Saudi Arabia is quietly changing its textbooks. Could that lead to acceptance of Israel?

Textbooks in Saudi Arabia have been changing. For years, researchers have been observing a gradual moderation on subjects ranging from gender roles to the promotion of peace and tolerance.

Among the changes raising attention recently, in light of reports that the United States is trying to pave the way toward normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, are edits related to Jews, Christians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A report released last month from the Israel- and London-based Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), which mainly monitors how Israel and Jews are portrayed in education texts, found “almost all examples portraying Christians and Jews in a negative manner” were removed from the latest Saudi textbooks, building on trends seen in previous years.

Prominent examples removed include implications “that Jews and Christians are the enemies of Islam,” or that “Jews and Christians are criticized for having ‘destroyed and distorted’ the Torah and Gospel,” according to the study.

On Israel and the Palestinians, IMPACT-se found moderation, but not yet full acceptance of Israel. Certain references to “the Israeli enemy” or “the Zionist enemy” have been replaced with “the Israeli occupation” or “the Israeli occupation army.” But other negative references to Israel, as well omitting it on maps is also noted in the study. There continues to be no mention of the Holocaust.

In the 2022-23 curriculum, a lesson on patriotic poetry removed an example of “opposing the Jewish settlement of Palestine.” A high school social studies textbook no longer contains a section describing the positive results of the First Intifada, the late 1980s Palestinian uprising against Israel. And one textbook “removed an entire chapter addressing the Palestinian cause.”

The modifications, IMPACT-se said, “are an encouraging sign that progress may include attitudes toward Israel and Zionism.”

The organization, which has been monitoring Saudi textbooks since the early 2000s, examined changes made to more than 80 textbooks from the 2022-23 Saudi curriculum and more than 180 textbooks from previous curricula.

IMPACT-se is also advising the United Arab Emirates’ ministry of education as it updates its school curricula to include Holocaust education.

‘Short term memory’

“This also is intended to signal that the new Gulf states’ leaders are modern, forward-thinking and secular-leaning – all of which is meant to appeal to a specific, largely external audience,” said Mira Al Hussein, a research fellow focusing on Gulf states at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

She said however that it is “quite ambitious” for governments to “suddenly do a 180 (degree turn) and start preaching tolerance. The reliance on people’s short-memory is misguided in this instance.”

IMPACT-se observed that new content in Saudi textbooks also criticizes certain Islamist groups such as Hezbollah, ISIS, al Qaeda, Houthi militias and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Experts on the region say while the textbook changes are notable, they should be seen in context.

Saudi Arabia’s school curriculum came under intense scrutiny in the West after the 9/11 attacks in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. Since then, the kingdom has been gradually removing radical content from its textbooks.

Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Gulf States Institute in Washington, said the recent changes are in line with the kingdom’s new political orientation “with the ruling family central to its legitimacy.”

For decades, the government sought legitimacy at home and abroad though its status as the birthplace of Islam and home to its two holiest sites, but the kingdom has in recent years moved towards a more secular form of nationalism.

But Diwan cautioned that the while the new language may show more religious tolerance towards Judaism, it leaves the “political acceptance of Israel in limbo.”

“This is consistent with efforts to ease religious intolerance of Jews, incrementally preparing the way should a political decision be made on Israel normalization,” she said.

Relationship with Islam

Aziz Alghashian, a researcher on Saudi foreign policy and its ties with Israel, said the kingdom is “undergoing a change in its relationship with Islam.”

“It is not sidelining it, but making it more moderate and more tolerant of others. Before, the religious discourse was not overly tolerant because Saudi Arabia was not exposed to globalization as it is today… It is clear that this is changing, and it is also clear that it will take time.”

Alghashian said the amendments in the Saudi textbooks are subtle and don’t suggest a major transition towards acceptance of Israel.

“Some in Israel want to see normalization with Saudi so badly that any interaction about Israel will be framed as something positive towards normalization,” he said.

The Joe Biden administration has been pushing Saudi Arabia to normalize ties with Israel, to build on the Abraham Accords that had four Arab nations recognize the Jewish state in a major foreign policy feat for President Donald Trump in 2020.

Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to Israeli airlines for the first time last year but has insisted that no normalization will occur before a Palestinian state is established.

Normalization continues to be a taboo among Arab publics. An opinion poll conducted last year by the Arab Center Washington DC found that 84% of Arabs surveyed disapprove of their countries’ recognition of Israel. In Saudi Arabia, support for normalization stood at 5%.

Elie Podeh, a professor at the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University, who has extensively studied educational systems in the region, said the changes are part of a “very long process” of moderation.

“It’s not a coincidence. It is a kind of a policy from above and I think that if you combine the two trends, fighting extremism and the other one is, Israel gradually being more accepted as a player in the Middle East. Then you can understand why we are seeing those changes in the education system,” Podeh said.

But even the deletion of an entire chapter on the Palestinian cause does not mean the Saudi government will suddenly stop caring.

“Obviously they are not negating, they are supporting the Palestinian issue. It’s not that they suddenly they will go in one direction and will neglect the other one. No, no way,” Podeh said.

But Podeh and the other experts all agreed: public perceptions of Israel will be shaped by much more than textbooks.

“If you were to ask me something like 20 years ago, I will say (textbooks have) a lot of impact… But today, social media, and so many socialization instruments to some extent minimize the role of the textbook,” Podeh said.

Diwan noted that textbooks are important, but “people’s views are impacted by media messaging, by global events, and by personal experiences. Not all of these are in the control of the state.”

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