Identity Beyond Borders: National Identity and the Post-Colonial Alternative

Riad Nasser. Social Semiotics. Volume 29, Issue 2. 2019.


Close to seven decades after WWII, crisscrossing processes continue to dominate the world system even today, drawing and redrawing boundaries between collectives and cultures, rendering identities of individuals as well as of collectives in a state of everlasting flux of becoming and being (see Bhabha 2004; Jenkins 2014; Venn 2006). Historically, in the wake of WWII, decolonization was the dominant force in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. For a moment, nationalism was perceived as a utopian universal remedy of helping former colonized societies recover and regain their past histories, cultures, and identities. During those years, nationalism was associated with democracy and socialism, a form of emancipatory ideology (see Walzer 2003, 14).

Importantly, while it was in its embryonic stage, national liberation processes of former colonies faced a new challenge, a counter force of a global scale. It was the beginning of the Cold War that would redraw borders and boundaries, turning the geography of the recently emerging nation-states (in addition to well-established ones) into a battle ground between competing ideologies of East and West. Accordingly, many nations had to fashion their economies, cultures, political systems, and their collective identifications along the lines of either the Western or the Eastern ideological templates. Interestingly, the short-lived hopes that came about with the end of the Cold War in 1989-1991, for a better future and the possible emergence of a free global civil society of world citizens, were soon dashed by the rise of a new set of conflicting forces. On the one hand, the rise of transnational forms of identity marked by the global expansion of multinational corporations, global media, the creation of the European Union, mass migration (especially, from the south and east to the north), the re-emergence of global religious movements, and feminist and environmental advocates. On the other hand, the return of local and particularistic demands by ethnic groups for self-determination, manifested in ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and recently, the civil wars in the Arab states (see Friese 2002; Venn 2006; Jenkins 2014; Danahar 2015). In other words, in contrast to the 1950s, when questions of national liberation, nation-state, and citizenship dominated and shaped the contours of the international political and cultural discourse, now, questions of transnational identity (civic, religious, cultural, etc.), women’s rights and identity, and identity of indigenous people in Canada, Australia, among other geographies, dominate the global scene (see Soysal 1994; Purvis and Hunt 1999, 458; Benhabib 2005; Kivisto and Faist 2007; Jenkins 2014).

Moreover, due to technological advancement and the expansion of global capitalism, identity has evolved into a commodity offered to consumers by advertising companies attempting at creating a “‘new look’, a ‘make-over’, and a ‘new-me,’” through the consumption of specific commodities designed to meet the expectation of every niche market group (Turow 2011; cited in Jenkins 2014, 29). Similarly, Herbert (2003) and Katzenstein (2010), emphasize the return of religion as a source of identity for both the individual as well as the collective across the globe. Katzenstein (2010, 84), in response to the growing presence of Islam/Moslems in Europe, asks that

[s]ome of the most difficult questions Europe’s second phase of civilization now faces are whether it can integrate the Muslim “other” in its midst as “self” without ceasing to be “itself,” and whether it can engage wider Muslim civilization beyond Europe’s shadowy and expanding borders with practices of peaceful change.

For other scholars, the recent global/local developments render the question of identity to unending conflict between “barbarism” and “civility” (see Huntington 1998). Others believe that the emerging system is conducive to the rise of a global cosmopolitan identity that is horizontally open to accept and negotiate differences with other cultures as equals (see Kwame Appiah 2006). In contrast, scholars such as Silvia Nagy-Zekmi and Zabus (2010) assert that the new world order stipulates new processes of Western (American) colonization of the world’s culture, not necessarily of foreign geographies, but, certainly of life-style, self-perceptions, and above all, colonization of minds.

Notably, the various discourses on identity, share a common theoretical predicament which is the binary form of Western thought of identity conceptualization, for example, the twin concepts of self/Other or similarity and difference (see Derrida 1981, 86). That form of conceptualizing identity is problematic, although it has become universal with Western colonialism and the global spread of its version of modernity. Some of the weaknesses of this model are that it stipulates the ranking of self as superior and the Other as inferior. In addition, it diminishes our ability to understand identity formation—both on the theoretical as well the practical level—outside the box of this twin binary form.

In “Identity beyond Borders,” I ask how these global processes affect political socialization of students through the nation-state sponsored school system. I start with discussing the complex nature of identity and its application on the process of political socialization. Next, I examine the strategies by which the educated class through its control of the state-sponsored school curricula constructs identities of co-nationals and citizens in three respective case studies of Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. An understanding of these strategies of identity formation and political socialization can help in answering the question whether state education system is conducive of forging identities complimentary to the development of a global cosmopolitan society in which identities are detached from the logocentric principles of Western discourse rooted in the idea of difference and alterity (see Derrida 1981, 86).

This issue is of a growing significance, particularly due to recent global migration waves and the emergence of diaspora groups of faith, ethnicity/race, culture, and nationality in many societies across the globe. The risk of the continued use of the binary exclusive paradigm in identity formation may increase social, economic, and political marginalization and discrimination against those deemed as Other, and consequently, intensify intra social conflicts, as recent ethnic frictions in Europe have shown.

Theoretically, I make use of postcolonial theories to demonstrate the shortcomings of the logocentric way of theorizing identity as a binary twin, rooted in the relational formation between Self and Other. In other words, postcolonial theories have been very critical of the Enlightenment project and the question of subjectivity as it has evolved in the last two centuries or so. Therefore, by turning to postcolonial theories, I seek an alternative way by which identities maybe formed and constructed. Importantly, the reader should not confuse postcolonial theory with postcolonial states. My use of postcolonial theory comes to help me analyze the complex nature of identity (e.g. national identity), away from the dominant Western view of theorization.

The three-case studies Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, discussed in this article represent a wider global phenomenon of the nation-state system and the idea of political socialization through state public schooling system. Jordan is a postcolonial state incorporating within its boundaries a mixture of ethnicities, religions, and nationalities. Israel is a migrant community (settler society) aiming at reconstructing a nation out of a diverse group of religious Jewish communities, while Palestine continues to be colonized by Israel, and its education system remains subject to pressures from both Israel and other Western countries. Again, the focus of this study is on the role of the education system in forging collective identities. The main question I ask: what types of identity the respective school curricula advance? Is it exclusively national or open and conducive to wider global forms of identification beyond state and ethnicity?

Before turning to the case studies with which this article will engage, I will discuss the question of identity from a postcolonial perspective, followed by an examination of the role of mass education in the process of national identity formation under the nation-state system.

Postcolonial Theories and the Question of Identity

Postcolonial theories can be seen as forms of resistance to colonial practices and simultaneously as paradigms of emancipation aiding the colonized. They provide both intellectual and practical ways to help the colonized, the silenced, the excluded, and the oppressed understand the nature of the domination which has been imposed upon them and the ways in which their identities are constructed via regimes of power. Specifically, postcolonial theories are aimed at analyzing the legacy of colonial regimes of domination and their residual political, socio-economic, and psychological effects on formerly colonized and postcolonial societies. Of special importance is how these theories examine the manner in which postcolonial societies struggle with their collective identities and how they incorporate or reject the Western norms and conventions, such as legal or political systems, left in place after direct administration by colonial powers ended (see Said 1979; Bhabha 1983, 18-36; Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 2002; Bhabha 2004; Venn 2006). Recently, postcolonial theories have expanded their inquiry to study questions pertaining to the effects of global processes on the development of identity within diaspora cultures, migrant and indigenous communities, economies, and life-style.

