had the chance to meet up with Peled-Elhanan recently at an international conference on mass violence and memory that was jointly organised by O.P. Jindal Global University, Middle East Institute, New Delhi and Society for Social Regeneration and Equity in Sonipat Haryana, in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). We discussed her work and active participation in the movement for social change against the state of Israel’s brutal policies in Palestine. 

Ambreen Agha: How did you become interested in studying Israeli textbooks? Tell us about your background and the primary motivation behind this exercise? How much does your upbringing and personal life have to do with standing up for Palestinians? 

Nurit Peled-Elhanan: My family has always been on the left. My grandfather, Abraham Katznelson, a renowned Zionist figure, was the member of a half-clandestine movement, the Pact of Peace, which was founded by Martin Buber and advocated a bi-national state back in the 1940s. In my father’s family, everybody was a socialist. They were always involved in searching for way towards peace. After retiring from the army as a brigadier-general in 1968, Matti Peled, my father, became a Professor of Arabic Literature and was the first notable to go to Tunisia to speak to Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat in 1983 [when it was still illegal]. He founded the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, and later the Progressive Peace Party, and served as an MP for four years, dedicating all his time to the cause. This was my family background growing up. 

But apart from my personal life as an educator, the racist discourse in Israeli education got me interested in pursuing the study of textbooks and their representation of Palestinians. One easily comes across the racist narrative in Israel, which is both verbal and visual. And this was the primary reason that I decided to study Israeli educational materials.
AA: What has been the trend in the representation of Palestinians since the formation of the State of Israel 68 years ago?

NP: Since the 50s, there has been no change in ideology, but maybe there is a change in the level of representation. The attitude was always racist, and today, it is sadly regressive. In the ‘90s, there were historians who would go ahead with objective projects and present truth as it was in history, albeit without renouncing their Zionist ideology. But today, work in this vein is reduced to political-military manifestos that are often tinged with Biblical phrases. There is deliberate exclusion of Palestinians from school curriculum. For instance, if you say “Israeli culture,” you never mean that the Palestinian is part of it, even though they are 20 percent of the population. They are completely left out of the educational discourse. 

The representation of the Palestinians is limited. They are stereotyped as “terrorists”; “primitive farmers”; “refugees”; or “nomads” with their camels, in an “Alibaba” dress and described as vile, deviant and criminal – people who don't pay taxes and live off the state. You never see a Palestinian child or doctor or teacher or engineer or modern farmer. The Palestinians are never referred to as Palestinians: They are called “Arabs” in order to emphasize their belonging to a great Arab nation, and thus allowing for the possibility of transferring them to any of the Arab countries.

What becomes dangerous is the stamp of legitimacy that such representations get from official corridors and educational institutions inside Israel. The killings of Palestinian children, youth or adults is justified and legitimized with the “utility discourse,” which states that if the Palestinians are an obstacle to the Jewish State, then their elimination is crucial. This creation of utility to the killers is worrisome because people blindly accept it. The discourse on legitimacy and utility is based on Palestinians not being recognized as humans, but rather sub-humans – as terrorists. The children are taught that the grief of Palestinians is not like grief of the Jews: Palestinians are different; they are the “other,” the “foreigner” in the land of Israel. 

This is the kind of blatant racism that the Palestinians live with. It’s everyday racism. It manifests itself at all levels – social, cultural and political. 

AA: Your work claims that Israeli textbooks reflect a racist approach to Palestinians, and even legitimize their massacre. Can you explain further? 

NP: If they [Palestinians] are represented at all, they are the “problems” that the state is facing. And these problems are presented as the “development problem,” the security threat, or the demographic problem, wherein Palestinians figure as refugees and purveyors of violence. The schoolbooks in Israel instill racist attitudes and exploit public ignorance on real issues of social and geopolitical situations and of geographical and historical discourse. Once students graduate, they are inducted into the military to implement Israel’s militaristic policies against the Palestinians – people whose existence the Israeli is taught from youth is to fear.  Israeli textbooks contain common prejudices against Palestinians and common assumptions about history. Textbooks have played an ideological role in shaping Israeli Jewish society. 

This mis-teaching of geography and history has gone on in the schools over three generations. For instance, if we consider geography books, there is not one Arab city to be found in the maps. The West Bank is shown vacant, as if saying that Israelis should be ready to go and settle there. Nobody knows the borders. 

Books on history are replete with the legitimatization of massacres. Most massacres [in Israel’s history] are not even debated because they were part of the ethnic cleansing plan. The killing of Palestinian women and children is presented as something beneficial for the nation. Children see and read about death in terms of utility, devoid of moral or ethical considerations. And this is part of the preparation for the army, of course. 

