Focus on Issues: Sharon’s Education Minister Seeks to Renew Zionist Dream

As Israel celebrates its 53rd birthday, Education Minister Limor Livnat wants future generations of Israeli children to have textbooks that reflect the Zionist dream at the heart of the nation’s creation.

In most countries, it might be self-evident that the school curriculum should reinforce national pride, but Livnat is fighting to undo the effects of the “post-Zionist” critique of the Zionist project that has gained increasing acceptance in Israeli academia and society in recent years.

The question of how to tell the story of Israel’s creation has been a matter of debate for the last 20 years.

The debate culminated last November, when the Knesset’s Education Committee called on the Education Ministry to prevent use of a controversial 20th-century history textbook, “A World of Changes.” Committee members accused the text’s authors of ignoring important events in Jewish and Israeli history.

At the time – two months after the eruption of Israeli-Palestinian violence – the government was in flux. A month later, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak resigned, calling for new elections.

With a new government in place, Livnat, a member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party, has decided to shelve the textbook, calling it a “failure in faithfully representing Zionist values.”

The Zionist narrative traditionally taught in Israel’s schools viewed Jewish history as the story of a unique nation, which during centuries of exile and persecution continued to hope for a restoration to its homeland.

Zionism, in this traditional view, was the culmination of the Jews’ desire to return to Israel and restore their political sovereignty.

By the 1970s, Israeli academics began re-examining this ideology. Beginning with a handful of scholars not afraid to challenge the sacred cows of Zionist historiography, the “post-Zionist” movement gained steam in the past decade, extending to most fields of the social sciences.

It won adherents among young, native-born Israelis eager to shed the siege-like mentality of the country’s early decades – and increasingly exposed to the world as the peace process advanced – who doubted the need to retain a particularistic Jewish identity.

Part of the process was a rethinking and retooling of school textbooks during the last decade.

Historical truths that once seemed self-evident were wiped out of Zionist and Israeli history, Jewish history, literature, civics and social studies curricula.

Out went the myths and the heroes, the Holocaust victims, the stories of Menachem Begin and his pre-state underground warriors, and of Yonatan Netanyahu, the sole Israeli fatality during the daring 1976 raid at Uganda’s Entebbe airport. It was time to reinterpret modern Jewish history.

Critics, however, saw the changes as potentially dangerous at a time when continuing Arab belligerence might still demand of Israelis a strong sense of national purpose.

“The old books told the story of Zionism so that students could empathize” even if they did not always agree “with the Jews who worked to establish the state of Israel,” Yoram Hazony, the president of the conservative Jerusalem think- tank The Shalem Center, wrote last year in The New Republic as part of a scathing critique of Israel’s revisionist “antisocial texts.”

“The new books, on the other hand, are frequently so preoccupied with being ‘universal’ that they are in fact completely neutral toward the Zionist cause.”

“A World of Changes,” the ninth-grade textbook released last year to about 5 percent of Israel’s high schools, was among the most controversial of the new books.

The Holocaust, Zionism and Israel were relegated to about 30 percent of the book. Israel’s War of Independence got two paragraphs; there were no photographs of founding father David Ben-Gurion; the 1967 Six-Day War barely got a mention.

Instead, the book takes a much broader world view, examining everything from McCarthyism and the Vietnam War to artist Salvador Dali and the Beatles.

The omissions are an embarrassment, according to Livnat.

“We shouldn’t be embarrassed about Israeli or Jewish history and the story of Zionism,” she said. “That is the source of our being able to live in the state of Israel, and we need to emphasize that.”

Livnat has made a reputation as something of a bulldozer in her nine years as a Knesset member and Cabinet minister.

As communications minister under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she is credited with introducing competition into Israel’s long-distance calling market. She also started the process of privatizing the state telecommunications company, Bezek, a long-term project that is still underway.

A champion of free markets, capitalism and the high-tech revolution, Livnat now has to deal with several crucial questions facing the nation’s school system.

One such question was raised recently by the chairman of the Knesset’s Education Committee, Zevulun Orlev, a National Religious Party member who accused Israeli Arab leaders of supporting an anti-Zionist curriculum.

The program he cited teaches Israeli Arab high school students about “Al Nakba” – Arabic for “the catastrophe,” which is how the Arab world describes the creation of the State of Israel. As part of this program, Israeli Arab teen- agers tour Arab villages destroyed during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Orlev wants the program banned.

At the Education Ministry, a spokeswoman said the program appeared to be “left over” from the days of former ministry head Yossi Sarid, a member of the dovish Meretz Party.

Livnat also faces other pressing questions.

Last week, Saleh Tarif – the first Druse minister in Israel’s history – wrote Livnat a letter saying the study of Arabic should be mandatory for Jewish high school students.

“It’s an astounding fact that the state of Israel doesn’t ensure that its Jewish citizens have a working knowledge of Arabic and Arab culture,” he said.

Livnat said she is “looking into” the issues raised by Tarif.

But while unity and respect for the different sectors of Israeli society are important to Livnat, she is determined that the educational system impart a Zionist outlook.

“In education, just as with transportation or the economy, the government has to invest in infrastructure to allow for a free market of ideas and concepts,” she said. “We don’t want to hide facts or developments, but we have to couch our educational system from a Jewish-Zionist standpoint.”

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