By Miriam Scharf
Under pressure from pro-Israeli organisations, a major educational publisher carried out an extensive revision of two GCSE History textbooks which inserted “major distortions” on questions such as the illegality of settlements under international law, according to a leading academic. Professor John Chalcraft co-authored a detailed report comparing the content of the two texts before and after the intervention by UK Lawyers for Israel, the Zionist Federation and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. He told Middle East Solidarity that he was shocked by “what has happened to the content of these textbooks – instead of offering credible educational material on Israel/Palestine, they offer distortions and bias.”
Educational publisher Pearson withdrew and “revised” the content of textbooks for GCSE History: “Conflict in the Middle East” and “The Middle East: Conflict, Crisis and Change” following a campaign by pro-Israeli groups between October 2018 and January 2020. When Professor Chalcraft and Professor James Dickins examined the reissued texts they found substantial alterations which the publisher failed to acknowledge had even taken place.
“Facts and interpretations have been cherry-picked to exonerate Israel and blame Palestinians”, Professor Chalcraft told us. “Double-standards are at work in the coverage of sensitive issues around violence and suffering – and in terms of the presentation of what is consensual and what is controversial. And major distortions were introduced on basic issues – such as international law. The revision was led by lawyer-advocates for one side only, and is invasive, involving as many as 294 changes in only 80 pages of text.”
A line-by-line comparison of the texts revealed hundreds of changes, averaging three a page. These were overwhelmingly designed to establish a narrative more favourable to Israel and less favourable to the Palestinians. Pearson then re-issued the textbook, without acknowledging it was a new edition, and with no mention of any changes.
In the original version of the Domestic GCSE textbook there are 10 references to Jewish terrorism and 32 to Palestinian terrorism (in each case including use of ‘terror’, ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’). After revision there are four references to terrorism by Jewish groups, and 61 references to terrorism by Palestinian ones.
Alterations had been made to the text, timelines, maps and photographs, as well as to sample student essays and questions. The massacre at Deir Yassin, where 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  war”. In the revised edition the word “atrocities” has been replaced by “acts”.
The original version says that “international law states that a country cannot annex or indefinitely occupy territory gained by force,” accurately reflecting the current legal position. The revised version replaces this with: “Some argue that international law states that a country cannot annex or indefinitely occupy territory gained by force.”
The well-documented fact that during the first intifada of 1987-93 “the arms and fingers of [Palestinian] child stone throwers were broken [by Israeli soldiers]” was stated in the original edition, but removed in the revised version.
UK Lawyers for Israel, a hardline pro-Israeli pressure group said in January 2020 that Pearson had carried out a “full and independent review” of the textbooks and would be “updating” the contents. According to Professor Chalcraft, the publisher did approach educational charity Parallel Histories to undertake a review, but went ahead to make major changes even though the charity “found no overall bias in the original versions”. Parallel Histories “did not see, and were not involved in, the revision process which created the bias,” he noted. “The revision process essentially appears to have involved Pearson, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and UKLFI.”
History teachers told Middle East Solidarity they were deeply concerned by the revelations of systematic and unacknowledged tampering with the Pearson textbooks. Anna Gluckstein, who has been teaching History for many years in a North London school said, “All history is subject to interpretation and when facts are analysed as objectively as possible, this can help explain the modern world. You cannot adequately understand why the Palestinian demand for a return to their homeland runs through Middle Eastern and world politics without fully describing the role of the Zionist militias in the Nakba or that of the Israeli state since then.”
“Our job as history teachers is to enable our students to analyse and test different historical interpretations based on facts. These revisions show how important it is that school textbooks should be free from interference by special interest groups. If there is such interference it should be acknowledged. Checking sources is basic to all good history teaching”.
Rob Behan, an experienced History and Politics teacher at an East London Sixth Form College, added, “it is extremely concerning to learn that Pearson have edited their textbook on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a manner that presents a more one-sided view of the conflict. I teach aspects of this conflict on my courses and recognise the sensitivity, objectivity and impartiality with which it must be treated given the passionate responses it can evoke.”
“The need to listen to a range of views and voices is a key skill in building critical understanding of history and politics for young people. To reduce or down play Israeli violence, while at the same time intensifying Palestinian violence, as I understand this textbook does, reduces the academic integrity of such a work designed to improve understanding of a complex conflict. Questioning the widely held view in the international community on the illegality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, as I understand the revised textbook does, further fuels a false narrative.”
Pearson has paused distribution of the two textbooks for the moment, however Professor Chalcraft argues the publisher needs to take further action by withdrawing all copies of the revised texts. Pearson must “inform teachers, parents, and students that the current versions of these texts are not fit for purpose, and compensate those schools that have bought them and undertake a review of their internal processes to ensure that no repetition of this biased editorial process can occur” he explained.
The intervention of the Board of Deputies and UKLFI can be seen in a larger context. Over the last two years there has been enormous pressure, including from the Department for Education, for educational institutions to adopt the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. Examples included as part of this definition label specific criticisms of Israel as antisemitic. The IHRA definition has been used across councils and universities to close down debate on Palestine and events giving solidarity to Palestinians. This interference with school textbooks dealing with the conflict is part of a more general offensive to delegitimise and silence any voice giving the Palestinian narrative.