Significantly, postcolonial paradigms have provided an alternative approach to the study of identity, one that is detached from the Western logocentric discourse of modernity. Venn suggests that

[o]ne of the characteristics of modernity as a period … is that it imagined it would bring into existence a particular concept of the subject, namely, the subject as (ideally) the unitary, rational, autonomous, self- sufficient, masculine, and European agent of the history of humanity. (Venn 2006, 9)

He adds that the subject has dual attributes. On the one hand, he is part of the project of modernity and simultaneously the agent of that project. As such, Europeans perceived themselves as a civilizing force during the colonial era. Their encounter with peoples from Africa, Asia, and Latin America turned the differences between them into a hierarchy in which Europeans portrayed themselves superior to “the rest.” According to Bhabha (2004, 72-73), the colonial discourse made difference ontological so that Europeans’ identity would appear as if it had organic qualities and was simultaneously portrayed as superior to the uncivilized and invisible “Other.” In short, postcolonial theory has revealed the process through which identities are constructed via difference and exclusion, and the implications of this process for those deemed as “Others.”

During the 1990s, the difference became the dominant variable in postcolonial discourse, accounting for the process of identity formation (Butler 1990; Taylor 1994, 25-74; Benhabib 1996; Hall 1996). According to scholars who discussed these issues in terms of difference, it makes identities seem distinctive from one another, more than any form of internal similarity within the same identity group. Benhabib (1996, 3), for example, argued that, “since every search for identity includes differentiating oneself from what one is not, identity politics is always and necessarily a politics of the creation of difference.” Similarly, Derrida (1981, 86) explains that difference has always been part of the logocentric binary mode of Western thought as an essential element in the identity formation of the “I/we.” Wagner adds that “[d]ifference … is … always already preconstituted. One pretends to name a state immediately and positively that is always created by the act of setting one thing apart from another one with which it is not identical” (2002, 42).

In the linguistic paradigm, and according to poststructuralist approaches, meanings develop in a relational manner. In the process of defining identity and social categories and establishing boundaries between categories, the difference becomes represented and placed as the polar opposite of self. Thus, identity is always “alterity identity,” that is, identity dependent upon the Other to define self (Bhabha 1983). For self to have a “distinctive” identity it needs to gain such an identity in relation to the Other and not separate from that Other, as if the self has “organic” qualities that make them seem as such (Friese 2002, 1-2; Wagner 2002, 35). Derrida believed that whenever linguistic and social identities are said to be fixed or assumed to be stable and organic, this should be understood less as a disclosure of truth than as an act of power (Derrida 1981). According to this view, identity is an act of signification created by power relations within the language itself.

During the colonial era, difference was a core strategic element in identity formation. It distinguished between East and West, black and white, backward and advanced, barbaric and civilized, and other forms of identity. According to Foucault, it was the power of the West that turned difference in identity formation into a hierarchy, where the Other is always inferior compared to the superior West (see Foucault 1981, 48-78). The identity of the Other was forged through Western discourse via difference as a manifestation of essential inferiority. Bhabha, echoing Foucault, argues that “[t]he Other must be seen as the necessary negation of a primordial identity—cultural or psychic—that introduces the system of differentiation which enables the cultural to be signified as a linguistic, symbolic, historic reality” (2004, 74).

Notably, in the colonial discourse, Europeans perceived themselves as agents of civilization and the motor of historical change, bearing the burden of civilizing the uncivilized. Part of their “civilizing”/colonizing mission was to set into motion a process of bestowing identity on people who had hitherto lived in a void (see Chatterjee 1993; Hall 1994, 392-403; Said 1994; Prakash 1995; Loomba 1998, 57, 145; Malik 1999; Bauman 2011, 9). In the Palestinian case, for example, Zionist discourse had for decades claimed that the origin of Palestinian nationalism was a by-product of Zionism (see Pappe 1999; Ram 1999, 55-80; Shafir 1999, 81-96), an assertion which essentially argues that without Zionism Palestinians would have no collective sense of self and would consequently be left behind in the progress of civilization and the project of modernity. In a similar vein, Theodor Herzl, in his book The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat), wrote to European leaders that “we could constitute part of the wall of defense against Asia; [we would] serve as an outpost of civilization against barbarism” (Herzl 1989, 52).

Postcolonial theorists such as Du Bois and Fanon provide an articulate discussion of the impact of colonialism on black people’s identity and the relations between the colonized and the colonial powers’ identity. Both authors have shown how the colonizers constructed an oppressed identity for their subjects; one of its foundations being the idea of inferior black peoples compared to superior Western white races (Fanon 1967; Du Bois 1990). Evidently, race in the colonial discourse makes the categories “black” and “white” dichotomous and relational. The hierarchy established in this discourse turns one of these identities into “superior” in contrast to an “inferior” other. Bauman argues that Western colonialism had produced a

theoretical commentary in the form of evolutionary cultural theory which promoted the “developed” world to the status of unquestionable perfection, to be imitated and aspired to sooner or later by the rest of the globe. In the pursuit of this goal, the rest of the world was to be actively helped and, in the event of resistance, coerced. (Bauman 2011, 9)

This explains Fanon’s statement in which he denounces colonialism, arguing that it had distorted black people’s subjectivity. He says that “At the risk of arousing the resentment of my coloured brothers, I will say that the black man is not a man” (Fanon 1967, 8). In other words, his view is that colonialism had stripped black people of their past, memory, and culture and reduced them to objects without souls or identities of their own. He adds that the essence of colonized peoples’ struggle should not exclusively focus on their social and economic oppression, but also on their internalization of forced constructions of self and identity (14-15).

Bhabha argues that the difference which creates a self-image of identity is an

image of post-Enlightenment man tethered to, not confronted by, his dark reflection, the shadow of colonized man, that splits his presence, distorts his outline, breaches his boundaries, repeats his action at a distance, disturbs and divides the very time of his being. (2004, 62)

Moreover, Fanon writes that “[w]hat is often called the black soul is a white man’s artefact” (Fanon 1967, 6). In other words, the black soul is the otherness of the self of the white person, created and projected onto the black person, and does not say a thing about the identity of black people.

Venn summarizes the impact of “othering” on the identity formation of those “othered” and excluded, linking the European logocentric idea of identity formation and othering during the colonial period to the process of colonial exploitation. In his view, othering

underlie[s] all forms of systematic exploitation, given that in order for a group to inflict persistent suffering upon another group … a distancing, an estrangement must take place that removes the other from the sphere of one’s concern or ethical responsibility … (26).

He adds that “[c]oncepts of the ethne, class, caste, gender, nation, race, religious affiliation have variously functioned as metonymic substitutes in this discourse of othering.” Continuing, he asserts that

the systematic denigration of the other in colonial discourse and the long period of … subalternization has left a legacy buried in the psyche and at the level of cognitive grasp of the world that continues to have effects for the problem of (postcolonial) identity.

This is evident in the difficulty “involved in breaking away from the hold of occidentalist categories” (26). In this view, it is from these conditions that difficulty of postcolonial societies in developing an identity detached from what the colonized had “assigned” for them has arisen.

Other scholars reject the exclusive emphasis on difference as a prime element of identity formation. Those scholars add identity is formed in the dialectical relation between similarity and difference. However, they assert that any form of identity formation leads to the creation of an excluded other. For example, Gilroy (1997, 301-302) observes that

identity is always particular, as much about difference as about shared belonging …  identity can help us comprehend the formation of the fateful pronoun “we” and to reckon with the patterns of inclusion and exclusion that it cannot help but to create. This may be one of the most troubling aspects of all: the fact that the formation of every “we” must leave out or exclude a “they”, that identities depend on the marking of difference.

Similarly, Bhabha (2004), for different reasons, rejects the logocentric notion of identity formation. In his view, the twin concept of similarity/difference assumes the homogeneity of those deemed similar: “Cultures are never unitary in themselves, nor simply dualistic in the relation of Self to Other” (52). Likewise, Jurgen Straub (2002) agrees that collectives are never unitary or homogeneous. In fact, he rejects the whole idea that collective identity is even possible: “Whenever a nation is supposed to have its own ‘identity,’ we are dealing with ideological language” (69). In his view, two forces act simultaneously to create collective identity, inclusion and exclusion, or integration and distinction, and both draw inward and outward boundaries.

Bhabha (2004) adds to the binary concept of similarity/difference another concept which he calls the “Third Space.” He explains that the “intervention of Third Space of enunciation, which makes the structure of meaning and reference an ambivalent process, destroys this mirror of representation in which cultural knowledge is customarily revealed as an integrated, open, expanding code” (54). Further, Bhabha explains that the Third Space has

productive capacities … [which] may reveal that the theoretical recognition of the split- space of enunciation may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on exoticism of multiculturalism or diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity … And by exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves (emphasis in the original). (56)

The development of hybrid identities, and the elimination of the previous paradigm in which identities develop in the dialectic between similarity and difference, seems a theoretical solution to the evolving contemporary world system in which, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm (2003, 236), “international migration has created—or recreated—ethnic diversity even in states which previously … had eliminated it.” However, the question remains, as Hobsbawm continues, “Where does this leave exclusive ethnicity, exclusive nationalism, the exclusive division of the world?” (236).

While Hobsbawm offers no answers to these questions, other scholars suggest the return of civil society as a new kind of “utopia” which will enable the creation of new spaces so that new forms of identity can emerge. Cohen (2003, 38) argues that international

[c]ivil society proper is the terrain and target of this politics of identity. It is here that collective actors defend spaces for the creation of the new identities and seek to render more egalitarian and democratic the institutions and social relations in which identities are generated.

Evidently, the ramifications of the possible emergence of such a global civil society are the weakening or suppression of other forms of hierarchy or exclusiveness such as nationality, ethnicity, social class, gender, and race. The new global civil society will create a new space in which identities are horizontal and non-sexist and “based on the principles of individual rights and democratic participation in associations, and public” (Cohen 2003, 36).

Borrowing from several literary, cultural, and postcolonial theorists, such as Henry Louis Gates, Stuart Hall, and Cornel West, Bhabha (2004, 256) explains the contours of the new type of identity that may develop in the Third Space as hybrid:

Postcolonial and black critiques propose forms of contestatory subjectivities that are empowered in the act of erasing the politics of binary opposition—the inverted polarities of a counter-politics … there is an attempt to construct a theory of the social imaginary that requires no subject expressing originary anguish … no singular self-image … no necessary or eternal belongings.

These two theoretical options, the global civil society and the possible emergence of an identity without origins, history, or spatial dimension, pose a dilemma and a challenge to the way identity has been theorized and constructed via various agencies of state, economic, political, and cultural forms of power. Both proposals call for the creation of temporal identities, stripped of their history, and eliminate any type of continuous membership in one collective. Implicitly, these theories valorize individuality and the universality of a horizontal identity, beyond ethnic, national, or civic affiliation, and invoke a new strategy for identity formation, an identity which is based on favoring the other in self, rather than a strategy of identity based on the Other and Self. The question remains whether these forms of identity without history and culture can sustain themselves in an international system which is saturated with power struggles over domination, exclusiveness, and distinction.

Mass Education: History and the Invention of a Nation

With the emergence of the nation-state system (at the end of the eighteenth and the turn of the nineteenth century), and the industrial revolution, mass education became a necessity (Dussel 2013, 176-189; Hofstetter and Schneuwly 2013, 166). In the wake of the French Revolution, elite groups in Western societies took upon themselves the mission of transforming an aggregate of people into a nation. Bauman argues that

[t]he “enlightenment project” gave culture (understood as an activity akin to land cultivation) the status of a basic tool for the building of a nation, a state, and a nation-state—at the same time entrusting that tool to the hands of the educated class.

In its perambulations between political ambitions and philosophical deliberations, a twin goal of the enlightenment undertaking had soon crystallized (whether openly or tacitly assumed) into the double postulate of obedience of subjects and solidarity among fellow countrymen. (Bauman 2011, 8)

In other words, the educated elite in the emerging nation states became an agent of social engineering, aiming at turning the subject into an object that can be molded and formed into an obedient citizen. In addition, it attempted to develop a sense of solidarity among citizens beyond family, kin, faith, or locality, aimed at making the individual citizen attached to a larger entity called the “nation”. Further, as citizens, members of the nation were treated as equal individuals who became subject to state sovereignty. Notably, both concepts, of co-nationals and citizenship, defined the political, spatial, and cultural-historical boundaries of the nation, boundaries formed following the binary template of Western thought which organizes the universe and the life of societies around concepts such as mythos and logos, rational and irrational, East versus West, and Us versus Them. Advancing this line of thought made it easy for a citizen and a co-national to develop their distinctive sense of collective identity via exclusion of Others. Moreover, with the emerging new world order of nation states, the state became the primary agent of the social and political socialization of its citizens, and, through its control of most forms of knowledge production and school curricula, made intensive use of history, geography, and civic studies, among other subjects, as vehicles for the forging of citizen and co-national identity (see Althusser 1971, 146; Foucault 1977, 225; Gramsci 1979, 294).

Importantly, among scholars there is no agreement on the meaning of national identity in specific instances and the ways in which it comes into being. Scholars distinguish between civic or territorial and ethnic nationalism, among other categorizations. The former portrays nations as units of populations which inhabit a demarcated territory, possess a common economy, common laws with identical legal rights and duties for everyone, and public mass education. The latter conceives of a nation as a human population with a belief in common ancestors, shared solidarity, common traditions, and history (Gellner 1983). Other scholars, such as Anderson, argue that nations are “imagined communities” with “invented traditions” ([1991] 2016). Interestingly, regardless of the theoretical approach one adopts, the narrative of any national movement, almost without exception, portrays the nation as immemorial, treating its past as a constitutive element in its formation. Such emphasis on a nation’s past, as Smith argues, begs the question of why the past is important if nations are imagined communities that have been engendered by scientific and industrial processes of modernity (2004). Smith’s answer is that unlike scholars of nationalism, people do believe that their nation has evolved from a common ancestry and that their tradition is rooted within their ancient history. For this reason, recovering the past seems vital to understanding the present, and is an act which also allows people to maintain a sense of coherent and continuous identity. Modernity provides the academic and scientific tools for elite groups in a society to reconstruct the collective’s past and turn it into a collective memory which constitutes the building blocks of the national narrative of the imagined community (see Anderson [1991] 2016). In this regard, the constructed narrative of a nation is aimed at forming its collective consciousness, which is organized by binary oppositions of triumph and defeat, of Us and Them, as Halbwachs ([1950] 1980) has argued. Such a narrative makes the nation appear distinctive in its origins, culture, and history, in opposition to other collectives. Consequently, it forces identity to develop in the dialectic between sameness and difference, rendering it subject to continuous processes of becoming.

Equally importantly, the recoveries of the past, and the ability of a community to establish continuity, real or imagined, between its present generation and its ancestry, seem to be at the core of the claims put forward by a collective to its political entitlement to land and to self-determination. This issue becomes of special significance in a universal system organized, as it has been since the end of the eighteenth century, around nationhood and the nation-state system, or a system in which peoples and territories are divided into states. Furthermore, although the idea of nation and nationalism are modern, for almost all collectives the “nation” is a real historical entity, worth of recovering its past. Evidently, the purpose of the construction of history, as Williams has argued, is to ratify the present conditions and to legitimize the present-day boundaries of a collective, and to give it a sense of continuity over time. The construction of a historical narrative makes it possible for a collective to read through the past the evolution of the nation from its sacred or mythical “origin” to the present (Williams 1989, 56-60).

