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Tainted Teachings [part 2] What Textbooks Have to Say About Israel, America and Islam

October 28, 2005
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The state of California is on the brink of a major election that involves neither Arnold Schwarzenegger nor Clint Eastwood. The candidates are textbooks and other teaching materials that will influence what schoolchildren across the state — and across the United States — will learn for more than a decade.

With a debate under way over evolution and intelligent design in science textbooks, a less-publicized battle is being waged over the content of social studies and history materials — some of which are pro-Islamic, anti-American, anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic.

California is in the final stages of the “adoption process” for history and social studies materials in kindergarten through eighth grade. The process, which takes place every seven years, determines which books make the mark, enabling local school districts to use state funds to purchase them.

With the political, educational and financial stakes so high, publishers, special interest groups and educators take the process as seriously as any political campaign.

Among the contenders is “History Alive! The Medieval World and Beyond,” a seventh-grade textbook, with other course materials, published by the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute.

The course was piloted in Scottsdale, Ariz., earlier this year. But after a series of protests from parents — who objected to what they saw as distortions of Christianity and Judaism, with an overarching positive spin on Islam — the publisher decided to stop the trial.

“There was a lot of objection to the amount of coverage of Islam,” said Liz Russell, the development director of the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute, which is based in Rancho Cordova, Calif.

The book was developed to meet California standards, which require “a lot more on religion in general” than most other states, she said.

California has mandated the study of religion since 1987. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism are studied in sixth grade, and Islam is covered in seventh grade.

Meanwhile, the institute has pulled “The Modern Middle East,” a package of supplemental materials deemed so objectionable that a report by the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council said it creates a hostile environment for Jewish students.

The material is still for sale, however, and copies already in circulation likely will sit on classroom shelves for years to come, according to educational experts. Both “The Modern Middle East” and “History Alive!” have hit the market since the early 1990s, a period that began what one reviewer has termed “the Islamization of the textbooks.”

Analysts say today’s history and social studies textbooks, and supplementary materials, sow positive propaganda about Islam, the Palestinians and the Arab world, while denigrating — in subtle and not so subtle ways — America, Israel, Judaism and democracy.

Distributed in public elementary, middle and high schools, the materials are paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

At least one Jewish parent, Dr. Murray Zucker, found “The Modern Middle East” so troubling that he withdrew his son from the public high school in Santa Rosa, Calif., and sent him to Jewish day school.

His son, David, was 14 when he was subjected to the materials and a teacher who endorsed every word of them, Zucker said.

Among other things, “The Modern Middle East” includes an exercise that has teachers divide the class into “Jeds” and “Pads,” representing Jews and Palestinians. The Pads are grouped inside a central area, meant to represent Palestine, while the Jeds are dispersed around the room.

Students then debate whether the Jeds should immigrate to the “Land of Pad.” Teachers are directed to show favoritism toward the Jeds, guiding the class to see the Jews as both victims and aggressors who succeed in taking over land that belongs to others.

The four Jewish students in a ninth-grade class of 30 pupils felt “powerless and marginalized and unrepresented,” said Zucker, whose son is now a freshman at Brandeis University.

Parents’ complaints in northern California led to a published analysis of the material by a team headed by Jackie Berman, an educational consultant at the San Francisco JCRC.

The report, issued two years ago, concluded that “historical distortion and factual misrepresentations woven throughout the Case Study of the Arab-Israeli Conflict render it unacceptable for classroom use.”

“As a result of the bias, a potential exists for the creation of a hostile environment in the classroom against Jewish students,” the report says.

The report says the teaching materials are studded with “misinformation, manipulation, omissions of key facts, oversimplification of complex issues, historical inaccuracy and lack of context.”

Tax money actually pays for these materials twice — once at the state or local level, where the materials are purchased, and again at the federal level, where some universities with federally funded Title VI national resource centers focusing on the Middle East help produce, promote and endorse such materials.

For example, at Ohio State University’s Middle East Studies Center, a Title VI national resource center, “The Modern Middle East” is recommended as one of many resources for educators.

As a result of parental intervention and the JCRC report, officials of the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute met with community members and agreed to rewrite the section in “The Modern Middle East” that dealt with Jews and Palestinians vying for one land.

That never happened, but the institute now says the material is no longer on the market.

“It’s quite dated. It was time for it to die,” said the institute’s Russell.

However, a sales representative for the institute said that even though the publication recently was pulled from the group’s Web site, it is still available for sale. And experts say teaching material can stay on school shelves for years even after it is no longer being published.

Alarm about the penetration of problematic teaching materials in America’s schools is growing.

Sandra Alfonsi, head of Hadassah’s Curriculum Watch, has focused on the issue for years.

“We believe that we can no longer ignore the pattern of Islamist revisionism that leads us from the K-12 textbooks to university courses and demonstrations on the college campuses and to the issue of the infusion of Arab petrol dollars that have funded and continue to fund American education,” she said.

