How the Israel-Palestinian Conflict Is Framed in Swedish History School Textbooks

Between Ideology and Critical Neutrality

In November 2010 I completed my doctoral dissertation entitled “Framing the Israel/Palestine Conflict in Swedish History School Textbooks.” For it, I analyzed over twenty Lower Secondary school textbooks and interviewed thirteen Civics teachers. The initial problem that I took as its point of departure was the notable lack of orientation with the scholarly debate on the history of the conflict in the textbooks and teachers statements. This interested me further since up until the days of Olof Palme and even under the more pro-Israeli government of Göran Persson, Sweden had engaged neutrally in the conflict. This political context is reflected too in the textbooks and teacher statements I have examined in an attempt to provide both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. Nevertheless, at least since the early 1990s the textbook content has been framed by various ideological assumptions, which, in contrast, have been the focus of critical analysis within the scholarly debate. For example, since the 1980s and prior to that, discussions between so-called “new historians”, traditionalists and anti-traditionalists have touched on topics such as Zionism’s political and ideological (and colonial) moorings, the concept of ‘transfer’ and how the Palestinian refugee problem was created. However, such discussions have been continually absent in the Swedish History school textbooks examined. Interestingly too, excerpts from such critical works as Benny Morris’ Righteous Victims even made it into Israeli History school textbooks around the Oslo period (but were removed when Ariel Sharon came into office in 2000). How might one characterize the framework which undergirds Swedish textbook content and teachers’ statements according to my study, then? For the purposes of this piece I will refer to it simply as characterized by a tension between ideology and critical neutrality. Before I discuss some of my findings I will briefly guide the reader through the particular discourses and topics and themes which constitute this tension, and thereby the dominant framework for understanding and explaining the conflict’s history.

The “Equal” Right to Lay Claim to the Land and the Norm of Neutrality

Based on my theoretical frame, the overarching idea or theme pervading the conflict’s history in the textbooks and statements is what I have categorized as the “equal” right to lay claim to the land. This theme may be understood as the ideological glue linking together four complementary and conflicting discourses. These are: the discourse on Jewish/Arab connection to the land, the discourse on nation-peoples, the Oslo peace discourse and the discourse on international law. The ideological function of the above theme is to present the various topics and themes within the discourses mentioned (and in the textbooks and teachers’ statements) as naturally connected. Take, for example, the notion of “rights” within international law and Zionist and Oslo discourse. In international law it means the right to ethnic sovereignty under the two-state agreement. However, under Oslo the notion of “rights” takes on a double meaning: to mean both the right to ethnic sovereignty and the “equal” right to lay claim to the land. This is a clear example of the tension described above and as I will attempt to show in the following discussion of findings, it is this very ideological edifice combined with the lack of scholarly perspectives which frames the various topics and themes presented in the textbooks and teachers’ statements.

Jewish/Arab Connection to the Land and the Oslo Discourse: the power of “equal” claim

The opening sections of the textbooks often focus on a specific selection of topics and themes which taken together form “an unbroken chain of [historical] presence” in the land. Or they support “the reimagining of an ancient religious community as a nation”. (my italics) These selected topics and themes function to construct a seamless connection between the Jews or Jewish people of ancient Israel to the state of modern Israel and to a lesser extent the Arab Palestinians to ancient Canaan. The most significant example of Jewish nationhood is the reference to modern Israel as the youngest and oldest state in one of the textbooks. Other allusions to nationhood are made when Jerusalem is referred to as the capital city of ancient Israel or Judea or when it is described as the original homeland of the Jews. To strengthen this linkage between nationhood and biblical mythhistory , reference is made to a 3000 year-old presence in the land and to the (national) Jewish remnant following the expulsion of the Jewish people from ancient Jerusalem by the Romans. We also learn that these same Jews were to emigrate to Europe, Africa and America following their exile into Diaspora. In addition, Jewish (meta)historical identity is constructed around the above topics and themes to seamlessly connect the modern Zionist movement and modern Israel to “the vast Diasporan centre” and ancient (biblical) Israel. In turn, the purpose of Zionism is not discussed in terms of its political (colonial) or ideological moorings but in terms of a natural connection between Judaism and Zionism and the latter’s purpose to provide a safe haven for Jews everywhere under the auspices of Theodor Herzl following increased anti-Semitism in the late 19th century. Unremarkably too, the destruction of millions of European Jews during the Nazi Holocaust functions in its own right as a framework for understanding and explaining why the state of Israel was established.