Making history, Friedman (1994) argues, is a way of producing identity, insofar as it generates a relationship between what has supposedly occurred in the past and the present state of affairs. Further, he adds,

[t]he construction of history is a construction of a meaningful universe of events and narratives for an individual or collectively defined subject. And since the motivation of this process of construction emanates from the subject inhabiting a social world, we may say that history is an imprinting of the present onto the past. In this sense, all history including modern historiography is mythology (118).

Other scholars argue that the construction of history is a dynamic process that is in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformation, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being periodically dormant and periodically revived. Moreover, for a given collective, the construction of history is the construction of their specific narrative, a narrative about remembering and forgetting. In this regard, the constructed narrative of a nation is aimed at forming its collective consciousness (see Nora 1989, 7-25).

A nation’s history is not an inclusive discourse of the various claims to that nation’s past. It is a representation of the dominant group’s version of the past, which comes over time to perpetuate that dominant group’s culture and values (see Crawford 1995, 433-456; Philips 1998, 40-53). It continues to serve as the official narrative of a collective as long as it succeeds in excluding alternative narratives, whether they be those advanced by competing groups within a nation or other national narratives. It is not surprising, then, that, in our contemporary modern nation-state system, schools have turned into arenas for competing ideologies over the process of the construction of national narratives. In particular, history curricula have become subject to those competing forces in societies struggling to form the “official” past of their nation and its collective memory, which has a decisive influence on individuals’ notions of belonging within a community (see Epstein 2001, 186-204; Davies 2004).

There is an argument within academic history that what students study in schools is not history, but rather national history or tradition. Eric Hobsbawm (1997, 270) puts it thus:

[A]ll human beings, collectivities and institutions need a past, but it is only occasionally the past uncovered by historical research. The standard example of an identity culture which anchors itself to the past by means of myths dressed up as history is nationalism.

Elsewhere in the same work, he comments:

Why … do all regimes make their young study some history at school? Not to [enable them to] understand their society and how it changes, but to [encourage them to] approve of it, to be proud of it, or to become good citizens of the USA, or Spain or Honduras or Iraq. … History as inspiration and ideology has a builtin tendency to become self-justifying myth. (35-36)

In our case studies, mass education and history studies played a significant role in the process of emerging nationhood for both Jordan and Israel, and, later, for Palestinians in the territories under the Palestinian Authority (PA). While under British colonialism, historical Palestine and Transjordan were mandate territories, granted to Britain by the Council of the League of Nations in 1922 to manage and “assist” Jordanians and the Jewish minority in Palestine (with the exclusion of the indigenous Palestinian majority of Palestine) build their nation and their state institutions, and develop a self-governing system. For several decades, with varying degrees of autonomy, the process of nation-building and the creation of a state apparatus in both Jordan and Israel took place under the watching eye of the British. In both cases, state institutions, particularly the mass education system, were fashioned after British models of governance.

Once Jordan became independent in 1946, and Israel in 1948, the state, in each case, consolidated its power and assumed responsibility in the continued process of forging a unified “nation” out of the complex ethnic, religious, and national groups under their sovereignty. In both Jordan and Israel, public education has been one of the critical agents of nation-building, in addition to the army (see Massad 2001; Epstein and Uritsky 2004, 170). Similarly, following the PAs national elections in 1996, the creation of state institutions, including education, began in the semi-autonomous Palestinian enclaves which are part of the Israeli colonized West Bank and Gaza Strip. In each of these regions, history studies continue to be an arena contested by local factions and regional forces, each of which seeks to appropriate the past as exclusively theirs.

History School Textbooks in Jordan, Palestine, and Israel

I have chosen my primary source of analysis school history textbooks which will be supplemented with the examination of civic/national/social studies textbooks. The main reason of focusing on history is due to several factors. First, textbooks in general carry the authority and the legitimizing power of an established social, political, and historical order (Cherryholmes 1988; Williams 1989, 58; Apple 1993). Apple asserts that

it is the textbook which establishes so much of the material conditions for teaching and learning in classrooms in many countries throughout the world, and it is the textbook that often defines what is elite and legitimate culture to pass on. (Apple 1988, 81)

Similarly, Olson considers the power invested in textbooks to be analogous to that emanating from religious rituals; both are conceived as devices above criticism (Olson 1989). Further, Sleeter and Grant comment that

[t]he text[book] is a device for helping the child fit into his culture, but culture need not be passed on unedited, good and bad aspects alike. In fact, the nature of the text itself … demands that its maker be highly selective in the materials he [sic] presents. (1991, 80)

In the case studies, I will now discuss, textbook decisions are made at the national level. Although, in the PA and Israel, ministries of education may outsource textbooks to non-state committees or institutions, authors, and publishers, contributors are nevertheless required to follow strict ministry-issued guidelines. In the case of Israel, for example, non-ministry authors have to seek the approval of the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport if they wish to have their textbooks included in the Ministry’s official list of approved textbooks offered to teachers in schools. This form of control leads to homogeneity in content as well as in educational strategies and enforces uniformity of the history and cultural experience passed down to pupils (see Nasser 2005, 2011; Nasser and Nasser 2008; Mazawi 2011; Alayan 2012, 2017; Peled-Elhanan 2012, etc.).

In the years 1948-1967, Palestinian students in the West Bank and Gaza used Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks, respectively. Upon Israeli occupation of those territories, teachers were authorized to use the same textbooks; however, they were subject to censorship by the Israeli (military) Civil Administration. In 1996, after the signing of the Oslo Accord by the PLO and Israel, the PA established an independent body, the Curriculum Development Centre, whose remit was to draft the national curriculum for all Palestinian schools. The first set of textbooks to conform to this curriculum was introduced to schools in 1998, and the completion date for all textbooks was set as 2006.

This study will focus on the history taught from years 4 to 12 of schooling, as this is the stage in formal education at which students, having acquired mastery of basic competencies such as language and arithmetic, begin to address questions related to their identity, which are at the heart of school subjects such as history, civic studies, and geography. It is worth reiterating here that my analysis focuses primarily on history with occasional reference to social/national/civic education textbooks in the three-case study countries. In Jordan and Palestine, national education combines history and civic studies. My analysis focuses on textbooks used by students in state schools. Furthermore, although previous studies such as Alayan (2012, 2017), Mazawi (2011), Peled-Elhanan (2012), among other scholars, have analyzed school textbooks in Palestine and Israel, most of these studies—as important as they are—have focused on images of the Other (images of Palestinians in Israel textbooks and vice versa). Very few if any, have conducted a comparative study of national identity in school textbooks, and with the exception of a few studies, textbook analysts have paid little attention to Jordan, and to the question of national identity. This study, however, compares three national narratives and discusses the notion of national identity in the context of global processes.

Jordan: Nation and Origins

A review of national education and history textbooks in Jordan’s schools reveals a complex picture in relation to the issue of nation and origins. This complexity stems from the difficulty of defining “a Jordanian.” Contemporary Jordanian society is a mixture of ethnic, national, and religious groups. The largest community of Jordanians is of Palestinian origin; other ethnic groups represented in the country include Circassians, Chechens, and local settled and nomadic tribes. The year 4 national and social studies textbook says that “Jordanian society is comprised of many collectives, most of Arab ethnicity. There is a small number of Circassians, Chechens, Kurds, and Armenians” (A’bidat, Abu-Shaikha, and Khlifat 2003, Vol. 2, 15).

