Israeli Incitement Charges: Another Kind of Colonialism

When one talks to Palestinian Authority officials about the issue of incitement, they sound a little irritated. They say Palestinians have other worries besides who gets upset by their political statements.

“Do you know that there are a half a million [Palestinians] in Lebanon who are deprived of working anyplace? Do you think that those people should be multicultural in their thinking?” asks Omar Abu Humos of the Palestinian Authority’s center for educational curriculum development.

Point Taken

But Israel has gotten a lot of mileage from its claims that the Palestinian leadership is instilling hatred and even murder in the hearts of its people. Well-publicized translations and turns-of- phrase have developed into major articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Lobbying efforts in the United States Congress have the Mitchell committee sent to the region to examine the origins of the Intifada asking if the Palestinians have indeed been calling for blood. Money and reputation are in jeopardy.

And Palestinians have had little success

combating the network of Israeli and pro-Israel individuals spreading this message. All too often, charges of incitement have turned discussion away from the Israeli occupation and towards a debate over language. In truth, turning that tide means tackling the very core of Western understandings about Arabs.

The Texts

“There is no alternative to destroying Israel,” read a full-page December advertisement in the Jerusalem Post. The ad, published by a group called Jews for Truth Now, stated that this line was part of a book used in the Palestinian Authority school curriculum.

But when Khalil Mahshi, public information director of the Palestinian education ministry, looked up the title, he found that it was only a reference book, not a main text in the new sixth grade curriculum. Further, neither the 1947 nor 1988 editions of “Our Country Palestine” he found in local libraries said anything of the sort.

Jews for Truth Now had gotten the information right out of a report on the Palestinian curriculum written by the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace. That should have been no surprise. The CMIP is directed by Itimar Marcus, Israeli settler and public relations hack for former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The CMIP website says little about the organization and its backing. But what does appear on the site has caused Palestinians and others an inordinate number of headaches. In 1998, the American Congress was so disturbed by what it was hearing about Palestinian textbooks that it actually threatened to withhold $80 million from the United Nations Refugee Works Agency unless it review the Palestinian Authority textbooks.

UNRWA, which operates in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan, as well as the West Bank and Gaza, uses the textbooks of each host country in its schools. Still, its director traveled to Washington to rebut angry claims that the United Nations was promoting hatred. The agency also responded in writing to 50 pages worth of textbook translations that CMIP said were inappropriate, anti-Semitic and inciting.

The complete report and UNRWA’s responses, available on CMIP’s website, say a great deal about the real gripes of those who charge Palestinian incitement . One example reads, “There is nothing to remind us, Jaffa still exists…and our blood is still spattered on its ancient walls while the robbers and the locusts feed off its bare walls…the road is twisting and full of obstacles and long; the faint of heart will not endure long on it. Jaffa, we shall return to you tomorrow…”

The UNRWA reviewer has taken issue with the complaint, writing, “Jaffa was an Arab town.” He thinks that Palestinians should be allowed to discuss what they have lost (never mind that Jaffa maintains a significant Palestinian population). But CMIP disagrees, “Now it is an Israeli city. The description of the people living presently in Jaffa as ‘robbers…locusts,’ is offensive.”

Taken from an eighth grade book on composition, one imagines that this is a passage of literature that students must interpret or explain. Nowhere in the published text does it explicitly say that the robbers and locusts in this passage are Israelis.

It is clear what the CMIP reviewer believes is the reference. Further, the CMIP reviewer expects Palestinians not only to validate Israel’s “acquiring” of the land, but to erase their own past and present ties.

There are pithier examples. A fifth grade Arabic language textbook surveyed by CMIP reads, “The final and inevitable result will be the victory of the Muslims over the Jews.” An Islamic education text talks of Jewish “exploitation, control and usury.” UNRWA’s response did not contest these examples and the agency pledged after the report was published to work with the US State Department to develop supplements to the curriculum.

Still, the vast majority of the complaints are over who owns what – the very heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And disingenuously, the CMIP report never says that the textbooks being reviewed are of Jordanian and Egyptian origin, nor that Israel used the same textbooks in the 34 years that it has occupied all or parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In September of last year, when the Palestinian Authority did establish its own curriculum and texts for grades one and six, CMIP was at it again. Now it said that “the new Palestinian textbooks make no effort to educate for peace and coexistence with Israel.” Almost grudgingly, it reported that overtly anti-Semitic references had been removed but “given the books’ portrayal of Israel as a foreign colony that massacred and expelled Palestinians, the defamation of Israel continues.”

Reading this, one might think that Israel had no history of colonizing the area using violent tactics. Even Webster’s Unabridged defines “Zionism” as “Among the Jews, a theory plan or movement for colonizing their own race in Palestine, the land of Zion…”

CMIP made the most headway when this story broke last September with complaints that the Palestinian textbooks did not mark Israel and its borders on maps, instead labeling the entire area “Palestine.” Abu Humos is versed in answering why – both the New York Times and the Washington Post published stories on the new books.

“I leave that to politicians to figure out,” says Abu Humos. “Once they answer the questions, then I can say, now my nation has so and so and I can defend it.”

Turning the tables, his brother, Palestinian deputy education minister, told the Washington Post that the Israeli curriculum certainly doesn’t use the word “Palestine” to refer to its homeland – so why should Palestinians call theirs “Israel.” That observation summarizes the heart of this debate -the ways that Palestinians and Israelis talk about themselves and their individual pasts have not yet merged into one story. Put simply, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not yet over.

The Vehicle

In 1993, Palestinians and Israelis made a deal. Israel would remove its army from the West Bank and Gaza Strip if Palestinians offered them peace in return and legitimacy on the rest of Israel. That deal did not deign to address the complex issue of the five million registered and unregistered refugees that had been expelled and fled from the now-Jewish state.

In late 1998, that deal was further codified into the Wye agreement, which required the Palestinian Authority to decree illegal all forms of incitement to violence or terror. Israelis and Palestinians established the joint Anti-Incitement Committee (to which CMIP’s Marcus was appointed) and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat outlawed certain forms of discriminatory or violent speech.

But Israel did not keep its part of the bargain. The land was not returned, the 1967 displaced persons were not allowed back, the safe passageways from Gaza to the West Bank were not completed and the accord ran out of steam. Occupied land for Palestinian peace did not happen and Israeli outrage against Palestinian “incitement” is an attempt to take the “peace” without paying the dues in return.

Israeli and pro-Israel propagandists are good at using this to their advantage. The cast of characters is a familiar one. And everyone from CAMERA to congressmen have been influenced by the reports.

Early on, CMIP’s campaign on Palestinian textbooks found its way into a press release by CAMERA, the well- known media group that targets specific journalists for a perceived pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel bias. Much of their report on incitement is simply smart play on words.

“Bogus history teaches that Arabs lived in ‘Palestine’ before the Jews,” says CAMERA in the June 1999 press release (referring, as the textbooks do, to modern colonialist history, this is not a “bogus” lesson at all). Written well before the Palestinian Authority began phasing in its own new texts, the statement never mentions that Palestinians did not create the offending books. And it faults the New York Times and the Post’s Lee Hockenstader (incidentally the author of the most recent Post article on Palestinian textbooks) for ignoring the issue so far.

Another distributor of the textbook tirade is none other than David Bedien, head of Israel’s Beit Agron press agency, to which all journalists apply for their Israeli press credentials. Bedien, like Marcus, is an Israeli settler and once (and perhaps still) a member of the settler umbrella group, the Yesha Council. His daily Israel Resource Review translates from the Palestinian print media, television and radio, highlighting those quotes that promote the idea that Palestinians are intolerant and calling for Israeli blood.

“[Palestinian Authority] education constantly depicts Israel as a Nazi entity that needs to be wiped off the earth,” says Bedein in a September 7 essay for the Jewish World Review. He does not support this extreme statement with any quotes, although he does charge that the son of a Palestinian colleague “will be handed a map of the whole of Israel as Palestine on his first day of school and be inculcated to do everything that he can in his young life to make war on my children.”

