Teaching the History of the Israeli-Arab Conflict in Israel

Rédacteur Avner Ben-Amos

A la suite du texte de Sebastien Ledoux et Samuel Ghiles Meilhac sur les difficultés de l’enseignement en France du conflit israélo-arabe, Avner Ben-Amos, Professeur d’histoire de l’éducation à l’université de Tel Aviv, nous a fait parvenir ce texte sur le traitement de la question dans les manuels scolaires israéliens depuis les années 1990.

Since history manuals are regarded as having an important role in the formation of national memory and hence of national identity, their content is prone to external pressure of politicians and social groups more than other kinds of school manuals. However, other factors also influence these manuals, notably developments within the discipline of history and pedagogical novelties. Israel is no exception to those rules. Like many other nation-state that were in conflict with an external enemy in the twentieth century (Greece and Turkey, Poland and Germany…) Israel portrayed  its conflict with the Arabs in its history manuals in black and white terms: “our” side was always the good side – just, benevolent, cultivated, and a victim of the “other” side – who was evil, base, primitive, and a perpetrator of horrible crimes. The Israeli manuals began to change in a significant way only in the late 1990s.

The change of the 1990s occurred mainly because of the new political climate that was a result of the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestinians. Yet, new historical research also played a crucial role: the books of a generation of “new historians”, mainly those of Benny Morris, painted a new, complex picture of the 1948 war, showing that the Palestinians became refugees not only because of the calls of the Arab leaders to temporarily fly the combat zones, but also because of massacres perpetrated by the Israeli army, acts of expulsion, and the chaotic situation of the war, that made their homes unsafe. Moreover, unlike other cases in which refugees were allowed to return to their homes after a war, the Palestinians were not allowed to do so, and remained on the other side of the newly created border, longing for their lands. Finally, the new constructivist pedagogy called for a more complex relationship between the student, the teacher, and the school subject matter, regarding the former as an active learner with an independent mind, that created its own meaning of the world, and not just a passive subject that followed the directions he was being given. This pedagogy was translated in terms of writing history manuals through a consideration of the background information that students already have, and an inclusion of primary sources in the texts.

School manuals are the product of a long and complex process of a synthesis of historical literature, translated into an actual text after taking into account pedagogical considerations.  No wonder that the first manuals that reflected these changes were published only in 1998-9.  Several of them, that were written by, among others, Elie Barnavi, Eyal Naveh and Ktzia Tavivian, incorporated the findings of Benny Morris and the “new historians” concerning the 1948 War, and also mentioned the Palestinian perception of the war as the “Nakba” – the disaster. The official reaction of the Ministry of Education, that had to approve any school manual used in the Israeli educational system, varied according to the political identity of the Minister of Education. Thus one can describe a pendulum movement of acceptance and rejection between the terms in office of the Ministers Yossi Sarid (Mertz Party, Left to the Labour, 1999-2000), Limor Livnat (Likud Party, Right, 2000-2006), Yael Tamir (Labour Party, 2006-2009) and Gideon Saar (2009-present).

While Sarid welcomed the new history manuals and even demanded to include the poems of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in the literature curriculum,  Livnat attacked these manuals as post-Zionists, and even banned a history manual written by Dany Yaacobi, A Changing World (1999), claiming that, among other things, it was too sympathetic to the Palestinian refugees. Tamir, in contrast, sought to re-introduce the “green line” – the 1967 border between Israel and Jordan in the West Bank – into history and geography manuals. She also gave more latitude to the separate Israeli-Arab educational system, usually under a tight control of the Ministry of Education, and allowed it to use the term “Nakba” in the Arab manuals. Saar, the current Minister of Education, tries to turn the wheel back. He banned Arab school manuals that used the term “Nakba”, and also banned three Hebrew history manuals: a manual that presented the Palestinian claim that the Israeli army carried out a policy of ethnic cleansing in 1948 (Tzafrir Goldberg, Building a State in the Middle East, Jerusalem, Shazar Center, 2009);  a manual that was written by a joint groups of Arab and Jewish educators, presenting, side by side, the Palestinian and Zionist narratives of the conflict (a French version: Sami Adwan et. al., Histoire de l’autre, Paris, Liana Levy, 2004), and the manual How Do You Say Nakba in Hebrew? published in 2008 by the association Zochrot (“let us remember”), whose aim is to make the Israeli public aware of the consequences of the 1948 war for the Palestinian refugees.

But these measures are part of a much larger effort of Saar to emphasize nationalist education at the expense of universal values. For example, in the domain of formal education, he aims to change civic education, which is currently dedicated to the study of the Israeli political and legal regimes as a complex mixture of Jewish and democratic elements, into a school subject that would underline Zionist history. In the domain of informal education he encourages a militarist and nationalist outlook by demanding that each school would adopt a military cemetery or a war monument, and that schoolchildren would visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the city of Hebron, in the occupied territories. If Saar has his way, the delicate balance between Jewish and democratic education within the Israeli educational system would be upset. In the end, only the Jewish and Zionist elements would remain.










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