Take the infamous, cold-blooded Kafr Qasim massacre of October 29, 1956. On this day, Major Shmuel Malinki, under the command of Colonel Issachar Shadmi, ordered his subordinates to shoot anyone who violated the curfew imposed on 12 Arab villages near the Jordanian border. Most of the villagers had gone out [of the area[ for work and were ignorant about the curfew and threatened punishment. They were not notified. Now, most commanders refused the order – except for one, Gabriel Dahan, who was in charge of Kaffer Kassim village. Some 48 or 49 men, women and children became victims of Dahan’s unit’s unprovoked firing. They were killed for violating a curfew that they did not know about. But this massacre is known not for the atrocities committed on the Palestinian villagers; instead, it is known for the judicial verdict handed down in the case – 17 years in jail for obeying an unlawful order – [highlighted] to show how moral we are. Colonel Shadmi had to pay a two penny fine. All the soldiers involved in the massacre were reinstated in their posts, and worse, Gabiel Dahan later became the Representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel. 

In the events that followed the massacre and the trial of the convicted army personnel, then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said, “You should not try the army. The army is above the law.” It was only after 38 long years, in October 2014, that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin went to Kafr Qasim to commemorate the tragedy, calling it “an anomalous and sorrowful chapter in the history of the relations between Arabs and Jews living here.”

Palestinians in Israel are barred by law from mourning their 1948 catastrophe – their Holocaust –  the Nakba. The Minster of Education, Limor Livnat, made an outrageous comment: “If they are allowed to mourn, they will have a reason to rebel.” 

AA: In your books, you write about a sophisticated system of radicalization in mainstream Israeli schools. Is radicalization limited to textbooks, or does it go beyond books? What is the source material for these findings? 

NP: Textbooks are one source of radicalization in Israel. It starts at a very young age, in school. The whole culture, including literature, poetry and music, is highly patriotic and nationalistic. During public holidays, people are categorically told, “We escaped extermination from another foreign people.” This happens on every holiday. And this has led to the creation of xenophobia. This is the regular discourse there.
There is another sort of elimination, and that is the erasure of memory. It is through erasing memory that Israel is gradually working to create a place where there are no Arabs and no Arabic. Israelis are constantly altering the names of roads and villages and neighborhoods. They write the Hebrew names in Arabic letters so that the Arabs forget that there were Arab names. This is the irony of a place where Arabic is an official language. But everything is being erased. There is nothing in Arabic – not even in public institutions like hospitals or the airport. There is not one sign of Arabic. You don’t have Arab universities. The students study in Hebrew. And these people who are being eliminated are citizens of Israel, who pay taxes like me (forget the ones living in Gaza; we can’t even imagine their plight). 

AA: You have received a lot of hostility as a result of your work. How do you negotiate your existence in a place that is predominantly right-wing at the moment? What keeps you going back to the thick of propaganda and military approach towards Palestine?

NP: Oh! They cannot blame my research. They definitely attack me. I was banned from attending conferences after the publication of my book, Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education, in 2012. They want not to see, not to know. There is this active kind of refusal in Israel to acknowledge discrimination and violence against the Palestinians. 

Surely, I have audience outside Israel, and then there are my students, who internalize what I teach. My students are teachers themselves. This is where I see some positive hope. We do not aspire to influence government. Instead, we aspire to reach out and influence the outside world. 

As far as my social life is concerned, I do not have right-wing friends. I just cannot have friends from the right, because it’s not a matter of politics any more. It’s either you are for or against the murder of children. 

You see and meet wonderful people in the left-oriented parties and movements. The left comes across as a legitimate form of civil resistance against the occupation. The Arab-Jewish Party is one such example. It is not only politically motivated, but also socially oriented. It’s a struggle – a people’s fight. Every year since 2006, we have had the Alternative Memorial Day Ceremony for Israelis and Palestinians. While only a few hundred participated in the early years, today there are thousands attending the event. Despite right-wing protests, some 3,000 people attended the 11th consecutive annual ceremony, held in the largest stadium in the country on May 10, 2016. This is a positive sign of change, and it is in such movements that I keep myself engaged. 

AA: Do you think a political revolution in Israel can change things for the better? Which party, in your opinion, can be an alternative to the Likud’s revisionist Zionism? 

NP: I don’t believe in revolutions. I believe in dissidence. And teaching is a dissident profession – that is why I am a teacher. The Joint Arab-Jewish Party is creating an alternative voice and space, but they are not going to form the government. They do not have a chance in such a racist place. Governments are mafia – they work with a mafia-like mentality. We have to aspire to make this mafia, working in the form of government, less relevant to people. The great advantage of the Joint party is that its prominent members, all Palestinians, are the most educated and enlightened people in Israel, and they have never held a gun. They are wholly committed to social issues and the anti-occupation quest.

