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Saudi Textbooks Show Improvement

(May 2024)

A 2021 study of Saudi textbooks from the second semester of 2020–21 and the first semester of the 2021–22 school year “shows that the trend of significant improvement continues in several key areas.” Specifically, it reports that “since the previous review, twenty-two anti-Christian and anti-Semitic lessons were either removed or altered….An entire textbook unit on violent jihad to spread Islam and protect Muslim lands – which had previously detailed circumstances to justify jihad while praising it as an act of piety – was removed.”

The study also found a number of positive changes related to the description and history of the Jewish people:

Several lessons that explicitly blamed “the Jews” as a collective for attacking Muslims and Muhammad were altered, instead attributing responsibility to Arabian tribes and in some cases removing them altogether. References to forbidding friendships with Jews and Christians, referred to as “infidels,” as they are “enemies of God,” were removed, as well as a lesson condemning Judaism as “negligent” and Christianity as “excessive.” Another passage about “a group of Jews” who curse Muhammad was replaced with a hadith that highlights the Prophet’s generosity and tolerance without mentioning Jews at all. Also removed were a series of ahistorical and harmful assertions, such as Jewish connections to the Temple Mount being fabricated by rabbis and the idea that the mount has always been the site of a mosque. Similarly, other lessons removed insisted “the Jews” attempted to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque and aimed to remove the Islamic character from the city of Jerusalem.

While there has been a great improvement, “some concerns in relation to international standards remain.” In addition, “a handful of examples of anti-Semitism and religiously intolerant lessons are still present, as are ahistorical and dubious claims about Israel.” Israel is also erased from maps in social studies and Islamic jurisprudence books.

Eldad Pardo, Director of Research for IMPACT-se, acknowledged, “changes to the Saudi curriculum will not take place overnight, but the pace at which it has been amended in the span of one year is a dramatic leap forward. This review therefore offers an exciting insight into a long-awaited development that could produce a ripple effect in other Muslim majority countries.”

IMPACT-se released another report in May 2023 examining texts for the 2022-23 school year with CEO Marcus Sheff writing: 

Practically all the previously identified anti-Semitic material in Saudi Islamic Studies textbooks has now been removed. This follows the previous removal of significant amounts of anti-Semitism in other subjects over the last four years.

The clear trend of moderation in relation to Israel, while still not recognizing the Jewish state, is highly noteworthy. While all textbook reform is important, Saudi Arabian textbooks are particularly consequential. Kudos is due to the Saudi government for this multi-year and systematic removal of Jew hate and moderation of content on Israel in the textbooks of over six million Saudi children, and of many more who study the textbooks outside of Saudi Arabia.”

The report specifically found, An area of significant change is the criticism of Jews in the early Islamic period, with almost all previously identified problematic examples in Islamic Studies textbooks removed from 2022-23 editions. Prominent examples of material removed include God turning infidels into apes and pigs because they worshipped the devil and implying that Jews are the enemies of Islam. Many harmful interpretations of Qur’anic verses and oral traditions, which for example, accused Jews and Christians of plotting against Islam, were removed.

The coverage of Israel dramatically improved. 

Changes in 2022 include the removal of a lesson referring to Israel as a “falsified democracy,” and a blood libel falsely accusing Israel of setting fire to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969. Also removed was an example claiming that Israel’s reasons for starting the Six-Day War were expanding its borders, taking over Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, taking over oil wells in the Sinai Peninsula, and “opposing the Jewish settlement of Palestine” was removed from examples of patriotic poetry. However, there remains a failure to acknowledge Israel’s existence, its omission from maps, and references to Israel since 2019 as “the Zionist entity.”

The study found only one problematic text, a social studies volume that included the description of Zionism as a European colonial and racist movement aimed at expelling Palestinians from their homes.

Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Gulf States Institute in Washington, told CNN the kingdom is adopting a more secular form of nationalism and changing its political orientation to make “the ruling family central to its legitimacy.” 

Mira Al Hussein, a research fellow focusing on Gulf states at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, told CNN, “This also is intended to signal that the new Gulf states’ leaders are modern, forward-thinking and secular-leaning – all of which is meant to appeal to a specific, largely external audience.”

“This is consistent with efforts to ease religious intolerance of Jews, incrementally preparing the way should a political decision be made on Israel normalization,” Diwan said. 

In May 2024, IMPACT-se published a report analyzing the texts for the 2023-24 school year. The report found that the Saudi Education Ministry has made significant modifications to the current Saudi curriculum by eliminating anti-Israeli content from textbooks. The study highlights that a high school social sciences textbook, which contained anti-Israel content, was removed from the curriculum for the current academic year.

IMPACT-se CEO Marcus Sheff stated that “Saudi textbooks published for the 2023/24 school year represent another step toward turning the curriculum into an educational framework that encourages tolerance, peace, and greater equality. After antisemitism has already been removed from textbooks, it is particularly encouraging that Saudi curriculum designers have made additional changes that present Israel in a more positive light. These changes are good news for the future of the entire region.”

According to IMPACT-se, the representations of Israel and Zionism have seen further improvements. Students are no longer exposed to content that portrayed Zionism as a “racist” European movement with the aim to expel Palestinians, or that the “fundamental goal” of Zionism is to expand its borders and seize Arab lands, oil wells, and Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.

However, Israel is still not recognized on maps. In some instances, “Palestine”, which was previously depicted across the entirety of Israeli territory, has been systematically removed. The Holocaust is not included in the curriculum, and Israel is still referred to as “the Israeli occupation” or “Israeli occupiers” in the context of the 1948 War. A few problematic examples persist in some textbooks.

Source: “A Further Step Forward: Review of Changes and Remaining Problematic Content in Saudi Textbooks 2021–22,” IMPACT-se, (September 19, 2021).
“Updated Review Saudi Textbooks 2022-23,” IMPACT-se, (May 2023).
Hadas Gold and Abbas Al Lawati, “Saudi Arabia is quietly changing its textbooks. Could that lead to acceptance of Israel?” CNN, (June 19, 2023).
“Updated Review Saudi Textbooks 2023-24,” IMPACT-se, (May 2024).
Itamar Eichner, “Saudi Arabia improves Israel references, reduces antisemitism in textbooks,” ynet, (May 28, 2024).