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Ha'aretz; Tuesday, September 14, 1999

Who is threatening the history inspector?

By Relly Sa'ar

Michael Yaron never imagined that his job would make him the target of threatening letters and place him in the center of a public controversy. But in recent weeks, Yaron has learned to be careful when opening his mail: He has received death threats in anonymous letters sent from the United States and been called "Nazi," "Kapo" and "shit."

Yaron is the Education Ministry's inspector for history instruction. His job is to make sure that schools are using the prepared curriculum and to monitor the level of instruction and student achievement. The storm broke following the approval of a new junior high curriculum, one which integrates (for the first time) the teaching of Jewish history (yeda am, or history of the people) with general history and provides the students with a less heroic and more balanced description of the War of Independence and the state's establishment. At the center of the dispute is the question, Is the aim of the study of history to create a national consciousness and educate young people in our rights to the country, or should history be taught as objectively as possible?

From the period of the Yishuv - the Jewish community in Palestine prior to 1948 - to the Jubilee of the state's creation, the education system preserved the myth. The 1948 war was one of "few against many," and most of the history of the State of Israel - every event of which is suffused with public and political controversy - simply remains outside the classroom.

Fifty years after independence, the education system decided that enough time had passed to allow an honest look in the mirror: there are no happy wars, and even the War of Independence, which led to Israel's creation, was not a sterile event. As in all wars, the vanquished - the Arabs - suffered at the hands of the victors. Generations of children learned that the Arabs became refugees after fleeing of their own free will.

The new curriculum was introduced into schools gradually. Three new textbooks were approved for use in the ninth grade, including "Hame'a Ha'20 al Saf Hamahar" (The 20th Century on the Brink of Tomorrow) by Dr. Eyal Naveh.

This is how Naveh describes to 15-year-olds the causes for the victory of the Jewish Yishuv in the 1948 war: "In almost every sector and in every battle, the Jews had the advantage over the Arabs, both with regard to planning, organization and operation of equipment as well as the skilled soldiers who took part in the battle." It is not hard to see why those who insist on preserving the myth of "few against many" in 1948 are outraged by these lines.

The controversial passages take up little space in the book, which documents the history of the world since the 1920s. Naveh, 47, knew exactly what he was writing, and the intellectual inheritance that he wants to pass on to the next generation can be found hiding between the dry lines recounting the events of 1948: "In my generation, we were raised on the myth of the few against the many." At 21, I was a young artillery officer on the Syrian [Golan] heights on that sad day, October 6, 1973, when we used up our ammunition and had to withdraw. I did not believe that we were the first Jews who had lost, since we were taught different. A month before the war Moshe Dayan visited us, and we asked him how we could face thousands of Syrians. Dayan said that with us, the quantity was not decisive because we were Jews, and like a fool I bought it. Today I want students to be critical - I was not."

Curricula are usually discussed in closed conference rooms in the Ministry of Education and receive little public notice. This time the silence was broken by a writer from The New York Times, Ethan Bronner, who published a long article on how Israel is relearning, and reteaching, its history.

This airing of dirty laundry in the international breeze set off a deep dispute in Israel. On one side are the ranks of those who supported the new curriculum and claimed that our children must hear the truth and be exposed to the tough dilemmas of Israel's independence. On the other side is a group of right-wing intellectuals and politicians who charge that destroying the myth would shake the young generation's belief in the justification for the state. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the rightist group published an advertisement in [the Hebrew edition of] Ha'aretz calling on schools to boycott Naveh's book. "The book is written in a post-Zionist fashion that weakens the student's feeling of the justice of the Zionist path and the establishment of the State of Israel - to the point of questioning our right to our land," said the ad, signed by dozens of rightists.

"Students should not be forced to learn history in such a one-sided way," says Dr. Ron Breiman, one of the group's leaders. "The myth of the few against the many is not necessarily fallacious. In my eyes, the myth of the peace is fallacious."

Naveh regrets the fact that his book has become a whipping post for the right. "I give the students a different, more mature approach toward studying history. The right feels threatened because it needs to feel 'we were right all along' in order to continue."

But the struggle of the right is a rearguard action. It seems there is no way back from the new Israeli history. Michael Head, professor of history at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and head of the Education Ministry's professional committee, says, "We want to educate students to identify with the state and the fundamental principles of Zionism and Israel, but from a critical angle. It is precisely from a self-confident Zionist point of view that we can learn about the less attractive sides of the history of the Yishuv, such as the War of Independence." And with Yossi Sarid as Minister of Education, it is clear that the new history curriculum will get full political backing.

(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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