The state machinery has worked in the suppression of Arab identity; the Arab Jews had to give up their Arab-ness to be integrated in Israel. Israel has committed human rights violations not only against Arabs, but also Jews – Moroccan Jews, Yemeni Jews, Iraqi Jews, etc., and this is called sociocide. Now they are discriminating against the Ethiopians that they brought [for settlement in Israel] based on false promises, and for demographic reasons (to keep a Jewish majority). 
In the face of all this, we see a very slow social revolution taking place in Israel. The civil society-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a global voice advocating for a non-violent campaign against the Israeli occupation and for freedom, justice and equality for the Palestinian people. The BDS got momentum last year and, of course, the government introduced legal measures to suppress the BDS and its supporters. 

AA: You have, in particular, criticized George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Ariel Sharon for fostering anti-Muslim views in the world…

NP: It’s getting worse. And we have to keep in mind that the people who have ruined the world are not Muslims. They have been Christians and Jews. What’s happening now is scapegoating. Since people are ignorant, they happily accept it. There is a serious lack of critical understanding.   
As I have said earlier in previous interviews, these three “world leaders” have infected their respective citizens with a blind fear of Muslims.

AA: The relationship between Muslims and Jews worldwide is determined by the current Israel-Palestine conflict, where for Muslims every Jew has come to be perceived as a Zionist, and as the conflict escalates, the distinction between a Jew and a Zionist blurs. What do you think is the solution to this blurring?   

NP: The solution has to come from the Jewish people. Jews have to realize that Israel does not represent Judaism. The Jews are very liberal people with humanistic values. They are acquainted with many cultures. What’s happening today is completely opposite of Judaism. There is no compassion, no empathy. The imposition of one very limited language in Israel is certainly objectionable. 

Jews should be critical. It’s time that the Jews of Israel start recognizing and remembering the Holocaust of Gaza. Since I am a linguist, I am very conscious of the power of words: It is Holocaust. There seems no other appropriate term that would suit the atrocities inflicted on Gaza out of sheer racism, cruelty and deliberate indifference. 

There are very strong voices for peace inside and outside Israel, like The Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews for Palestine, which are challenging Zionist aspirations. In fact, most Jews did not choose Zionism. It’s important that Jews now fight for their own sake. What Daesh is to Islam, Zionist Israel is to Judaism. There are groups like Rabbis for Human Rights that give voice to the Jewish tradition of human rights. The values preached by this organization are Jewish values, and not the ones practiced by the State of Israel. Such voices should be the solution.

Geopolitics is part of the problem here. By this, I mean US complicity and financial assistance. Solution means change, which I see as the stopping of American financial support – $11 million a day to maintain this regime of occupation, racism and supremacist attitudes. There must also now be accountability for breaches of international law based on credible investigations. 

There is nothing Jewish in the cruel, racist conduct of Israel towards Palestinians. The most illustrious Jewish thinkers are and always have been denouncing Israeli ruthless domination of Palestine: Albert Einstein was one of them, and Hannah Arendt was another. 

AA: Your family is involved in Combatants for Peace (CoP), a bi-national movement of Israelis and Palestinians. Can you tell us something about their work and achievement? Are there similar movements in Israel?  

There are several movements, as stated above. To add to the list, there is the Palestinian and Israeli Bereaved Parents for Peace – the Parent Circle, of which we are members. In such organizations, there is complete equality, both at the social and financial levels, and the joint nature of the endeavor makes it a big family. 

My son was one of the founders of the Combatants for Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian movement that involves former Israeli soldiers and former Palestinian prisoners. Initially, when my son was starting the project, there was suspicion on both sides. But gradually, it became a strong and warm family. It’s through interaction that people on both sides realize that we [Israelis and Palestinians] are very much alike.

AA: In the middle of this crisis, where is the hope for Palestine? You’ve spoken about the artistic community…

NP: It’s very hard. The Palestinians don’t study anything but Arabic, and the Jews never study Palestinians. Though Palestinians are very active artistically, they have not been able to express themselves freely inside Israel. There is a kind of systemic elimination of artists. Israel has assassinated a lot of Palestinian artists in the past. Anyone who had influence was murdered. It was through this abrasive attack on Palestinian forms of expression that people have failed to learn anything about the Arab culture. 

Literature has a deep influence on people. In 2008, Israel closed down Al-Andalus Publishing House, which was involved in publishing Arabic literature in Hebrew in attempts to bridge the gap between Israelis and Arabs. Drawing inspiration from the “golden age” of intellectual exchange between Arabic and Jewish cultures, Al-Andalus published some of the most illuminating works of Mahmud Darwish, Huda Barakat and Taha Muhammad Ali, among others. Sadly for Israelis, such enlightening Arab literature is not part of their “cultural mandate.” 

Today, Palestinian artists, including writers, are doing very well abroad. They are intellectually thriving in Europe. 

Ambreen Agha has a PhD from the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi for her ethnographic study on women activism in Islamic Revivalist Movement of Tablighi Jama'at. She is currently associated with the South Asia Terrorism Portal as a Research Associate and has extensively written on extremism and religious violence in Pakistan.