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Study: Imbalance in how Germans, Israelis portray each other in textbooks

German-Israeli Textbook Commission
German schoolbooks depict Israel as a violent conflicted land; Israel uses Germany as a role model and leader

An aggressive, violent conflicted land – this is how Israel is portrayed in German textbooks. No mention of it being a Hi-Tech nation, a regional beacon for gay rights or even the only democracy in the Middle East. The German students learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of hardly anything else. Now German and Israeli researchers are urging the government to make a change.

After a five-year-long research, the German-Israeli Commission for Textbooks Research together with the German Georg Eckert Institute and the Israeli Mofet Institute, presented on Tuesday its conclusions to the German Foreign Ministry, which initiated the study. As the two countries prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, the goal was to examine how each is depicted in the other's textbooks.

The conclusions are concerning: While Germany is presented to Israeli students as a role model and the leader of the EU, the image of Israel is strictly one-sided. “Israel is the only example of a conflict state in German textbooks, as if it has achieved nothing else,” criticizes Dr. Arie Kizel, who led the research on behalf of the Mofet Institiute.

According to the report, the text about the conflict also lacks sufficient historic context, the civil peace initiatives on the Israeli side and the challenges which delay a permanent agreement. “Israel is also misrepresented visually: The photos used in the textbooks do not reflect the vivid, vibrant country,” Kizel says.

The joint review of 400 German history, geography, and social science textbooks – alongside 43 Israeli publications, including those for the Arab and religious sectors – also uncovered many factual inaccuracies. “We have an extraordinary water sharing agreement with the Jordanians, for example,” points out Dr. Michal Golan, Head of the Mofet Institute. “But in the German textbooks, the Israelis allegedly blocked the Yarmouk River and stole all the water. Also the maps they use and the data featured in the textbooks, it's all based on the information the Palestinians presented at the UN.”

“Our fellow German researchers didn't even realize at first the meaning of their findings," Golan continues. “They were amazed when we pointed out the historical inaccuracies.” Their Israeli counterparts also suggested that the imbalance could potentially serve certain goals, like self-cleansing of guilt. “Although we didn't make any accusations,” emphasizes Kizel.


At the same time, all the commission members were surprised to discover that Israel seems to have moved past the emotional phase in its attitude towards Germany. “Although we have more reasons to be emotional when discussing Germany, we prefer the more rational way,” notes Golan. “We are able to give it the place it deserves, regardless of the history. In fact it is Germany which resorts to emotion.”

Kizel explains: “In our textbooks, Germany is the country most used as a good example on various topics – from its climate research and environmental policy to its philosophers and scientists. Civil studies textbooks even refer to Germany as the most important democracy in Europe, which Israel can learn from.” The representation of Germany in Israeli textbooks, the researchers found, reflected the normalization process Israel went through. “The precursors of the recent immigration of Israelis to Berlin are already in the textbooks,” Kizel adds.

Israeli textbooks have also changed through the years. While once they claimed that all Germans are infected with racism, today they stick to the facts. “Unlike in the fifties, the Israeli textbooks don't use adjectives like 'horrific' and 'shocking' when discussing the Holocaust,” Kizel, who also heads the department of Learning and Teacher education in Haifa University, stresses. “There's no attempt to tug at heartstrings.”

On the other hand, Israel does not introduce its students to post-1945 Germany. “The study of Germany usually stops with the Reparations Agreement, but what about what happened afterwards?” wonders Kizel. “The financial and military support Germany provides to Israel is not mentioned at all. We strongly recommend in the report to address also Germany's commemoration efforts and the struggle to deal with its past.”

The Holocaust is disappearing

Yet while these efforts are still continuing in Germany, the Holocaust seems to be disappearing from its social studies textbooks. “The German researchers noticed that the Holocaust is taught solely in history books, which indicates a decrease in the scope of Holocaust teaching,” points out Kizel. Even in history books some topics are overlooked: The researchers criticized the missing chapters dealing with Jewish heroism and uprising attempts against the Nazis, which could counter the notion of the Jews being led “like lambs to the slaughter,” or the lack of descriptions from the victims' point of view, which could encourage empathy.

“Many of the textbooks describe the persecution and extermination stages in a passive language without mentioning the perpetrators by name,” notes the report. “Separating actions from offenders creates the impression of an automatic killing machine, in which the perpetrators played a secondary role and are not accountable.”

Kizel attributes the report's findings to the changing teaching methods in Germany. “Instead of just conveying knowledge German teachers use more newspaper clippings and caricatures to stimulate a dialogue. The method of beginning the lesson with the question 'how do you feel about that?' - without first presenting the facts – might has its virtues, but it's not good for Israel.”

Kizel explains that it is the media's job to evoke emotion, "while the discussion in class is supposed to remain rational. Today the media discourse is being methodically copied into the classrooms.”

In light of this, the researchers recommend to avoid statements that make the conflict appear to be unavoidable and unsolvable, and to use discretion when incorporating in textbooks images which could generate strong emotions among the students. In regards to the curriculum, they also advise to give more attention to the establishment of the Jewish state, from the 19th century till the Kibbutz, and to Israel as a country of immigrants. The researchers also call on both sides to explore further the special relationship between the two countries.

Kizel adds a suggestion of his own: “The same research we've done should be conducted in regard to all major EU countries: Britain, the Netherlands, France and Scandinavian countries. The BDS movement has opened our eyes. We are engaged in a battle for balance and one of the things to do is to invest more money into the study of European textbooks. The Israeli Ministry of Education already has these departments, they simply need to be beefed up - just like cyberwarfare units in the army."

Polina Garaev is i24news' correspondent in Germany.


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