Biased textbooks turning young Americans against Israel, research shows

by Rafael Medoff

apartheid poster
"Israeli Apartheid Week," an annual global anti-Israel showcase, in May 2010 on the campus of University of California, Los Angeles. According to the Brand Israel Group, only 54 percent of U.S. college students lean more toward Israel than the Palestinians, down from 73 percent in 2010. (AMCHA Initiative)

WASHINGTON, DC—Anti-Israel bias in the textbooks used by many American high schools may be to blame for the decrease in sympathy for Israel among young adults.

According to the Brand Israel Group, only 54 percent of U.S. college students lean more toward Israel than the Palestinians, down from 73 percent in 2010. The decrease was even sharper among Jewish college students, dropping from 84 percent to 57 percent.

"The problem starts in high school," Dr. Sandra Alfonsi, longtime director of Hadassah's "Curriculum Watch" division, told "There's no doubt the lack of sympathy for Israel on college campuses today is at least partly the result of several generations of teenagers being educated with textbooks that are slanted against Israel."

'Unabashed propagandizing'

One of the most controversial texts used in high schools around the country is the "Arab World Studies Notebook," a 540-page volume authored by Audrey Parks Shabbas. She heads Arab World and Islamic Resources and School Services, a curriculum publisher that seeks to promote a positive image of Arabs and Muslims in U.S. schools.

After parents in Anchorage, Alaska, complained to their local board of education in 2004 about the book's slant against Israel, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) prepared a 30-page analysis of the Notebook. The AJC found it to be riddled with "overt bias and unabashed propagandizing," such as depicting Israel as the aggressor in every Arab-Israeli war and praising Muslim conquerors throughout the ages for their "gentle treatment of civilian populations."

As a result, the Anchorage Board of Education removed the Notebook from the local high school curriculum. School authorities in Tulsa, Okla., have also withdrawn the text.

Shabbas has claimed the Notebook has been distributed to more than 10,000 teachers, and "if each notebook teaches 250 students a year over 10 years, then you've reached 25 million students."

"The most important statistic is the number of workshops that Shabbas has given to instruct teachers in how to use the book," Curriculum Watch's Alfonsi said. "She has conducted hundreds of such three-day teacher-training sessions." Shabbas's website names 211 schools where she ran teacher workshops from 2000-2006. Other years are not listed.

Shabbas did not respond to requests for comment from

Dispute in Massachusetts

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) recently published a 108-page monograph, "Indoctrinating Our Youth," which describes how high schools in the Boston suburb of Newton have been using biased texts such as the Arab World Studies Notebook and inviting anti-Israel speakers to address their students.

The cover page of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America's (CAMERA) recently published monograph, "Indoctrinating Our Youth," which describes how high schools in the Boston suburb of Newton have been using anti-Israel texts (CAMERA)

The controversy began in 2011, when a Newton South High School parent complained about a passage from the Notebook accusing Israel of torturing and murdering hundreds of Palestinian women. Other parents soon joined the protests. Matt Hills, vice chair of the Newton School Committee, dismissed the critics as "McCarthyesque."

In early 2012, Newton Superintendent of Schools David Fleishman said the Notebook had been removed from the curriculum because it was "outdated." But an investigation by Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT), a Boston-based activist group, found that the Notebook was still being used in Newton as late as the 2013-2014 school year.

The dispute has been complicated by the refusal of Newton school authorities to identify which Israel-related materials were being used by teachers. Many school districts around the country list their curriculum materials on their websites. APT President Charles Jacobs told his group "will continue to build support for a policy of transparency, so that parents and citizens can know what is being taught to Newton's students."

In response to a request for copies of the materials, Joel Stembridge, principal of Newton South High School, said the requester would need to pay $3,643 to cover photocopying expenses. Eventually, Freedom of Information Act requests were filed by Judicial Watch and others, including and APT. Judicial Watch's request forced the release of nearly 500 pages of material.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren, a member of the nine-person School Committee, attended committee meetings on the textbooks issue but did not actively participate in the discussions, according to community members. The mayor, who is now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Massachusetts governor, did not respond to requests for comment from

Several mainstream Jewish organizations in Boston, including the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, initially denied that biased materials were being used in the schools. They also criticized APT for organizing protests against the Newton school authorities. Later, the New England ADL changed its position, agreeing that the Arab World Studies Notebook and another anti-Israel text, "A Muslim Primer," should not have been used in schools.

