Last week, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Human Rights, cosponsored a meeting on UNRWA with the virulently anti-UNRWA Center for Near East Policy Research. The session featured attacks on UNRWA by Arnon Groiss (who highlighted problems with PA textbooks used by UNRWA—although apparently he’s never ever been to a UNRWA school) and David Bedein’s infamous propaganda video about indoctrination in UNRWA summer camps (which, on further investigation, turns out not to be UNRWA summer camps at all).
Matthew Reynolds, head of the UNRWA representative office in Washington DC, labelled the testimony “pretty much a farce,” likening it to claiming problems with Toyota vehicles—but then showing pictures of Hondas to make your point.
A few quick thoughts on the issue:
1) Yes, Palestinian Authority textbooks are imperfect, and there is significant room for improvement. However, they are also a very substantial improvement on the Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks that were in use in the West Bank and Gaza before the establishment of the PA, and which were used (albeit often in censored versions) in the schools of the then Israeli-controlled Civil Administration. It also seems a bit unrealistic to expect that a population driven into exile, under foreign military occupation, and denied self-determination will have textbooks full of positive references to their occupiers. there’s also very little evidence that the Palestinian educational system plays a significant role in encouraging Palestinian hostility to the Israeli occupation—rather, the evidence suggests that Israeli actions (occupation, checkpoints, dispossession, illegal settlement construction, military actions, arrests) are the primary determinant of this. As we have noted before, Palestinians who go to Israeli schools (in East Jerusalem, or within Israel proper) have broadly similar attitudes to the refugee issue as do Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
2) UNRWA is somewhat limited to using host country curriculum, although with modifications and supplements (such as its human rights curriculum). None of the press coverage of the event I have seen so far seems to have mentioned this, or the UNRWA-Hamas tensions in Gaza (and Lebanon). Instead, much of the coverage has actually distorted the testimony still further, like this gem in Washington Jewish Week:
Groiss said that in UNRWA schools in Saudi Arabia, the curriculum “professes the hope for the elimination of all Jews.” In Egypt, there is material “which expresses hatred towards Jews.”
As most PRRN blog readers will know, UNRWA doesn’t have schools in Saudi Arabia or Egypt.
3) Criticizing UNRWA by having David Bedein show a fraudulent video that falsely identifies non-UNRWA schools and activities as belonging to the Agency pretty much implies that either one doesn’t know what they are talking about, or one doesn’t much care what the facts are.
4) Sadly, however, distorted and even demonstrably false accusations reverberate in the echo chamber that is the internet, to be cited by those looking for confirmation of their preexisting biases. Thus you find the recent testimony on UNRWA being echoed being covered by the right-wing Cybercast News Service (“The Right News. Right Now.”), and showing on at least two hundred other blogs and internet sources in the last week.