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In Israel, New Grade School Texts for History Replace Myths With Facts

By Ethan Bronner, New York Times, August 14, 1999

-- Few ideas are as deeply ingrained in Israeli culture as the one summed up by the Hebrew phrase, "me'atim mul rabim," or "the few against the many." Schoolchildren have long been taught that the Jews have always been surrounded by enemies and that their victory over five Arab states in the 1948 War of Independence was a near miracle of David-and-Goliath proportions.

But the start of this school year marks a quiet revolution in the teaching of Israeli history to most Israeli pupils. New, officially approved textbooks make plain that many of the most common Israeli beliefs are as much myth as fact.

The new books say, for example, that it was the Israelis who had the military edge in the War of Independence. They say that many Palestinians left their land not -- as has traditionally been taught -- because they smugly expected the Arab states to sweep back in victoriously but because they were afraid and, in some cases, expelled by Israeli soldiers.

The books freely use the term "Palestinian" to refer to a people and a nationalist movement, unheard of in the previous texts. They refer to the Arabic name for the 1948 war -- the Naqba, or catastrophe -- and they ask the pupils to put themselves in the Arabs' shoes and consider how they would have felt about Zionism.

Finally, the books no longer separate Jewish and Israeli history from events around the world but weave them into a single tapestry.

"Only 10 years ago much of this was taboo," reflected Eyal Naveh, a history professor at Tel Aviv University and the author of one of the new ninth-grade textbooks on the 20th century. "We were not mature enough to look at these controversial problems. Now we can deal with this the way Americans deal with the Indians and black enslavement. We are getting rid of certain myths."

The "new history" approach that Naveh and other new textbook authors are using in their descriptions of the Israeli-Arab conflict is 10 or 15 years old. It has gained a growing following among academic scholars and then with a somewhat larger public after the 1993 Oslo peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.

But while the publication of such revisionism by scholars is one thing, the inclusion of their perspective in school books is clearly something else. In all states, but especially new ones, school is typically viewed as a place not only to learn but to be imbued with civic and patriotic spirit.

The fact that these new books are currently being assigned and bought without advance publicity about the changes says something about Israel's sense of its own maturity. But it seems nonetheless likely that when, in the coming months, the books' contents become known, controversy will ensue.

"Why not just translate the Palestinian books for our children and be done with it?" fumed Aharon Megged, a novelist and outspoken critic of the new history, when he was read a passage from a new textbook. "This is an act of moral suicide that deprives our children of everything that makes people proud of Israel."

The passage to which Megged was reacting was from Naveh's book, on the War of Independence:

"On nearly every front and in nearly every battle, the Jewish side had the advantage over the Arabs in terms of planning, organization, operation of equipment and also in the number of trained fighters who participated in the battle."

The approach of earlier textbooks is typified by the following from a 1984 Education Ministry book on the years 1939 to 1949: "The numerical standoff between the two sides in the conflict was horrifyingly unbalanced. The Jewish community numbered 650,000. The Arab states together came to 40 million. The chances of success were doubtful and the Jewish community had to draft every possible fighter for the defense of the community."

This shift in perspective is common to the work of the new historians who are relying on newly opened state archives and the emotional distance of a young generation.

Instead of portraying the early Zionists as pure, peace-loving pioneers who fell victim to Arab hatred, the new historians focus on the early leaders' machinations to build an iron-walled Jewish state regardless of the consequences for non-Jews living here.

The controversy that this narrative has generated mirrors the wider dispute in Israel between those who favor more concessions to the Arabs and those who fear that such concessions place Israel's legitimacy and its very existence at risk.

But the arrival of the new textbooks also mirrors the growing acceptance of some new history by Israelis. Last year, when the country marked its 50th birthday, a television series known as Tkuma, or rebirth, offered a more complex and less varnished version of Israeli history than had been typically shown. And a new military history book of Israel by a group of mainstream military historians has just been published that explodes several key myths about Israeli military feats.