The CAMERA monograph reports that as a result of the controversy, "there has been some change in the selection of materials" by Newton officials and "more careful vetting of them." Yet some of the supplemental materials that Newton teachers use "continue to favor fringe perspectives," according to the study.

Steven Stotsky, the monograph's author, told the situation "remains unresolved," pointing out that Newton North High School hosted another anti-Israel speaker in June. Since no curriculum materials have been shown to the parents since 2015, "we don't know" if any of the anti-Israel books are still being used, Stotsky said.

Controversies around the country

Other texts have been at the center of similar controversies elsewhere around the U.S. in recent years.

Parents in Tennessee's Williamson County complained to school authorities in 2013 over a textbook called "The Cultural Landscape: An Introduction to Human Geography." In a section on the reasons for the rise of terrorism, the book asks: "If a Palestinian suicide bomber kills several dozen Israeli teenagers in a Jerusalem restaurant, is that an act of terrorism or wartime retaliation against Israeli government policies and army actions?"

The protests, which were led by Christian pro-Israel activist Laurie Cardoza-Moore and supported by the Jewish Federation of Nashville, prompted the Tennessee state legislature to take steps to ensure greater parental involvement in the selection of textbooks.

Further, the book's publisher, Pearson Education, removed the suicide bomber passage from subsequent editions. But Cardoza-Moore told her campaign was "only a partial victory, because 'The Cultural Landscape' contains other biased statements about Israel that were not removed."

In Georgia's Sumter County, Campbell Middle School parent Hal Medlin complained in 2011 about a class assignment featuring a fictitious letter from a Saudi woman who defended Islamic sharia law and her husband's polygamy, on the grounds that she was being "cared for" by her husband. Conservative activist Pamela Geller, who joined the protests against the Campbell Middle School assignment, told the letter was "an outrageous whitewash of the subjugation of women by Islam."

The curriculum unit also included a document in which a pro-Palestinian activist suggested terrorist attacks against Israeli Jews are "understandable."

In neighboring Henry County, school authorities responded to complaints about the text by withdrawing it from the curriculum. Sumter County officials took no such action, but Sharon Coletti—president of the InspirEd curriculum developer, which had prepared the controversial materials for Georgia public schools—told that "the topics of women's rights and the West Bank have largely been dropped [from statewide curricula], so we removed" the texts.

Parents at a high school in Pittsburgh complained to Curriculum Watch's Alfonsi in 2007 about a teacher's use of "Habibi," a young adult novel by Naomi Shihab Nye. Alfonsi found that the book has a "strongly pro-Palestinian slant, including extreme accusations about 'Israeli oppression.'" The fact that it was being used in an Advancement Placement English class "meant that it was indoctrinating some of the brightest kids in the school," she said. As a result of Alfonsi's discussions with school officials, "Habibi" was dropped from the class's curriculum.

"The problem is that for every school that removes an anti-Israel text, there are a hundred more that are continuing to use it," Alfonsi said, adding, "When I began this work 20 years ago, we were reviewing curriculum materials used for the 6th to 12th grades. Now we are seeing anti-Israel in bias in texts going all the way down to the 4th grade. I'm concerned that many in the Jewish community still do not recognize how serious this problem is."

Editor's Addendum:

It continues to be a very slow and aggravating uphill fight to get teachers and education administrators to recognize the problems with the Arab World Studies Notebook. To get a sense of the continued indifference of the education industry to biased textbooks about Israel, here is a letter on the Notebook written in 2003! It is an e-mail letter from The Textbook League's president, William J. Bennetta, to Stuart Elliott, of Wichita, Kansas (

8 October 2003
Dear Mr. Elliott:

I have been reviewing schoolbooks and other instructional publications for about eighteen years, and during that time I have developed three general observations. Writing an analysis of a good publication is enjoyable and usually is easy. Writing an analysis of a weak publication is typically a more difficult task, requiring much explication of the publication's failures and follies. Writing an analysis of a patently fraudulent publication is the most demanding task of all, for this reason: Although one can see immediately that the publication is a hoax, one still must give an extraordinary amount of time to studying it and to demonstrating its deceitfulness in some detail. Such work -- requiring that a great deal of time be devoted to dissecting the antics of tricksters who deserve only contempt -- can be exasperating.

