• Dr. Rodney Watts

Pearson Caught in Middle East History Textbook Scandal

by Dr Rodney Watts, Chairman of CAMPAIN


Pro-Israel bias and misrepresentation of the Israel/Palestine situation has been a feature of much of mainstream media for some years. Now GCSE textbooks, published by Pearson and Hodder, have come under intense attention from pro-Israel advocates. As a result Hodder has discontinued entirely publication of its own textbook title Conflict in the Middle East, 1945-95, by Steve Waugh and John Wright.

These textbooks have provided information needed for the Edexcel Middle East unit of its GCSE history exams. This new sphere of detrimental influence has been starkly revealed by the British Committee for Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) in a report produced by professors John Chalcraft and James Dickins. They compared the texts of original and revised versions of two Pearson published GCSE textbooks by Hilary Brash, titled Conflict in the Middle East, c1945-1995, Edexcel GCSE (9-1) and Middle East Conflict, Crisis and Change, 1917-2012, Edexcel international GCSE (9-1) read by thousands of students annually.


They found that the revised versions, which the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) and UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) had been responsible for, were "not simply more pro-Israel than their original versions but dangerously misleading". They continue "this process has not rectified bias, but has increased it. We show how the revisions have consistently under-played and explained Jewish and Israeli violence, while amplifying and leaving unexplained Arab and Palestinian violence. They have left intact accounts of Jewish and Israeli suffering, while downplaying and editing accounts of Arab and Palestinian suffering."


When the report was first issued at the beginning of April The Independent was the only mainstream news media outlet to carry the story. However The Guardian has now published a piece after reporting on school based protests, following the recent Gaza Israel conflict, and a government instruction to headteachers to ensure "political impartiality". The government apparently intervened on account of a rise in anti-Semitic incidents. The BRICUP eight-page report is manifestly relevant to the aim of "political impartiality", given that the meticulous analysis of the textbooks by Chalcraft and Dickins revealed an astounding number of alterations. There were hundreds of changes, averaging about three per page, including text, timelines, maps and photographs, as well as to sample student essays and questions. The authors concluded that the books had become propaganda for Israel and not fit for purpose. In response, Pearson have discontinued distribution until they have carried out a full review.


The following examples of changes illustrate the professors’ findings.

  • The original version says that “international law states that a country cannot annex or indefinitely occupy territory gained by force”. This is the overwhelming international legal consensus. The revised version replaces this with “Some argue that international law states that a country cannot annex or ….” (emphasis added)

  • The original edition includes the statement that during the first intifada of 1987-93 “the arms and fingers of [Palestinian] child stone throwers were broken [by Israeli soldiers]”. In the revised edition it has been removed, but this fact is well documented.

  • The original edition has a description by a member of Haganah, the main Jewish paramilitary organisation, of the mass expulsion of traumatised Arabs in the 1948-9 war. In the revised version it has been replaced by an account of the much more peaceful departure of a single family.

  • OPEC’s reduction in oil production and rising prices after the 1973 Yom Kippur War is treated differently in the two editions. In the original “it shows the strength of their anger about Israel’s advance into Egypt”, but in the revised version this explanation is replaced by OPEC countries’ “hostility towards Israel and her allies.” The reason for that hostility has been deleted.

  • Plan D (Dalet) was drawn up by the Haganah in May 1948, a blueprint for expanding Jewish-held areas beyond those allocated to the proposed Jewish State in the UN Partition Plan. The original edition says that “even if it was not the intention, one modern Israeli historian has written that Plan D ‘paved the way for the ethnic cleansing operation in Palestine’”. This has been deleted from the revised edition.

  • A statement in the original edition that Palestinians were evicted from East Jerusalem at the hands of the Israelis has been edited to say that they "felt that they had been forcibly evicted" (emphasis added).

