Almost 70 years after the Holocaust and 50 years after Germany and Israel established diplomatic relations, a textbook commission is shedding light on how the two countries are promoting their sustained cultural and historical connection.
Dirk Sawdowski, chairman of the German-Israeli Textbook Commission, says there is a fundamental difference between the German and Israeli education systems that “finds expression in each country’s secondary and high school textbooks.”
“Although both systems try to impart Western and democratic values, the Israeli curriculum is largely indebted to educational principles arising from the necessity of nation building,” says Sawdowski.
“German textbooks, meanwhile, employ a very different, almost post-national reading of history, which is, of course, a result of Germany’s problematic past.”
Germany and Israel’s school textbooks are currently under review. Beginning in 2010, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Israeli Ministry of Education teamed up to finance a survey of their separate educational systems. Their task: assess how each country portrays the other’s history in school textbooks, for ages 12-18, and make recommendations to improve future textbooks.
The survey also probes different textbooks’ treatment of geography, political treaties and issues arising from globalization. Special emphasis is placed on their comparative histories of the Holocaust.
The project is ambitious. Teams in each country have examined hundreds of texts, prepared comprehensive translations and labored to bridge significant cultural gaps.
“Before we could begin it was necessary that we reconcile our methodologies,” says Arie Kizel, the chairman coordinating the Israeli team. “Every textbook is written and read in a cultural context. Therefore, we had to work together to filter biases and strategize how we approached each text.”
Developing a fair and mutually agreeable survey methodology wasn’t easy. Over the past three years, the two teams hosted conferences in Braunschweig, Germany, and in Tel Aviv. University professors, teachers, educators and ministry experts were consulted. Their scholarly debates led to a working strategy that brings the commission closer to consensus.
Today, there are three groups of German and Israeli researchers working under the aegis of the commission. Communication is possible through simultaneous language translation.
“We decided to work strictly bilingual,” Sawdowski says, explaining the need to facilitate accurate analysis, confronting the language barrier directly. “Of course, there are things that get lost in translation. Hebrew is very concrete and straightforward whereas German is much more abstract. Despite the slow pace of translations, this is still more precise than using a third language, like English.”
Another early obstacle confronted by the commission involves textbook sample size.
“Since Israel is significantly smaller than Germany and there is only one state-approved curriculum, the Israeli team was able to survey all of the textbooks currently being used in Israel,” Kizel says.
In Germany, however, educational matters are administered differently among the country’s 16 federal states. There are also diverse curricula for different school types. Textbook publishers, therefore, try to adapt themselves to the different policies and curricula by publishing a series of schoolbooks in a number of versions.
Consequently, there are nearly 1,200 different textbooks in Germany, all relevant to the subjects being surveyed, and the selection of texts varies depending on the region.
“We could never survey such a huge volume of textbooks sufficiently,” Sawdowski admits. “Instead, we picked out five federal states: Bavaria, Berlin, North-Rhine Westphalia, Lower Saxony and Saxony as the focus for our research.”
This choice has resulted in the examination of more than 400 titles bearing either short passages or much longer chapters specifically related to Israel.
For Germans, this encompassing view of the German education system is providing useful demographical information. In places like Berlin, where there are many immigrants from Muslim countries, cultural and political factors lead to unique educational policies, and different teaching methods and materials are in use.
Discrepancies in how Israel is portrayed reflect an underlying cultural evolution and reveal any number of lingering misconceptions about the past, according to all of those involved.
Already, Sawdowski has observed some general trends. “Israel is mainly depicted in the context of the Middle East conflict,” he says. “Only German geography textbooks discuss other topics relating to Israel, like agriculture, technological achievements, water use and tourism.
“When Israel is presented in the context of the Middle East conflict, we find texts positively depicting the Israeli position, but also textbooks with increasingly negative stances towards Israel. Most texts, however, try to draw a balanced picture and to maintain neutrality.”
From the Israeli side, Kizel is not commenting extensively about his team’s early findings regarding Germany’s portrayal in Israeli textbooks.
“There have been significant changes in the way that schoolbooks are written both in the linguistic context and in their choice of subject matter,” he says, emphasizing that it is still too early to draw any conclusions about the textbooks his team is reviewing.
The next phase of the project calls for the completion of research in 2014 and the development of bilateral recommendations for the improvement of textbooks.
“Proposals will be presented in 2015 in celebration of 50 years of diplomatic relations between both countries,” Sawdowski says.