My inquiry into the Arab World Studies Notebook, the publication that you called to my attention a few weeks ago, has been exasperating indeed, and I am happy to say that the inquiry is nearing its end. My review of the Notebook now exists as a draft that has about 4,700 words. I will not be able to finish my writing, however, until I do some further library work and until I receive some items of information and documentation that I have requested from one of my colleagues. Hence I am going to lay the draft aside for a while -- but before I do so, I want to give you an idea of how my inquiry has been going. In the rest of this message, I shall sketch some of my findings. For the sake of brevity, I shall keep the number of quotations and citations in this message to a minimum. In my review I shall use quotations and citations abundantly.

The Organizations Behind the Notebook

The Arab World Studies Notebook, a publication aimed at teachers, is a big collection of readings, lists of resources, and so-called lesson plans, all contained in a loose-leaf binder. It seems to exist in at least two versions. The version that I have examined shows 1998 as its copyright date. Pages i through xxi carry an "Introduction" and some other prefatory material; pages 1 through 513 carry the readings, the lists, the so-called lesson plans and some auxiliary items. According to its title page, the Notebook is published jointly by the Middle East Policy Council and by "AWAIR: Arab World And Islamic Resources and School Services."

The Middle East Policy Council, a pressure group based in Washington, D.C., formerly called itself the Arab American Affairs Council. It adopted its present name in 1991. The MEPC's activities include the sponsoring of "teacher workshops" that allegedly equip educators to teach about "the Arab World and Islam."

AWAIR, which operates from Abiquiu, New Mexico, distributes printed items and videos for "ALL LEVELS - Elementary to College" and runs the "teacher workshops" sponsored by the MEPC. The director of AWAIR, Audrey Shabbas, is also the editor of the Arab World Studies Notebook, and her name appears on many of the readings and other items that the Notebook contains.

In AWAIR's current catalogue, the Notebook is described as "An anthology of secondary curriculum level materials." I take that to mean that the Notebook is chiefly intended for use by high-school teachers. AWAIR sells the Notebook for $49.95. (The MEPC doesn't sell the Notebook as such, but the MEPC provides a copy of the Notebook to each participant in the "teacher workshops.")

On its Web site, the MEPC displays claims about the extent and success of its "workshops" program, as well as alleged testimonials from participants in past "workshops," but the claims are too vague to be checked, and all of the testimonials are anonymous and unverifiable. The MEPC's Web site also carries promotional claims for the Notebook, and one of those claims is a gross falsehood, as I now shall explain.

The MEPC's False Claim

When I began my inquiry into the Notebook, I toured the MEPC's Web site, and (on a page headlined "Arab World Studies Notebook") I saw this claim: "The Arab World Studies Notebook is . . . an updated and enhanced version of the Arab World Notebook (1990), a previous work so highly regarded that educators in California were permitted to purchase it with state funding."

I immediately recognized that claim to be false. The Curriculum Framework and Instructional Resources Office (CFIRO) of the California State Department of Education does grant approvals to certain pedagogic publications, clearing the way for local school districts to buy those publications with state money -- but the approval process does not entail any appraisal of any publication's content or pedagogic merit, and the granting of an approval does not mean that the approved publication is "highly regarded" by anyone.

On 8 September 2003, in an e-mail message, I brought the MEPC's claim to the attention of Suzanne C. Rios, the administrator of the CFIRO. Since then, Rios has informed me that her office has no record of any approval covering "the Arab World Notebook." She further has informed me that she called the MEPC's executive director on 22 September, told him that the claim in question was false advertising, and told him that the CFIRO "wanted it taken off IMMEDIATELY!"

At this writing, the false claim still is being displayed on the MEPC's site.

Purposes of the Notebook

On page v of the Notebook, in the section titled "Introduction," Audrey Shabbas writes: "Believing firmly that teachers are the vanguard of change in any society, AWAIR has taken as its mandate, to impact the very resources chosen and used by teachers as well as the training and sensitizing of teachers themselves." The articles in the body of the Notebook soon make clear what Shabbas's phrase "training and sensitizing" means. It means subjecting teachers to heavy bombardment with religious and political propaganda.