  • No change is too small: the Deir Yassin massacre (in which Israeli forces killed at least 107 Palestinian civilians) is originally described in the international GCSE textbook as "one of the worst atrocities of the [1948] war". In the revised version "atrocities" has been replaced by "acts".

Eminent Professors’ Comments

Eugene Rogan (FBA, Oxford), Neve Gordon (Queen Mary, London), Khaled Fahmy (Kings College, Cambridge), Caroline Rooney (Univ. of Kent), Ken Jones (Goldsmiths, London), and Henry Maitles (Emeritus Professor, West of Scotland) have all registered grave concerns, saying variously:

  • “Given Britain’s historical responsibility, it is particularly important that the subject be taught in a way that is impartial and objective. It is a betrayal of such objectivity to allow Israel advocates the opportunity to edit teaching materials without giving Palestine advocates an equal opportunity”

  • “…when accredited publishing houses allow lobbying groups to help develop high-school curriculum, knowledge is replaced by indoctrination and children are encouraged to adopt biased thinking”

  • “shocking and unacceptable”

  • “It is important for pupils to learn to distinguish between different perspectives on a conflict and propagandist bias”

  • “The publisher should reassess these textbooks and ensure balance is returned to them”

Background


Pearson is the largest educational publisher in the world, operating in 200 countries, covering school to university level. It owns Edexcel, the only privately owned examination board in the UK, which in turn is the only board that offers a Middle East studies history option at GCSE level.


The Zionist Federation (ZF) was the first to make a complaint to Pearson and then, together with UKLFI commissioned the self-styled "undercover investigative journalist" and dedicated pro-Israel apologist David Collier to produce a report. This he did in October 2019 by analysing the text of the first chapter of The Middle East, Conflict, Crisis and Change, 1917-2012. Collier concluded that it was “poisonous….hard-core anti-Zionist revisionist material”.


Following this, UKLFI and the BoD put pressure on Pearson, who withdrew the original versions. Pearson did this despite having commissioned an independent review from Michael Davies of www.parallelhistories.org.uk which has done some outstanding work on obtaining middle ground historical narratives in situations where each side contests the ‘truth’. Sadly Michael has not been able to achieve this with Israel/Palestine but now teaches two excellent parallel contested narratives. His verdict on the original texts was that they were not biased, though some balancing of source material was needed.


Collier’s opinion was therefore at odds with Michael Davies and significantly more so with professors Chalcraft and Dickins. These opinions are no surprise since Collier previously went undercover in the Labour Party, and was instrumental in many of the false accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. He has also been a member of the far right Jewish Defence Forces along with Jonathan Hofman and Damon Lenszner, both of whom have been convicted of assault, and Richard Millett, a member of UKLFI, (see below) who along with Hoffman is well-known for abusive behaviour and loud interruptions of pro-Palestine meetings.

Jewish Defence Forces Facebook group
Screenshot of Jewish Defence Forces Facebook Group

The BoD and UKLFI negotiated the revisions with Pearson. They used a team drawn from the BoD (Talia Ingleby, International Relations Officer) and UKLFI (Susan Storing, Richard Millett, Jonathan Turner and Caroline Turner). Talia Ingleby has a first class BA in International History and Politics from Leeds and an MA in intelligence and international security, and Richard Millett has an MA in politics and society in the Middle East. Jonathan Turner is the chief executive and a noted barrister with expertise in intellectual property and competition law.


Of the revisions Turner has said "we are pleased that the hard work put in by UKLFI, the BoD and Pearson has meant that young people will be able to learn about the modern history of the Middle East in a balanced way from Pearson’s new textbooks. It is vitally important that young students are not indoctrinated with a distorted presentation of this most sensitive subject.” Whilst all reasonable people would agree with the last sentence, only people with an anti-Palestinian agenda could possibly agree with the first. One can also see a lawyer’s touch in the change of text, emphasised in bold, in the first and next to last examples of the revisions given above.


Given the foregoing, it is reasonable to conclude that there has been deliberate distortion of historical data to fit a political agenda of “defending Israel”.


