September 15, 2000

ELEVEN things I wish I’d learned at school: One, it’s OK to say ‘no thanks’ when everyone else is saying ‘yes please’, and two, it’s dumb to say ‘yes please’ when what you mean is, ‘no, but I’ll wriggle out of this later’.

Three, kitsch is OK, and four, today’s kitsch is tomorrow’s modern classic — so buy kitsch, not just because you know you love it, but because it’s an investment.

Five, it’s only the good people who find it hard to justify their actions . . . the bad ones always have a compelling excuse.

Six, a statement doesn’t become true simply by appearing in a book. Seven, by next week you’ll have forgotten what all the fuss was about (what fuss?). Eight, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

Nine, some people tell none of the truth most of the time, and most people tell some of the truth all of the time, but nobody tells all of the truth all of the time. Or none of the truth all of the time.

Ten, Arabs are human beings. So are Jews. That’s the whole problem.

And eleven, the most important number in the universe is 11. I don’t have space to explain it today, so you’ll have to trust me on this one.

I was taught thousands of things at a succession of schools. Most of these facts and figures were not digested and never recalled. They just passed straight through me, like junk food.

As my teenage children brought more and more homework back each evening, I realised that less and less of what I had learned was relevant now.

My teachers tried to make me understand Latin — what use is that, when the serious languages of the 21st century will all be computer languages?

My textbooks contained not a single mention of the Nazi Holocaust, though the ovens of Auschwitz had been white-hot less than a decade earlier. Now, courses in Jewish history imply that nothing except the Holocaust ever happened to our people — everything you could possibly need to know is all there in Schindler’s List.

And my textbooks were very strong on the Jewish right to Zion. Israel was ours by the ancient decree of God, and at 10-years-old I had learned a dozen irrefutable proofs of this. I never understood algebra, but I knew why Jews were the Chosen and Arabs were not (see Item 10, above).

Children in Israel are learning the same lesson, 40 years on — or, if they are Palestinian pupils at refugee camps such as the one at Ramallah on the West Bank, they learn that Jews are occupiers and Arabs are the oppressed (once again, I’ll point you back to Item 10).

In the classrooms of Palestine, new textbooks are replacing the Jordanian and Egyptian volumes which have served a generation of Muslim youngsters. The rewritten texts, approved by Palestinian officials at every level, are less vitriolic but full of contempt and distrust of Israel.

The hatred is more subtle, though it’s still there — being built into the subconscious of a future generation of Palestinian adults, into the young men and women who will have responsibility for making peace work in our country during the next 20 years.

For if Muslim children do not desire peace with all their minds and hearts, it will be denied also to the Jewish children.

Maps of Israel in the new books, for instance, are clearly marked to show areas of Palestinian administration. But the rest of the country is unmarked. Even Tel Aviv is not named.

On another map, Jewish settlements on the West Bank are described as ‘‘illegally occupied’’.

Naim Abu Humus, the Palestinian Authority’s deputy minister for education, says, ‘‘Our curriculum is not anti anybody’’, and claims that Jewish textbooks do no use the word ‘Palestine’.

This is the politics of the playground, two squabbling tearaways shouting at each other, ‘My dad is bigger than your dad!’ It is my belief that this taunt summarises 1,300 years of fighting between Jews and Muslims — ‘My God is bigger than your god!’

At least 10 years will pass before textbooks are rewritten. Can we afford to shrug and accept another decade of corny propaganda that passes for a curriculum?

We do not have to. It is not books that will shape these young minds. Books, after all, were not my cultural driving force — it was television which gave me a wider view on the world and sent me hunting for my own truths. And for these youngsters, there is a medium coming which will surpass even television.

Israel today is the most internet-literate country on earth. The very high ratios of computers to schools, of websites to individuals and families, is mainly based on the enthusiasm of young Jews and the Israeli armed forces for new technology. But the resources can be made available to Muslim children too.

It is imperative that Israel’s government helps the Palestinians to get wired in. The quickest way to disperse old-style narrow-mindedness is to provide access to the new world of global infotainment.

When Muslim teenagers start ‘chatting’, as their Jewish counterparts do daily, with American and European friends online, the barriers will tumble.

Show a 14-year-old that he or she can type jokey, flirty, silly sentences to another 14-year-old 6,000 miles away, and see the reply flash up in seconds — those kids will not grow up thinking of their village as the only island of morality in a sea of lies, no matter what schoolbooks tell them.

Textbooks teach redundant lies, drip by drip, over years. The internet can explode them in seconds.

Get those kids online.


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