What Did The Children Learn in School Today?

Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger

Fifty years after Pete Seeger sang Tom Paxton’s prophetic folk song, American culture retains sufficient belief in its own “manifest destiny” narrative to continue the expansion of worldwide American hegemony.


by James M Wall


Fifty years ago, on a stage in Melbourne, Australia, Pete Seeger sang a new song by a then 23-year old Tom Paxton. The lyrics begin:

What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
I learned that Washington never told a lie
I learned that soldiers seldom die
I learned that everybody’s free
That’s what the teacher said to me
And that’s what I learned in school today

Those are sentiments that drive every nation state as it seeks to shape the thinking of its children. Some states have long histories from which to develop those sentiments.

The modern state of Israel has an extremely short history. It came into existence in 1948 under trying circumstances, a tribal band of immigrants from Europe who had survived the Holocaust.

I was reminded of Pete Seeger singing Tom Paxton’s lyrics when I read an account in the Guardian, about a forthcoming book by Israeli scholar Nurit Peled-Elhanan.

Peled-Elhanan is a mother, a political radical, and the daughter of the famous Israeli general, Matti Peled, who in retirement, has become a leading activist in the Israeli peace movement.

She comes to her research from a family with deep connections to Israel’s history. Her brother, Milo Peled, is the author of A General’s Son, scheduled for publication by Just World Books in the Spring of 2012.

In her bookNurit Peled-Elhanan describes images of Palestinians that Israel has included in its text books for children

They are called Arabs. “The Arab with a camel, in an Ali Baba dress. They describe them as vile and deviant and criminal, people who don’t pay taxes, people who live off the state, people who don’t want to develop,” she says. “The only representation is as refugees, primitive farmers and terrorists. You never see a Palestinian child or doctor or teacher or engineer or modern farmer.”

Peled-Elhanan, a professor of language and education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has studied the content of Israeli school books for the past five years.

Her book, Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education, will be published in the United Kingdom this month. She would like to find a Hebrew publisher. So far she had not found one.

Nurit Peled Elhanan in a meeting of the European Parliament (wiki)

Peled-Elhanan tells the Guardian she found a prevailing racism that saturates Israel’s early education textbooks.

Israel has a short history which it has built from ancient biblical stories and the recent horrors of the Holocaust. For nation building, the pairing was perfect. For stealing land, it was illegal, a distortion of  actual history and, for good measure, immoral.

Israel did what other new nations do; shape a narrative that rationalizes past conduct. Unfortunately for the nascent state, it entered history after colonialism had become passé.

Israel became a state just as western nations were relinquishing control of their colonies to carefully-chosen, and subservient leaders.

As a new colony in a period when the colony concept had passed its shelf life, Israel had to create an even more distorted narrative than the American colonialists who had more than a century to sell their tale of Manifest Destiny.

The compressed period of time in which Israel’s historical narrative was created, required outside help. Thanks to the tribal outreach that extended deep into the consciousness of the West, this late-stage post-Holocaust colonialism succeeded.

It succeeded because it was built around racism, an easy sell in the West, which needed to maintain control over “other”, non-white, populations.

It helped that most of those “others” belonged to a religious tradition, Islam, which colonial powers had never fully understood, nor trusted.

Peled-Elhanan’s book finds this scenario playing out in Israel’s textbooks:

People don’t really know what their children are reading in textbooks,” she told the Guardian. “One question that bothers many people is how do you explain the cruel behavior of Israeli soldiers towards Palestinians, an indifference to human suffering, the inflicting of suffering.”

Fifty years after Pete Seeger sang Tom Paxton’s prophetic folk song, American culture retains sufficient belief in its own “manifest destiny” narrative to continue the expansion of worldwide American hegemony.

Hegemony fattens the profits of what Dwight Eisenhower described as our “military/industrial complex”, profiteers who just happen to belong to the 1% of our population now facing protests from the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The tribal nation of Israel (“we are a Jewish state”) links to the 1% through a common need to wage war. Next up on Israel’s agenda?  Iran, of course, as MJ Rosenberg explains in a recent Huffington Post piece.

A commonality of purpose ties Israel to two major influences in American society, the military/industrial complex and the Israel Lobby.

President Obama knows there is campaign money and media influence in that pairing. He also knows that he has inherited the leadership of a nation that, for the moment, at least, does not believe war is the answer to its problems.

This poses a problem for President Obama and for his friends in the industrial/military complex (the 1%) and for the current right wing government of Israel.

To solve this problem, until at least the start of his second term, Obama has seized upon drone warfare, which kills targeted “terrorists, and nearby civilians, at no apparent personal cost to American families.

