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School books under the microscope

The findings of the latest German-Israeli Textbook Commission are intended to have a lasting impact. An interview with Dirk Sadowski.


Dr Sadowski, the German-Israeli Textbook Commission has spent four years closely examining school textbooks on history, social studies and geo­graphy. In 2015, the Commission concluded its work with the publication of recommendations. How many books were examined, and for what exactly?

Our analyses focused on how the respective other country and the Holocaust are depicted. In 2011, in Germany 1,200 books were approved at secondary level in the three subjects mentioned. We limited ourselves to five German states and examined as many as 400 books. We ultimately selected 94 in which Israel is substantially featured, plus 25 chapters in school history books detailing the Holocaust. In Israel we analysed 44 of around 100 approved school textbooks in which Germany or German history and the Holocaust are mentioned.

Who funded the Commission’s work?

The German Federal Foreign Office and the Israeli Ministry of Education. Both are also supporting the continuation of our work.

Continuation? Please explain. But let us first talk about the recommendations: what needs to be improved in the textbooks?

Our first recommendation for German school history books, for example, is to look for different contexts for how Israel is presented. Israel must not be seen only in the context of the Middle East conflict. For Israeli history books we recommend first and foremost moving the description of 
German history beyond the Second World War, instead of ending it there, and including contemporary history. In total, however, the recommendations fill 70 pages.

There was a similar commission in the 1980s. Now in 2015 you and your colleagues write that “nothing has changed regarding the key findings of the first German-Israeli Textbook Commission since 1985”, namely that Israel appears almost exclusively as an element of the Middle East conflict. Do you not find that depressing?

Of course, there is a certain frustration there. You would have expected at least some of the recommendations from 1985 to have been implemented. One explanation is that the earlier Commission ended its work after publication of the recommendations. Motiv­ation for change was left entirely to policymakers. For this reason we decided to continue our work.

In what way?

One part of it is further training for opinion leaders. We have just had the first workshop, where a group from the Commission spoke with textbook editors about pitfalls in the depiction of Israel using specific examples.

What pitfalls?

For instance, the language used is often problematic. The editors say: “We need to stimulate students’ interest in a topic, which is why we use eye-catching headings, for example.” We at the Textbook Commission are against this. We say that it is better not to use such an effect-seeking, emotional tone in school books, which often additionally suggests hopelessness.

“Israel – war without end?” is given as an example in your published work.

Exactly. Although there is a question mark at the end, it is naturally still a deterministic statement.

The Textbook Commission describes school textbooks as “state-authorised reservoirs of knowledge and possible interpretations”, which students actually cannot circumvent. Does this still apply in the digital age?

In Germany printed textbooks are still the primary teaching medium. Of course, a digit­isation process has started that can no longer be stopped. We too shall develop digit­al German-Israeli teaching materials together with the Israelis. Incidentally, that is the second way in which the Commission is continuing its work. These materials are intended to simultaneously serve as best-practice examples, showing which approach can be taken. ▪

Interview: Judith Reker


of the Georg Eckert Institute is Scientific Coordinator of the German-Israeli Textbook Commission