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Media Analyses





PBS Stands by "Dying to Be a Martyr" Curriculum


Early in April, the conservative news website the Blaze reported on a lesson plan about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict geared towards high school students on PBS' website. The lesson plan, titled, “Dying to be a Martyr,” includes video clips of interviews with three young Arab men who either committed terror bombings against Israelis or planned to commit them.

As the Blaze pointed out, “no instructions are provided telling teachers to denounce the radical claims made by Majdi [who participated in a terror attack that killed 17 people] and there are no other lesson plans describing the conflict from the point of view of the Israelis.”

The written materials that accompany the videos are also extremely one-sided, and prompt students to sympathize with the Palestinian side.

Shortly after the Blaze and a few others reported on the lesson plan, the (now-former) PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler wrote about the lesson plan and the coverage of it on his blog. Of the lesson plan itself, Getler wrote that, “my own reading of the lesson plan was that the overall tone it projected was more tilted toward understanding the plight of the Palestinians—which is very real—than to the impact, and especially the immorality, of suicide bombings as a recourse; that the most powerful elements were those bomber videos and that it was more focused on the drama of capturing the voices and desperation of the bombers than on the immorality of the act itself.”

Despite these comments from its own Ombudsman, PBS has neither removed the lesson plan nor altered the content.

The Lesson Plan's Objectives

One of the stated objectives of the lesson plan is to “explain why individuals and groups sometimes turn to tactics of terrorism, and evaluate how terrorism affects the world we live in.” Indeed, one of the student organizer worksheets asks students about the impact of the bombing on Israelis. Yet, there is no video or written material that discusses how individuals and societies are affected by terror.

Moreover, the only information about why people engage in terrorism is the statements of the two bombers and the would-be bomber themselves. There is no mention of the fact that the Palestinian Authority pays salaries to terrorists, or of the undeniable causal connection between those salaries and terror. This omission is despite the fact that the Palestinian Authority law has been in effect unofficially “since the PA came into existence in 1993 … and [it was] made official in 2004.”

Nor is there any mention of incitement in statements by Palestinian leaders, in books and lessons in PA schools, and media. For example, a recent study by the Center for Near East Policy Research found that "over 200 US-government- approved textbooks used in hundreds of Palestinian UNRWA-sponsored schools are reportedly teaching Arab children between the first and ninth grades to kill Israelis, and sacrifice themselves as martyrs to drive Jews out of the country."

Therefore, the lesson plan does not provide the necessary material for students to accomplish its stated goal.

The Lesson Plan's Video Materials

The lesson plan's Overview states:

This lesson will use video segments from Wide Angle's "Suicide Bombers" (2004), Internet sites, and primary sources to examine the roots of the Middle East conflict. The video contains interviews with young Muslim Palestinians who participated—or intended to participate—in suicide bombings. These young Palestinians share the personal, religious, political and emotional reasons behind their participation in these terrorist operations.

As is made clear, the three video interviews with terrorists are central to the lesson. There are no videos with interviews of terror attack survivors or family members of those killed to provide balance.

Two of the three clips are from an interview with 18-year-old Mohanned Abu Tayyoun, who planned a terror attack but then changed his mind and did not go through with it. The third video features two subjects, 25-year-old Majdi Amer, who built the bomb that killed 17 people and wounded 50, and another terrorist whose name is not given.

While playing the videos of Mohanned, teachers are instructed to ask students “to identify how Mohanned views his life and how he feels it differs from the lives of Israelis (Jews),” and “why Mohanned may feel that way.” PBS tells us, “answers may include: Palestinians have less land, fewer privileges, cannot come and go as they please.” They are not instructed to ask students to identify how a survivor of a terror attack feels nor the feelings of family members whose loved one was killed in a terror attack. The worksheet students are to be given after viewing the videos asks, “how does history relate to the anger of Palestinian suicide bombers towards the state of Israel and Jews, as seen in the video clips?” There are no questions asking how Jews or Israelis might feel about being attacked in 1948, 1967, 1973, or in hundreds of terror attacks. The materials are set up to prompt students to sympathize with the Palestinian side.

In the third video, titled “Israel and Palestine,” terrorist Majdi tells viewers, “if the Israelis kill a child in Gaza, I'm ready to kill one in Tel Aviv.” The students are not given any information, however, about why a child may have been killed in Gaza. Thus, the material leads them to a false understanding of the two killings as morally equivalent.

Majdi continues, “I'm a person who looks for peace, who calls for peace, but with one basic condition, the freedom of my country and people, and to put an end to this Nazi state, this racist Jewish state.” The students are never told that peace and freedom were offered to the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000, and again in 2001 – years before Majdi's 2003 attack – and rejected by the Palestinian Authority's then-President, Yasser Arafat, in favor of violence.

