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The Israeli incitement problem: A look at a children's book

Israeli leaders and advocacy groups love to complain about Palestinian incitement, but militaristic and nationalistic indoctrination is all too common in Israel itself. Some personal reflection, following a mail from an outraged parent

When I was a kid, I loved Danni Din stories. Their hero was wonder-kid Danni Din, which became the worlds’ only invisible person after mistakenly drinking a strange liquid left on the window by the reckless Prof. Katros. As befits superheroes of his kind, Danni didn’t take advantage of his unique condition by rushing into the girl’s dorms, but instead dedicated his childhood to helping Israel’s security forces. Danni Din fought in the Six days war, caught terrorists and rescued IDF prisoners, and though even at a very young age I sensed there was something tragic in his condition (he was to remain invisible forever, not to mention the fact that he never seemed to grow up), I dreamed of getting the opportunity to perform such heroic acts for our country myself.

Last week, in the wake of another round of the endless debates over the “Palestinian incitement”, I got an e-mail with pictures of the front and back cover of one of the latest Danni Din stories, published in 1997. The author of the mail, an Israeli parent, was shocked to see the militaristic tone in the book his son, a second grader and an avid reader, brought home from the public library one day.

“Saving the president”, the 1997 Danni Din story, featured a new heroine: Dina Din, the invisible girl. The book has a somewhat bizarre plot: the invisible kids are abducted by extraterrestrials (the late 90’s were the days of the X-Files mania), only to escape after a fierce battle, in which they take control over the aliens’ spaceship. Headed back to earth, they intercept a plot by Hamas to send a flying suicide bomber that would crash into president Bill Clinton’s Air Force One – on his way to Israel, naturally – with the intention of blowing up the plane and killing all its passengers.

“Will our invisible heroes succeed in saving the beloved president and the planes passengers from death?” asks the back cover.

Danni Din "Saving the President"'s back cover (1997, M. Mizrachi publishing)

Danni Din’s war on Arab terrorists is not unique. Almost every adventure book I remember from my childhood featured at least a handful of evil Arabs (never mention the P word), if not full Egyptian military divisions. Some of the Arabs in those books were thieves and kidnappers, but most of them were terrorists.

The best known of these books were the “Hassamba” series, featuring a group or kids operating like a secret army unit in the service of Israel’s defense, getting their orders directly from the most senior generals. These books weren’t about politics: While Shraga Gafni, the author of Danni Din series (as well as many other Israeli classics), was a rightwing ideologue , Hassamba’s Yigal Mossinson was a Tel Aviv bohemian.  His books were a bit more sophisticated, but the militaristic-nationalist tone was largely the same.

Whenever I hear Israeli advocacy groups speaking of incitement, I think of Danni Din and Hassamba. I also remember the maps of Israel we use to draw in school: none of them featured the green line, just one big happy Jewish state, from the sea to the Jordan; and we never marked the Palestinian towns on them, only Jewish cities. Does this qualify as incitement?

Naturally, there are many examples of hardcore anti-Arab incitement in Israel: from streets named after the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane and Minister Rahavam Zeevi, who promoted the idea of transfer, to graffiti and even rabbinical orders calling for killing and expulsion of Palestinians. But these are the obvious cases, to which people pay attention. There is something about the “innocent” examples, like kids’ novels and pre-school work pages that show the depth of militaristic and nationalistic indoctrination in Israel. It’s almost impossible to grow up here without being told to fear and hate the Arabs, or to idolize the army.

Naturally, none of this prevents Israelis from seeing themselves as a peace-loving nation. In fact, I think that the real message of these books is that we fight the Palestinians because they prevent peace. We are forced to conquer and sometimes kill in the sake of a greater good (like saving Air Force one from a suicide attack). Isn’t that what you hear from advocacy groups like Stand With Us and The Israel Project – that fighting the Arabs alongside Israel is not just Israel’s interest, but the US’, or even the world’s?

——————

I remember watching the military parade for Israel’s 40’th anniversary.  The main event took place in the National Stadium in Ramat Gan, not far away from where I grew up. I was 14, and extremely exited that my parents got us tickets for the event, even though it was the cheaper of two shows, the one in which air force didn’t take part.

Behind us in the stands was another family, with younger kids.  I have a very vivid memory of a certain point in the show in which the announcer describing the army unites and armed vehicles on the field in front of us said something like “The IDF’s real battle is for peace,” and the young kid sitting behind me burst into a spontaneous laughter. It sounded very stupid to him, “fighting for peace,” and he said so to his dad. In the next few minutes, this father explained to him why this phrase actually made perfect sense. I remember being embarrassed for the kid, which clearly didn’t understand what the army was all about. Much later, I thought he was right: It was a stupid sentence.

