RICHMOND, VIRGINIA — In 2018, the Virginia Coalition for Human Rights (VCHR) successfully stopped the state from adopting textbook edits made by the Institute for Curriculum Services (ICS), a pro-Israel “educational” institution.
The ICS promotes itself as improving the accuracy of K-12 instruction on Judaism and Jewish history in the United States. Yet, backed by the Israel lobby, its strategy appears more in line with advocating a Zionist narrative than enhancing education.
Today, ICS boasts that it has helped better public education in all 50 states and impacted 11 million students across the country. With this in mind, MintPress News uncovered how ICS is twisting the truth about Israel in U.S. schools.
The fight in Virginia
In January 2018, Virginia activist Jeanne Trabulsi attended a Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) webinar featuring ICS. During the event, ICS Director Aliza Craimer Elias spoke about the nonprofit’s activity, specifically how it works with Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs) to send revision requests to textbook review committees.
Following the webcast, the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy (IRmep) sent a request to Virginia’s Department of Education, under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, for all documents submitted by ICS, JCPA and JCRCs. IRmep found that ICS-proposed edits were sent to the Virginia Department of Education on behalf of the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond and the JCRCs of Greater Washington, Richmond, and Tidewater.
Requested ICS changes to public school textbooks included:
- Replace “settlers” with “communities,” “occupation” with “control of,” “wall” with “security fence,” “occupied territories” with “captured areas,” and “militant” with “terrorist.”
- Discourage students from conducting open internet research, and instead recommend the Anti-Defamation League’s website and the JewishVirtualLibrary.org.
- Delete all references to “Palestinian Territories.”
- Change maps to recognize Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, instead of classifying these areas as occupied.
ICS targeted 12 textbooks published by the National Geographic Society, Prentice Hall, Five Ponds Press, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill for revision.
With these revelations, VCHR sent a letter to the Virginia Department of Education and the above publishers requesting that they not incorporate ICS edits. To VCHR’s knowledge, no ICS-sought changes were made to the textbooks during the 2018 review cycle.
In March, Trabulsi presented VCHR’s victory against ICS at the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and IRmep’s annual Israel Lobby Conference.
“VCHR is of the opinion that ICS is not a true education outfit. It’s a public affairs and advocacy group,” Trabulsi said during her talk.
ICS operates as a nonproft under the 501(c)(3) status of San Francisco’s JCRC and is a grantee of the Schusterman Family Foundation, which also supports the American Israel Education Foundation, an American Israel Public Affairs Committee charity organizing congressional visits to Israel.
In addition to textbook revisions, ICS also hosts teacher training. Currently, 90 U.S. cities have hosted ICS workshops with over 6,000 teachers have participated. Trabulsi attended their flagship course entitled “Teaching the History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict Using Primary Sources.” She described their teaching methods during the conference:
[T]hey are highly selective about what documents they do include in their teaching modules. If you didn’t know the story of the Arab world and Israel, you’d think they’re pretty good. I remember one student remarking that the Israelis have offered peace to the Arabs so many times, what else could the Arabs possibly want?”
The primary sources ICS uses for this module include The Jewish State (1896), The First Arab Congress (1913), Hussein-McMahon Correspondence (1915), and The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), and The Balfour Declaration (1917).
Trabulsi told MintPress that ICS doesn’t use primary sources that may alter the narrative they wish to set, such as the White Paper of 1939, a policy paper by the British government rejecting the establishment of a Jewish state in historic Palestine.
“VCHR believes that ICS is enmeshed with and funded by Israel affinity groups that drive their pro-Israel advocacy. We believe that this results in biased and inaccurate textbooks and teacher training,” Trabulsi said at the conference.
ICS involvement in textbooks across the US
MintPress sent freedom of information requests to the education departments or boards of all 50 states and the District of Columbia asking for all materials sent by ICS, JCPA, JCRCs, or Jewish federations during curriculum and textbook review processes.
Nineteen states responded that textbook and curriculum decisions are made at the local district level, so information on recommended changes is not available. Fourteen states said none of the aforementioned organizations contacted them regarding proposing textbook edits. Eleven states and D.C. did not respond by the time of writing. However, the states of California, New Mexico, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Kentucky provided information on correspondence they had with ICS, their state Jewish federations, and JCRCs.
ICS revisions in Kentucky focused on adding references to ancient Israel and the Holocaust in the content. The Jewish Federation of New Mexico sent their state’s education department an ICS review of social studies standards — advocating “Nation of Israel” be changed to “State of Israel.” In South Carolina, ICS reviews of a textbook from National Geographic Learning and Cengage Learning detailed adding references to acts of Palestinian terrorism.
In California, where ICS is based, JPAC, JCRCs of San Francisco and Sacramento, and the Jewish Federations of Greater Los Angeles and the Desert sent the state’s education department proposed revisions made by ICS. In their cover letter, the organizations commended California for accepting previous ICS edits.