Another issue is the fact that Jordan’s ruling dynasty is foreign, originating from a noble Saudi Arabian family, the Hashemite. For decades, this was a source of friction between indigenous Jordanians and their rulers. What complicated the matter further was the continuous influx of Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian refugees to the country due to civil and regional wars. As a result, and primarily in order to resolve the conflict between rulers and ruled, the state-sponsored national narrative has traditionally focused less on nation-building, with “Jordan” as a distinctive collective, and more on similarities between Jordanians and other Arabs in the region. In this way, Jordan’s narrative makes the complex ethnic structure of the state less of an issue and facilitates the legitimation and acceptance of rulers by their citizens as part of a larger whole, the Arab nation.

The emphasis in Jordan’s textbooks is on the multi-faceted nature of Jordanian identity. Jordanians are presented as an integral part of the Arab collective and part of the universal Islamic umma (nation). The political divisions of the Arab world into mini-states, which separate one collective from another, are portrayed as artificial and temporary and as consequences of colonial powers’ past intrusion in the region’s affairs; the textbooks also suggest that they are associated with the project of implantation of Zionism into the heart of Palestine, which is an obstacle to Arab unity (11-15). Put simply, Jordan’s narrative shifts the discussion of identity in Jordan from the local and territorial frame into the regional Arab and the universal religious-Islamic context. This strategy of forced exclusion, as I have mentioned, ultimately serves the political ends of the rulers rather than those of the ruled.

The emphasis on the regional and universal aspects of identity in Jordan dominates the textbook discussion of the issue. Thus, a year 6 textbook notes that “The Jordanian people have their origins in the Arab race. Most of [Jordan’s] residents practice Islam, and its citizens speak Arabic” (Al-Madani, Al-A’amaayyra, and Abu-Sal 2001, 11). Similarly, the year 5 textbook asserts that “We [Jordanians] belong to a great nation, the Arab nation, whose place of origin is the Arabian Peninsula” (Khlifat et al. 2003, Vol. 1, 9). To explain the relationship between Jordanians as a group and the larger Arab collective, the textbooks introduce the distinction between people (sha’b) and nation (ummah). A “people” is defined as a collective subject to the rule of a specific state, while a “nation is a large group … that shares a common language, history, religion, tradition, and customs; an example of this is the Arab nation” (Al-Madani, Al-A’amaayyra, and Abu-Sal 2001, 11-12). This distinction seeks to demonstrate that Jordanians are a branch of a larger whole, the Arab nation.

Importantly, the emphasis here on the multi-faceted nature of Jordanian identity (as Arabs and Moslems), makes the issue of “imagined community” as a continuous historical entity in Jordan less significant, shifting the discussion from the identity of a people to the identity of the rulers, who are presented as divinely “chosen.” In fact, the textbooks perpetuate the idea of a lack of historical roots to Jordanian identity in the geographical space Jordanians now occupy. A book for year 10 says that “Jordan has been continuously populated since ancient times. Several civilizations had risen and fallen in tandem [,] such as the Edomite, Moabite, Ammonite, Aramaic, Assyrian, Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, and Arab Islamic” (A’bidat et al. 2001, Vol. 1, 8). On the same page, the book adds that in ancient history there were several “[i]mmigration waves of Semites [from the Arab Peninsula who] had settled in Jordan. [These tribes] formed the racial [ethnic] foundation of the region’s population.” Although the textbooks do mention the development in antiquity of a few Arab kingdoms in Jordan’s lands, they make no effort to link contemporary Jordanians with these ancient civilizations; on the contrary: the emphasis is on the eclectic nature of past civilizations, a depiction which portrays Jordan as a region of transit for other nations passing through. This said, the textbooks do emphasize the fact that Jordan was “liberated” by the Arab Muslims in the seventh century C.E. This emphasis on Islam serves to create continuity between the contemporary generation of rulers in Jordan and the Prophet Mohammad. The textbooks argue that the origin of the Hashemite goes back to the tribe of Hashem. A year 11 textbook asserts that:

Quraysh came to Mecca for the first time in the second century C.E. Six generations later, the first generation of Quraysh rose to power in Mecca when Qusai ibn Kelab took a leadership position in 480 C.E. He was preceded by his grandsons from bani Hashem. Thus, they earned the respect of all Arab tribes for the many good things they did to ensure livelihood, security, and Arab unity. (Al-Masad, Al-Jaban, and Abu-Sal 2003, 71)

The textbooks state that the Hashemite were driven by an internal call to save and protect Arabs and their collective interests. They are portrayed as the upholders of Arab glory, especially later in history, with the rise of Islam. This emphasis on their unique historical contribution to the glory and progress of Arabs is repeated time and again in numerous places in the textbooks (see Abed Al-Hai et al. 2001, 42; A’bidat, Abu-Shaikha, and Khlifat 2003, 12; Khrizat and Ghanayim 2003, 74). Other textbooks suggest that the origins of both the Hashemite and Quraysh tribes date back to Abraham. Claiming Abraham, through his son Ishmael, as the founding father transforms the Hashemite dynasty into one more deeply rooted in human history. In addition, the textbooks emphasize that from their origins to the present, the Hashemite have been a distinguished dynasty among Arabs, a deity chosen by a divine hand, specifically, the Prophet Mohammad (see Khrizat and Ghanayim 2003, 71). Other textbooks suggest kinship relations between modern-era Hashemite leaders and the Prophet; the year 10 textbook, discussing the origins of Jordan’s modern founding father, Amir Abdullah, claims:

He is Abdullah ibn al-Hussein ibn Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Abed al-Moa’in ibn “Awan. Born to two Hashemite parents in 1882 C.E. in the honorable Mecca; [born to a] a noble family that had a title to the Emirate of Mecca. His kin extends to the Prophet (peace be upon him) (A’bidat et al. 2001, Vol. 1, 117).

In this way, the textbooks link the modern era and the contemporary Hashemite ruling family in Jordan to their ancestors in the Arabian Peninsula, particularly to the town of Mecca and the Prophet Mohammad himself. This lineage bestows on the rulers the same religious and social status of nobility their ancestors had enjoyed among Arabs and Muslims alike since the rise of Islam at the turn of the seventh century C.E. and into its golden age later on. Pan-Arabism is another strategy Jordan’s narrative uses to legitimize its ruler. Jordan’s textbook depicts Sharif Hussein as a trans-religious, pan-Arab ideologue. On page 77 it cites Hussein’s rejection of British colonial officer, McMahon’s plan to divide the Arab countries, and Hussein’s opposition to the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain promised Palestine to the Zionist movement as its homeland (Al-Masad, al-Jalaban, and Abu-Sal 2003, 77). Further, it cites Sharif Hussein thus: “I refuse to accept partitions and the Mandate. … I will not sign the treaty should it reject my conditions, independence for all Arab regions” (Al-Madani and Abed Al-Latif 2003, 71).

In short, the emphasis in Jordanian nationalism of exclusive pan-Arabism and Islam strengthens the textbooks’ claim of dynastic historical continuity in Jordan. The books present the Hashemite family as encompassing and giving significance to the diverse ethnic/national and religious groups in Jordan, turning them into one collective with a meaningful identity. In this depiction, without the rulers, the nation as a political entity has no actual distinct existence. In addition, the emphasis on Jordanians as being an integral part of the Arab nation renders the particular makeup of Jordan irrelevant. This use of pan-Arab ideology helps the Jordanian narrative gain legitimacy and validity, as well as representing the current state of Arabs, divided into mini-state entities (including Jordan), as temporary. The Hashemite are presented as those who will achieve the future dream of Arab unity. Out of all these dialectical forces, the national narrative of Jordan, as represented in these textbooks, gives birth to Jordan as a territorial nation-state.