In 2003, Gilbert Sewall of the American Textbook Council published “Islam and the Textbooks,” an analysis of some widely circulated social studies and history textbooks.

In their quest to expand coverage of Islam and non-Western civilizations — laudable, given 21st-century geopolitics — textbook publishers have distorted history, wrote Sewall, the former education editor of Newsweek.

At the end of September, he reiterated his concerns in a letter to the California Curriculum Commission in advance of its public hearings on teaching materials by 12 publishers for grades K-8.

“It is not accidental that world history texts submitted to California read alike when they present Islam or that coverage of Islam in these books is lyrical and uncritical,” Sewall wrote. “Islamic pressure groups have been working energetically for 15 years to scrub the past in instructional materials. Textbooks either gloss over jihad, sharia (Islamic law), Muslim slavery, the status of women and Islamic terrorism — or omit the subject altogether.”

Sewall, who has testified in Congress on the issue, has said that the shrinking industry has come to be dominated by four main publishing companies — Pearson, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt and McGraw-Hill — with an estimated 80 percent of the textbook market.

In his recent letter, Sewall said that, starting in the early 1990s, the publishers “allowed Islamic organizations — notably the Council on Islamic Education — to strong-arm them and in effect act as censors.”

The council’s executive director, Shabbir Mansuri, rejects these charges, insisting that his group is a “non-advocacy research organization.”

At the same time, he said in an interview with JTA at the hearings in Sacramento last month, “The Constitution allows us all a place at the table, without leaving our heritage at the door. I can lobby, I can demand, and I can contribute.”

The council’s contributions to the process are clear: It is listed as a content consultant to three of the 12 publishers submitting programs — the term used for textbooks plus other teaching materials — for adoption. It also submitted a lengthy report to the curriculum commission commenting in detail on all the religions described in the teaching materials.

Mansuri testified at the public hearings, as did representatives of other religions, including Jews, and he appeared well-acquainted with many of the publishers’ representatives present.

The Council on Islamic Education was one of many groups that consulted on the “History Alive!” course, even though it is not listed as such, said Russell of the Teachers’ Curriculum.

Beyond the council, another scholar who consulted on “History Alive!” is Ayad Al-Qazzaz, a sociology professor at California State University at Sacramento, who was co-editor of the “Arab World Notebook.” That’s the predecessor of the “Arab World Studies Notebook,” a widely used teaching manual that has been banned in at least two school districts because of what critics say is pro-Islamic propaganda and anti-Israel distortions.

Many states have a textbook-adoption process, but those in California and Texas are the most important since those states have huge populations. In fact, some school districts in California buy more books than entire states.

“Texas and California are the states in which publishers introduce new textbooks,” Sewall said. “By looking at what’s available in California today, we will know what’s going to be available in the nation tomorrow.”

“History Alive!” and “World History” were among the nine programs that California’s curriculum commission recommended to the state board of education after its public hearings last month. The board is slated to make its final selection Nov. 3.

Berman of the San Francisco JCRC said she believes the Council on Islamic Education has been so influential because it has been pro-active in getting its views across, especially when it matters most — as a book is being compiled.

“It’s perfectly legitimate” for the council to want American students to have a positive view of Islam, she said. “If you look at the textbooks, you see they have been very effective.”

The Jewish community, in contrast, “hasn’t been at the table. The publishers have not been getting a unified, well-articulated point of view” from the Jews, she said.

Berman and her team recently created the Institute for Curriculum Services to serve as a resource center for Jewish subject matter in school curricula.

Their review of some sixth-grade books that California is considering for adoption turned up inaccuracies and troubling depictions of Jews and Judaism.

In their reviews, the institute cites as an example “the depiction of Passover as a celebration of the deaths of the Egyptian firstborn instead of a celebration of the Jews’ escape from Egyptian slavery.”

Their reviews say that “many of the texts contain narrations of the Crucifixion that blame or clearly implicate the Jews, presentations of the parable of the Good Samaritan that identify uncaring passers-by as Jews, and Paul as a persecutor of Christians when he was the Jewish Saul — all of these have been used throughout history as a means of implanting anti-Semitism in young minds.”

In a surprise move, the curriculum commission, during its Sept. 29-30 hearings, rejected an Oxford University Press sixth-grade history program that Jewish and Hindu groups had blasted as biased, erroneous and culturally derogatory.

The commission also passed a motion requiring publishers to make changes requested by the Institute for Curriculum Services before their programs can be adopted by the state board.

While buoyed by that decision, Berman said that being involved in the review process is not enough.

“We need to be involved while books are being conceived,” she said, just like the Council on Islamic Education.

(JTA Editor Lisa Hostein and correspondent Sue Fishkoff in Sacramento were among the contributors to this report.)


Part 1: Saudi-backed lessons at taxpayers’ expense

Part 2: What the textbooks teach

Part 3: Teaching the teachers distortion

Part 4: The debate over Title VI

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