JERUSALEM (JTA) – The Israeli Education Ministry’s decision last week to approve a textbook for state-run Arab schools that uses the Arabic word for "catastrophe" to describe Israel’s victory in its 1948 War of Independence has sparked intense debate.
The Arabic version of “Living Together in Israel: Textbook for Homeland, Society and Citizenship” will be used this school year by about 20,000 Arab Israeli third-graders.
The book attempts to weave together Jewish and Arab perspectives on the Zionist enterprise. Two pages of text devoted to the War of Independence briefly explain why the Jews came to Israel, why they wanted a state, how the Arabs reacted and how the war started with the refusal of the Arab side to accept the U.N. partition plan and the invasion of five Arab armies.
The controversial line reads: "The Arabs call the war ‘nakba,’ a war of disaster and loss, while the Jews call it ‘The War of Independence.’ ‘" It is the only mention of the word “nakba,” meaning “catastrophe,” in any Israeli Arab primary school textbook, experts say.
The book also states, "Some of the Arab residents were forced to leave their homes and some were expelled, and they became refugees in the neighboring Arab countries." It continues: "Some of them became refugees and were forced to move to other Arab communities in the State of Israel, because their villages were destroyed during and after the war."
The intense debate in Israel sparked by the decision to adopt the controversial textbook underscores the ideological divide in a nation still struggling with the tension between being a Jewish state and the state of all its 7 million citizens, including more than 1.3 million Arabs.
After last week’s decision, politicians lined up along predictable left-right ideological lines to sound off on what many consider to be one of the most important challenges facing Israel: how to maintain national cohesion between a Jewish majority that generally identifies with the Zionist enterprise and an Arab minority that generally does not.
As the divisions between Israel’s Arabs and Jews appear to deepen, the question is: Does the teaching of two separate historical narratives – one for Jews and one for Arabs – foster national unity or undermine it?
Likud Party Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu said the language dilutes Zionist values.
"I can’t remember a greater absurdity than this in a decision made by an education minister in the State of Israel," Netanyahu told reporters.
Education Minister Yuli Tamir, who approved the textbook for the Arab school curriculum, defended her decision in an interview with Israel Radio.
"There are two populations in Israel, Jewish and Arab, and the Arab public deserves to be allowed to express its feelings," said Tamir, a member of the Labor Party and one of the founders of Peace Now, an organization that advocates the dismantling of Israeli settlements and an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
"The book offers the Arab pupils a balanced picture, so that they may put into proper context what they are exposed to in their home environment," Tamir said.
National Religious Party Chairman Zevulun Orlev took issue with the decision.
"Tamir is giving the Arabs the legitimacy not to recognize the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people," Orlev, a former director-general of the Education Ministry, told reporters. "The day the education minister made the decision is the nakba day of the Israeli education system."
Avigdor Lieberman, strategic affairs minister and chairman of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, said Tamir’s decision reflects the "political masochism" of the Israeli left wing.
"The political left is constantly looking for ways to justify the other side when we have nothing to apologize for," he said.
Nabeh Abu Saleh, chairman of the follow-up committee on Arab education-Israel, which has been lobbying the Education Ministry to include a Palestinian perspective in the Israeli Arab school curriculum, praised Tamir’s decision.
"So far, only one narrative has been taught in our schools, the Israeli narrative," Abu Saleh told JTA. "The Palestinian narrative has been totally ignored, as if there was no nakba."
Abu Saleh said that while teachers in Arab schools try to remain loyal to the official state school curriculum, sometimes in a classroom setting it is difficult to ignore students’ feeling of alienation from the Zionist state.
"Students cannot simply pretend that all the painful stories that were told to them by their parents and grandparents about the war are fairy tales," he said.
Permitting Arab students to develop their own Palestinian narrative for the events that led to Israel’s creation actually fosters national cohesion, Abu Saleh said.
“If Israelis are willing to listen to my pain, my sadness, this helps me have empathy for the Jewish, Israeli narrative," he said.
The decision to present a Palestinian narrative in Israel’s textbooks was made in 2001, after the Education Ministry instituted a major overhaul of the citizenship and civics curriculum. However, Limor Livnat of Likud, who was appointed education minister in 2001, blocked implementation of the changes, according to Ya’acov Katz, former chairman of the Pedagogical Secretariat under Livnat.
"We sent out a clear message to textbook publishers that we would not tolerate a Palestinian narrative in our books," said Katz, who lives in the West Bank settlement Alon Shvut.
Katz said books like “Living Together in Israel” constitute "Arab propaganda.”
This is not the first time Israeli textbooks have been under scrutiny. In 1999, the Education Ministry introduced a controversial textbook called “The 20th Century” for Jewish Israeli ninth-graders.
The book, written by Eyal Naveh of Tel Aviv University – and which, according to Naveh, is still in use in some Israeli schools – also mentions the “nakba.” The book asks pupils to put themselves in Arabs’ shoes and consider how they would have felt about Zionism.
At the time, opponents of Naveh’s book warned of the adverse effects of "new history" on Israeli pedagogy.
Katz said that during Livnat’s stint as education minister, books like Naveh’s were removed from the curriculum.