In the lexicon of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, few terms elicit as much energy as the word nakba – Arabic for "the catastrophe," the term Palestinians use to describe the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
This week, the term became even more of a lightning rod.
Amid a rising nationalistic tide in Israel's government, Education Minister Gideon Saar moved to expunge the word from school textbooks, reversing a 2007 decision.
"No other country in the world, in its official curriculum, would treat the fact of its founding as a catastrophe," Mr. Saar told Israel's parliament on Wednesday. "There is a difference between referring to specific tragedies that take place in a war – either against the Jewish or Arab population – as catastrophes, and referring to the creation of the state as a catastrophe."
Since coming to power in February elections, several right-wing parties in the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been lobbying for a no-tolerance policy toward Israeli Arabs identifying with Palestinian culture. A hallmark of that cultural identification is the marking of the nakba.
Each May, Israel celebrates its reemergence as an independent political identity after nearly 2,000 years of Jewish dispersion. At the same time, Palestinians solemnly mark the loss of their homeland as they knew it, and the beginning of dispossession and occupation.
Some peace proponents believe that the only way to move toward reconciliation is to accept and recognize the narrative of the other, and to that end, more progressive segments of the Israeli educational establishment support the inclusion of the word nakba in history books. One of them is former education minister Yuli Edelstein, who in 2007 authorized the publication of a sixth-grade history textbook for Arab students with the word nakba in it. Israel's population is 20 percent Arab, and pupils primarily attend state-run schools in Arabic.
'Neoconservatism trying to close people's minds'
Saar's move comes on the heels of an attempt by the controversial Israel Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) Party, headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to force Israeli-Arabs to sign a loyalty oath as a requirement for maintaining citizenship. The party last month introduced a Knesset bill making it illegal for groups to hold public ceremonies to mark the nakba. But when the legality of such a move was called into question, the party modified the bill, which now would prohibit state funding for any organization that marks the nakba with mourning rituals. The Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved the measure on Sunday, but it would still have to pass two more readings to become law.
"It's simple political populism and it won't change anything: People in the Arab sector in Israel will continue to mark the nakba and talk about the nakba," says Gershom Baskin, the co-CEO of IPRCI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.
"This is a neoconservatism that tries to close people's minds, and it just boomerangs," he says. "It's a sign of the whole anti-Arab, racist trend in the Knesset."
Similar debates in Japan, Korea, Russia
How to teach a disputed history to schoolchildren is a recurring theme around the globe. It has come up in recent years in Japan and in Korea, with critics protesting attempts to whitewash violent chapters of the past or to present attractive portraits of dictators. In Russia, former President Vladimir Putin's administration worked to put a more positive spin on the country's 20th-century history, promoting a textbook which called Josef Stalin the USSR's "most successful" leader and an "effective manager."
But the realities of the present-day conflict mean that the issues here are not just a matter to be dissected by history teachers. Israeli officials have often complained that Palestinian schools teach hatred of Israel, and do not prime children for a future of peaceful coexistence with the Jewish state. But the Israeli school system's own critics, such as Dr. Baskin, point out that maps used in Israeli schools do not include the Green Line – separating Israel from the West Bank – nor do textbooks include a section on the past 15 years of history, describing the decision to sign the 1993 Oslo Accords which declared Israeli and Palestinian intentions to reach a two-state solution.
Undermining Arab cultural autonomy?
Adalah, the Legal Center of Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has been closely following what it sees as an upsurge in efforts by ultranationalist Israelis to roll back Arab cultural autonomy and rein in the freedom of Israeli-Arabs to identify as Palestinian.
"We see Saar's decision as a very severe interference in the curriculum that is being taught in the Arab schools. And these schools are places where you don't really learn about Palestinian history and culture anyway, because they're under such strict supervision by the Israeli government," says Sawsan Zaher, an Adalah attorney who deals with educational and cultural issues.
"The minister, and others like him, want to try to erase our identity as Palestinians, and we think this is one part of the chain of oppression of the state is exercising toward the school system."