JERUSALEM, Nov. 21 (JTA) Israeli politicians and academics are again fighting over how history should be taught to students in the Jewish state’s school system.
In an unprecedented step, an Israeli parliamentary committee on Monday called on the Education Ministry to stop using a controversial high school history textbook, which critics say omits seminal events pertaining to the history of the Holocaust, Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel.
The controversy is the latest evidence of the growing debate about the study of Israeli history.
“Post-Zionist” historians say they are debunking myths that Israelis have been taught about their history. But others say they neglect the heroism of Israel’s founders and the opposition of the Arab world to the Jewish state’s existence. In a meeting of the Knesset Education Committee, legislators from across the political spectrum as well as academics denounced the ninth-grade textbook, “A World of Changes,” for what they called exclusion of vital events.
“I am aware that we are talking about intervention of the legislature in educational content, but we cannot avoid this in the face of grave concern over the detachment of Israeli students from their true heritage,” said the committee’s chairman, Zevulun Orlev of the National Religious Party.
“The amount invested in producing the book is minuscule compared to the educational and moral damage it could inflict.”
Former Education Minister Yossi Sarid of the secular Meretz Party criticized the decision, telling the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that it “could create a dangerous precedent.”
Less than a year ago, however, Sarid pushed through his own revisions to a professional committee that had just drafted a new literature curriculum. He wanted to include the works of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, whose writings contain anti-Israel themes.
Though the committee decision to suspend use of the book was nonbinding, the ministry’s director general, Shlomit Amichai, said she would see that a team is appointed to look into the complaints. If necessary, she said, the ministry would issue a corrected version of the textbook.
Among the omissions that have drawn criticism are lack of specific references to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during the Holocaust, illegal immigration activities during the British Mandate period in pre-state Israel, the Ma’alot and Munich terrorist massacres in the 1970s and the Israeli hostage rescue at Entebbe. The book does contain of a photograph of the Beatles rock group, but no image of Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion.
Knesset member Natan Sharansky of the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party said learning of such events as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the voyage of the Exodus, which brought Holocaust survivors to Israel, gave hope to Jews who were living under Communist rule in the Soviet Union.
“We had to learn those things underground. For them to go back underground in the State of Israel is just incredible,” Sharansky was quoted as saying.
Other historians noted that the book makes no mention of the belligerent Arab acts that preceded the 1967 Six-Day War, or the lack of emphasis in the text that the War of Independence was initiated by the Arab states, which rejected the 1947 United Nations partition plan that created the State of Israel.
The book’s editor, Danny Ya’acobi, said the textbook cannot be judged as a single unit, but part of an overall history curriculum taught to students over the course of several years.
“History is taught in schools from sixth to 12th grades, so it is wrong to take what is taught in one year and judge it with no connection to the materials taught in other grades,” Ya’acobi was quoted as saying by the Israeli daily Ma’ariv.
He added that the book, which was produced in consultation with leading scholars, is intended to help students understand long-term processes and central events of the past. He noted that the book does generally address terrorist attacks and the Jewish underground, but not with specific references.
A leading critic of the book is the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based social and political research center, that compiled a list of what it viewed as critical omissions.
Its head, Yoram Hazony, said the Knesset committee decision was a first step toward blocking a trend of what is known as “post-Zionist” scholars and historians from taking over the Education Ministry.
Prior to the committee debate, the ministry spokesperson said the claims by the Shalem Center had been investigated, and many of them were found to be inaccurate.