A Column can draw Conclusions

The complainant, Mike Fegelman, on behalf of Honest Reporting, thought that Neil Macdonald had “whitewashed” the degree to which textbooks used in Palestinian schools demonize Israel. He was particularly concerned that Macdonald had referenced an academic study comparing Israeli and Palestinian school books because the Israeli Ministry of Education had condemned it. The reference appeared in a column about what the writer considered the dismal chances of a U.S. brokered final peace agreement by the end of April. Fegelman also questioned the basis of that conclusion, calling it opinion, not analysis. I did not consider that there had been any violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

Your complaint was not sent to the CBC, but was posted on your Honest Reporting web site. You then asked CBC management to respond to it. Your posting was entitled “CBC Whitewashes Incitement.” You took issue with a reference in an analysis piece by Neil Macdonald on the prospects of United States Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative. In the course of the article Mr. Macdonald refers to a study done on the textbooks in Palestinian and Israeli schools. The purpose of the study was to assess the portrayal of the “other” in teaching children. The Honest Reporting post says that the study has been “thoroughly debunked and discredited.” It also rejects the study for its “moral equivalence.” You feel that Mr. Macdonald should have mentioned that this study was “discredited.” In subsequent correspondence, you state that it is opinion, not analysis, to make the case that a peace deal will be difficult to achieve because of the reluctance of both sides to agree to one. You point out that there are others who believe that John Kerry’s efforts are “promising” and that “Israel genuinely wants a peace deal.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor for CBC News digital, Brodie Fenlon, responded to your blog post. He pointed out that the piece was actually a look at the long term prospects for John Kerry to achieve a final and durable peace agreement: “He sets out a number of reasons he thinks the current efforts will fail.” One of the reasons mentioned is Israel’s position that the Palestinians continue to negate Israel’s existence. Mr. Fenlon explained that the article mentions that the “inculcation of hatred” is a long standing issue for both sides but that there has been little “scientific evaluation.” The text book study was one such effort. He agreed that the Israeli government rejected the study and that some of the advisory panel were critical but that the study was supervised by Israelis and Palestinians, and that 14 of the 19 members of the advisory panel issued a statement confirming their support for the study. He pointed out that the study originated at Yale University and was partly funded by the U.S. government and was credible, even if there was some dissent: “Clearly, the report will not end the decades-old controversy over the issue. Not everyone will agree with its methodology or conclusions, but that does not disqualify it from being cited in Macdonald’s piece.”

REVIEW

The study in question is entitled “Victims of our Own Narratives?, Portrayal of the ‘Other’ in Israeli and Palestinian School Books.” It goes on to state that it was “initiated” by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land and funded by a U.S. government grant. The Council of Religious Institutions includes the chief rabbinate of Israel, the heads of local churches in the holy land, and the Ministry of Islamic Waqf at the Palestinian Authority. On its website, it references the study, explains how it was constituted and provides a link to it. It does distance itself somewhat by stating:

The study developed in such a way that it thematically went beyond what the Council had asked for. Accordingly, it was found best to be published in the name of the scholars who did it. The research was published and presented to the public on 4th February 2013.

The Council goes on to describe the origins of the study:

With the goal to study the “Portrayal of the Other” in Palestinian and Israeli school books, the project was funded by a grant from U.S. Department of State and implemented under the supervision of Prof. Bruce Wexler of Yale University and his NGO – A Different Future. A joint Palestinian-Israeli research team – headed by Professors Daniel Bar-Tal (Tel Aviv University) and Sami Adwan (Bethlehem University) – was formed, employing 10 research assistants (6 Israeli and 4 Palestinian), all fluent in Arabic and Hebrew) to analyze texts of 370 Israeli and 102 Palestinian books from grades 1 to 12. A Scientific Advisory Panel was also assembled, consisting of European, American, Palestinian and Israeli experts in school book analysis, history and education, who will oversee all aspects of the work. This was the first study to constitute a joint Israeli/Palestinian research team and use identical, standardized scientific methods in a simultaneous and comprehensive study of both Israeli and Palestinian books with oversight by an expert Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP).

Given the provenance of the work, there is no reason why it should not be referenced. To say it has been “thoroughly discredited” seems to be an overstatement. You may not agree with it and there was some dissenting opinion, but that does not invalidate the work entirely. Having said that, it would have been better if Mr. Macdonald had referenced the fact that the Israeli Ministry of Education and some of the advisory panelists disagreed with the conclusion. The CBC News article links to the study itself and those who wish to could have examined it directly and formed their own conclusions.

The reference to this study and the “Israeli incitement index” was only one aspect of the piece. You also questioned the overall premise that Mr. Kerry faces an uphill battle achieving a final peace agreement by April 30. You mention that Israel is anxious for a peace agreement. That is not the issue here. In the column Mr. Macdonald clearly states that there is evidence that neither side wants a deal now “at least not on the terms Mr. Kerry is proposing.”

The piece is less about the positions of the two sides and more about Kerry, and indeed American diplomatic success. There is a history of failed American shuttle diplomacy in the region. Most recent reporting has not highlighted any breakthroughs on what is a complex and difficult situation. Kerry has been promising a final agreement, a comprehensive deal with solutions to all the major and, until now, intractable issues. It is hardly radical to propose that might be out of reach at this time. It is true it may happen, or at least a framework will be signed, and that would also be a real accomplishment. CBC News should continue to monitor the situation carefully and ensure that any further developments are analyzed from a variety of perspectives.

This analysis is hardly radical or outside the mainstream analysis of the history of peace talks in the Middle East or, for that matter, the current round of diplomacy. The issues raised are not about who is more responsible for the lack of a deal. It analyzes the chances of success based on the stated goal of the Secretary of State. It does not violate CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman