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What Did The Children Learn in School Today?

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In 1963, temporarily banned from American television for his "radical" views, Pete Seeger toured Australia. On a stage in Melbourne, he introduced a new song by a then 23-year old Tom Paxton. The lyrics began:

What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
I learned that Washington never told a lie
I learned that soldiers seldom die
I learned that everybody's free
That's what the teacher said to me
And that's what I learned in school today

Those are sentiments that drive every nation state as it seeks to shape the thinking of its children. Some states have long histories from which to develop those sentiments.

The modern state of Israel has an extremely short history. It came into existence in 1948 under trying circumstances, a tribal band of immigrants from Europe who had survived the Holocaust.

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I was reminded of Pete Seeger singing Tom Paxton's lyrics when I read an account in the Guardian, about a forthcoming book by Israeli scholar Nurit Peled-Elhanan.

Peled-Elhanan is a mother, a political radical, and the daughter of the famous Israeli general, Matti Peled who in retirement, has become a leading activist in the Israeli peace movement.

She comes to her research from a family with deep connections to Israel's history. Her brother, Milo Peled, is the author of A General's Son, scheduled for publication by Just World Books in the Spring of 2012.

In her book Nurit Peled-Elhanan describes images of Palestinians that Israel has included in its textbooks for children:

"They are called Arabs. 'The Arab with a camel, in an Ali Baba dress. They describe them as vile and deviant and criminal, people who don't pay taxes, people who live off the state, people who don't want to develop,' she says. 'The only representation is as refugees, primitive farmers and terrorists. You never see a Palestinian child or doctor or teacher or engineer or modern farmer.'"

Peled-Elhanan, a professor of language and education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has studied the content of Israeli school books for the past five years.

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Her book, Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education, will be published in the United Kingdom this month. She would like to find a Hebrew publisher. So far she had not found one.

Peled-Elhanan tells the Guardian  she found a prevailing racism that saturates Israel's early education textbooks.

Israel has a short history which it has built from ancient biblical stories and the recent horrors of the Holocaust. For nation building, the pairing was perfect. For stealing land, it was illegal, a distortion of  actual history and, for good measure, immoral.

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James Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. Many sources have influenced Jim's writings over (more...)

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