This Israeli dialectic of militarism and peace couldn’t have been better demonstrated than in these kindergarten Independence Day assignments from 2009, sent to me together with the Danni Din cover. They made me think of the infamous “suicide baby” picture, and how it became for many the symbol of the “inhumane” Palestinian culture.

Kindergarten Independence day assigment, 2009

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Kindergarten Independence day assigment, 2009

One final word on this: It wasn’t my intention here to deny Palestinian incitement or hate-talk, or to say that our side is worse. Political indoctrination exists on both sides. Perhaps this is the reason Netanyahu refused to renew the work of the joint Israeli-Palestinian committee against incitement – he knew that it would have its hands full with evidence from both societies.

More than anything, I think that the complaints over Palestinian incitement are excuses to avoid real political action on behalf of Israel. I actually find it hard to believe that as long as the occupation continues – and the resistance to the occupation, which is natural and justified – we will be able to rid ourselves completely from the problem of “incitement”. Only after we deal with the political issues at the heart of the conflict, we could succeed in changing our children’s books.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Danny

      Noam, don’t forget all the songs written about the military (especially Neomi Shemer’s) – glorifying the IDF and war and conquest in general (Shemer’s famous song “Nahal in Sinai” comes to mind). Listening to some of these songs on independence day, it always amazes me the sheer volume of militaristic songs that are obviously meant to glorify everything the IDF stands for.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Amir

      Thanks noam for this thoughtful piece. When people in Israel talk about how its hopeless and we’ll always be fighting here, this is one of the first things I think about. How our educational system perpetuates militarized indoctrination instead of reconciliation. Lets be optimistic and hope that this blog post can be one step toward a wider discussion of this issue and a step toward positive change. Keep on the good work.

      Reply to Comment
    3. sh

      I arrived in Israel in 1962 already in my teens and spent most of the 70s, 80s and 90s abroad. Reading this made me realize that the young adults I speak to today are the offspring of people who in their turn were already brought up on this kind of diet. In other words, the educational compass has been gradually veering further and further from north (contemporary reality) for a long, long while now, unbeknownst to those who are absorbing it of course, but also to those whose formative years were spent in the real world. It explains to some degree how good, often knowledgeable, people can hold really skewed views about their environment – something I’ve puzzled over for a long time.

      Just shows how much openness, looking at things straight in the eye and acting accordingly are allied to education of a very basic kind. I often think how interesting it would be to hear about the rubicon moments of people who are involved in the joint struggle against institutional violence and our multifarious discriminations here.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Yaron

      I’m sorry, but your article creats a distorted image of the current Israeli popular culture. Maybe it was true until the 90’s.
      As a man who grew up in Israel during the Oslo period I remember dozens of peace songs. I also remember that the army march songs were considered quite anachronistic and only popular with the older generation.
      A certain degree of militarization exist in any nation – especially in times of conflict. But in what degree? A more objective view will ask this questions while comparing Israel and Palestine:
      How strong is the peace motive in the popular culture? How many song mention the word Shalom or Sallam and in what context?
      What kind of violence acts is consider justified and glorified? Is it combat against armed people or suicide bombing in populated cities? and so on…
      We should also distinguish between official government policy and popular culture.
      P.S – I remember studing on the Kfar Kassem massacre at least twice in my life – during high school in a big youth movement (Hanoar Haoved) and during my MILITARY BASIC TRAINING. There, the officer made it clear, in a 30-60 minutes lecture, that it was a crime to shoot civilian population,even in times of war.
      When the Palestinians will start recognize the illegitimacy of suicide bombing, maybe the next Danny Din will cooperate with his Palestinian colleague against radical Jewish and Muslim organization trying to break the peace. Inshalla…

