The Trouble With Textbooks: Anti-Semitism in North American Primary and Secondary Education

The author[1] has documented the presence of anti-Semitism in U.S. primary and secondary social studies textbooks. Many agendas compete for inclusion in U.S. textbooks to influence impressionable schoolchildren. The state textbook adoption system in roughly one-half of the states offers easy points of entry to pressure groups seeking to sway a compliant and oligopolistic publishing industry. We analyzed both the problems and their causes in the U.S. context. Our findings could offer valuable lessons for Canadian efforts to combat anti-Semitism by highlighting conceptually the types of problematic textbook content that might also be found in Canadian schools. Some or all of the causes we determined are the origin of the problem in the U.S. could represent factors operating in the Canadian educational system and its publishing industry.

Textbooks around the world are blatantly used as tools for propaganda. It is shocking to discover that history and geography textbooks widely used in America’s elementary and secondary classrooms contain some of the very same inaccuracies about Christianity, Judaism, and the Middle East as those in Iran and the Arab world.

Assessing how textbooks treat these topics provides telling insight into how textbooks approach complex subjects. What do students learn about Jews, Jewish history, and Judaism’s relationship to Christianity? How does the ongoing challenging relationship between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East show up in the textbooks? What about the triangulation between Jews, Christians, and Muslims? Teachers also turn to supplemental materials that include outside readings, DVDs, CDs, exercises, posters, brochures, or other non-textbook (and non-primary) sources. In some situations, these supplemental materials have become nearly as ubiquitous as the textbooks themselves, yet no one can vouch for their factuality and objectivity. They are rarely examined by anyone other than the teacher who uses them. Supplemental materials are often more inaccurate and biased than the textbooks themselves.

The 500 problematic passages about Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Middle East we uncovered in our analysis of the 28 most widely used textbooks in public schools should evoke considerable concern on the part of Americans because history and religion are being distorted in every one of the 50 states.

We analyzed thousands of pages of textbooks. We also looked at related supplemental materials and professional development teacher trainings. The textbooks we examined included teacher, student, and advanced placement editions. We performed a detailed content analysis of student materials, including student textbooks, websites, and handouts, and of teacher materials, including teacher’s editions of textbooks, curricula, lesson plans, teacher training materials, websites, and more. The content analysis of the textbooks focused on four subject areas:

• Jewish history, theology, and religion
• The relationship between Judaism and Christianity
• The relationship between Judaism and Islam
• The history, geography, and politics of the Middle East

Major Findings

Textbook Writers Often Do Not Know Much About Their Subjects
Sometimes, the well-credentialed scholars whose names appear as authors of the textbooks have little if anything to do with the actual writing or content of the book. Prestigious names may have at one point been associated with the publisher. They may have provided an initial outline, provided a cursory read of the material, perhaps an edit, or they may simply have leased the cachet of their renown to lend legitimacy to the textbooks. The workhorses, whether in-house writers or employees of a textbook development agency, who actually write the text may have a great deal or little expertise in their area of responsibility.

Publishers Use “Chop-Shops” to Write Books
Publishers sometimes hand over a section or an entire book to a textbook development agency, known in the industry as a “chop shop.” Staffed mainly with educational specialists and writers, the textbook agencies follow the standards and guidelines supplied by the publishers (to meet state standards) to create pedagogically and statutorily correct textbooks. Notably absent from many of the chop shops are subject matter experts in history, religion, civics, and so on.

American Textbooks are “Dumbed Down”
When a complex subject is simplified and the text that could explain the difficulties in controversial passages is instead replaced by brightly colored illustrations or amusing-but-not-edifying sidebars, the resulting lesson becomes weakened simply by the omissions. The responsibility for the eviscerated lessons lies in several places. The pictures, sidebars, and exercises that abound in many history textbooks—and not just those for elementary and middle school children but for high school students as well—have squeezed out cogent writing about history. Shoddy scholarship also plays a role: The inclusion of false “facts,” inaccurate generalizations, imprecise conclusions, repudiated theories, and, sometimes, rumors that have taken on the weight of truth without grounding in academic inquiry.

Politically Motivated Propaganda Wheedles its Way into Textbooks
Biased scholarship contains political or religious untruths. Biased scholarship means errors or misinformation in textbooks that denigrate one group in order to elevate another. We have no evidence that authors intentionally introduce their own prejudices into the writing, nor that editors are choosing one version of history over another because of personal bigotry. We can say that certain themes emerge in many textbooks that collectively comprise a bias. We attribute this outcome largely to shoddy scholarship rather than ill intent. We do not believe that textbook publishers are “out to get” anybody or any group. They are subject to all kinds of external pressures so that the higher pursuit of truth and accuracy can be sacrificed to narrow interests.

