In Saudi textbooks, “Christians and Jews” are no longer enemies of Muslims, and this fits with the prevailing trend

In Saudi textbooks, “Christians and Jews” are no longer enemies of Muslims, and this fits with the prevailing trend

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said a few years ago: “Israel is not our enemy.”Image via Reuters

In the latest textbooks for young people aged 15-17, the word “Zionists” has been replaced by the word “Israeli occupiers”. A Quranic text describing “Christians and Jews” as enemies of Muslims was also removed. A chapter in national poetry no longer deals with the need to fight the “Jewish colonization of Palestine.” Israel is marked on maps as “Palestine”. The findings come from a recent report by the Israel Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in Textbooks (Impact-Se).

The changes fit with Saudi Arabia’s move to become more benevolent toward Israel, a country it has denounced for decades. The two countries share an enemy, Iran. So governments exchange information regularly, and last year Riyadh opened its airspace to Israeli planes. “Israel is not our enemy,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said during a visit to the United States a few years ago. “The Israelis don’t kill the Saudis.”

About the author
Jane Yan Holtland is Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post De Volkskrant. He lives in Beirut, and is the author of the book Maputo courier (2021).

Bin Salman, who is only 37, is a figurehead for Saudi millennials, for whom the Palestinian cause — almost sacred to their parents — arouses far less affection. A shift is taking place under bin Salman, with hardline (Wahhabi) Islam in the public space giving way to a more secular and nationalist interpretation of the religion. The organization that checks textbooks annually is not without controversy. According to a study by the European Commission, Impact-Se is regularly guilty of “generalizations and exaggerated conclusions” in its reporting.

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Ibrahim’s strings

In Washington, the hope is that Riyadh will move to full normalization of relations with Israel in the coming years. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed for it earlier this month during a visit to the Gulf country. Under former US President, Donald Trump, a handful of other Arab countries (Bahrain, UAE, Morocco and Sudan) have already signed a manifesto recognizing the Jewish state – the so-called Abraham Accords. Since then, Israel has been selling weapons systems worth millions of dollars, and more and more Israeli tourists have been showing up in Dubai. A synagogue opened in Abu Dhabi earlier this year.

It is even more sensitive for the much larger Saudi Arabia. The kingdom with sacred shrines in Mecca and Medina has traditionally positioned itself as the guardian of Islam. For many Muslims, Saudi-Israeli normalization would be a farce. A poll conducted by the Arab Center in Washington, D.C., last year showed that only 5 percent of Saudis would support such a move. Interestingly, 57% refused to answer the question. Across the region, 84 percent of Arabs said they oppose normalization.

So it is a delicate balance for the government led by Crown Prince Bin Salman. For now, the old position is that Israel must first make peace with the Palestinians — a dead card. The Saudis also want it to be easier to buy weapons from Washington, as well as American security guarantees and the certainty that (after both Israel and archenemy Iran) they are allowed to enrich uranium for “civilian purposes.”

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