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NEWS ANALYSIS Israel tries to make peace with its own history in textbook battles

JERUSALEM, Oct. 4 (JTA) – Israelis are looking upon Egypt’s “celebration” of the 26th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War this week with a mixture of scorn and disenchantment. The Egyptian commemorations glorified the victory over the “enemy” as if the “enemy” was not a neighbor with whom Egypt has signed a peace agreement; as if at the end of that war, the Israeli army had not been deployed only 65 miles from Cairo. But aren’t the Israelis guilty of similar historical sins? That’s precisely the argument of three new textbooks used in some of the country’s state-run ninth-grade classrooms, which challenge some of the basics of Israeli historiography. This argument, which comes as Israel and the Palestinians stumble toward peace, is a battle to learn about a chaotic past. But, more importantly, it is a struggle about an uncertain future as well. In one of those books,“The 20th Century: On the Threshold of Tomorrow,” historian Eyal Naveh uses recent revisionist scholarship to challenge some of Israel’s sacred cows, such as the heroic battle of Yosef Trumpeldor at Tel Hai in 1920 and the notion that in Israel’s War of Independence, Jewish underdogs triumphed against overwhelming odds. Naveh, of Tel Aviv University, is not the first Israeli historian to challenge myths, but – with Naveh’s book becoming the required text book at some of Israel’s high schools – it is the first time that the controversial revision of Israeli history has reached the country’s classrooms. Much to the dismay of right-wing critics, the previous Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu approved all three controversial books, when the Education Ministry was in the hands of the Religious National Party. A spokesman for Yitzhak Levy, the previous minister of education, said that Levy, too, was surprised – but it was impossible for the minister to monitor the “thousands” of committees approving books. The books are the products of a movement that is more than a decade old. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a group of scholars known as the New Historians, led by Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim, challenged Israel’s heroic image of itself during the War of Independence, arguing that the Arabs did not enjoy a military advantage during the war and stressing that Israel had intentionally created the refugee problem because it wanted to ensure a Jewish majority in the newly born state. These works triggered counterattacks by military historians, such as Uri Millstein, who argued that the revisionist works were biased and intended to magnify the plight of the Palestinians. One of the major issues of debate is the massacre in the village of Deir Yassin near Jerusalem in April 1948, where the Jewish underground group Irgun killed approximately 120 Palestinians, including children, women and the elderly. Historians differ over whether the bloodbath was an inevitable battle between two warring sides or whether it was an intentionally brutal attack intended to cause the mass exodus of Palestinians. Some influential writers have sharply attacked Naveh’s book in the press. Aharon Meged criticized those Israelis who “preach for empathy with those who wish to annihilate you” and encourage lies about “ethnic cleansing, destruction of villages and atrocities.” Senior journalist Dan Margalit disputed the argument that the number of warriors on both sides was equal, supposedly breaking the myth that the War of Independence was the war of the few against the many. “Suppose that’s true,” Margalit wrote, “the guns ratio was 154 to 25 in favor of the Arabs, fighter planes, 45 to 2, and population: 660,000 Jews versus 50 million Arabs.” Margalit also pointed at another issues now under heated debate: Who is responsible for the Palestinian refugee problem. In his now decade-old book, Morris called into question a long-held truth in Israel: that the flight of the Palestinians during the war was actually initiated at the request of Arab leaders who asked them to leave until the tide turned. Margalit argues that the New Historians want to pave the way for the Palestinian refugees to return because they feel guilty for their plight. And at least one scholar has written about what might be the issue’s most important effect. Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University wrote: “My concern as a citizen is that the appeasement process with the Palestinians move forward speedily. For this we need not only good educational books which will mold good soldiers, but also such books which will prevent the emergence of Yigal Amirs,” referring to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin. Whether the new textbooks will help Israeli students learn more about their history – and lead to a more peaceful future – remains unclear.