The Notebook is a vehicle for disseminating disinformation, including a multitude of false, distorted or utterly absurd claims that are presented as historical facts. I infer that the Notebook has three principal purposes: inducing teachers to embrace Islamic religious beliefs; inducing teachers to embrace political views that are favored by the MEPC and AWAIR; and impelling teachers to disseminate those religious beliefs and political views in schools.

The promotion of Islam in the Notebook is unrestrained, and the religious-indoctrination material that the Notebook dispenses is virulent. Muslim myths, including myths about how Islam and the Koran originated, are retailed as matters of fact, while legitimate historical appraisals of the origins of Islam and the Koran are excluded. Shabbas wants to turn teachers into agents who, in their classrooms, will present Muslim myths as "history," will endorse Muslim religious claims, and will propagate Islamic fundamentalism.

In a public-school setting, the religious-indoctrination work which Shabbas wants teachers to perform would clearly be illegal. I shall say more about this in my review.

Exploiting Jesus

On page 11 of the Notebook, an item labeled as a lesson plan tells that "Jesus is an important figure" in Islam. On page 13, in another lesson plan, a list of quotations from the Koran includes three statements that mention Jesus. And on page 16, a third lesson plan says (with little regard for syntax) that Islam "Recognize Jesus in their religion."

Whether Jesus is an "important figure" in Islam is debatable, but there is no doubt that Jesus appears in various verses of the Koran, and there is no doubt that Muslims "recognize" Jesus. They certainly recognize him well enough to deny and denounce basic perceptions of Jesus that are held by a huge majority of today's Christians. Muslims deny that Jesus was an aspect of a triune god, they reject the very concept of the Trinity, and they deny that Jesus was divine. (Indeed, in the Koran 9:30 -- i.e., sura 9, verse 30 -- we read that Muhammad wanted Christians to be damned because they said that Jesus was the son of God.) On instructions from the Koran, Muslims even deny that Jesus died by crucifixion. (See the Koran 4:157.)

Muslim propagandists who operate in America (where about 80% of the adult population consists of persons who identify themselves as Christians) routinely and dishonestly exploit Jesus in their promotional material. Striving to create the impression that Islam is similar to Christianity and congenial to Christianity, these propagandists project palatable, grossly distorted impressions of how Jesus figures in the Koran and in Muslim religious doctrines -- and at the same time, they conceal the Koranic passages which explicitly reject essential Christian beliefs about Jesus, and they conceal the Koran's depiction of both Christians and Jews as people who are unfit to be accepted by Muslims as allies or friends. (See the Koran 5:51 -- "O believers, do not hold Jews and Christians as your allies. They are allies of one another; and anyone who makes them his friends is surely one of them; and God does not guide the unjust.")

The distorted, disingenuous stuff about Jesus in Shabbas's Notebook is formulaic and unremarkable. I have seen similar tripe in other publications that purvey Muslim propaganda.

Look, Columbus -- They're Muslims!

Not all of the phony "history" in the Notebook consists of religious myths. There are other flights of pseudohistorical fakery as well, including a farcical article in which Shabbas and someone called Abdallah Hakim Quick disclose that Muslims reached the New World in pre-Columbian times and spread throughout the Caribbean, Central America, South America and even Canada. By the time when Columbus arrived, it seems, the New World was fairly crawling with Muslims -- and English explorers met "Iroquois and Algonquin chiefs with names like Abdul-Rahim and Abdallah Ibn Malik." Do Quick and Shabbas cite any sources to support such claims? No, they don't. They don't even tell the names of the English explorers, let alone the titles and dates of the documents in which those explorers reported their encounters with Amerindian Muslims.

In the context of the Notebook, Quick and Shabbas's unsupported claims about Muslims in the pre-Columbian New World amount to business as usual. The tactic of spewing forth bizarre claims without any documentation or support (or even a pretense thereof) appears early and is used often -- and this leads me to say a little about the audience for which the Notebook has been fashioned.

The Notebook isn't aimed at our entire population of high-school history teachers or at high-school history teachers in general. Rather, it is aimed at that sorry subpopulation of teachers who, for want of education or want of intelligence, will believe almost anything and will question nothing. It is aimed at teachers who never have absorbed the concepts of evidence and reason, who know nothing of historiography, and who can be treated as dupes.

Hence the Notebook teems with fake "facts" that are simply tossed forth as glib one-liners. For example: In an article that starts on page 27 of the Notebook, one Thomas Cleary nonchalantly flings this tidbit to Shabbas's victims: "As is well known, the Qur'an was revealed through the Prophet Muhammad, . . . ." Well known? By whom is that well known? And how is it known? Cleary doesn't bother to say. In truth, what Cleary depicts as a "well known" fact isn't well known, isn't known at all, and isn't a fact. It is an Islamic-fundamentalist myth. The origin of the Koran has been the subject of much scholarly speculation, but historians haven't been able to determine when the Koran's various parts were written, or who may have written them, or how many versions of the Koran were written and rewritten before the canonical version was assembled. (See, for example, Toby Lester's article "What Is the Koran" in The Atlantic Monthly, January 1999.)

By the way: Cleary also announces that the Koran is "the last link in a chain of revelation going back to time immemorial, even to the very origin of humankind." Any reader who has an IQ above the freezing point (if I may borrow a phrase used by the business writer Tom Peters) will ask, "How in the world was that ascertained?" Shabbas is manifestly confident that this question will never occur to readers of the Notebook.

One more example: Shabbas's dupes learn from the Notebook that the Koran condemns wars of "territorical [sic] conquest" -- and they also learn that, from the 8th to the 13th centuries, Arabian Muslims built a great empire that "extended across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, from Spain to the borders of China." Does this mean that those Arabian Muslims spurned the Koran? Does it mean that they assembled their empire without fighting wars of conquest? Exactly how did they do that? You may well ask the questions, but you won't find any answers in the Notebook.

Correspondence with Shabbas

The first item in the body of the Notebook is an unsigned piece called "An Introduction to Islam." In that piece, the anonymous writer puts forth the claim that "There are six million Muslims in America," but there is no indication of where the number "six million" has come from: The claim is undocumented and unsupported. The claim also is bogus, and I knew this when I wrote to Shabbas and asked her to support it. Please read on.

Muslim propagandists in America fabricate wildly inflated claims about the size of America's Muslim population, presumably because the Muslims think that such claims can be transformed into political influence. (In one notorious instance, an outfit known as the American Muslim Council announced that -- according to the Census of 2000 -- the number of Muslims dwelling in America was between 6 million and 7 million. Alas, the Council's liars had failed to notice that the Bureau of the Census doesn't collect information about Americans' religious affiliations!) Respectable studies conducted in 2001 have indicated that the United States has about 2 million Muslims, and accounts of those studies have been published widely. See, for example, "How many U.S. Muslims?" in The Christian Science Monitor, 29 November 2001, and "Studies Suggest Lower Count for Number of U.S. Muslims" in The New York Times, 25 October 2001.

On 23 September 2003 I dispatched this query to Audrey Shabbas, by e-mail:

I have been reading your Arab World Studies Notebook (1998). On page 4, in the unsigned section titled "An Introduction to Islam," I find this statement: "There are six million Muslims in America." I'll be grateful if you will send me a citation of the source from which that number was acquired.

Shabbas replied, but she didn't send me any citation. She made some evasive claims about some published "works," and then she wrote:

The U.S. media since 9/11 has [sic] been using the number of "seven million" and so I am now using that number. In an April 1996 ABC/Nightline program with Ted Koeppel [sic], he uses [sic] the figure 5 million.

I had to laugh. Did she imagine that her vague allusion to the "U.S. media" would dignify the six-million claim? And how about the many "U.S. media" articles -- e.g., the two that I've cited above -- which have reported estimates of 2 million or so, and which (very importantly) have explained how those estimates were developed? Shabbas evidently assumed that I was unaware of any such reports, and that she therefore could bamboozle me. She was wrong.

You'll learn more about Shabbas and her antics when I send you my full review of the Arab World Studies Notebook. (You'll also learn more about Thomas Cleary, for I shall describe how Cleary uses specious "history" in a strikingly bold denigration of Christianity.) I hope that, in the meantime, you will read the articles that I have cited from The Atlantic Monthly, The Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times.

William J. Bennetta

Not much has changed.

Rafael Medoff is an American historian, the founding director of The David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which is based in Washington, D.C. and focuses on issues related to America's response to the Holocaust. This article appeared July 10, 2017 on the Jewish News Service (JNS) website and is archived at is an independent, non-profit news agency committed to growing the coverage of Israel news and broader global Jewish news. On, this article is archived at

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