In March 2016, executives at the McGraw-Hill textbook publishing company removed a title from its selection titled Global Politics: Engaging a Complex World. The company, in well- disciplined commissar fashion, destroyed the books held in inventory because they featured a map illustrating “Palestinian loss of land from 1946 to 2000.” Apparently, the maps say too much about the US-supported Israeli occupation and expansion of settlements in Palestine and run the risk of corrupting young learners. On the market since 2012, Global Politics was designed to “offer students a number of lenses through which to view the world around them.”
On behalf of Truthout, I asked Middle East historian and retired professor of history Lawrence Davidson to discuss this matter within a broader context of ideological control over educational materials. Davidson is the author of Cultural Genocide, Islamic Fundamentalism, and America’s Palestine, as well as other books and articles pertaining to history and political culture in the United States and the Middle East.
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Dan Falcone: I wanted to start by addressing this question you raise about the framing of educational topics. You write, “What is the difference between a textbook publisher giving into pressure from Christian fundamentalists seeking to censor the teaching of evolution, and a publisher giving in to Zionists seeking to censor awareness of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine?” In short, you provided a simple answer: nothing. Can you talk a bit about the political backdrops connecting these denials of fact?
Lawrence Davidson: The first thing that must be faced is that book publishers are profit-making companies as well as economic organizations integrated into the culture of their environments. Censorship for the sake of maintaining a market and thereby making a profit is acceptable for economic reasons. Probably, many of the publishing house executives see it as a necessary part of any successful marketing strategy.
This prioritizing of market objectives makes these managers vulnerable to pressures to mold their product to meet the demands of organized groups of buyers and critics. It should be noted that the traditional dislike of censorship applies mostly to fiction and the distortion of the fiction author’s artistic achievement. Censorship of nonfiction works for the sake of other ends, such as alleged national security, is widely accepted. Censorship for the sake of not upsetting religious or other ideological beliefs is also obviously practiced without too much of a troubled conscience.
When you sat down to write Cultural Genocide (Rutgers University Press), you thematically contextualized slaughters around the destruction of the Native Americans, the attack on the culture of Eastern European Jews, the Israeli attack on Palestinian culture and the absorption of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China. It reminded me of Baruch Kimmerling’s concept of “politicide.” Collective memory works against history at an intense rate along with the tradition that lands were either “unsettled” or “discovered.” Can textbook censorship present or lend to a form of cultural genocide in your view?
Absolutely. One can readily make the argument that textbooks have the potential to help arrange or rearrange societal beliefs and behaviors. Certainly regimes such as those in Israel and China use them to these ends. However, it is clear that to one extent or another all nations use humanities textbooks, and particularly history ones, to create usually distorted, overly positive images of their own past and present. To this end, certain predetermined aspects of the past are downplayed or expunged altogether. Most people, even fairly well educated ones, never think about this and therefore never question the storyline they received in their classrooms. This is one of the ways societies and cultures keep themselves cohesive and stable. If one happens to discover this … and begin[s] to publicly critique it, one is soon considered a “social mistake” or “outsider.”
Denis Wood authored The Power of Maps in 1992. At the time, this text was considered radical and took a point of view from environmental psychology and landscape history. He argued that like most signs and symbols, maps are simply an extension of social constructions. He even suggested that maps serve ideological purposes. What are your thoughts on this Orwellian manifestation of maps, where accurate ones are condemned and flimsy ones go unquestioned?
Maps are artificial devices that humans use to organize and understand the geographical world. Just so, the borders depicted on maps are artificial creations that can and are often modified. They can also be used to project or undercut cultural or historical claims. And that is how they are often used, usually to the benefit of the strong and the detriment of the weak. For example, the southern border of Texas was an artificial creation of a land-greedy US president (Polk). There certainly was no historical justification for it. The Israeli claim to the West Bank and other occupied territories are based on contrived historical claims and biblically inspired bunk. Nonetheless, both the US and Israel have the sheer military power to create boundaries which they then enshrine in maps. In these cases, maps are ever-flexible weapons in a process of imperial expansion. Someone else’s counter-maps are to be attacked and censored.
In some ways, I think it is interesting that the map made it into the text in the first place. I can recall hanging a map in my classroom years ago that illustrated the [changes in the] occupied territories and fellow teachers did not take it seriously, although many students did. In other words, the maps were once considered radical, but on the other hand, now many people understand how obviously Israel carries out policy consistent with standard imperial histories. Are you surprised?
No. The awareness of Israeli crimes has grown over the last 20 or so years due to the increasingly brutal behavior of the Israelis themselves. This has been reported not so much by the mass media as [by] church organizations with millions of members whose leaders have traveled to Palestine and reported back, as well as by an increasing number of Jews who have become appalled by what Israel has done. This has bred a slowly increasing confrontation with the Zionists and their ratcheting up [of] counterattacks on those opposing Israel. A major tactic of the Zionists is to equate anti-Semitism (a hatred of Jews qua Jews) and anti-Zionism, which is simply opposition to a political ideology. After the November 2016 election you will see this attack growing in state legislatures and Congress.
We regularly hear from reactionary right-wingers, political conservatives and ethnocentric types that there is no such thing as Palestine. Is this the type of thinking and attitude that leads to Zionist pressure on text manufacturers? And did McGraw-Hill shirk from its responsibility to educate students? In some ways they remain loyal to educational goals if the purpose is self-imposed ignorance.
The Zionists and their supporters have always denied the existence of the Palestinians. What they don’t seem to realize is that the act of imperial colonization is immoral whether the native people have a specific national identity or not. It doesn’t matter if the Arabs of Palestine called themselves Palestinians during the first half of the 20th century. There can be no doubt that the Zionist incursion quickly matured whatever group identity was there and that a Palestinian national identity was a consequence. In this sense, Israeli nationalism bred its own contradiction in Palestinian nationalism. Actually, in the history of colonialism, this is not an unusual pattern.
Nonetheless, the Zionists cannot admit to this fact, and one of the ways they deny it is to claim that Palestine and the Palestinians do not exist. It is a sheer act of fantasy. And, because it is such an obvious denial of reality, the Zionists try very hard to make sure no one else makes the assertion either, particularly in the West. They somehow overlooked the McGraw-Hill textbook for a number of years, but when they spotted it they jumped all over it. And, McGraw-Hill, obviously not too concerned with accurately educating anyone, allowed themselves to be pushed around without even a whimper. For them “truth” appears to be what that faction of society carrying the biggest stick says it is.
When McGraw-Hill responded with “[we wish to] immediately initiate an academic review,” and then “determined that the maps in question did not meet our academic standards,” were they hiding the fact that they had been bullied or pressured? Or do you think that they really believe that the center of the doctrinal framework must hold?
I don’t think historical accuracy was their concern. In fact, I think the story of an “independent” academic review is just rubbish. They ran scared from the Zionist pressure as soon as it was applied. Really pitiful.
The McGraw-Hill executives who have acted this way shouldn’t be in the textbook business. They are a danger to the whole enterprise of education.