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Teaching troubles

Christoph Richter / hwJanuary 4, 2013

Little room is given for Israeli history in German textbooks and, when it is mentioned, the image presented of the Middle-Eastern state tends to be unbalanced. A new commission is calling for change.

A class of schoolchildren during a lesson in Munich
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It will soon be 68 years since the end of the Second World War and the end of the National Socialist regime in Germany.

To this day, the handling of this dark chapter in history has been a difficult issue, especially with regards to the Holocaust and the Israeli state. The way in which Israel is presented to young people in Germany remains the subject of continual debate.

For that reason, the German-Israeli Textbook Commission was founded in 2010 by the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Braunschweig.

"Arousing fear, developing trust - textbooks are a political issue," said Israel expert Dirk Sadowski, one of the initiators of the project.

Upon first inspection, the commission found that the textbooks from German publishers - such as Klett, Westermann, Buchner and Cornelsen, who together account for almost the entire German textbook market - were lacking when it came to accurate coverage of Israel.

Around 500 history, geography and social studies textbooks currently in use in schools in the states of North-Rhine Westphalia, Bavaria, Berlin and Saxony, were assessed.

"Many facets of Israeli reality were airbrushed out, especially regarding aspects of civil society," Sadowski said. Textbook authors tend to present Palestinians as victims and Israelis as the perpetrators, he added.

A meeting of the German-Israeli Textbook Commission in Berlin in April 2012
The German-Israeli Textbook Commission, pictured here at a meeting, criticized the "tendentious representations of history"Image: Christoph Richter

Bad grades for German textbooks

One clear example of that can be found in "Geschichte Real 3," published by Cornelsen and currently used in high schools in North-Rhine Westphalia.

The very first image in the book depicts Israeli soldiers pointing weapons at unarmed people. The Israeli barricades were photographed from the ground up and look menacing.

The overall message is that of "Jewish terror," while the issue of Arab suicide bombers barely receives a mention and, when it does, the impression given is that of "desperation."

"Tendentious representations of history," Dirk Sadowski said, calling it "cheap showmanship."

The imbalanced selection of images, he said, is a trend that can be seen in many German textbooks: "Israel usually comes out badly in the images."

Such examples promote the concept of "the enemy" and foster prejudices, say critics such as Julius Schoeps, the director of the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies in Potsdam.

Polemical images

It is a concern shared by Kirsten Tenhafen, an elementary school teacher at Berlin's John F. Kennedy School. She works with the "LolliPop" (2008) textbook, which is published by Cornelsen and used in third and fourth grade elementary school lessons in Berlin.

In her opinion, this book is also a bad example. The background issues regarding the construction of security barriers are ignored, and so "right from the beginning, the textbook implies that security fences actually serve other purposes than that of protecting the Israeli people from terrorist attacks."

One task in the book required schoolchildren to glue a cardboard wall onto an outline of Israel. "That must produce a lack of understanding, if not anger toward Israel, among the children," she said.

Schoolchildren would prefer to learn about what animals and plants there are in Israel, and what games Israeli children play, Tenhafen said. She also doesn't believe that nine-year-old children need to be confronted with the complex political situation in Israel.

Pupils look on school supplies in a classroom
Young schoolchildren would prefer to learn about Israeli flora and fauna, Tenhafen saysImage: Frederick Florin/AFP/GettyImages

Bavaria an exception

In Tenhafen's opinion, things desperately need to improve. Textbook researcher Dirk Sadowski believes a greater emphasis should be placed on Israel as a democratic, western-orientated state "with a pluralistic democracy, a jurisdiction, a rule of law, a state facing the reality of conflict on a daily basis and then also prove itself."

The German-Israeli Textbook Commission did, however, reserve praise for textbooks in Bavaria. While a total of eight pages was the standard amount of material dedicated to the issue of Israel in textbooks nationwide, much more room was given in Bavaria.

Up to 70 pages of balanced information were standard there, Sadowski said. The Bavarian history textbooks had "actually an almost reference book character," he added