The textbooks do not discuss the discrepancies between Jordan’s official narrative and its actual historical record. The collusion of King Abdullah with colonialism and Zionism is transformed in the textbooks into an act of defiance and resistance, thus glorified. Second, from a historical perspective, once colonialism created the artificial boundaries between Arabs, they became real. Since Jordan’s independence, it continues to have border disputes with both Syria and Saudi Arabia. Internally, in contradiction to the textbooks’ inclusive narrative of the various ethnic and national groups in Jordan, in reality, the status of Palestinians in Jordan continues to be contested. In fact, members of the Jordanian parliament, repeatedly question the status of Palestinian Jordanians and their civil and political rights in the Kingdom. To close with an anecdotal point, visitors to Amman will notice the large signs decorating the highways leading to the capital, with the banner “al-Urdon Awalan”, that is, Jordan is (or comes) First.

Palestine: Identity Under Siege

In contrast to those in Jordan, Palestinian history textbooks dedicate extensive space to the territorialization of their collective identity as one which is separate from that of other Arabs. A more significant challenge in Palestinian textbooks is presented by the “decolonization” of Palestine’s history in the context of Israel’s continuous appropriation of the country’s ancient past as entirely Jewish and rendering Palestinian ancient history, culture, and society obscured and unspoken (Whitelam 1996, 11, 13). In the context of contemporary history, Edward Said has asserted, in his introduction to The Question of Palestine that “Israel itself, as well as its supporters, has tried to efface the Palestinians in words and actions because the Jewish state in many (but not all) ways is built on negation of Palestine and the Palestinians (Said 1992, xlii).

In the textbooks analyzed for this case study, discussion of Palestinian identity commences by making a distinction between three interrelated concepts: society, people, and nation. First, the textbook defines Palestinian society as “[a] collective of people living in a [specific] geography called Palestine with a common language, religion, customs, tradition, and future aspirations” (Said 2003, 6). The emphasis in this definition of society is on the territory, or living space, which has helped a collective evolve into a distinctive community. Both the past and the future are conceived as important elements in constituting the present of society and in shaping its specific characteristics. In this case, Palestinian society is defined as the sum total of historic processes of evolution and their dynamics, the development of its tradition, religion, aspirations, and intra-group communications.

The second concept defined here, and apparently more complex, is that of Palestinian peoplehood, al-Sha’ab al-Falastini. In its definition of Palestinian peoplehood, the same textbook we cited above starts by tracing this people’s origins: “The origins of Palestinian people are Canaanites. And this land was called the land of Canaan” (19). On the basis of this statement, on the same page, the authors conclude that “[A]l-Sha’ab al-Falastini [the Palestinian people] are those who inhabited the land called Palestine, the [Palestinians] are those who have created a society with distinctive customs and traditions, and [those who are] part of Arab-Moslem society.” This claim that the roots of the Palestinians are with the Canaanites and the depiction of the Palestinian people as part of the Arab-Islamic nation establish two intersecting dimensions: There is a diachronic dimension of the historical “rootedness” of the Palestinian people in their land, Palestine/Canaan; at the same time, the definition synchronically—geographically and evidently culturally—links the contemporary Palestinian people with their surroundings, the Arab-Islamic nations. Therefore, what seems to distinguish Palestinians from their fellow Arabs is their geographical location and the specific history of that land. In this rendering, both the geography and the local history of Palestine have contributed to the distinctive evolution of the people from their Canaanite origins to the present. In simple words, Palestinian collective identity is created in the dialectic between similarity to and difference from other Arabs and Moslems in the region.

Another way in which these textbooks discuss Palestinian identity is via its depiction as multi-faceted, an identity which shifts from one local circle to a second regional/Arab and subsequently a third form, as part of a universal collective, the nation of Islam, umma. The complex nature of this identity appears in the following definition, taken from one of the textbooks, of nation:

A group of people that achieved unity throughout the ages, and developed a common language, one history, and a common symbolic and material heritage; it has common interests, and has developed a sense of belonging to a specific collective. The nation could be one state, or many states, similar to the Arab umma [nation] (19).

This discussion is followed by another which says that “all Arabs, throughout history, were subject to the same historical influences, whether they before or after the rise of Islam. Those historical forces contributed to the development of a common aspiration for future unity among Arabs.”

The textbooks further incorporate the broadest circle of identity in this context, the universal Islamic. Religion, in this case Islam, is conveyed as a unifying factor: “There exists a common shared religion among the majority of all Arabs in the Arab lands, Islam. Islam is a religion, a culture, and a scientific enterprise shared by both Moslem and Christian Arabs alike” (6). Similarly, language appears as another factor: “Arabic is the dominant language in the region, and it is the language that helps in the development of social and political solidarity among Arabs” (6). In addition, the book continues, Arabs share a common cultural heritage which binds them together into one nation: “[This cultural heritage] is manifested in all the cultural and scientific achievements Arabs have made during their history. [Those achievements] have led to the formation of a distinctive cultural identity which unites Arabs under one banner (6). Again, based on those definitions, the Palestinians are a people—sha’ab—which is a branch of a larger whole, the Arab-Islamic nation.

Significantly, Palestinian identity is not limited to identification with Islam or Arab Moslems; it also incorporates Christianity. On numerous occasions, the textbooks emphasize Christian Palestinians and Christianity as integral parts of Palestine’s history and contemporary identity. The textbooks often contain images of Christian religious sites, whether in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, or Nazareth, alongside Islamic historical and religious sites across the country (Abu-Bakr et al. 2005, 64-73; Al-Qazzaz et al. 2005, 1-5). Of particular significance, is the explicit reference in the “Declaration of The Palestinian State”, cited in one of the textbooks, to Palestine as the birthplace of prophets and the simultaneous reference to churches, mosques, and (Jewish) places of worship as witnesses to the declaration (Said 2003, 39).

We see, then, that the Palestinian national narrative simultaneously advances dual identifications: a local territorial identity which is inclusive to all ethnic and religious groups (including Jews until 1948), and a supranational one, rooted in the Arab-Islamic culture which is viewed more as a civilization than as a religion. The textbooks’ main concern appears to be the recovery of Palestine’s ancient history and the establishment of territorial historical continuity between contemporary Palestinians and their ancestors in the land. To this end, they trace the origins of the Palestinians back in time, as we have seen from the depiction of the Canaanites as the founding fathers of the Palestinian nation. Further, they portray the Canaanites as having been the first to arrive in Palestine in antiquity. This emphasis on “being first” appears to be aimed at counterbalancing Israel’s appropriation of Palestine’s past history as exclusively Jewish:

The Canaanite Arabs were the most ancient among the nations who [later] lived in Palestine [and who came] to inhabit Canaan 3,500 before the birth of God’s prophet, Jesus the blessed. The Canaanites built cities and villages in Palestine such as Jerusalem, Gaza, ‘Asqlan, Megiddo, and Nablus. Jerusalem was named by many names, among them Jabus [Yabus] after the Jebusite Arabs who had built it. (Sa’adah et al. 2003, 50)

Many of the places mentioned in this quotation above continued to exist as Palestinian cities until the destruction of Palestine in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland by Israel. Later, Israel renamed these cities and towns, reclaiming them as ancient Jewish sites.