Arab connection to the land is established generally in terms of the invasion of Palestine or their arrival as nomads in Palestine in the Middle Ages. In one textbook, a more metahistorical Arab-Canaanite connection to the land is constructed. In contrast, the Jews of ancient Israel are not portrayed as arriving in Palestine but are always present in the land. Pointing to the presence of the notion of “equal” claim in the textbooks, in SO boken Historia 9 (1992) the land is presented as something that both Arab Palestinians and Israelis feel they have a right to. This is illustrated further in the 2007 edition of SOS Historia: ämnesboken when the PLO’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist and the Palestinians’ right to a land of their own is mentioned. In the same book, mention is made of how religious settlers viewed their biblical right to the land. However, there is no critical discussion as to the legitimacy of these claims and upon which assumptions they might be based. Thus, ideologically an “equal” claim to the land is tacitly invoked through the “natural” connections in the discourse on Jewish/Arab connection to the land. A number of the teachers I interviewed also supported this claim when stating that “the conflict is basically about both parties having a right to the land.” Another intoned that “both sides are right on that point.” Emphasising the biblical-national connection another teacher added that “a long time [had] passed” and then “they [the Jewish people] were able to return”.

Oslo conditionalities

The topic of the Oslo peace process is a perfect ideological prism for the notion of “equal” claim. The Oslo discourse which informs it incorporates and frames references drawn from international law discourse too. This is indicated with reference to among other things Israel’s right to exist, the Palestinians’ right to a national homeland, difficulties in negotiating land between the parties to the conflict (e.g. with regard to Jerusalem, the size of the Palestinian state), and to settlers’ biblical claims (Which the Israeli government, we learn in the textbooks, has had difficulty assuaging since the claim is assumed genuine). Since it is assumed that both parties share an “equal” claim to the land, the hurdles to peace discussed in the textbook are understood as reflecting a denial or prevention of this shared claim. These are, for example, mutual hatred, (Palestinian) terrorism, threats to destroy Israel and cycles of violence. It is also understood that for peace to be achieved it is important that Israel’s opponents (the Palestinians and Arab states) must make the first move. Oslo peace conditionalities are drawn upon such as recognising Israel’s right to exist and the cessation of (“Palestinian”) terrorism. To reciprocate, Israel will recognise the Palestinians’ right to a land of their own and will agree to allow Palestinian “self-rule” in the occupied territories (In many of the textbooks too, the concept of “self-rule” is never explained and is often assumed to mean national self-determination). The inclusion of these conditionalities in the narrative effectively frames and occludes the international law discourse. Thus “the principle of ethnic self-determination” in international law is interpreted according to the peace conditionalities of the Oslo discourse (thus far self-determination has translated into separate and disconnected enclaves or “bantustans” in Areas A, B and C in the West Bank; set up to essentially strengthen Israeli security).

Critical Education in the Current Shift From Neutrality to Ideology

So what are the possible consequences for providing critical education on the conflict’s history and other conflict histories and what might be some tentative solutions? In the absence of scholarly perspectives and the presence of taken-for-granted ideological assumptions, an open and critical debate on the conflict in some classroom contexts may be difficult. What is required is an approach to teaching on the history of the conflict which does not “lose sight of the determinate character of global” relations of power. A more active orientation with research on the conflict as well as the adoption of more critical social scientific approaches is needed. Along with other subjects, the non-compulsory subject of International Relations within the Swedish Social Science programme for Upper Secondary level can provide one critical orientation in schools. To understand the roots of historical conflicts requires examining their cultural, political, ideological and economic dimensions within the international system. This was recognised by “former Director of Education of the Swedish National Board of Education” , Bengt Thelin, in 1992 when he promoted “a curriculum that [would] address issues such as ecology, peace and war, overpopulation, refugees, and global issues.” (my italics) At that time he was concerned with the nature of “Sweden’s political neutrality” in the wake of its application for membership into “the European Common Market […].”Alluding to a conflict of interests or ideologies, the concerns he raised were the possible “political and also military commitments” that Sweden would be obligated to fulfill through joining the EEC. As a clear indication of Sweden’s shift from neutrality to ideology, since Göran Persson’s time we have seen Sweden follow neoliberal reforms, “strengthen the Israeli military complex and the country’s military capacity” as well as partially fulfil military commitments in Afghanistan under the auspices of NATO. Finally, in the 21st Century this should give us all cause for concern. At the same time it should also alert us to the vital role of education in forming critical and democratic citizens who, more than being made “employable”, must be up to the task of dealing with the repercussions of current global political conflicts and crises.

