How Palestine became a ‘forbidden word’ in German high schools

Berlin police arrest a Palestinian protester during a Nakba Day flash mob, after banning all commemorations of the day in the city, May 15, 2022

Hebh Jamal

+972 Magazine  /  December 5, 2022

From textbooks to trips, Germany’s education system is aggressively pushing a pro-Israel narrative hostile to any Palestinian dissent in the classroom.

“The word ‘Palestine’ was strictly forbidden in my classroom,” Dahlia Vakili, a Palestinian German, recalled in an interview with +972 about her secondary education experience in the federal state of Lower Saxony. “Whenever I would mention that I was Palestinian, my teachers were outraged and said that I should refer to [Palestinians] as Jordanian,” she said. Vakili, now 35, was also reprimanded for wearing the black-and-white checkered keffiyeh, which one teacher referred to as a “terrorist scarf.”

Vakili is not alone. Several more current and former Palestinian-German students have told +972 about experiencing discrimination and censorship in the classroom on the basis of their Palestinian identity, and feeling that there is no room to disagree with how Israel is presented in their schools.

Mariam, a 12th-grader in Saxony, told +972 that she was interrupted by a teacher when talking about her Palestinian background, and told that she was Israeli. “That was a really painful experience for me. My teacher implied my identity just didn’t exist,” she said.

Mariam has also been accused of being antisemitic because of her pro-Palestinian beliefs, including by her peers. “The discourse in Germany is extremely pro-Israel,” she explained. “Every criticism of Israel or its political system is seen as antisemitic and [is] denounced, even by fellow students who feel emboldened to call me antisemitic for holding anti-Zionist views. I know being pro-Palestinian doesn’t mean I’m anti-Jewish,” she added, “[but] I’m careful who is around me when I talk about my identity or my experiences as a Palestinian in this country, because I am afraid of discrimination.”

“I would need to be very careful and exact about the things I would say,” said Shuruq, who is now an undergraduate student in Berlin. “I was told not to speak about Palestine by a teacher because, according to them, I would not be able to stay neutral. That stuck with me. I wish Palestine was addressed in a way that simply respects the Palestinian community, especially in a country where there are so many Palestinians.”

Thomas Lang, now 22, recalls mentioning the Nakba to his teacher in his school in Bavaria. “He just accused me of antisemitism and said the Nakba was an antisemitic conspiracy theory,” Lang told +972. “Any discussion about what really happened with the creation of Israel was futile. I had to do my own research, because otherwise we were only taught a ubiquitous narrative of Israel being an underdog against these Arab countries who wanted to annihilate it for being a Jewish state.”

According to those who spoke to +972, much of this hostile atmosphere can be traced back to German government-led programs and official school materials that promote a pro-Israel narrative in the classroom while shutting down dissent. And while the education system in Germany is left up to the discretion and authority of its 16 federal states, the push to present Israel in a positive light — while silencing discussion of Palestinian oppression — is a consistent factor across them all. This endeavor is backed up by intensive efforts to promote contact between Israeli and German students, without setting up similar engagements with Palestinian students; the removal of discussion of the occupation from classrooms; and well-funded projects aimed at training German teachers in Israel.

Ministerial direction

Much of the framework for how Israel is discussed in German classrooms is set by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs, a consortium of government ministers responsible for the education and schooling of all 16 federal states. Although it is not a legal body, the Conference plays a significant role in developing pedagogical practice and its application in schools across the country.

In 2015, on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of German-Israeli diplomatic relations, the Conference published a communiqué with the Israeli ambassador to Germany, Yacov Hadas-Handelsman, on the two countries’ educational cooperation. Stressing Israel’s desire to “continue to strengthen links between young Germans and young Israelis,” the communiqué also emphasized the role of history and religion in “further deepening bilateral relations in the coming decades.”

The Conference developed a brochure to mark the occasion, which highlighted the wide range of activities and accomplishments in German-Israeli educational cooperation carried out at the level of both the ministries and the federal states. Some of the activities included delegation trips by German education ministers to Israel, the implementation of German-Israeli vocational training symposiums, and even a planned “Israel Day” for students in Berlin.