Importantly, the textbooks view Canaanite migration to Canaan as one of many waves of migration of Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula to Palestine, with the last of these said to be the Arab-Islamic conquest of Palestine at the turn of the seventh century CE. This type of periodization is used in Palestinian textbooks as a way of establishing “Firstness” in the land and a sense of historical continuity from time immemorial. Notably, the Canaanite period is also portrayed as one of Palestine’s golden ages. Textbooks enumerate the Canaanites’ contribution to human civilization, including the invention of the alphabetical letters which contributed to the development of writing in Europe and elsewhere, and emphasize the greatness of the Canaanite culture and its contribution to humanity:

The Canaanites [were] a nation that created a great civilization, mastered a language, introduced the alphabet letters to the world, used mathematics … softened iron and manufactured plows and weapons, disseminated knowledge [and ideas], created a golden age, in doing so, immortalized [their] nation. (Abu-Bakr et al. 2005, 27)

Finally, the textbooks mention the entry of Jewish tribes to Canaan and their history in the land (Al-Tarawni et al. 2003, 9-11). However, they argue that Jewish history and presence in the land was sporadic and short-lived, and above all that Jews never made up the majority of the population. Overall, the textbooks assert that in spite of the numerous invading nations (e.g. Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Crusaders, etc.) to which they refer as colonial forces, the people of Canaan remained in the land and continued to develop their own culture. Again, the textbooks portray Palestinian identity as multi-faceted, developing in the tension between differentiation and inclusion (similarity/difference), both exclusively territorial, with its ancient Canaanite roots, and simultaneously interconnected to the regional, and universal, history and cultures of the Arab and Islamic nations.

Israel: From Diaspora to Homeland

The question of “nation” in the Israeli case is unique and complicated. Unlike Jordan and Palestine, where “nation” and “homeland” were carved out of a larger existing collective of the Arab people and lands, the Israeli Jewish people, homeland, and national history had to be invented or (in the case of the homeland) colonized, a process which commenced with the first wave of Zionist settlers in 1892 and continued with the support of British colonialism (1917-1948), and their commitment to help the Jewish diaspora establish a homeland in Palestine (e.g. Balfour Declaration 2 November 1917). In spite of this, Israeli textbooks portray the Israeli Jewish identity as naturally rooted in Palestine and assert that all diaspora Jews are related by blood ties to the ancient Jewish nation and its Palestinian homeland (Eretz Yisrael).

An analysis of Israeli school textbooks reveals the strategies employed in defining the nation and in establishing its rootedness in Palestine and continuity between contemporary Jews and their ancestors in the Biblical homeland. The textbooks state that at the time of early Zionism, a total of over nine million Jews lived in a number of countries in Eastern and Western Europe, yet, these Jewish communities were persecuted and excluded from their local communities, and as a result sought a national solution to the issue of Jewish diaspora. Palestine was chosen because it is perceived in the Zionist discourse as the birthplace of Jews in antiquity (Aden, Ashkenazi, and Alperson 2005, 10). But, in Palestine, according to the textbooks, at the eve of the first Zionist migration wave to the country in 1892, the total Jewish population of Palestine was a tiny minority, less than 5% (20,000) of the country’s population (Pappe 2017, 4). In addition, in diaspora, each of those Jewish communities had its own history, culture, local language, and specific religious tradition (see Ben-Baruch 1998; Horowitz 1998; Adiv 2003). Despite this, the textbooks put forward the view that the world’s Jewish communities comprise a unified nation with many branches (i.e. the twelve tribes), each of which is directly connected by blood ties to common roots in the Promised Land (Ben-Baruch 1996, 14, 16; Harpaz and Shurek 1998, 7, 9, 127-128).

The textbooks cite common origins and religion as the principal pillars of Jewish nation-building both in antiquity and in the modern era, and retrace the origins of the Jewish nation to Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, and Moses, to mention a few. The latter figures are portrayed as the founding fathers in the making of the nation in antiquity. In fact, the textbooks devote extensive space to their biographies and contributions to the formation of the nation. Significantly, in the absence of scientific sources, the textbooks use the Bible as the main source in the Israeli textbooks for the retelling of the story of the nation’s founding father. For that end, the Bible is transformed from a religious text rooted in faith, into a “history” proof text for the “authentication” of Jewish history in antiquity. Harpaz and Shurek (1998, 14) assert that:

The most significant and rich source [of all] to understanding this period is the Bible [Old Testament]  … This rich source has no parallel in any other nation. We learn from it about our fathers’ fathers, the leaders and the kings, the peasants and the merchants, about the military people, their commanders and the masses; about the daily lives of people in antiquity.

It is not surprising therefore, that Jewish history in antiquity and the story of the founding fathers are both fashioned after the Biblical narrative. At the epicenter of this story is the Biblical Covenant which designates special status (Chosen) to the Jewish people and Eretz Yesrael (Land of Israel, or the Promised Land) as their patrimony. Further, it establishes a connection between the Promised Land as a “center” and the diaspora Jewish communities as a periphery. By that, it aims at establishing a Jewish identity, anchored in both a diachronic historical past, and synchronic geographical present, manifested in the Jewish diaspora communities across the world. It starts with a description of Abraham’s place of birth, his departure from his town of birth, and finally his arrival in the Promised Land. It commences thus: “Terah, the father of Abraham, first lived in Ur with his family, and later all of them moved to Haran” (65). This statement in the textbook is followed by an actual quotation of a number of verses from the book of Genesis (11: 31-32) as follows:

Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter- in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go in the land of Canaan; but they came to Haran, they settled there. The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.

On the question of Abraham’s migration from his place of birth to the Promised Land, the textbooks cite from Genesis 11 and 12, with God’s command to Abraham:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land … And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions which they had gathered, and the persons that they had gotten in Haran. (Harpaz and Shurek 1998, 65)

Notably, some textbooks describe the revelation to Abraham of the monotheistic God as a main factor behind his migration into the Promised Land. Using the Biblical narrative, the textbook mentions that “[a]fter our father Abraham came to acknowledge [the existence] of one God, he no longer could stay in a place where people believed in idol gods” (66). In simple words, Abraham’s religious revelation creates in him a new form of identity; an identity that is in direct conflict with the people of Ur’s faith who worshiped multiple gods and idols. Migration (Exodus) becomes the only alternative solution to the conflict between these two forms of identity, and, guided by the Lord, helps Abraham transplant his new identity into a new place chosen for him by God, the Promised Land.

Moses is a further figure discussed as a national and religious founding father of the Jewish people. One textbook states that “[t]he formation process of the sons of Israel from tribes into a nation was long-drawn-out. It began in the desert after leaving Egypt, and continued in Canaan, the land allotted to the Jewish people” (28). The narrative continues: “During the period of wandering in the desert, Moses, the great man of all times in our nation, headed the tribes” (28). Again, the main source of these assertions of origins and kinship is the Bible itself.

Homeland is another concept the textbooks seek to construct. Canaan is described as Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel), a land pledged by God to the Jewish people as an exclusive patrimony for all generations to come. In reference to Jonathan Hyrcanus, who could not tolerate non-Jews in the Land, a textbook comments that he “acted according to the clear view that the entirety of the Land of Israel is a patrimony of the Jewish people” (Ben-Baruch 1996, 77). Other textbooks refer to the Promised Land, not only of the founding fathers, but of the modern-era sons of the Jewish nation who have “returned to reclaim it as their patrimony” (See Ben-Baruch 1998, 128-150, 158; Dumka 1998, 131-195). The civic education textbook, for example, refers to the main purpose behind the 1950s Israeli Law of Return, saying that:

[A]ll the [Jewish] people of Israel, in the entire world, have a part and a patrimony in Israel. When a person from Israel wants to return to his homeland, to Israel, he is not [in the status of] an immigrant, but [in the status of] a person returning to his homeland. … Therefore, a Jew returning to his homeland is returning by virtue of right and not goodwill. And if this is his right, we have no authority to deny him the option of returning to his homeland. (Aden, Ashkenazi, and Alperson 2005, 45)

The textbooks further justify Jewish historical rights over the land by advancing two arguments. The first is the depiction of Palestine as “a sparely populated land,” particularly in the modern era; the second is the claim that once the Jewish people had entered Palestine—in both ancient times and the modern era—they became a majority in the country’s population, thus, they have ownership rights in the Land. For example, one civic studies textbook asserts that, “[s]ince the nation of Israel settled in its land and throughout the period of the first and second Temple, for more than one thousand years, there was [always] a Jewish majority in the country” (Mizorzki, Alfi, and Nahir 1994, 81).

