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In Israel, New Grade School Texts for History Replace Myths With Facts (abridged)

JERUSALEM – Few ideas are as deeply ingrained in Israeli culture as the one summed up by the Hebrew phrase, “me’atim mul rabim,” or “the few against the many.” Schoolchildren have long been taught that the Jews have always been surrounded by enemies and that their victory over five Arab states in the 1948 War of Independence was a near miracle of David-and-Goliath proportions.
But the start of this school year marks a quiet revolution in the teaching of Israeli history to most Israeli pupils. New, officially approved textbooks make plain that many of the most common Israeli beliefs are as much myth as fact…
The books freely use the term “Palestinian” to refer to a people and a nationalist movement, unheard of in the previous texts. They refer to the Arabic name for the 1948 war – the Naqba, or catastrophe – and they ask the pupils to put themselves in the Arabs’ shoes and consider how they would have felt about Zionism.
Finally, the books no longer separate Jewish and Israeli history from events around the world but weave them into a single tapestry.
“Only 10 years ago much of this was taboo,” reflected Eyal Naveh, a history professor at Tel Aviv University and the author of one of the new ninth-grade textbooks on the 20th century. “We were not mature enough to look at these controversial problems. Now we can deal with this the way Americans deal with the Indians and black enslavement. We are getting rid of certain myths.”
The “new history” approach that Naveh and other new textbook authors are using in their descriptions of the Israeli-Arab conflict is 10 or 15 years old. It has gained a growing following among academic scholars and then with a somewhat larger public after the 1993 Oslo peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians…
This shift in perspective is common to the work of the new historians who are relying on newly opened state archives and the emotional distance of a young generation….
Michael Yaron, who is in charge of the history curriculum at the Ministry of Education, says … “We are beginning a new era in history teaching where, for the first time in Israeli textbooks, the picture is not black and white,” Yaron said. “That was an important goal of mine when I came, to make sure the Palestinian perspective was included.
“My second goal was to end the practice of separately teaching Jewish and Israeli history on the one hand and world history on the other. It was absurd. We used to spend one year teaching the Holocaust and the next teaching World War II. Now we will teach Jewish history in the larger context of other events. This doesn’t minimize Zionism. It puts it in context.”
Yaron’s department began integrating Jewish and world history for middle school in its sixth grade textbooks several years ago and is finishing this project with the new ninth grade books that have just been printed. Since ninth grade history class is devoted to the 20th century, when Israel was formed, this is the year when controversy may be expected…
Clearly, part of what is driving the change in history texts is the ongoing Middle East peace effort.
The accords between the Israelis and Palestinians call on each side to fight racism and provocation and instruct their populations in coexistence.
Yet one of the issues that has most troubled Israeli commentators is the fact that the Palestinians are still using old Jordanian and Egyptian texts which never mention Israel and often portray Jews as evil and bloodthirsty.
An Israeli group called “Palestinian Media Watch” recently published the findings of its study of Palestinian textbooks. In one textbook on Arab history, the group noted, is the sentence, “The best examples of racism and discrimination in the world are Nazism and Zionism.” Another book, for sixth graders, says, “One must be careful around Jews because they are lying traitors…”
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