Michael Walls is currently employed as a doctor of Educational Science in Social Science at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden Read other articles by Michael.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Ismail Zayid said on March 3rd, 2011 at 10:39am #

    The statement as to “equal” right to the land of Palestine, between Palestinians and Jews, lacks historical context. Today’s Palestinians are the descendants of the Canaanites, Jebusites and other tribes that lived in this land since history began. Jewish Professor Maxime Rodinson, who was professor of history at the Sorbonne University in Paris, confirms that: ” “The Arab population of Palestine was native in all the senses of the word and their roots in Palestine can be traced back at least forty centuries.” [Maxime Rodinson. [“Israel and The Arabs.” Pelican. 1968].

    The Hebrew tribes came to the Land of Canaan as invaders, and were driven out by other invaders, the Romans. The land of Palestine was subjected to scores of invaders, including the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and Romans, amongst others. Invaders have no legal right to claim invaded land, anymore than the Romans can claim the right to England which they invaded and occupied for hundreds of years. The statements that the Arabs invaded Palestine in the Middle Ages, seventh century, has no relevance to the present day Palestinians . The Islamic conquest in the seventh century was an invading army, that brought a new religion, marched on to invade Egypt and North Africa and brought about no settlement in Palestine.

    As to the claim that Zionists use, claiming that God promised this land to the Jews and that it is recorded in the Bible, my response to that has always been that I am not aware that God was a real-estate agent who can apportion land to those he favours, or for that matter that the Bible is a Registry of Deeds.

    As to the claim by Jews to return to the land from which they were expelled, that, too, lacks historic context. The Ashkenazi Jews are the descendents of the Khazars and other Russian tribes, who adopted the Jewish religion in 780 A.D, when their King Bhulan the Second converted to Judaism then.

    I think historical facts must be of relevance in this bitter contest.

    As to the use of the Oslo Accord etc, this is the outcome of miltary power and has no relevance to “rights’ to the land.

  2. 3bancan said on March 3rd, 2011 at 2:49pm #

    “As a clear indication of Sweden’s shift from neutrality to ideology, since Göran Persson’s time we have seen Sweden follow neoliberal reforms, “strengthen the Israeli military complex and the country’s military capacity” as well as partially fulfil military commitments in Afghanistan under the auspices of NATO”

    But not a single word about the causes for the shift, ie the Jewish lobby in Sweden and the younger generation of Swedes who have studied in the zionazified US universities.

    Every smoke has its fire:

  3. Rehmat said on March 3rd, 2011 at 4:34pm #

    Swedish politicians like American politicians have learned the hard way – not to critize Israel.

    Swedish Prime Miminster Olof Palme, who was known for his criticism of Israeli occupation and had voiced his support for resolving the Palestinian problem according to United Nations’ resolutions. Olof was gunned down on March 1, 1986 by a Mossad hitman.

    Another great Swedish political leader who supported the Palestinian cause was country’s Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh. She also became a victim of Mossad assassination on September 11, 2003. Anna was quoted calling Israeli prime minister Gen. Ariel Sharon “Maniac” and US president George Bush “Fool”.

    Israel-Lobby is very powerful in Sweden. The Swedish mainstream media is own by Bonnier Zionist Jewish family. Jewish power was manifested recently how Julian Assange was mistreated once he started releasing some Israeli hidden skeltons. In February 2010, when Malmo Mayor equated Zionism to racism and asked Sweden Jewish communities to stay away from supporting Israel – the Swedish media called Mayor Ilmar Reepalu an ‘anti-Semite’. However, the same media stood behind anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders’ ‘freedom of press’ rights.

    The current Swedish Ambassador to Israel, Elisbet Borsiin Bonnier, is member of Boonier media dynasty in Sweden. She raised hell when Swedish daily Aftonbladet published a report in August 2009 – claiming that the Jewish Army soldiers “killed Palestinians in order to trade in their organs”.