UK school history books withdrawn over accusations of pro-Israel bias

LONDON: British school history books have been withdrawn following accusations of pro-Israel bias.

This is the second time that the textbooks, published by education company Pearson, have been removed. 

On the first occasion, in 2019, they were withdrawn after pro-Israel groups claimed the books favored Palestine.

Pearson made changes to the textbooks after suggestions by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and UK Lawyers for Israel.

The controversy surrounds the textbooks “Conflict in the Middle East c1945-1995,” published in 2016, and “The Middle East: Conflict, Crisis and Change 1917-2012,” published in 2017. 

In 2019, the Zionist Federation called for their retraction and Pearson commissioned Parallel Histories, an organization that helps students understand conflicts from various viewpoints, to examine their quality and accuracy. 

Michael Davies, a former history teacher and founder of Parallel Histories, said its report found “no overall bias.”

But the Board of Deputies of British Jews and UK Lawyers for Israel continued to object to the textbooks, claiming that they were “seriously biased against Israel.” Pearson removed the textbooks while consulting with pro-Israel groups over the changes. 

In one case, UK Lawyers for Israel opposed the description of the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948 as “one of the worst atrocities of the war.”

It was also disappointed by the omission of what it claimed was a “massive improvement” in the living standards of Palestinians in the occupied territories under Israeli rule.

Following consultations, the revised textbooks were reintroduced in 2020, but they have been retracted once again following complaints from the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (Bricup).

The committee worked with Prof. John Chalcraft, who teaches Middle East history and politics at the London School of Economics, and Prof. James Dickins from the Arabic faculty at the University of Leeds, to compare the latest editions of the textbooks with the copies they replaced.

Chalcraft and Dickins produced a report listing almost 300 revisions to the textbooks, finding that the vast majority of the edits favor the pro-Israel perspective.

“The revisions have consistently underplayed and explained Jewish and Israeli violence, while amplifying and leaving unexplained Arab and Palestinian violence,” the report said.

“They have extended or left intact accounts of Jewish and Israeli suffering, while downplaying and editing accounts of Arab and Palestinian suffering.”

Chalcraft said this period of history must be studied at British schools, adding: “It’s so clearly linked to the present and it’s vital to educate people through balanced material.”

Chalcraft and Dickins said they went to great lengths to be objective when comparing the two editions, with the former adding: “I’m a credible researcher and educator on the issue of Israel and Palestine, and well qualified to comment on their history.”

Chalcraft said while the original version “reasonably describes Jewish settlers as those who live in new settlements built on the West Bank and Gaza,” the updated text defines them as Jews returned to villages from which they were expelled in 1948. 

“This definition is a nonsense in regards to the overwhelming majority of Jewish settlers who were not expelled in 1948,” he added.

“In the original book there’s a photo of children wading through sewage in Gaza, and in the new version it just says ‘children in Gaza’.”

Pearson said it is reviewing the textbooks once again. “We will gather a wider range of views, and we will take action if there is more work to do to get that balance right,” a spokesperson said.

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