A recent study revealed that Saudi Arabia removed antisemitic material from textbooks. While this may seem minor, some experts believe this signals big changes that have been happening below the surface. If so, this trend may continue to grow, influencing the future relations between Israel and the country that leads the world of Sunni Islam.
A report released last month from the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), an Israeli non-profit organization that monitors the content of school textbooks, reported on how Israel and Jews were portrayed in Saudi education texts. IMPACT-se has been monitoring Saudi textbooks since the early 2000s. The new study examined changes made to more than 80 textbooks from the 2022-23 Saudi curriculum and more than 180 textbooks from previous curricula.
The new study found “almost all examples portraying Christians and Jews in a negative manner” were removed from the latest textbooks. Textbooks from previous years referred to Jews as “monkeys and pigs who worship the devil”, describing them as “traitors by nature and sworn enemies of Islam”. The textbooks also reported that “Zionists use women, drugs and the media in order to achieve their goals” and “Israel has plans to expand its borders from the Nile River in Egypt to the Euphrates in Iraq”.
The study reported that phrases such as “Jews and Christians are the enemies of Islam,” or “Jews and Christians are criticized for having ‘destroyed and distorted’ the Torah and Gospel” were notably absent from the more recent schoolbooks.
In another example of positive change, a high school social studies textbook no longer contains a section describing the positive results of the First Intifada and referring to Israel as a “fraudulent democracy.” A baseless libel accusing Israel of setting fire to Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969 was also removed from one of the books. Another reference in a textbook claiming that Israel’s reasons for starting the Six-Day War were its desire to take control of holy sites for Islam and Christianity in Jerusalem was removed.
While improved, the situation is still far from ideal. References to “the Israeli enemy” or “the Zionist enemy” were replaced with “the Israeli occupation” or “the Israeli occupation army.” There is no recognition of the state of Israel and no mention of the Holocaust. The maps completely ignore the existence of Israel and do not mention its name, Zionism is still described as a European colonial and racist movement, and there are still places where it is described as the “Zionist entity”.
“Although every textbook reform is important, the textbooks of Saudi Arabia have a special significance as the leader of the Sunni current in Islam,” said Marcus Sheff, CEO of the research and policy institute IMPACT-se.
The change in curriculum is seen as a result of the reign of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman who has instituted social reforms in an effort to improve his government’s image.
Eric Agassi, IMPACT-se vice president, added: “The changes that Bin Salman is making are extremely brave, unprecedented and are a sign of things to come. Saudi Arabia is no longer just a country. Her textbooks are distributed to Muslim communities around the world and are studied by tens of millions of students in mosques and other educational settings.”
Indeed, the issue of Saudi education has also been the focus of concern to the US since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. IMPACT-se noted that new content in Saudi textbooks criticized certain Islamist groups such as Hezbollah, ISIS, al Qaeda, Houthi militias, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
While Saudi Arabia has not recognized Israel and the two countries have never established diplomatic relations, there have been significant improvements. In 2018, Saudi Arabia began allowing flights from non-Israeli carriers to pass over their airspace on flights to and from Israel. This was expanded to include Israeli carriers in 2022.
One of the many gifts former President Trump gave to Israel was the Abraham Accords, formalizing relations between Israel and several of its neighbors. When it was first signed in September 2020, only the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed on but at the signing, President Trump said five nations could soon follow, including Saudi Arabia. Sudan and Morocco soon joined but Saudi Arabia demurred.
At the same time, the Saudi relationship with the Palestinian National Authority has been deteriorating.
From the outset, the Biden administration went to great lengths to downplay the Abraham Accords as it was a powerful example of the previous administration’s foreign policy achievements. In engagements with the media, state department officials avoided using the phrase “Abraham Accords”, substituting instead the phrase “normalization agreements.” Another reason for avoiding references to the Acords was that the agreement was achieved by sidestepping the issue of the Palestinians. For several decades, the conventional wisdom in Washington guiding US negotiations between Israel and its neighbors was that no agreement between the Jewish State and any Arab had to be predicated on the creation of a Palestinian state created inside Israeli territory. This was notably stated explicitly by then Secretary of State John Kerry at the Saban Conference in 2016.
While the Abraham Accords proved this to be fallacious, the Biden administration has, nonetheless, returned to the two-state solution being the guiding principle for Middle Eastern policy.
A shift in deemphasizing the Abraham Accords and Saudi Arabia came last month when Secretary of State Anthony Blinken addressed an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington.
“The United States has a real national security interest in promoting normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” he said. “We believe we can and must play an integral role in advancing it.”
The Biden administration has made it clear that any agreement will have to include concessions to the Palestinians that will advance the two-state solution.
“Normalization efforts are not a substitute for progress between Israelis and Palestinians,” Blinken said to AIPAC. The US will continue to reject “any actions taken by any party that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution,” he said. While criticizing Palestinian terrorism and rocket attacks from Gaza, he emphasized that “settlement expansion clearly presents an obstacle to the horizon of hope that we seek.”
“Likewise, any move toward annexation of the West Bank — de facto or de jure — disruption of the historic status quo at the holy sites, the continuing demolitions of homes and the evictions of families that have lived in those homes for generations damages prospects for two states,” Blinken said.
If Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Israel, it would conform to the prophecy of a pre-Messiah reconciliation between Isaac and Ishmael based on the verse in Genesis in which Ishmael and Isaac come together at Abraham’s funeral.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the preeminent medieval French commentator on the Torah known by the acronym Rashi, interprets this verse to mean that Ishmael made peace with Isaac, allowing his younger half-brother to precede him at the funeral.
The Talmud in Baba Batra (16b) predicts this will have implications for the end of days. The Talmud relates that Ishmael and Yitzchak will have a tenuous relationship. Still, at the end of days, they will come together as ‘banav’ (his sons). Saudi Arabians consider themselves to be the Sons of Ishmael, and the prophecy can very well be speaking about them.