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben Israel

      This reminds me of a scene from the classic movie “The Longest Day” about the American/British/Canadian invasion of Normany in World War II. There is a scene (which presumably really happened…the movie is supposed to be about real incidents in Operation Overlord) about a Catholic chaplain attached to the British Sixth Airborne Division that parachuted into Normandy the night before the landings on the beaches. A paratrooper spots the “Padre” (as the soldiers called them) dunking himself in a stream. The soldier asks him why he is doing that. The Padre explains that his communion set sunk in the stream and he is looking for it. The soldier tells him to forget it, it is too dangerous to look for it, but the Padre keeps dunking himself, so the exasperated soldier joins in himself. Finally, the padre comes up and says “I’ve got it!-now let’s go about G-d’s work”.
      According to what I read here, he has the entirely wrong attitude…first of all, there it is wrong to invoke “religious” significance to warfare. Secondly, the Padre should have said “you know, the Germans are people just like us, they have just grievances, the Versailles Treaty was unfair to them….we should look at things from their point of view…who says we are right?…it is not right for our side to be so militaristic…killing people is never justified….violence never solves anything….etc, etc, etc.
      Except had the Chaplains and Allied commanders said these things, I don’t know how many Allied soldiers would have been willing to fight and perhaps Europe would still be under German rule…….

      Reply to Comment
    6. Elie

      Books can inspire, but examples are teaching.

      Reply to Comment
    7. aristeides

      Looking at that illustration, I don’t think too many young people are in danger of being attracted to that lameness, not in these days of manga-influenced comics.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Max

      Israel is certainly a militarized society with a clear vilified enemy, creating an inherent problem as part of this “enemy” is an equal partner within the country…
      Nevertheless, I find this article extremely disingenuous, as it claims to make a parallel between these instances and the Der Stürmer style depiction of The Jew in Arab press, the calls for massacres in Hamas, or even the “moderate” references to Jewish wickedness in the PA schools.
      This style of out of proportion mea-culpa makes constructive references to the problem that does exist hard to achieve and seems rather to indicate a wish to show-off “look how humanistic I am”

      Reply to Comment
    9. RichardNYC

      The “incitement” described in this article doesn’t measure up to Palestinian incitement. The comparison is disingenuous.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Mooser

      “The “incitement” described in this article doesn’t measure up to Palestinian incitement.”

      I know what you mean. When I think of the fact that those awful Palestinians had the unmitigated temerity to be born there and own homes and land there, I get all incited, too.
      Sometimes I ask myself how God could allow such a thing.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Mooser

      Well, at least this article was a pleasant diversion on the way to the Masadadammerung.
      But who’s the nekkid girl with him?

      Reply to Comment
    12. rosemerry

      Yaron! I cannot believe that you have not noticed that the Palestinians renounced suicide bombing over five years ago. Apart from that, it seems strange that giving up one’s life for a cause is somehow despicable, while killing from afar, or by remote control eg drones, is somehow brave and praiseworthy.
      You also seem to disregard the fact that you are illegally occupying and ill treating with vast weaponry a people who have the real right to the land you occupy.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Yaron

      Rosemerry – I didnt say killing from afar is brave, please read my talkback again. And yes, suicide killing in the center of a populated area is much more imoral compare with aerial strikes on military targets surrounded with civilian population because the target of the first is explicitly to kill as much civilian as possible while in the same time taking the life of the suicider,a victim by itself to a facist ideology of death glorification. thus,it creates a dubble tragedy. Just read reaserches about the real motives of the bombers to understand how religious leaders exploit poverty and social problem in the sociaty to gain political success. please read http://www.inss.org.il/upload/(FILE)1194255905.pdf
      As far as I know,the legal Hamas Palestinian government (which was elected democraticly, not the Fatah,which ilegally controlls the PA)have never renounce the bombing, while Fatah only says (in Arabic, English does not count) that this was a wrong tactic.
      Unfortunately, In every war civilians gets hurt. That is true from Clauzewitz’s time till our days. With your logics,the US along with the Muslim Katar and Turkey are doing illegal crimes in Lybia rigt now.
      As for the occupation, I will be happy when a new peace agreement will divide the land between Palestine and Israel. A land dispute does not justifies killing civilians. Preventing mass killing by missiles or suicide bombing does. Just as in Lybia

      Reply to Comment
    14. Larry Derfner

      I remember watching on TV the 40th anniversary show from Ramat Gan stadium that Noam refers to in his excellent article. In one part there was a story line about a kid going into the IDF who can’t decide which unit to join, and he finally decides on tanks because that’s what his father did. It struck me how deeply personal a thing the army is for Israelis, and how for many men and also women, what you did in the army has so much to do with who you are – how you see yourself and how others see you. When I came to Israel in the 80s, I was struck to hear that combat soldiers have a big edge over “jobnikim” with the girls. Ezer Weizman famously said “the best young men go for pilot units” and the popular add-on was “and the best young women go for pilots.” The idolization of the military and the warrior mentality is so, so deeply ingrained in Israeli society – and this “warrior for peace” theme is strictly for speeches and foreign consumption.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Yaron

