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Biden funding decision inflames debate over textbooks for Palestinian refugees

Biden funding decision inflames debate over textbooks for Palestinian refugees
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Groups concerned about anti-Semitism are urging President BidenJoe BidenKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' US officials testify on domestic terrorism in wake of Capitol attack MORE to take a closer look at U.S. funding for a program giving Palestinian refugee children "textbooks riddled with hateful lessons" as Biden resumes humanitarian assistance to the agency providing them.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and a chorus of pro-Israel groups are calling for the Biden administration to carry out strict oversight of textbooks and learning tools used by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the primary humanitarian assistance organization for Palestinian refugees.

They want to make sure that the $150 million in assistance announced by the administration does not contribute to a culture of anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism that would further harm efforts at peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

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State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. is committed to working on reforms with the UNRWA.

Reps. Brad ShermanBradley (Brad) James ShermanLawmakers tout bipartisan support for resolution criticizing Iran's government Biden funding decision inflames debate over textbooks for Palestinian refugees Iran talks set up delicate dance for Biden team MORE (D-Calif.) and Lee ZeldinLee ZeldinThe US has a significant flooding problem — Congress can help GOP lawmakers ask acting inspector general to investigate John Kerry Andrew Giuliani to meet with Trump before potential New York gubernatorial campaign MORE (R-N.Y.), both senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are reviving bipartisan legislation from the previous Congress that calls for the State Department to report whether the UNRWA is taking steps to ensure its educational materials are free of language that encourages violence and intolerance, particularly toward Israelis and Jews. 

On a separate front, a number of pro-Israel groups and free speech advocates, including Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America and the Anti-Defamation League, are urging lawmakers to lobby U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to ensure the UNRWA’s textbooks are absent documented language of “incitement to violence and antisemitic hatred.”

“It is critical that we stand together to demand systemic reform to educational materials used by [UNRWA] before one more child is taught from textbooks riddled with hateful lessons,” 14 organizations wrote in a joint letter to members of Congress.

Most criticisms are based on reports published by a congressional watchdog organization and a Jerusalem-based research, policy and advocacy group that found textbooks provided by Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the UNRWA did not align with stated U.N. values of tolerance, human rights and equality of race, gender, language and religion.

A 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office, the independent, government oversight agency, was critical of the State Department’s reporting on the UNRWA’s efforts to eliminate problematic text from its learning materials, saying the agency “included inaccurate information” and “omitted potentially useful information in three reports” between 2015 and 2017. 

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The report said the U.S. provided about $187 million for education assistance to the UNRWA.

“As a result of the GAO’s findings, it is necessary for Congress to request additional reports from the State Department to ensure U.S. taxpayer dollars promote dignity and tolerance, and that the educational materials such schools employ do not incite hatred,” Sherman said in a statement when reintroducing his legislation. 

The UNRWA policy is to use textbooks and learning materials provided by the “host country” to ensure that Palestinian refugees can integrate into secondary educational systems and “more broadly participate in the social and economic life of the host country.”

The UNRWA acknowledges that 4 percent of the total educational material provided by Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are not in line with U.N. values.

But the agency says it is unable to throw out such materials, instead identifying workarounds by publishing complimentary learning materials with more tolerant language and providing guidance to educators to offer different perspectives than those given in the provided textbooks.

“UNRWA rejects allegations that is teaches hate or anti-Semitism," Elizabeth Campbell, the director the UNRWA's Representative Office of Washington, wrote in response for comment to The Hill. "We do teach human rights, conflict resolution and tolerance, and our teachers, school environments, and student graduates are a testament to these values. We welcome the restored partnership with the U.S. and most certainly look forward to working with them to further strengthening our education system, which, according to the World Bank, provides high quality education at a low cost.”

A report in January published by the Jerusalem-based advocacy group IMPACT-SE said that decades of research on Palestinian Authority textbooks provided in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has “consistently shown a systematic insertion of violence, martyrdom and jihad across all grades and subjects.”

IMPACT-SE's report further said that UNRWA-produced materials, particularly in Gaza, employed problematic language found in the Palestinian Authority textbooks.

"The material is characterized by an unambiguous adoption of the Palestinian and the Pan-Arab nationalist narrative, completely abandoning any façade of UN-mandated neutrality; an unapologetic attempt to erase and delegitimize Israel, a UN member state, and to a large extent the Jewish people as well; multiple occurrences of unfounded, incendiary conspiracy theories that stoke hostility; and the encouragement of violent conflict resolution, with no equivalent encouragement of peacemaking," the organization wrote in its report.

Critics of these textbooks say they instill rejection of Israel in an impressionable population and perpetuate the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The controversy over the UNRWA’s schools is one part of a larger focus on the agency, which provides food, health care and economic assistance to an estimated 5.7 million Palestinians who claim refugee status from Israel’s 1948 war of independence.

The refugees are spread out across the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

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The Trump administration cut off all U.S. funding for the UNRWA in 2018, which at the time made up about 30 percent of the agency’s budget.

Then-State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert criticized the agency as “irredeemably flawed.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE at the time praised the Trump administration's decision, calling it a “very welcome and important change.” Israel’s Foreign Ministry further criticized the agency as perpetuating “the myth of the eternal ‘refugee’ status of the Palestinians.”

Biden committed as a candidate to restore assistance to the Palestinians in general and the UNRWA in particular, following through Wednesday with the announcement of a total of $235 million to be distributed.

The move was largely celebrated by Democrats and progressive pro-Israel groups that touted it as restoring America’s credibility in putting aid to humanitarian needs above political divisions.

“Today’s announcement is a long-overdue step toward resuming positive U.S. relations with the Palestinian people and re-establishing the United States as a credible and constructive leader in the region,” Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeHow leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force Overnight Defense: US fires 30 warning shots at Iranian boats | Kabul attack heightens fears of Afghan women's fates | Democratic Party leaders push Biden on rejoining Iran deal Democratic Party leaders urge Biden to rejoin Iran deal, lift Trump's 'bad-faith sanctions' MORE (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, said in a statement Wednesday.

But the move was criticized by Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. and U.N., Gilad Erdan, who took particular issue with the funding directed toward the UNRWA, criticizing the agency as “engaging in political advocacy and enabl[ing] incitement to violence.”

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Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyPollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates Will DeSantis, Rubio and Scott torch each other to vault from Florida to the White House? MORE, who served as former President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE’s ambassador to the U.N. when funding was eliminated for the UNRWA and who is considered a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, also criticized the move.

“Biden should be condemning UNRWA for inciting violence. Not reinstating funding and sending $380 million a year to an entity that promotes terrorism,” she tweeted, referring to the amount of funds that were provided in 2017.

And Zeldin, who announced on Thursday his candidacy for New York’s governor, was more critical, chastising the Biden administration for not condemning the Palestinian Authority’s policy of paying families of individuals imprisoned in Israel on terrorism charges or killed allegedly carrying out a terror attack, dubbed the “pay to slay” program.

“Not only did the Biden admin just resume this US taxpayer $$$ despite the PA's Pay to Slay program to financially reward terror and incite violence against innocent Israelis and Americans, but the Biden admin didn't even address it head on in their funding announcement. Silence,” he tweeted

—Updated at 11:12 a.m.