Victims of Our Own Narratives
BY HANNAH FLAUM
On Tuesday evening, Yale professor of Psychiatry, Bruce Wexler, gave a talk to present his study, “Victims of Our Own Narratives? Portrayal of the ‘Other’ in Israeli and Palestinian Schoolbooks,” as the first of a series of talks hosted by the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism. In addition to sharing the findings of his study, Wexler was deliberate in qualifying the study as objective and scientific as well as in exploring the reactions of the Israeli government to the study’s findings.
Wexler notes that “Victims of Our Own Narratives?” was initiated by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land and funded by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. As it was particularly for its initiators and funders, the subject of his study is a critical one for three main reasons he addresses. According to Wexler, the role of schoolbooks – in all nations, not exclusively in Israel or Palestine – is first, helping to shape beliefs and attitudes, second, offering the opinions and statements of the elders of the community, and third, influencing trust between nations because of the highly politicized subject matter of these public statements.
Given the influence and potency of schoolbooks, this study sought to form a mechanism that would accurately and precisely measure the portrayal of the “other” and of the “self” as they pertain to Israel and Palestine. He first created a Scientific Research Team (SRT), followed by an international Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) of experts in textbook analysis as well as Israeli and Palestinian academic across the political spectrum. Wexler and his team also reached out to both the Israeli and Palestinian Ministries of Education (MOEs) and kept relevant government institutions informed as the study progressed. After creating an SRT and SAP, Wexler and his team took key steps to ensure the objectivity of the data. First, the remote data entry system, based at Yale, ensured that no one conducting the study would know how the data was adding up. Secondly, the SRT created a standardized rating method that the SAP helped to revise. Lastly, the SAP monitored the study as it progressed, reviewed the findings, and helped interpret the findings. To begin the study, Wexler and his team considered all schoolbooks approved by the Israeli and Palestinian MOEs in 2011 and then measured the relevancy of each book. The schoolbooks included in the study were those from Israeli State schools, Israeli Ultra-Orthodox schools, and Palestinian public schools.
Wexler continues, offering the general findings of “Victims of Our Own Narratives?” which are as follows: first, dehumanizing, demonizing characterizations of the “other” are rare in all schoolbooks studied, second, exclusive unilateral narratives are present in all schoolbooks studied, third, the absence of information about the “other” serve to delegitimize the presence of the “other”, and fourth, Israeli State schools are the least dehumanizing, demonizing, exclusively unilateral, or prone to leaving out information of the schools studied.
Despite Wexler’s fourth aforementioned point, Israeli State schools are still highly negative in their characterizations of the “other” and are highly self-righteous in their characterization of the “self” (like Israeli Ultra-Orthodox schools and Palestinian public schools). While there are instances of self-criticism as well as instances of commending the “other,” these are very rare in all schoolbooks studied. Wexler points to map data as a critical piece of evidence of the tendency of both Israeli and Palestinian schools to delegitimize the “other.” 96% of Palestinian public schoolbook maps do not mention Israel and 87% of Israeli State schoolbook maps do not mention Palestine, which, as Wexler explains, plays into the unilateral national narratives of both nations. Although all the schoolbooks studied promote a dignity of human life and do not succumb to a dehumanizing, demonizing characterization of the “other” as Wexler had feared they might, the schoolbooks do promote the unilateral narratives of the “other” as destructive and violent and of the “self” as self-defensive and peaceful.
As a close to his talk, Wexler expressed his disappointment with the Israeli MOE and its response to the study’s findings. After its release, the Israeli MOE claimed the study had grown beyond its areas of primary concern and refused to report the findings, insisting that Wexler and his team report them instead. It also asserted that the study lacked objectivity or a basis in reality, however, it had been aware of the study since its inception and had been supportive of its methods before the findings were released. Additionally, the Israeli government not only attacked the study and its findings, but it also attacked Wexler by name. Despite the impressive and persuasive findings of “Victims of Our Own Narratives?” that received global media attention, the response to it by the Israeli government does not instill a sense of optimism for future change.
Hannah Flaum is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at email@example.com.