Israel’s Education Ministry is locked in a row with a liberal high school over its use of a history textbook that gives both the Israeli and Palestinian versions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The ministry has summoned the principal of Shaar Hanegev high school in southern Israel for “consultations” over the decision to continue using the textbook, which has been banned from the national school curriculum.
Critics denounced the move as a regressive step by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-leaning government to assert the Israeli narrative over the Palestinian one.
The row drives at the heart of Israeli identity, shaped by tales of Jewish heroism in the War of Independence that gloss over the fate of the Palestinians. The Israeli narrative asserts that Palestinians left their homes in what is now Israel of their own volition. The Palestinians contend that they were driven out, and they refer to the creation of Israel as the nakba, or the catastrophe.
“We have a problem with the Palestinian nakba,” says Tom Segev, a prominent Israeli historian. “Instead of just teaching it and telling kids what happened, we keep trying to ignore it, distort it. It reflects our guilt. We don’t know how to deal with it.”
Under current education minister Gideon Saar, Israel has also struck the word nakba from a textbook for Israeli Arab children, arguing that the government should not promote a term that questions the legitimacy of the state.
Textbook prompts students to write their own conclusions
The textbook being used at Shaar Hanegev, aimed at 11th graders, is the product of a decade-long collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian teachers. Each page is split into three columns, with the Israeli narrative down one side, and the Palestinian down the other, with an empty column in the middle for students to write their own conclusions.
It is being used as part of a wider experimental history course aimed at tackling, among other things, the events surrounding what Israel calls its War of Independence, the 1948-49 conflict that prompted hundreds of thousands Palestinians to leave their homes.
The ministry reportedly instructed the school in early September to stop teaching with the book because it was not approved. The principal was subsequently called in, but he is not expected to meet with officials until after the 10-day Sukkot holiday is over, a ministry spokeswoman said. She added that parts of the school’s history program were “problematic,” but would not elaborate further.
“This was a knee-jerk response, almost Pavlovian, to any attempt by the educational system to tackle the Palestinian side,” one teacher at the school said, in comments quoted by Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. “This is a response that attests primarily to narrow-mindedness and an unwillingness to explore new modes of thinking.”
The school could not be reached for comment due to the Sukkot holiday.
Why Israelis fear alternate versions of history
In recent years, Israel’s so-called new historians have helped ignite a public discourse on the events of 1948, challenging the official Israel version of events that Palestinians brought about their own misfortune.
But the breakdown of the Oslo peace process and the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000 led to a backlash against those who opposed the conventional Zionist view.
Only now, say observers, are the dissenters again being heard.
“The whole thing was swept under the carpet for decades,” says Uri Avnery, a prominent Israeli peace activist who fought in the 1948 war. “Israel is now getting mature enough to face it, and the cultural and educational establishment is scared.”
Israel’s fear is understandable, say some observers, when taken in the context of the peace process, which has dragged on now for 17 years. If Israel recognized that it had driven out some Arabs “with intent,” says Avnery, “this would have huge implications for a future peace agreement and the refugee problem.”
Denial in education reflects broader societal denial
A critical sticking point is the right of return for the Palestinian refugees, made homeless in 1948 and who now live in overcrowded refugee camps in the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Israel has long rejected anything more than a symbolic right of return, fearing a threat to the state’s Jewish character if thousands of refugees were to return.
Jafar Farrah, director of an Israeli-Arab advocacy group Mossawa (Equality), says that he believes a majority of Palestinians now recognize the Jewish right to self-determination, but argues that the recognition will never be mutual as long as Israel does not accept its part in creating the conflict.
“There is denial in the public discourse, there is denial in the educational discourse," he says. "That is why there is no reconciliation process.”