Pearson’s editorial failure


While it is unsurprising that pro-Israel lobbyists have tried to advance the interests of the State of Israel, it is scandalous that Pearson failed to have the texts revised by an independent party such as Michael Davies. Pearson could also have consulted experts like professors Dickins and Chalcraft. Thus the Jewish Chronicle was able to report in September 2020 that the Board of Deputies had worked with UKLFI to produce “thorough” comments on both course books and Marie van der Zyl, the Board’s president said it was ”pleased with the final material, which gives a balanced and accurate portrayal of the Middle East conflict”.


However, not only do professors Dickins and Chalcraft deplore the revisions, but also the denial by Pearson in a meeting that they were provided the revisions by the BoD and UKLFI. Furthermore to compound the disingenuousness, Sharon Hague, senior vice-president at Pearson UK Schools is reported as saying “diversity and inclusion are at the heart of everything we do at Pearson and we believe it is vital to work with the communities we serve to ensure our products are held to the highest standards”. She then thanked the BoD and UKLFI “for their excellent collaboration throughout and for helping us to adapt and improve materials on this important topic”.

Sharon Hague
Sharon Hague, credit Schools Week/Lsect

Perhaps Sharon Hague can be forgiven for not knowing that the BoD only represents about 30% of British Jews but, as an Oxford graduate and former geography teacher, I would have expected her to know that the Palestinians also make up communities that she claims to serve. I would also have expected her to have been doubly cautious in her dealings with two bodies dedicated to defending Israel, especially when one is called UK Lawyers for Israel.


All this makes a mockery of Pearson’s press release which contained the following: “Our core editorial principle is to support the teaching of this important period in Middle East history in a fair, neutral and balanced way. We welcome feedback but we have robust processes in place to review any feedback – this is particularly important for such a sensitive period of time in history. We commissioned an independent review of these books last year and the changes made were based on the outcome of that review. We stand by our texts but had already taken the decision to pause further distribution while we discuss further with stakeholders.”


When asked what the "robust processes" were, no reply has been forthcoming. Michael Davies has confirmed that he reviewed the original texts, but not the revised texts. The author, Hilary Brash, has failed to answer emails from the professors or myself. I had asked how she had been involved in the revision process. This is disturbing. However, this is not the first time that Sharon Hague and Pearson have come under fire, as mentioned in a profile piece by Schools Week in 2019.

There should surely be, at least, an apology and a reissue of the original editions with perhaps the few changes as suggested by Michael Davies. This failure in editorial responsibility has denied students the opportunity to learn of the Nakba (catastrophe) which began in 1947/8 and continues up to today, as evidenced by recent events in Israel and Gaza. Those of us who are Jewish and remember the Holocaust, whilst recognising the difference in numbers of victims, should also be able to empathise with the pain and suffering of all involved. However, at this time the right-wing racist abuse of Palestinians by many Israelis, aided by the police and IDF has to be recognised and noted.


Students should also be able to learn that not all Jews are Zionists. In Israel Jewish and Joint Arab/Jewish organisations like B’tselem, Combatants for Peace, Breaking the Silence, Rabbis for Human Rights, etc. and groups of British Jews ranging from Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Jewish Network for Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Labour to the ultra-orthodox Neturei Karta, all strive for equality of rights. A special mention should be made of the young Israeli Jews who refuse to join the military and spend time in military prison, www.refuser.org. These are now swelled by school students, the shministim (12th graders), of similar age to GCSE students.


With their attempts to propagandise school textbooks and weaponise anti-Semitism, organisations like the BoD and UKLFI are more likely to increase anti-Semitism than to combat it. Indeed, one may ask whether these organisations genuinely want to combat anti-Semitism or simply defend the Government of Israel. By failing to exercise proper editorial wisdom, Pearson has unwittingly become part of the problem. Please let us know your comments and feedback below