Death by pilotless drones remain largely outside America’s media orbit. It goes unnoticed by the Republicans running to replace Obama, and it is largely unreported by US media. Drones do not require “boots on the ground”.

Where are you Rachel, Ed, Chris, Fox News, and the non-cable networks? America turns its lonely eyes to you, and all they see and hear, are superficial tales of stumbling leaders.

Occasionally, however, a personal story of drone warfare breaks into an American media outlet.

Such a story of death by drone appeared this week in the editorial section of the New York Times, under the headline, “For Our Allies, Death From Above”.

It is a story that should be read in its entirety. It reads like a short story a future Joe Heller or Norman Mailer might write after the inglorious War on Terror finally ends.

The story, which is not fiction, but true, was written by Cliff Stafford Smith, an American attorney who works for Reprieve, an organization that advocates for prisoners’ rights.

Smith begins his account:

Last Friday, I took part in an unusual meeting in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

The meeting had been organized so that Pashtun tribal elders who lived along the Pakistani-Afghan frontier could meet with Westerners for the first time to offer their perspectives on the shadowy drone war being waged by the Central Intelligence Agency in their region.

Twenty men came to air their views; some brought their young sons along to experience this rare interaction with Americans. In all, 60 villagers made the journey.

The meeting was organized as a traditional jirga. In Pashtun culture, a jirga acts as both a parliament and a courtroom: it is the time-honored way in which Pashtuns have tried to establish rules and settle differences amicably with those who they feel have wronged them.

At the meeting, Smith met a 16-year-old Pakistan boy named Tariq Aziz. The story ends with an American drone attack.  It is not an ending Americans, at their best, should tolerate.

On the Monday after the jirga, Tariq Aziz was killed by a CIA drone strike, along with his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan. Smith concludes:

The two of them had been dispatched, with Tariq driving, to pick up their aunt and bring her home to the village of Norak, when their short lives were ended by a Hellfire missile.

My mistake had been to see the drone war in Waziristan in terms of abstract legal theory — as a blatantly illegal invasion of Pakistan’s sovereignty, akin to President Richard M. Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia in 1970.

But now, the issue has suddenly become very real and personal. Tariq was a good kid, and courageous. My warm hand recently touched his in friendship; yet, within three days, his would be cold in death, the rigor mortis inflicted by my government.

And Tariq’s extended family, so recently hoping to be our allies for peace, has now been ripped apart by an American missile — most likely making any effort we make at reconciliation futile.

Israel flies American-supplied drones on a routine basis, killing Gaza civilians, at times entire families. Twitter messages from Gaza describe the sound of those pilotless, computer drones as they terrorize children and adults alike.

Further north, pilotless American drones continue to kill Pakistanis like 16-year-old Tariq Azia along the Afghan border.

Is there any wonder that the US and Israel are isolated from the community of nations?

The most recent proof of this isolation came in the UNESCO vote that admitted Palestine as a full member.

Phyllis Bennis, a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, has been a writer, analyst, and activist on Middle East and UN issues for many years.

She connects Israel’s influence over US foreign policy with the OWS movement. She explains the link in a Salon.com essay.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the 1 percent — the rich, the powerful, the ones who buy off our government, impose their wars, avoid paying their taxes, you know the ones. The 99 percent — the rest of us – are the ones who pay the price.

But there’s another 99/1 percent divide: over U.S. policy toward Israel and the whole world. Here the 1 percent are really on a roll. Right over the rest of us.

Bennis writes that this is the time for President Obama to say No to Congress by exercising his powers of the executive branch and the defunding by Congress of UN agencies. It is time for him to say to the 99% that he agrees that the nation suffers from the grip of the 1%.

UNESCO, of course, is only the beginning. But it could be the first step toward ending the control Israel has over both American foreign policy and our money-driven domestic politics.

Who knows, the Occupy Wall Street marchers just might lead us to recall, and act upon, the words with which Abraham Lincoln closed his first Inaugural Address:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

And those are words which we should have learned in school, one day long ago, words of hope breaking forth from the darkness of ambiguity. After all, Abraham Lincoln did not live in happy times.

Source: Wall Writings

James Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois.  From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine.  He has made more than 20 trips to that region as a journalist, during which he covered such events as Anwar Sadat’s 1977 trip to Jerusalem, and the 2006 Palestinian legislative election. He has interviewed, and written about, journalists, religious leaders, political leaders and private citizens in the region.  Jim served for two years on active duty in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF (inactive) reserve. He can be reached at:  [email protected].


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