When Issa Jaber was teaching civics and history, he tried as much as possible to stick to the books. The texts, issued by the Israeli Ministry of Education, teach the history of the Jewish state's establishment in 1948 from a natural perspective – its Zionist founders.
Except that for an Arab teacher to stand in front of a classroom and speak about Israel's War of Independence and not mention that Palestinians call the same event the Nakba (Catastrophe) isn't so natural. Recognizing that, this week Israel's Minister of Education approved an Arabic textbook mentioning the Nakba, a move that is garnering applause in some corners and outrage in others.
"All the time as teachers we were facing a dilemma: to teach the curriculum as it is, or to teach what we feel inside," says Mr. Jaber, who now runs the education system of Abu Ghosh, an Israeli-Arab town close to Jerusalem with about 1,000 secondary school students per year.
The controversy seems to focus on a few little lines that were written for little people. The textbook in question is written for third graders and was originally written in Hebrew and translated into Arabic.
But the book's importance extends beyond the classroom. To traditional Zionists, teaching children to view 1948 as the Nakba legitimizes the decision of Arab countries to refuse acceptance of Israel's creation as a state. And to many of Israel's 1.2 million Arab citizens, ignoring this term is like denying a piece of their history.
"Now we can express what we know and what we feel. And should do it responsibly, on the level of education and not on the level of politics," Jaber says.
Like so much else in this part of the world, it is a task easier said than done. Many right-wing Israeli politicians, from former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to members of the ruling Kadima party, have attacked Education Minister Yuli Tamir's decision to allow references to the Nakba in Israel's textbooks. Several members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, are demanding that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismiss Ms. Tamir, whose reputation as a left-leaning peacenik and civil rights activist has often put her on a collision course with hardline nationalists.
Recently, for example, Tamir tried to mandate the use of maps in Israeli schools showing the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 boundary with Jordan.
An agenda that might seem logical abroad – making sure Israeli schoolchildren know where the border was 40 years ago and what areas are considered occupied by international law – is deemed unacceptable by some right-wing groups here.
"Using the word Nakba is a political interpretation of reality, and it's an outlook that's been used to delegitimize Israel's right to exist. We need to fight this concept, not accept it," says Zevulun Orlev, a member of Knesset from the National Religious Party. Mr. Orlev said the measure was anti-Jewish and called for the education minister's dismissal.
Different groups, different histories
The word Nakba touches on issues that complicate the lives of educators and would-be peacemakers alike, in particular the status of Palestinian refugees. Palestinians say their ancestors were pushed out by force, while most Israelis say that the majority of Palestinians who left did so under encouragement from Arab leaders who told them to get out of harm's way and allow their armies to drive out the Zionists.
Israeli records now show that the truth may lie somewhere in between: Some Arab villagers were forced out at gunpoint while others chose to flee.
"This 'catastrophe' was caused by the Arab leadership, which asked the local Arabs to leave their homes so they could push the Jews into the sea," Orlev says, taking the traditional Israeli view on what happened in 1948. "If the education minister wants to teach this, as if we have caused this disaster, why should the Arabs be loyal citizens of the state? It's a gift for those who want to incite against Israel."
Orlev commissioned a poll his week amidst the controversy, showing that about 60 percent of the Jewish-Israeli public agrees with him.
Here in Abu Ghosh, whose inhabitants have such an easygoing relationship with their role as a Arab minority within the Jewish state that the village's quaint restaurants are flooded by Israelis on weekends, the Education Ministry's decision isn't about a third- grade textbook. Rather, in the eyes of the high school principal, it opens the door to honest teaching.
"We will have to think about how to integrate this into the curriculum," says Azmi Arafat, a former history teacher. "The real change is that the outlook of Israeli officials toward Arab society is changing for the better."
Others, dismayed by the political storm the decision has kicked up, say this represents a terribly tiny step for giving equal time to the Arab point of view in schools.
"This is marginal," says Ibrahim Sarsur, the head of the Islamic Movement of the South, as he stands in a protest outside the Knesset for the rights of indigenous Bedouin. "The official policy of the government has nothing to do with it if Tamir's colleagues are not comfortable with this decision." What would truly make an impact, he says, would be to require all Jewish schools in Israel to teach students about 1948 from the Arab viewpoint as well as from the Zionist perspective.
Evolution of Israeli-Arab identity
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has increasingly made itself felt in the form of Arab-Jewish tensions inside Israel.
Two generations who accepted a designation as Israeli-Arabs have given way to a generation that prefers to call itself Palestinian-Israeli, or Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. This evolution of identity, along with an Arab birthrate that consistently outpaces the Jewish one, has made many Israeli nationalists increasingly wary of the growing Arab minority.
Meanwhile, several Arab political parties have recently come together to demand cultural and educational autonomy. To that end, says Knesset member Jamal Zahalka, the decision to have the word Nakba in a textbook is child's play.
"This made Israeli politicians nervous because they are afraid of the Palestinian narrative," says Dr. Zahalka. As a child, he says, his teachers tried their best to accommodate both the established curriculum and the Arab interpretation.
"Many of the teachers would say: 'I have to teach you this is what happened. If you write that story on the test, you'll get 100,' " he recalls. "The books were trying to shape our identity, but they were ignoring our history. The result is that even the teachers don't believe what they're teaching."