Taken in doses, Bedein seems quite radical and not worth a read. But his writing is distributed widely. Bedein, in his position at Beit Agron, has access to every journalist in the area. His Review also employs Michael Widlanski, a one-time assistant bureau chief for the Israel office of the New York Times and former bureau chief of the local Cox Syndicate.

Those who read both Marcus and Bedien are powerful, indeed. One of the most politically organized constituencies in the United States is that of the religious right, many of whom strongly back Israel as an indication of Biblical prophecy. Thus, Marcus can be read sounding the alarm on the Virtual Holyland website, “People think that it obviously can’t be as bad as it sounds. But this is exactly what happened with the Nazis in World War II, as well as before the Yom Kippur War. No one believed that our enemies were actually planning what they said they were planning.”

And at the Bridges for Peace site, Marcus’ writing comes to a not- so-surprising conclusion. After a list of translations from the Palestinian press that “note the positive attitude of parents to their children’s death” – what Palestinians would understand as the cultural and religious belief that those who die in the struggle for Palestine should be praised as redeemed, not mourned as if lost – Bridges adds its own twist.

“Pray that God will reveal himself to the Muslim people and they will turn from violence and hatred to the God of love, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” reads the site’s “prayer request.” Not only are Palestinians required by those reading to give up their national aspirations, but here the vast majority are also being asked to give up their religion.

The Language

Proponents of the incitement claim play on the worst misunderstandings between Western and Arab-Islamic culture. In one translation of a January 19 sermon by Jerusalem Mufti Ikrema Al Sabri, Israel Resource Review highlights a statement concerning the levying of the jiziya, the tax historically paid by non-Muslims in a Muslim state.

This is a hot button to push. By no means do Muslims agree on what the interpretation of this tax should be today. But for Westerners unfamiliar with that argument, it sounds awfully medieval that one should be taxed for one’s religion. And so Bedien scores a point.

The same issue comes up repeatedly in CMIP’s analysis of Palestinian textbooks. Flowery and sometimes imagery-overloaded Arabic gets lost in the translation to much simpler English. In common Palestinian Arabic, “Jew” or “Jewish” is almost always used in place of “Israeli,” a point ignored in translation. Because of their experiences, Palestinians almost never define “Zionism” as something benign, but a designation of colonialism. Further, words like “martyrdom” or calls of “Allahu Akbar” that have a specific nationalist meaning among Palestinians today, become designates of the “Islamic threat” that Americans are so wrongly schooled in.

Those subtleties are lost on the Western law and policy maker. In general, their judgements of incitement come from a very limited point of reference – that “peace” is in place and therefore certain language is illegitimate.

Further, by interfering in these discussions, dictating through laws and monetary threats what Palestinians should say and ultimately what they should think, Western leaders are involving themselves in an internal discussion. Palestinians should discuss what “jihad” or “martyrdom” mean to them, but that is not a discussion that the West, Israel and definitely not an Israeli settler should influence.

The results of CMIP and Israel Resource Review’s hard work are clear. One Palestinian friend says an Israeli woman once told her, “I know what you study in school. I know that when you are learning math, they ask you ‘If you kill one Israel and then another, how many Israelis have you killed?'” The charge is in no way supported by the facts.

In another example, a scholarly-sounding article reads: “[Children] are incited by the Palestinian leadership, from Arafat on down, to begin riots, burn tires, throw together roadblocks, toss Molatov cocktails and stones, and function as a smokescreen between armed Palestinian gunmen and the Israel Defense Forces. The Western public must ask why are Palestinians educated to hate and place themselves in harms’ way?”

This choice amalgamation of the incitement charge comes from Justus Reid Weiner, writing for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Weiner is none other than the source of allegations that prominent scholar Edward Said falsified his own Palestinian past.

The answer to Weiner’s question is obvious – Palestinians are educated to hate because Palestinians, he implies, are not quite human. And in that lies the very root of why he and his comrades expect Palestinians to love Israel and Israelis despite the continuing Israeli occupation.

Charmaine Seitz is Managing Editor of The Palestine Report