The State of California recently ordered all copies of the seventh-grade social studies textbook An Age of Voyages to be affixed with a sticker on page 95, so as to cover a picture of the founder of the Sikh religion. According to the New York Times, Sikhs had protested the portrayal of Guru Nanak’s beard (incorrect Sikh style) and his head covering (improper turban), and lobbied the state to mandate the textbook change.
Unlike the Sikh community, which responded swiftly to concerns regarding a beard trim and turban style, we Jews have been practically silent about the biased, inaccurate, and deeply offensive portrayal of Jews, Judaism, and Israel in many of our nation’s textbooks. Consider these examples.
- “Jews looked upon non-Jews as distinctly lesser breeds,” asserts World Civilizations (Thomson Wadsworth, 2003), used in high school accelerated history classes and colleges across America. “Wherever the Jews went, they took their national badge of distinction with them: the unerring belief in their quality as the Chosen.” The textbook also “explains” that first-century Jews were divided into several factions, but “none of these factions were [sic] receptive to the pacifist and provocative message of love and forgiveness that Jesus preached.”
- “Egyptian records from the time don’t mention the Exodus of the Israelite slaves. And archaeology hasn’t uncovered any evidence of their years in Egypt or of their dramatic departure” (The Ancient Near Eastern World, Oxford University Press, 2005). Notably, this “archaeological test” is not applied to the sacred stories of other faiths, such as the account of Jesus’ resurrection or of Muhammad’s night flight from Mecca through the sky.
- The Palestinian intifada was a “widespread campaign of civil disobedience,” states World History: Patterns of Interaction (McDougal Littell, 2003). Such euphemistic treatment of Palestinian violence is commonplace. In reviewing a dozen social studies textbooks for grades 6–12, I’ve found that Arab acts of terrorism against Israel are downplayed and whitewashed; the acceptance of Israel’s creation by a majority vote of the U.N. is sometimes omitted; the refusal by the majority of Palestinians to recognize Israel’s right to exist is glossed over; and Israel’s achievements in myriad fields of endeavor are generally minimized or absent, as is its uniqueness as a Middle East democracy where all religions can flourish.
Thankfully, two years ago a new Jewish organization began monitoring school teaching curricula and taking action on behalf of historical accuracy. The Institute for Curriculum Services: National Resource Center for Accurate Jewish Content in Schools, a project of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the San Francisco Bay Area and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, has worked with a number of textbook publishers to amend biased and incorrect information about Jews, Judaism, and Israel. In the Oxford Press book cited above, for example, a more recent edition removes the “archaeological test” and instead explains that “for Jews, the Exodus is a central event in their history [and] a powerful symbol for all people showing the importance of freedom.”
Unfortunately, the ICS does not have the resources to inspect every school textbook in the U.S. That’s where we come in. Parents can take action by examining the books and handout materials your children bring home from school. If you encounter biased, misleading, and/or erroneous information about Judaism or about Israel, contact ICS at 415-957-1551 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s learn from the Sikhs.
Andrea Rapp is librarian at the Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati.