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Does Counting Negative Comments Prove Anything?

by Susan Esther Barnes

February 6, 2013 | 7:00 am

Image from Wikimedia/Vladsinger

A new study called “Victims of Our Own Narratives?” was just published which claims “Dehumanizing characterizations of the other are rare in both Israeli and Palestinian school books.” If true, that’s great news. Dehumanizing characterizations of other people should have no place in school books, and I hope that, however rare they may be, any remaining ones will be removed post haste.

One of the odd things I find about this study is they chose to examine certain kinds of books, and not others. For instance, they didn’t look at books about biology, math, physics, etc. That would make sense if one assumed that math and science books are objective, and therefore there would be no special narrative information in them.

However, such an assumption could easily be false. Who hasn’t heard about Palestinian math books asking questions like, “If you have 10 bullets and you shoot 3 Jews once each, how many bullets do you have left?” This study could have told us whether such math books still exist, if they ever did. Instead, math and science books were excluded from the study with no explanation as to why.

Another of the study’s conclusions is, “Both Israeli and Palestinian school books…chronicle negative actions by the other directed at their own communities…” The study backs up this finding by counting up and listing examples of negative things that each side has to say about the other.

The problem I see, however, is that the study adds up these claims of “negative actions” without, it appears, applying any weight to whether or not these claims are false, skewed, or inflamed in some way.

In other words, if the researchers were studying Japanese school books, and came across a statement that said, “During World War II the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing many people,” the researchers would count this as a “negative” or “very negative” action the Japanese are claiming the United States directed at their community, without regard to the fact that the statement is 100% factual.

Additionally, there would be no difference in how it were counted if the statement instead read, “During its imperialist war in 1945 against our homeland, the American killing machine remorselessly incinerated, crushed and maimed many innocent and peace-loving unarmed men, defenseless women, and terrified children by dropping the most evil weapon yet invented on our beloved Hiroshima.”

At this rate, I don’t see how counting these kinds of statements proves anything. History books are about reporting the facts, whether or not those facts may make a particular group look bad. If we don’t examine the emotional content, if any, we’re losing an important part of the picture.

Nor would it necessarily make sense to remove all these “negative” statements about the other from each side’s textbooks. If the statements are true and stated factually rather than emotionally, censoring them isn’t the answer.

Rather, the question is whether the books give a fair and even-handed account of the events being discussed. The study concludes that the Palestinian school books fall short of this goal significantly more often than the Israeli secular school books. It also says, “Books from Israeli State schools included more positive portrayals of the other, more self-criticism, and more information about the other.”

This, I believe is the core of the issue, and it’s a shame that it gets lost among the other study conclusions, as well as its misleading title.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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