UK school textbooks on Middle East conflict altered to favour Israel: Report

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  April 1, 2021

Study found alterations made to text, timelines, maps and photos after intervention by Board of Deputies of British Jews.

A group of academics has called for the immediate withdrawal of two textbooks used by UK high school students which they say distort the historical record and fail to offer pupils a balanced view of the Israel/Palestine conflict. 

The report found that alterations had been made to text, timelines, maps and photographs, as well as to sample student essays and questions – concluding that “school children should not be supplied with propaganda under the guise of education”.

The books, published by Pearson, titled Conflict in the Middle East and The Middle East: Conflict, Crisis and Change, both by author Hilary Brash, are read by thousands of GCSE and International GCSE students annually. 

GCSEs are the academic qualifications studied for by UK high school students.

The textbook alterations were made last year after an intervention by the Board of Deputies of British Jews working together with UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI). 

The eight-page report, by Professors John Chalcraft and James Dickins, Middle East specialists in History and in Arabic, respectively, and members of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), found hundreds of changes to the textbooks – averaging three changes per page. 

The Executive of the National Education Union (NEU), the UK’s main teaching union, has expressed its concern about the findings outlined in the report as well as the editorial process which led to the changes to the textbooks.

The NEU has said it will be contacting the publishers for clarification.

The report noted that despite the scale of the changes the books carry no notice that they have been revised. 

Facts removed

The report highlights multiple examples of changes to the original text.

In one example the original version says that “international law states that a country cannot annex or indefinitely occupy territory gained by force”. This is the overwhelming international legal consensus. 

The revised version replaces this with: “Some argue that international law states that a country cannot annex or indefinitely occupy territory gained by force”.

In another case, the original edition includes the statement that during the first intifada of 1987-93 “The arms and fingers of [Palestinian] child stone throwers were broken [by Israeli soldiers]”. 

This fact is well documented. For the revised edition it has been removed.

The Deir Yassin massacre (in which Israeli forces killed at least 107 Palestinian civilians) is described in the original version of the International GCSE textbook as “one of the worst atrocities of the [1948] war”. In the revised edition the word “atrocities” has been replaced by “acts”.

‘Shocking and unacceptable’

Chalcraft, one of the authors of the report, said: “Overwhelmingly, the changes which have been made to these texts add or substitute statements, information and interpretations which favour an Israeli narrative, and remove or replace those that support Palestinian narratives. 

“The overall effect is to make these books dangerously misleading.”

Khaled Fahmy, Professor of Arabic Studies, Kings College Cambridge, said: “While it is laudable that Middle Eastern history books are regularly revised and updated, the manner in which these two school textbooks have been revised is shocking and unacceptable. 

“School textbooks should be revised based on the advice and expertise of academics and scholars, not by reviewers selected by an organisation of lawyers whose rationale is advocating for a foreign country.”

‘We are pleased with the final material’

A statement issued by the Board of Deputies of British Jews in September 2020 described the process leading to the revision of the textbooks: “After initial constructive conversations with Pearson, the Board of Deputies worked together with UKLFI [UK Lawyers for Israel] to produce thorough comments on both textbooks, which Pearson have received an acted upon. 

“After detailed and lengthy process over a number of months, the books have now been published for students to use in the 2020-1 academic year.”

Board of Deputies of British Jews President Marie van der Zyl said: “We applaud Pearson for their openness to constructive feedback and willingness to revise these textbooks. 

“We are pleased with the final material which gives a balanced and accurate portrayal of the Middle East conflict. 

“I would like to pay specific tribute and thanks to UKLFI for their hard work on this project and their collaborative effort with us to get these textbooks to where they needed to be.”

‘Publisher should reassess these textbooks’

A spokesperson for the publisher refers to “a new edition” with regard to the textbooks but there is no indication for the reader of the revised texts that these were new editions, or any indication of the extent of the revisions that had been made to the originals.

Henry Maitles, Emeritus Professor of Education, University of the West of Scotland, said: “The amendments seem to me to take some perfectly balanced books and turn them into one-sided, biased resources. 

“It is important in dealing with contested issues that a balanced approach is taken. These changes take these textbooks away from this. 

“They are now in danger of being seen as propaganda. The publisher should reassess these textbooks and ensure that balance is returned to them.”