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April 24, 2019 5:02 pm

US Lawmakers Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Monitor Intolerance in Palestinian Textbooks

avatar by Shiri Moshe

Palestinian schoolchildren sit inside a classroom at an UNRWA-run school, on the first day of a new school year, in Gaza City, Aug. 29, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Mohammed Salem.

A bipartisan bill committing the State Department to annually review the Palestinian curriculum for content encouraging violence, antisemitism and intolerance was brought forward last week.

The legislation — introduced by Reps. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY) on Thursday afternoon — has been referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of which both lawmakers are members.

Other co-sponsors include Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), David Trone (D-MD), Brian Mast (R-FL) and Randy Weber (R-TX).

The measure was supported by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), a Jerusalem-based watchdog that backs reforms for the Palestinian curriculum. The group had supported nearly-identical legislation last year, which did not advance past the Foreign Affairs Committee.

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Titled the Peace and Tolerance in Palestinian Education Act, the most recent bill would require the State Department to submit annual reports reviewing the educational material used by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which runs 715 schools for some 532,000 Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.

The reports would, in part, determine if content “encouraging violence or intolerance toward other nations or ethnic groups has been removed,” and whether US aid money was used to fund the dissemination of such materials, “directly or indirectly.”

The legislation would also affirm Congress’ position that the PA and UNRWA “have not sufficiently worked to eliminate all content and passages encouraging violence or intolerance toward other nations or ethnic groups from the curriculum used in their respective schools.”

Educational materials used by the PA and UNRWA, both of which have sustained dramatic US aid cuts under the Trump administration, have faced accusations of inciting hatred and violence in past years. A 2018 report by IMPACT-se found that grade 1-12 textbooks routinely describe Israel as the “Zionist Occupation,” refer to UN-recognized Israeli territory as Palestinian, and in some cases praise acts of Palestinian violence against civilians.

A report issued on the matter by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) last April, which was declassified in February, found that UNRWA itself identified issues with 229 pages in Palestinian textbooks used in the 2017-2018 school year. A majority of these related to neutrality or bias — for example, describing Israeli cities as Palestinian, referring to Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and failing to recognize non-Islamic religions observed in the region, according to the GAO, which did not independently evaluate the textbooks.

The GAO also found that State Department reports given to Congress about reforms undertaken by UNRWA over the curriculum issue included inaccurate information and omissions, among them incorrect claims that UNRWA distributed complementary materials to address problematic textbook content.

In a February statement responding to the GAO report, UNRWA said that offending content was found in “approximately three percent of the material” it reviewed, and that some of the GAO’s conclusions were outdated as new educational materials were released since the report was drafted. On the whole, the report “affirms UNRWA’s unwavering commitment to UN values,” the agency said.

Commenting on the latest congressional legislation on the issue, IMPACT-se head Marcus Sheff said the GAO report “clearly shows that funds targeted for UNRWA had been misused. The US Congress was not informed about incitement in the Palestinian curriculum taught by UNRWA and was misled for several years into believing that UNRWA was circulating supplementary materials.”

“The Bill was crafted to address this issue by accurately assessing the current PA curriculum taught by the PA and UNRWA according to standards of peace and tolerance as set out by the United Nations,” Sheff stated.

Several European governments, including Switzerland, Germany, and the United Kingdom, have committed to reviewing Palestinian textbooks following IMPACT-se’s reports.

Last year, European Union lawmakers approved amendments to prevent aid to the PA from financing educational materials considered discriminatory or intolerant.

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