The two-thousand-year Jewish absence from Palestine is ignored in these textbooks, which turn to the present, arguing that Jews comprise a majority in Israel, and that the land therefore belongs to the Jewish people. It is worth mentioning that the civic studies textbooks do not specify by what means that Jewish majority (in the twentieth century) was achieved, neither do they discuss the well designed, and executed Israeli plans of Palestinian ethnic cleansing from their homeland (see Pappe 2006). However, one of the textbooks makes reference to the Law of Return and its contribution to ensuring continuous Jewish demographic dominance in the country through its exclusive practice of permitting only Jews to migrate to Israel (Aden, Ashkenazi, and Alperson 2005, 47).

Importantly, the historical dwindling—to almost non-existence—of Jewish presence in Palestine in the 2000 years before the establishment of the state of Israel remains a major challenge to the Israeli narrative and its political claim to Palestine as an exclusive historical homeland for all the world Jewry. To resolve the challenge and dilemma of lack of significant physical Jewish presence in Palestine, the textbooks turn to symbolic religious elements, such as “prayers” and “hopes for return” which they say, were common among diaspora Jews. Thus, the textbooks ex-post-facto treat religious sentiment before the rise of nationalism in the modern era, as sings of national aspirations in order to advance the claim of Jewish links to the land, consequently, “establish” historical political right over it. Further, the textbooks repeatedly assert Jewish links to the land through the presence of a “dispersed Jewish community” in the country. Significantly, the textbooks never make any reference to the aspirations, life, and identity of the Palestinian majority in the land. The civic studies textbook asserts that,

[f]or nearly two thousand years, since the destruction of the second temple when the majority of the Jewish nation lived in exile, a dispersed minority of Jews had lived in the country and had maintained a continuous Jewish settlement in the country. Jews in the diaspora never stopped yearning for the Land of Israel and they gave expression to this in their prayers and customs. (emphasis added) (Mizorzki, Alfi, and Nahir 1994, 81)

Finally, to add to the construction of a distinctive Jewish collective identity, the textbooks advance the idea of community of blood and ethnic purity. Notably, and in spite of numerous references in the textbooks to inter-ethnic and inter-religious Jewish marriages with local and invading nations of Canaan (e.g. Moses, King Solomon, the Hellenization, etc.) the textbooks, citing Biblical sources in particular, assert the ethnic purity of the Jewish people throughout their ancient history as well as in the modern era (see Brudi 1992, 7; Harpaz and Shurek 1998, 141; Bar-Hillel and Inbar 2008, 24-35; Tabibian 2008, 24). They add that following the “Roman expulsion” from Canaan, and in the last 2000 years, Jews in diaspora maintained their ethnic purity (see Ben-Baruch 1998, 65, 72). In a similar vein, the textbooks argue that the Jewish returnees in modern history are the descendants of the ancient Jews of Canaan and heirs of their founding fathers patrimony. This emphasis on the biological/racial purity of the various Jewish collectives across the globe renders cultural, territorial, and linguistic factors insignificant in the making of a nation. Ironically, it was anti-Semite and colonial ideologies which for centuries had categorized Jews as a distinct racial group, a classification employed to justify their persecution throughout European history.


The analysis of the three-case studies reveals the strategies used in public school curricula to construct the “nation.” Those strategies set apart the geography, history, and culture of one collective from another, and dialectically, draw the boundaries between the exclusively included and the “outsiders.” Often, this process of exclusion, turns difference between nations into a hierarchy in which “my nation” is portrayed as superior to others. Significantly, in the case of Palestine and Israel, history of the land is a contested arena in which the Israeli narrative—after 2000 years of Jewish non-existence in the land—appropriates the country’s past as exclusively Jewish. Similarly, in the case of Palestine and Jordan, both use selective events from the Arab and Islamic history to draw the boundaries of their collective, and by that, create an exclusive coherent narrative of the “nation’s” past.

Another point, in discussing the nation and its collective identity, essentialism and singular narrative are the main ideological tools by which each narrative attempts at portraying the nation as one organic homogeneous unit, moving in time as a complete whole, connecting the present generation with its ancestry in antiquity. This is so in spite of the historical evidence the textbooks present of cultural fusions between diverse cultural groups within the same nation, and other processes such as inter-ethnic and inter-religious marriages. This point is in line with what Bhabha refers to as “the impossible unity of the nation as a symbolic force, despite the attempts by nationalist discourses persistently to produce the idea of the nation as a continuous narrative of national progress” (2002, 2). Similarly, Stuart Hall (1992, 297), asserts that “[national cultures] are cross-cut by deep internal divisions and differences, are unified only through the exercise of cultural power.”

Furthermore, based on studies conducted in many nation-states across the globe of the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Germany since WWII, it seems that the case of Jordan, Israel, and Palestine are no exception to this general phenomenon of nation-building and the exclusive strategies state education systems use to construct their nations. In fact, as the finding in this study have shown, in each one of these cases the state uses its exclusive authority to employ the apparatus of political socialization, such as mass education, in the process of nation-building. Consequently, the question of identity becomes a matter of identity politics. It renders the identity of co-nationals subject to manipulation. This process leaves little choice for individuals as to how their national identity is constructed and shaped, and where their loyalty should settle.

Specifically, the findings of this analysis show that the messages transmitted to students through state-sponsored school textbooks demonstrate that mass education is deliberately designed to invoke in subjects a sense of selective loyalty and devotion to one collective over another. National history—from the late eighteenth century to the present—has been the focal point for the state educated elite to recover and reconstruct as an integral part of the nation’s collective memory. Both national history and collective memory have become the backbone of national identity, an identity reinforced through the dialectic between similarity and difference. An emphasis on national history in particular leaves little space for individuals to choose their identity outside of the binary system, to assume for instance, hybrid identities, or adhere to cosmopolitan identification across national lines.

Furthermore, the centrality of national identity and the notion of nation in school textbooks renders any other forms of particular identity such as ethnicity, gender, social class, etc., irrelevant. The nation is portrayed as a biological entity moving through history, connecting ancestors to the current generation, without being affected by the passage of time. The boundaries between self and other are portrayed as inherent qualities that mark differences and set boundaries between collectives. Above all, loyalty to, and identification with, the “nation,” surpasses other forms of identification. This seems to be the case, in spite of the growing global similarity in modes of consumption across cultures (e.g. media, music, dress, electronics, education, etc.).

The question remains as to whether there is an alternative to these identity politics strategies in which the twin concepts of either-or, similarity and difference, are dominant. One may speculate that mass education should be removed from state control and thus from politics. Once it has been thus removed from state control and returned to civil society, collective actors might be able to create and defend spaces for the creation of new identities. They could seek to create more egalitarian and democratic institutions and social relations in which identities are generated. Civil society may call for the creation of temporal identities, stripped of their history, and eliminate any type of continuous membership in one collective. In this way, we might come to realize and valorize universal identity beyond ethnic, national, or civic affiliations and invoke new strategies for identity formation, an identity based on favoring the other in oneself, over a strategy of Other and Self, or replace essentialism as a strategy of identity formation with hybridity and the “Third Space,” as Bhabha (2004) has offered. The question remains as to whether these forms of hybrid identities in the Third Space or identity without history can sustain themselves in an international system dominated by power struggles over exclusivity and distinction.