During the same period, the Conference also produced and made available on its website a handout on German-Israeli relations for teachers of history and social studies, urging them and their students to “deal with the development of the unique German-Israeli relationship in school lessons.” The aim, the handout continued, was to continue fostering “rapprochement and friendship” between the two countries. Although the handout was not distributed directly to schools, education ministers recommend referring to the Conference’s website — where the handout remains available — to access general educational materials.

One section of the handout, titled “Remembrance and Responsibility,” features annotated primary sources intended for lesson plans that show Germany’s commitment to the State of Israel, such as a supportive demonstration in Munich during the 1967 June War, and former chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech to the Knesset in 2008 declaring that Israel’s security is “part of my country’s reason of state” and thus “will never be open to negotiation.” The decades-long military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula since 1967 receives a footnote in the lesson plan, which merely mentions that it “provoked criticism.”

The Conference has also been working over the past few years to facilitate stronger exchange programs between German and Israeli students, including trips that take place during semester breaks. “I hear that every year after our Israel trip: the differences between us are not so big. We listen to the same music, have the same interests and like to spend time with our friends,” comments German teacher Axel Schlüter on an official German website advertising the exchange. Schlüter has been organizing the exchange program for his school since 2015, sending 15 to 20 students to Israel every spring and welcoming young Israelis to Germany in the summer.

According to first-hand accounts from former student participants, during the exchange the pupils address “hotly debated topics” such as “migration, the Israeli-German past, or homosexuality.” The exchange does not address the occupation or include Palestinian perspectives; instead, the students visit Jerusalem, spend nights on a kibbutz, and take a fun trip to the Dead Sea.

There are no exchange programs for German school students to visit the occupied West Bank.  Moreover, teachers have not always been receptive to the concerns of Palestinian-German students regarding the content of the Israel trips or how they make the students feel unwelcome. Shuruq, the undergraduate student, was handed a flier at school for a visit to West Jerusalem in order to “better understand the situation.” When she expressed concern to the teacher about the reception she would receive as a Palestinian, the teacher “shrugged it off.”

Rewriting textbooks

Over the past decade, Zionist groups in Germany have increasingly turned their focus onto school textbooks. In 2010, the bilateral German-Israeli Textbook Commission (DISBK), originally established in the late 1970s, was revived with the funding of the German foreign office and the Israeli education ministry. The commission aimed to “bring Germany and Israel closer together, particularly through their young people,” and saw analyzing textbooks as “an important tool to achieve this aim.”

The commission examined approximately 400 German history, geography, and social studies textbooks to ascertain their depictions of Israel. Finding that there were “shortfalls,” DISBK claimed that it would be making “appropriate changes” to textbooks and teaching materials.

The shortfalls, according to DISBK, stemmed from a “one-sided and distorted view of Israel”; in reality, much of the content in question simply showed the nature of the Israeli occupation. For example, the Geschichte Real 3 textbook, published by Cornelsen and used in high schools in 2013, showed images of Israeli soldiers pointing weapons at Palestinians, imposing barricades, and guarding Israeli checkpoints.

For DISBK, these depictions aroused fear. “Many facets of Israeli reality were airbrushed out, especially regarding aspects of civil society,” DISBK’s scientific coordinator, Dirk Sadowski, told Deutsche Welle. “Textbook authors tend to present Palestinians as victims and Israelis as the perpetrators.” Sadowski called images of Israeli military violence “cheap showmanship,” which should be edited because “Israel usually comes out badly.”

An elementary school textbook, “LolliPop” (2008), published by Cornelsen and used in third and fourth grade elementary school lessons in Berlin, shows pictures of Israeli security fences. One teacher, Kirsten Tenhafen, believed these images implied that the barriers “serve other purposes than that of protecting Israeli people from terrorist attacks.”

Yet even a textbook headline such as “Israel — war without end?” is seen by Sadowski as too “deterministic” a statement. “Israel must not be seen only in the context of the Middle East conflict,” Sadowski said in the same interview.

DISBK apparently rectified this antagonistic view of Israel by making changes to the textbooks and teaching material. From 2016 to 2018, digital, interactive teaching modules, based on the work of the Commission and coordinated with the Center for Educational Technology in Tel Aviv, were created and modified for teachers in both countries.

Workshops and seminars offered to German schools provide a further avenue for impressing Zionist and pro-Israel views onto students. Anthropologist Esra Özyürek, who studied antisemitism prevention programs among Arab and Palestinian youth in Germany, writes that such programs aim to break what they regard as the “myth” and “pathological feelings” of “self-victimization” among these students. “Experts [involved with the programs] suggest that Palestinians specifically and Arabs in general victimize themselves for no good reason,” portraying Palestinians in particular as equal partners to their own dispossession, Özyürek writes.

The Kreuzberg Initiative against Antisemitism (KIgA), meanwhile, is a provider of student workshops that address Israel, the “Middle East Conflict,” and antisemitism — the latter which is framed as including anti-Zionism. A typical KIgA workshop, “Beyond Black and White: Timeline about the History and Images of History in the Middle East Conflict until 1949,” bills itself as discussing the history that preceded the State of Israel’s establishment in 1948, in order to dispel the claim that “Jews stole the land of Palestine from Arabs.”

The workshop brochure emphasizes that “over centuries, different territories in the region were settled by Jews [and] Muslim faith groups,” and that “there has never been a Palestinian state that one can claim.” The exercise, the brochure added, seeks to “question the historical narratives that are used to lead territorial claims,” so as to communicate to students that because there was no state, Palestinian claims to the land are illegitimate. The workshop does not question Israeli or Zionist claims to the land.

Similarly, the Mideast Freedom Forum Berlin offers a curriculum titled “Democratic Values and Combatting Anti-Semitism,” a three-day seminar offered to German schools, universities, and adult education institutions. The seminar is intended to “educate both students and teachers about how anti-Semitism, Islamism, and Israel-hatred affect and endanger basic democratic values.”

Last September, the Israeli embassy staged a project day, under the banner “Getting to know Israel differently,” at the Leonore Goldschmidt School in Hanover, Lower Saxony. Attended by students, teachers, state officials and school administrations, and Israeli representatives, the event was hailed by the Lower Saxony government as an opportunity to “create new meeting places between Israel and Germany.” Some of the programs were workshops on Israeli history and culture, including on its “self-defense” martial art, Krav Maga. The aim of the workshops, according to a press release, was to “broaden the view of Israel as a modern state.”

Parameters for teachers

German teachers, too, are increasingly being offered training and materials that present Israel in a positive light. The Bavarian-Israeli Educational Cooperation, which sits under the Bavarian state government, not only arranges study trips to Israel for school children, but also has a budget of €200,000 annually to support excursions by teachers, seminar leaders, and school administrators to travel to and train in Israel.

One of the workshops available for teachers in the German state of Hesse, titled “Proactive against anti-Semitism,” helps teachers identify forms of antisemitism including “Israel-related antisemitism.” The project is funded by the state under its Active for Democracy and Against Extremism program.

“Antisemitism is part of everyday life in Germany,” the project description reads. “It is not only to be found on the fringes of the political spectrum and in Islamism as part of the more or less closed world views that prevail there, but also in the middle of society.”

The Conference, for its part, has repeatedly called on teachers to consolidate a pro-Israel image in the classroom. In 2016, the Conference issued a joint declaration with the Central Council of Jews in Germany on the teaching of Jewish history and culture in German classrooms, which emphasized both that Israel holds “special importance to Jews,” and that anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism are antisemitic.

“Within this framework, it is necessary to highlight the founding story of the State of Israel to understand its special situation and the threat to its existence,” the declaration said. It warned educators not to speak on the developments “in and around the State of Israel,” while urging that “Israel’s right to exist must not be put up for debate.” 