      Larry – that was the 80’s. I think more than 20 years had passed. The military duty for men is 3 years, so of course it’s significant, isn’t 3 years collage significant for most Americans for the rest of their life?
      Look at Israel now – who are the people that the youth adores today?
      Rich business men, Football players and models are usually without any combal background.
      Please read serious research on the subject, like Yagil Levi’s articles and books to see what have happened since your vague memories from the 80’s.
      The racism in the Israeli sociaty is rising because of the memory of the 2000-2003 deadly attacks over civilians and the failure of thepeace process. Only a true peace process with popular support will lead to a just peace. Boycote and foreign inteference will not.
      We do not live in a vacum and ignoring the Palestinains public opinion with its large support for Hamas will not help. Please read the Hamas constitution before claiming that it is a legitimate political party.

      Reply to Comment
    16. max

      Wondering: Larry, Mooser, Danny… does any of the bloggers condemning Israel for its militaristic society really think that this is comparable to the general Arab, more specifically Palestinian and notably Hamas virulent rhetoric and education material?
      If yes, you and I have little in common in our cultural and reasoning background; if not, where’s the contextual element in your message? Do you believe in absolute goodness under all circumstances, or do you mostly care about pointing out how PC you are?
      Israel is a militaristic society, built by the context of its existence; I doubt it’s worse than any other threatened country: worse than the US during the cold war era? Worse than Russia today? Worse than Hungary today? Worse than Venezuela? Was the importance of military service in the civil society stronger than in Switzerland?
      Just give me the benchmark!

      Reply to Comment
    17. Jack

      I fail to see any incitement here.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Ben Israel

      Max-
      The reason the Jewish and Israeli Far Left overlooks, ignores or excuses the far worse violations of human rights and genocidal incitement of the Arab states and other non-Western countries (we can include Russia as being in the “non-Western” list) can be understood as coming from two sources, one specifically Jewish, the other a more general one.
      The specifically Jewish one is related to the famous joke made about Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement in Judaism in the United States. The joke goes:
      Kaplan believes that the Jews are divinely chosen people whose mission, given to them directly from heaven, is to teach the world that there is no Deity and the Jews are no different than anyone else.
      In other words, as the Jewish/Israeli Far Left sees things, the Jews are a superior people who have been given unique insight into how the world must be run. That means that FIRST the Jews must give up their unique identity, parochialism and Zionist national identity, and only THEN we will serve as an example for the primitive, backwards Arabs and other “Third world” people who will then be inspired by this perfect utopian (formerly) Jewish people who will have shown them how to think and behave. There is no point in railing about how backwards these people are because they won’t understand what you are talking about and they are not capable of improving themselves until we Jews perfect ourselves.

      The second, non-Jewish source is what Prof. Ernest Sternberg calles “Purificationism”.
      Read his paper at this link:

      http://spme.net/library/pdf/PurifyingtheWorld.pdf

      This ideology says all the problems in the world are due to “Empire”-i.e. American globalist capitalism and its bastard child, Zionism. Again, there is no point in trying to improve the backwards people in the world as long as “Empire” and “Zionism” are around because as long as they exist, there is no possibility of bring them up to our (i.e. The Far Left’s) level. In other words, all the problems of the world can be traced to us (the Jewish non-Far Left) and our non-Jewish allies who support “Empire”.

      I hope this answers your question as to why see such inconsistent behavior from the Jewish-Israeli Far Left.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Alice

      An few interesting comparative studies have been done on the Palestinian and Israeli education systems. Many of these have found that reports of Palestinian incitement are exaggerated, and ‘rely on misleading and tendentious reports to support their claim of incitement (in the words of US scholar Nathan Brown).

      As far as I understand, the post-Oslo PA textbooks go to some lengths to incorporate the norms of peacebuilding education, and have been commended for this by independent sources. I’m not sure if the same could be said of Israeli educational materials.

      Anyway, just some food for thought. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textbooks_in_the_Palestinian_territories

      Reply to Comment
    20. max

      Alice, I’m not sure what part of the Wikipedia text you use to base your comment… I appended the text of the last 2 entries there.
      At best, one can say that it’s now (2009) better than it used to be; or you can select the 2010 UK assessment and conclude that the situation is very bad.

      Add to this the reported TV shows addressing the youth, and you still get the impression that Israel’s education system is much more balanced.