Various Interest Groups Influence Social Studies
Interest group involvement is not a priori a negative influence on the quality of textbooks. It becomes problematic when some groups are represented in the discussion while others are not and when the groups involved are more committed to promoting a particular agenda than to promoting accurate historical information.

Organizations Like the Council on Islamic Education Have Wide Influence
Arab and Muslim interest groups attempt to whitewash and glorify all things Islamic and promote Islam as a religion. The organizations promote a pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian agenda in textbook’s lessons on the Middle East augmented by unregulated supplemental materials. For example, the Council on Islamic Education[2] has weighed in during the adoption process to oppose the direct and unconditional use of the term “Israel” for the Israelite monarchy in textbooks, lest anyone make the connection between modern Israel and the kingdom that existed in the same location 3,000 years ago.

Data Analysis

Negative Stereotypes of Jews Appear in Textbooks
The problematic passages in some textbooks’ coverage of Jewish origins contain stereotypes of Jews that have often been used to foster classical anti-Semitism. Jews are described as legalistic and Judaism is portrayed as merely an overlong list of arcane rules, devoid of any spirituality. Jews are depicted as intolerant of non-Jews and as looking down upon others with an attitude of superiority.

• Textbooks teach that Jews and Judaism are legalistic. Jews care only about the letter of the law and ignore its spirit.
• The Jewish God is presented as stern and warlike. God’s compassionate qualities, highlighted in lessons about other religions, are missing when Judaism is discussed.
• Sixty-four percent of textbooks use unscholarly and disparaging “Old Testament” terminology for the Jewish scriptures when discussing the origins of Judaism. At the point in history when Judaism was founded, there was not yet a “New Testament” in existence.

Misrepresenting the Relationship between Christians and Jews
Textbook treatment of Jews and Christianity has to be examined within the context of contemporary multiculturalism and the increased sensitivity to the place of minorities in our society. Racial and religious tolerance is now an accepted norm in many societies today, particularly in the West (but of course not all of it). Textbooks pride themselves on sensitive treatment of minorities. The relationship between Christians and Jews is not treated with the same care.

• Several textbooks describe Judaism only as a precursor to Christianity, not a faith of intrinsic value that stands on its own.
• Textbooks come dangerously close to perpetuating the idea that Jews caused the crucifixion and are guilty as a group of deicide, “the killing of God.”

Glorifying Islam Compared to Christianity and Judaism
The wording used to describe the content of the Hebrew Scriptures in some textbooks is unusually conditional in ways not applied to the sacred writings of Christianity and especially of Islam. Most often the words “stories” or “legends” or even “tales” appear which give the reader the impression that the Jewish biblical content being described is akin to fable. The same effect is achieved by an indefinite passive voice such as “it is told that . . .” or “the Israelites are said to…” This approach would be less problematic if it were taken across the board in discussing other religions, but it is not. Either all religions should be framed this way or none. Islam is treated with a devotional tone in some textbooks, less detached and analytical than it ought to be. Muslim beliefs are described in several instances as fact, without any clear qualifier such as “Muslims believe . . .” This is in remarkable contrast to the much more critical treatment of Judaism compared to the treatment of other major religions. In effect, many textbooks serve as apologists for Islam in a way that they do not for Christianity, Judaism, or any other major religion. No religion should be presented in history textbooks as absolute truth, either on its own or compared to any other, or they all should be. Supplemental materials go even further in their unqualified praise for all things Islamic.

• Textbooks use devotional language to describe Muslim beliefs, but use qualifiers for beliefs of Judaism and Christianity. (See Appendix A.)
• The Islamic empire was a time of unqualified glory without blemishes.
• Islam and Muslims in history always tolerated Jews, unlike Christianity.

Denying the Jewish Connection to the Land of Israel
The coverage of Middle East history and the Arab–Israeli dispute in textbooks and supplemental materials contains significant elements of the Arab narrative, which frames the conflict from Arab and Palestinian points of view. It encompasses a view of ancient Middle Eastern history as well as interpretations of more modern history. Many of the textbooks we examined, regardless of how well they might deal with the origins of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, usually discard reasonable scholarship when they present the Israeli–Arab conflict. Indeed, some textbooks have adopted wholesale the Arab narratives about the modern Middle East. Textbooks should strive for historical accuracy rather than language that misleads the reader.