Many classrooms have embraced the spirit of the declaration. A high school lesson plan published on Munich’s school portal, for example, titled the “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” dedicates eight hours to the topic. Under competency expectations, educators are supposed to teach about the “conflict” by only looking at its historical roots, while communicating that Zionism is central to Judaism. In another lesson plan on Judaism on the same portal, the students are expected to take a “justified position against antisemitism” including, according to the plan, anti-Zionism.

Meanwhile, the consequences are clear for teachers who do speak out on Palestine. Christoph Glanz, a German teacher and pro-Palestinian activist in Oldenburg, came under attack in 2016 for his support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. School authorities investigated Glanz under the suspicion that his activism was antisemitic, and the Israeli embassy intervened, accusing Glanz of “sympathizing with violence.”

The accusations were also ignited by an essay Glanz had written for his local teachers’ trade union (GEW) about his upbringing as a liberal Zionist and his shift to support BDS. The article, while undergoing editing, was leaked to Zionist groups who triggered an international storm against the publication. The GEW secretary received a flood of threats. Finally, the union bowed to the pressure and pulled Glanz’s article, destroying several hundred copies that were already in print before they reached anyone. The head of GEW, Marlis Tepe, wrote a letter of apology to the union.

One of the allegations leveled at Glanz was that he was breaching the code of neutrality to which teachers and civil servants in Germany are supposedly committed. But Glanz rejects this characterization, telling +972 that “the product of my teaching shall not be copies of my political leanings, but rather young adults who have learned how to form a fact-based political analysis and apply that in social life.”

Glanz believes that it is possible for students to form an opinion on what is going on in Palestine instead of submitting to the German idea that “it’s all very difficult.” “The historical facts, the resources, the documents — it’s all there, and once you have built a fact-based political analysis on the matter, this marks the end of neutrality,” he said. “Providing access to facts and teaching humanist values is at the core of my profession — whether the infamous German ‘reason of state’ may like it or not.”

In the end, Glanz was not fired from his job, setting a precedent that it is not illegal to be pro-Palestinian while being a teacher. In 2016, the Oldenburg district court sentenced a local Social Democratic Party politician who slandered Glanz by calling him an antisemite, ordering her not to repeat the accusation.

“My case demonstrates that you can successfully stand up to the worst Zionist storm, provided you have a clear and sound political compass and have the support of friends and comrades,” Glanz said. “The Palestinian cause has been a constant source of inspiration to me.”

‘Outsourcing their fears and responsibilities’

 While Glanz’s case appears to be a step in the right direction, Palestinian students who do not study under critically-engaged teachers like Glanz are still at the receiving end of anti-Palestinian racism. “Palestine is being treated as the forbidden word in academia, and the general school system, and in work places,” former student Vakili told +972.

“Being Palestinian in German society means making yourself as invisible as possible in order to survive,” she continued. “My school did not even give Palestinians room to exist. Most teachers were Christian Zionists who actively picked on us, discriminated against us, and told us we were liars when we spoke of our families’ suffering back in Palestine.”

“I once presented a panel with a local politician on the German Democratic Republic,” high school student Mariam told +972. “I was blindsided when he suddenly started talking about Palestinians. He claimed we’re not as innocent as we pretend to be and [Palestinians] posed a threat to Israelis. I was so shocked and couldn’t say a word.”

Mariam believes the conversation around Israel is not only concerning but dangerous for Palestinian students. “The discourse in Germany ignores Palestinians completely. The euphemisms used to describe the Israeli army — calling them ‘security forces’ — will always relativize the violence against my people,” she said.

“It is a form of othering,” former student Shuruq told +972. “It’s not just a projection of the German experience, but a way for them to outsource all of their fears and responsibilities onto us, while putting themselves in this superior role of making sure we behave accordingly. The refusal to teach Palestinian history simply serves Germany’s own moral compass.”

Hebh Jamal is a Palestinian-American journalist and advocate currently based in Germany