      ********************
      2010 report by British Coalition against Hate Education

      According to the British TaxPayers’ Alliance Coalition against Hate Education, bilateral British and EU aid is being used by the Palestinian National Authority to fund textbooks promoting hate and violence.[30][31]

      According to the report,

      “It is especially worrying that Palestinian children are often the main targets of this destructive propaganda. Messages of murder and martyrdom appear in children’s television programmes, radio and TV broadcasts, a school football tournament, and of course, school textbooks. These are the textbooks that UK-funded teachers are using right across the Palestinian territories.”[30]

      ******************************

      2009 Human Rights report, US State Department

      In its 2009 Human Rights report, the U.S. State Department wrote that after the 2006 revision of textbooks by the PA Ministry of Education and Higher Education, international academics concluded that books did not incite violence against Jews but showed imbalance, bias, and inaccuracy. Some maps did not depict the current political reality, showing neither Israel nor the settlements. Palestinian textbooks used in Palestinian schools and schools in East Jerusalem run by the Jerusalem municipality were inconsistent in defining the 1967 borders, and did not label areas and cities with both Arabic and Hebrew names.[32]

      Reply to Comment
    21. max

      Ben Israel – Thanks for the link – seems like interesting reading, though I have only browsed it.

      My – maybe simplistic – view is that we live in a much more complex world than in the past, with much more information to digest. It’s then very appealing to cut through all the complexity and reach what the article refers to as a “pure”ideal. Unfortunately, this ideal has no place for relativism – there’s black or white – and as I wrote above, no realistic benchmark.
      Such ideas may explain the attitude of “the masses” but in no way cover all people with – what I consider – one sided (mea-culpa in the case of Jews) views, as some do not subscribe to easy simplification methods. They have well established world models from which they derive their criticism.

      An interesting aspect in the relationship between these 2 groups is the fact that many people subscribe to the end-result without the base model: Y. Leibowitz certainly had a well rounded view from which he grew his criticism; but his base was a religious one coupled with a complete indifference to what “the other side” does. I doubt that this is the base for most of his followers.
      I also doubt that many would have liked to have Leibowitz run their ideal state; so which country should Israel aspire to behave like?

      How do these 2 groups relate to the article? I don’t know. But I’m convinced that if this type of stories reflects Israel’s “incitement” then Israel is in a good situation indeed.

      I believe that we all follow a simple, but sometimes dangerous pattern with our ideals: we first adopt one, sometimes through structured reasoning, often as followers of a trend, preferably one that’s anti-institutional. We then fixate on it and stop questioning ourselves or try to apply some comparative analysis. Add the mea-culpa bon-ton (is it a desperate cry of “don’t confuse me with the religious Jews”?) and the recipe is clear.

      Reply to Comment
    22. Kibbutznik

      ” I also remember the maps of Israel we use to draw in school: none of them featured the green line ”
      Not in our kibbutz school.
      .
      ” I arrived in Israel in 1962 already in my teens and spent most of the 70s, 80s and 90s abroad ”
      That explains a lot Sh .
      .
      ” Only after we deal with the political issues at the heart of the conflict ”
      Exactly , until then hands up whoever thinks we will last more than a month without the IDF .

      Reply to Comment
    23. Uri

      Yes! I was raised on the Hasamba and Danidin series, as well as less political books like Dani Yad’ani, Kofiko, Chipopo and Gingi. And other ultranationalist series, like the one about the child soccer stars Alon and Rafi, and the one about the pre-state smuggling of Jewish immigrants to Israel. Orwell’s classic essay “Boys’ Weeklies” really resonated with me.

      I only remember one book that dealt positively with Israeli-Arab relations. It was an adventure story with a Jewish Israeli boy and an Arab boy (I don’t remember if he was portrayed as a Palestinian) struggling to survive after getting lost, if I remember correctly. It must have been my first exposure to an Arab character who was not a total villain, because it was shocking. I felt a little bit like I felt a few years later when I lived in Canada and ran across Simha Flapan’s “The Birth of Israel” on a library bookshelf. It was so jarring to read on the cover that the Zionist myths of Israel’s founding are not historically accurate that I panicked and put it back on the shelf.

      Reply to Comment
    24. German

      I do not think you can compare the sheet from the kindergarten and the baby suicide bomber.
      #
      Where in the sheet do they glorify killing? Where do they teach children to kill civillians?

      Nevertheless, I would not want my kid to draw tanks in kindergarten, but the examples you give on the israeli side are on a completely different leauge than the palestinian ones.

      Reply to Comment
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