Saudi Textbooks Erase Palestine: A New Shift in Middle East Politics?

Research made by an Israeli think tank revealed that textbooks from Saudi Arabia showed significant moderation of anti-Israel and antisemitic material, while references to Palestine were removed from most maps and lessons where they previously appeared, pointing to the possibility of the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom laying the groundwork for normalizing ties with the Jewish state.

The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE), an Israeli NGO focused on monitoring textbook content and how they educate about religion, culture, and society, conducted a comprehensive review of 371 Saudi textbooks for the school year 2023-24, comparing and contrasting them with previous textbooks used by the Saudi curriculum within the past few years.

The research center, which has been reviewing Saudi textbooks since the early 2000s, studied 371 textbooks published between 2019 and 2024. The study seeks to highlight the content that has been altered, remained unchanged, or removed from these textbooks compared to past materials.

The latest report revealed positive improvements in inclusivity. For example, a social studies textbook for Grade 12 that defines Zionism as a racist European movement that seeks to “expel Palestinians” and has been regarded as a “breeding ground for anti-Israel hatred” has been completely removed from the 2023-2024 academic year.

Other content that was eliminated from Saudi textbooks include antisemitic conspiracy theories that frame Zionism as having “fundamental goals” to take over Arab lands and seize control of oil wells as well as Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. The report also documented some changes in Saudi textbooks that refer to Israel in a less hostile tone but still do not recognize it.

For instance, a 2022 edition of a high school social studies textbook replaced references to Israel as “the Zionist enemy” with “the Israeli occupation army.” The same textbook was also changed from referring to “the Israeli enemy” to “the Israeli occupation” and “the Zionists” to “the Israelis”, or “the Israeli occupation army.

Year on year we are seeing advances in Saudi textbooks which add up to a curriculum that increasingly embraces tolerance and moderation. These most recent changes, which include a more open attitude towards Israel, are another important step in this direction,” Marcus Sheff, CEO of IMPACT-se, said regarding the report.

Other improvements documented in the report include the removal of hateful examples of Jews, Christians, and even polytheists or “infidels” in textbooks as well as moderating the discourse on Shia and Sufi branches of Islam. Positive changes were also seen concerning gender issues, with homophobic statements and statements on the traditional roles of women in society removed from textbooks.

However, these changes in Saudi textbooks did not only touch on Israel and other social issues. The report also documented changes in how the new educational materials tackled Palestine, with one textbook having an entire chapter about the Palestinian cause being removed. This textbook is still being taught in Saudi schools.

Other changes noticed by the study regarding Palestine were social studies textbooks for Grades 5 and 9, which consistently did not name either Israel or Palestine on the map, an omission from previous editions of textbooks that exclusively named Palestine on the map.

Most maps removed the names of all countries not bordering Saudi Arabia, including Palestine, and in some cases, all country names were removed,” the report said.

Two maps in a geography textbook for Grades 10-12, which previously named Palestine, now do not display the names of any countries sharing a border with Saudi Arabia. Textbooks for Grades 6 and 7 also saw the same omissions.

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