Michael Yaron, who is in charge of the history curriculum at the Ministry of Education, says the issue is one of historical accuracy; he calls the changes salutary. He took up his post five years ago, during the liberal administration of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and quietly continued his work after Benjamin Netanyahu, a conservative, was elected in 1996, finishing approval of the new books just as Ehud Barak, who is in Rabin's mold, was elected in the spring.

"We are beginning a new era in history teaching where, for the first time in Israeli textbooks, the picture is not black and white," Yaron said. "That was an important goal of mine when I came, to make sure the Palestinian perspective was included.

"My second goal was to end the practice of separately teaching Jewish and Israeli history on the one hand and world history on the other. It was absurd. We used to spend one year teaching the Holocaust and the next teaching World War II. Now we will teach Jewish history in the larger context of other events. This doesn't minimize Zionism. It puts it in context."

Yaron's department began integrating Jewish and world history for middle school in its sixth grade textbooks several years ago and is finishing this project with the new ninth grade books that have just been printed. Since ninth grade history class is devoted to the 20th century, when Israel was formed, this is the year when controversy may be expected.

Israel has a number of state-approved school systems and the new books will only be used in the mainstream secular system that serves about 60 percent of the population. The religious state system and the strictly-observant systems that operate with state approval and funds will not use the new books, meaning that the divisions between the various sectors may now be aggravated further.

There are three new competing ninth-grade history books for the secular system, one from the ministry's own publishing division and two produced privately with ministry approval. All three take a much broader, more textured approach to Israeli history than textbooks have in the past. New books for the 10th through 12th grades are due out in the coming year and all take the new approach of integrating Jewish history with world history.

One ninth-grade book is "Passage to the Past" by Kezia Tabibyan, which not only mentions the 1948 massacre carried out by radical Zionist forces in the village of Deir Yassin, something Ms. Tabibyan says had never been done in a ninth-grade text before, but also engages in a kind of historiography by asking students to reflect on the use of myths in nation-building.

"If I want to educate the citizens of Israel after 2000 they must know that there is another point of view about things like our War of Independence," Ms. Tabibyan said. "They must deal with Deir Yassin. They must know that there was another people that had their life here."

The ministry book, edited by Danny Jacoby, is in some ways the most radical of the three. Its discussion of why the Palestinians became refugees includes the sentence, "There were also localities in which the Jewish fighting forces conducted expulsion actions." The book also frankly discusses how Jews from North Africa and the Arab world felt mistreated by European Jews when they came here.

Clearly, part of what is driving the change in history texts is the ongoing Middle East peace effort.

The accords between the Israelis and Palestinians call on each side to fight racism and provocation and instruct their populations in coexistence.

Yet one of the issues that has most troubled Israeli commentators is the fact that the Palestinians are still using old Jordanian and Egyptian texts which never mention Israel and often portray Jews as evil and bloodthirsty.

An Israeli group called "Palestinian Media Watch" recently published the findings of its study of Palestinian textbooks. In one textbook on Arab history, the group noted, is the sentence, "The best examples of racism and discrimination in the world are Nazism and Zionism." Another book, for sixth graders, says, "One must be careful around Jews because they are lying traitors."

Khalil Mahshi, director of international relations at the Palestinian education ministry, said he is troubled by the anti-Semitism that appears in the books used by Palestinians but noted that new books are being written.

"We are not rewriting our school history books," he said. "We are writing them for the first time. It will take a few more years because we are just forming committees to set up the guidelines."

Asked if the new books would include Israeli perspectives on the dispute, Mahshi begged for indulgence, saying that while the Palestinians want to be treated as equals, their historical development has not been equal to that of the Jews.

"We are attempting to be as objective as possible," he said. "We should be living a new reality, taking a more mature view, but to do that means overcoming pain. To see the Zionist movement as having an equal right to our land as we do is to embark on a personal journey to history which is more complicated than most people realize.

"It took me a long time and even then I am not there. Israelis are changing because they can afford it. They are now so rich and powerful that they can afford to be magnanimous and say, 'OK, there are people here we haven't treated well.' But when you are still dealing with daily difficulties and view them as the fault of the people next door, can you afford to be so magnanimous?"

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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