The second terrorist interviewed in the same video tells his audience, “it's the duty of every Muslim to liberate this land, every inch of it, so, we acted accordingly, struggled to free all of Palestine, the whole of it, the areas occupied in 1948, as well as the West Bank and Gaza strip, all of it.” There is no instruction, however, to compare this statement with other statements in the lesson plan that this is a struggle over getting a fair share and an even division of the land.

The Lesson Plan's Written Materials

The written materials present an extremely one-sided view of the conflict. The discussion of the UN's proposed partition plan, for example, highlights the mass of land allocated to Jews and Arabs, but omits the fact that approximately 60 percent of the land allotted to the Jews was desert. The answer key also inaccurately states that the area for the proposed Arab state was “isolated from other Arab nations,” when in fact the proposed state would have shared borders with Lebanon, Egypt, and Transjordan. Thus, the lesson prompts students to incorrectly conclude that the UN's proposed partition was unfair to Arabs.

Moreover, the student materials ask students to imagine the reactions to the partition plan by a “Palestinian Muslim,” and an “Israeli Jew … for example, a student may draw a happy face for an Israeli Jew and an angry face for a Palestinian Muslim.” Of course, prior to 1948, the populations were referred to as “Palestinian Arabs,” and “Palestinian Jews.” The material informs students that Palestinians Arabs were justifiably unhappy with the proposed partition plan, and revisionist language is used to connect only the Palestinian Arabs with the land, when in fact it is Jews, and not Palestinian Arabs, that are indigenous to the region. This further encourages the students to sympathize with the Arab side.

In combination with the videos, the effect is that terrorism is portrayed as an understandable, if not justified, response to a legitimate land grievance.

In addition, the lesson plan is out of date. Michael Getler reports that it is ten years old. It includes two links, purportedly to find further material, that are no longer functioning. It was written prior to the 2008 negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, during which Olmert offered to evacuate almost all of the West Bank – an offer that Abbas rejected. The lesson plan also does not include the pivotal 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, though it appears to have been prepared after that withdrawal took place. Nor does it include the fact that Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 and has used it as a terror base ever since, launching attacks, rockets and missiles against Israeli civilians.

PBS Ombudsman Weighs In

PBS's now-former Ombudsman, Michael Getler (who retired in the spring) addressed this lesson plan on his blog. Although he speculated as to some critics' possible ulterior motives, he still found that they “raise what I consider to be some legitimate questions about the content, or more precisely as I read it, a lack of more contextual content, within this lesson plan.”

He raised the following criticisms with PBS' corporate communications:

1) that the project 'seems to encourage students to learn to sympathize with radical Islamic terrorists,'2) that there is no instructions or denunciation of the immorality of suicide bombing, and also radical Islam, and 3) that there is no lesson plan describing the conflict and the tactics from an Israeli point of view.

The corporate communications office responded that, “in no way does [PBS] condone the heinous actions of individuals who would target innocent civilians. PBS would strongly condemn any assertion that terrorism is ever appropriate.” Yet, this condemnation is not present in the lesson plan itself. PBS instead relies on teachers to spontaneously provide this interpretation of the materials – something they may or may not do. The lesson may not explicitly condone suicide bombers, but without an explicit condemnation, it could certainly be interpreted that way by impressionable teens.

PBS corporate communications further asserted that the material “helps high school students grapple with the complexity of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This is plainly not the case, because the material is simplified to highlight the point of view of only one side. To the extent that the Israeli side is presented at all, in the written materials, such written materials are clearly not as powerful a medium as the videos in which students learn the terrorists' point of view.

PBS corporate continues, “the instructional activities that are part of the lesson plan(e.g., the culminating activity for students to 'create an objective newspaper article from the perspective of a reporter who has just witnessed a suicide bombing. The article will include background on the conflict, motivations of the bombers, impact of the bombing on Israelis, and a conclusion')and the accompanying resources all provide a multi-faceted view of the issue.” It's not clear, however, how students can include information on the “impact of the bombing on Israelis” when they have not been provided with any material on that subject, or how they can discuss motivations of the bombers when they have not been provided with all of the information about factors that may influence them.

Getler wrote that, “it is, in my view, important to hear such views [i.e., those presented in the lesson plans] and understand what motivates them.” Perhaps. But such views should be balanced with views of those who have survived terror attacks, or family members of those who did not survive. A discussion of the PA's role in funding terror attacks, and the incitement in school textbooks would also have provided much-needed context.

The PBS lesson plan is a textbook case of bias, presenting predominantly one side, doing so in a more compelling way than the other, and failing to include important facts and context. What makes it particularly insidious is the fact that this is not a simple PBS news segment or documentary, it is a lesson plan meant to influence young minds.


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