ICS reviewed the textbooks from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson Scott Foresman and Prentice-Hall, McGraw-Hill, Teachers Curriculum Institute, Studies Weekly, National Geographic Learning, Discovery Education, Pearson Prentice Hall, and First Choice Educational Publishing. ICS proposed edits include:
- Delete mentions of “Palestine” and the “West Bank.”
- Change “Palestine” to “Judah,” the ancient Israelite kingdom.
- Add “Mandate” and “Region” to references of Palestine.
- Delete reference to “Palestinian cultural heritage.”
- Change “Jews settled there” to “Jews joined those [Jews] already there.”
- Delete reference to Israel capturing the West Bank in 1967.
In Louisiana, the North Louisiana Jewish Federation, Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and the Jewish Federation of Baton Rouge sent a letter to the state’s Department of Education on behalf of ICS recommending ICS revisions to content published by the American Book Company, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Studies Weekly, Edmentum, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Brown University’s The Choices Program. ICS changes to these texts include:
- Delete “rightfully” from sentence “The Arabs believed Israel had stolen land that rightfully belonged to Palestinian Arabs.”
- Delete mentions of Israel “seizing territory” from Arab nations.
- Add information describing Palestinian President Yasser Arafat as “directing countless terrorist attacks against Israelis.”
- Delete student exercise to “[w]rite an unbiased essay that explores all sides of the issue of West Bank settlements.”
- Delete mentions of “The Green Line,” “The wall,” and “Land lost by the wall” on maps.
- Delete reason for Arab states rejecting the UN partition plan.
- Add “Mandate” to references of Palestine
- Delete mentions of “historic Palestine” and mentions of Palestine as a “land” or “country.”
- Add references to acts of Palestinian terrorism
- Place liberation of Palestine in quotes
- Delete “natives of Palestine” in definition of Palestinians
- Delete references to Palestinians inhabiting the land for thousands of years.
- Add information describing Zionism as a movement for Jewish self-determination.
- Add Israel retaliates in “self-defense” to Palestinian attacks.
- Delete sentence “Israel disproportionately uses the bulk of the water from those aquifers [in the Occupied West Bank] for its population.”
- Mention “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.”
- Delete mention of Israel being” accused of many human rights abuses against Palestinians in the territories it occupies…[and] treating its Arab-Israeli citizens as inferior to its Jewish citizens” and replace it with “Israeli Arabs, who are Israeli citizens, have the same full legal rights as Israeli Jews.”
Erasing the existence of Palestine and the indigenous identity of Palestinians was a common theme in ICS revisions. “They relabeled maps and they deleted all references to Palestine. You can call it Mandatory Palestine, but you can never call it Palestine,” Trabulsi said during the Israel Lobby conference. “They want to change the word Palestine to Palestinian. The reasoning is there is no state of Palestine, nor has there ever been.”
ICS, JCPA, and the Jewish Federations of North America did not respond to MintPress’ requests for comment.
The Israel agenda in schools – and progressive pushback
ICS isn’t the only pro-Israel organization attempting to shape the narrative on Israel-Palestine in American education. Left-wing activists accused the final adoption of the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum of being “white-washed” and “watered down” following opposition by pro-Israel groups.
The Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate initiative is involved in thousands of schools across the U.S. and encourages these institutions to use ADL resources. Pro-Israel groups also continuously go after Palestinian and solidarity activists on college campuses across the country.
Yet progressive movements are fighting back. In 2018, the Texas Coalition for Human Rights (TCHR) successfully got the state’s board of education to change curriculum standards related to Palestine-Israel.
The following main changes were approved:
- “[E]xplain how Arab rejection of the state of Israel has led to ongoing conflict” changed to “discuss factors contributing to the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the rejection of the existence of the state of Israel by the Arab League and a majority of Arab nations.”
- “[E]xplain how developments in Islam influenced law and government in the Muslim world such as secularism, nationalism, and fundamentalism” changed to “explain how geopolitical and religious influences have impacted law and government in the Muslim world.”
In November 2018, the Texas Board of Education heard public comments on its decision to update the school curriculum. TCHR testified in favor of changing the curriculum while Jewish community center Shalom Austin, the Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Federations in Texas, B’nai B’rith International, and Truth in Texas Textbooks all testified in favor of keeping the current standards.
TCHR activist Alex McDonald understands that more needs to be done in fixing the U.S.’ faulty school curriculum and ensuring accuracy, especially when it comes to Palestine. “The goal is to stifle the conversation and the criticism,” McDonald told MintPress News. “And ICS is just one small part of the brainwashing.”
Feature photo | Children from the Greater MetroWest Day School hold Israeli flags during a march in a New York parade. Craig Ruttle | AP
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.