• The name “Palestine” is used liberally and inappropriately prior to the Roman suppression of the Jewish revolts and the Romans’ renaming of the land at that time as a punishment for the revolts.
• “Palestine” is the location of Jesus’ ministry even though the word is unknown in Christian sources.
• Jesus was a Palestinian, not a Jew.

Blaming Israel for All the Wars in the Middle East
There are three major themes associated with Israel’s founding in 1948. 1) Israeli Jews, a majority of whom have roots in Middle Eastern countries, are called European colonists even though they are a multi-ethnic Semitic people with historical ties to Israel; 2) the longstanding Arab hostility to Israel that has been expressed in warfare against the Jewish state is soft pedaled; and 3) textbooks reference mainly Palestinian refugees and fail to mention the Jewish refugees from Arab lands that found new homes in Israel. Some supplemental materials are lacking in accuracy. They posit that Israeli Jews are white European colonialists in the same unsavory category as the imperialist European countries. Some textbooks obfuscate who started the wars waged on Israel by Arab countries and lay all the blame for the failures of the peace process on Israel.

• The Arab nations never attacked Israel. Arab-Israeli wars just broke out, or Israel started them.
• Arabs nations want peace but Israel does not.
• Israel expelled all Palestinian refugees.
• Israel put the Palestinians in refugee camps, not the Arab states.
• Books perpetuate the propagandistic “camps” terminology for communities with established infrastructure and permanent housing.
• Jewish refugees from Arab lands, forced out by the backlash against the creation of Israel, do not exist.

Making Excuses for Arab and Muslim Terrorism
Many textbooks and some supplemental materials consistently reflect the Arab narrative that seeks to push the consistent and widespread use of terrorism by the Palestinians against Israel far into the background. The PLO, founded to destroy Israel as called for in its charter until its modification in the 1990s, is recast in a more benign light as merely an advocate for a Palestinian state. Textbook lessons on the Palestinian Intifadas or uprisings against Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza are one-dimensional presentations of a complex reality. A wide variety of often-violent Palestinian actions are reduced to “civil disobedience.” Textbook publishers often want to maximize the visual depiction of school age children, peers of their student readers, wherever possible. The result is an exaggeration of the role of children participating in the revolts.

• Palestinian terrorism is nonexistent or minimal.
• Israel is not a victim of terrorism or terrorism is justifiable against it.
• U.S. support of Israel causes terrorism, including 9/11.
• The Intifadas were children’s revolts not involving adults or terrorism.

What Should Be Done?

• States and school districts must improve their vetting process for supplemental materials produced by advocacy groups. In order to gain entry into the classroom, these materials should conform to standards and curricular guidelines.
• Publishers need to make more effective use of the in-house fact checkers that they all employ. Publishers need to institute better systems for uncovering and fixing inaccuracies in their material on their own.
• Publishers need to follow a consistent oversight process for any person or agency contributing content to their products.
• Publishers should work more with organizations trying to promote accuracy and honesty in classroom materials. It is a much smoother process to work with publishers in the earlier stages of the development of a social studies textbook.

Public schools are our streets, our towns, our countryside. They are our civic institutions and our community halls. They are our nation. To allow bad textbooks and outright propaganda in supplemental materials into the schools is to pervert the very purpose of public education. The careful (and sometimes careless) selection of certain facts and omission of others, the explicit or implicit support for one set of values over another, is more than merely an intellectual exercise, a difference of opinion among well-intentioned people. These choices reveal our deep and conflicted political, religious, and ethical convictions, the beating, often divided heart of our society. So much debate in the West revolves around its role in the Middle East, and especially the relationship between foreign policy toward Israel and the larger struggles of the West with the Islamic world. Discovering in our schools a pervasive set of erroneous beliefs about such a vital topic should alarm every taxpayer, every parent, and every public official. To allow bad textbooks and outright propaganda in supplemental materials into the schools is to pervert the very purpose of public education.

Appendix A. Table: The comparison of devotional language used about Muslim beliefs with the qualifiers used for Judaism and Christianity (PDF)

[1] Research Associate, Initiative on Anti-Semitism & Anti-Israelism, Institute for Jewish & Community Research. Co-author, with Dr. Gary A. Tobin, of The Trouble with Textbooks: Distorting History and Religion (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008). This submission was prepared specifically for the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism.

[2] Now the Institute for Religion and Civic Values,