Rewriting history: lies vs. omissions PART I

A few weeks ago my attention was caught by an article in the Haaretz (yes- again) where it was announced that Israeli textbooks were finally to re-integrate a mention to the Palestinian version of the facts which accompanied the foundation of the Jewish state (what the Palestinians call the Nakba, a “catastrophe”). I was strongly impressed – mostly by the fact that they hadn’t, yet.

In a world of global information and open sources and accessibility, you would think there is not so much space left for hiding information from people. Instead, the writing of history seems to be still governed by conscious manipulation. Children are particularly vulnerable in this sense, because they have not developed a critical approach to information. What they learn at school may be perceived as interesting or boring, but not false.

As I learned from Wikipedia, in Israel it is the Ministry of Education of Israel who defines the curriculum and is in charge of the recruitment and training of the teachers. Recently the Ministry of Education stopped the practice of issuing an approved list of schoolbooks, since “in a modern country it is not proper to apply censorship”. So far, so good. But let’s have a closer look.

If on the Palestinian side, educational textbooks harbor heavy indoctrination and hatred towards Israel, failing to include Israel on the map, denying the Holocaust and even lying about simple facts (for example claiming that an “extremist Zionist” set fire to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969 when in reality it was a mentally unstable Christian from Australia), the same cannot be said about Israeli textbooks. In a research performed in 2000 by the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace (CMIP) , the Analysis of Israeli Textbooks shows no voluntary attempt to portray Arabs or Islam in a bad light. Many books, on the contrary,  express the yearning for peace between Israel and the Arab countries (this is true for state run schools, but not for orthodox textbooks which openly foster prejudices and disrespect to Arabs).

Things become a little more complicated when it comes to the Palestinian Exodus of 1948, of which a clear account is still missing. Most of Israeli textbooks omit the fact that some 700,000 Palestinians were displaced as a direct consequence of the war, expelled by Israel or forced to abandon their homes. This omission leaves the student with the impression that Palestinians fled of their own will, with no use of violence. This specific point is so crucial.

Israeli politicians have been fighting each other over this issue. On July 22, 2009, Israel officially banned the use of the word Nakba from textbooks of Israeli Arab schools, dismissing it as propaganda against Israel. Reuters report the words of Yisrael Twito, a spokesman for Education Minister Gideon Saar:” It is inconceivable that in Israel we would talk about the establishment of the state as a catastrophe”. In 2007, under the previous Israeli government, the term was included in a textbook for Arab third-graders in Israeli schools. It seems that history is re-written with every government in power!

We may conclude that neither side, Palestinian or Israeli, has been able to teach recent history in a comprehensive way. A 2004 study of 13 Israeli textbooks and 9 Palestinian textbooks found that “neither side’s books tell the story of the conflict from the other’s viewpoint, both ignore the other side’s suffering and each counts only its only victims” (from: “Israelis’ textbooks fare little better than Palestinians“)


The question is as simple as that. I recently came across a lecture by sociologist James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Although his study focuses on America and its relationships with the Afro-American minority, many assumptions are applicable to Israel: if a country is so great, why the necessity to lie? Why do we need to lie to students in order to instill them love for their country?

According to Loewen, “History is a process of deliberate forgetting, not just of the unimportant, but also of the embarrassing, of those things that don’t fit in with the prevailing mythology“.  If I have no hope to personally fight Palestinian anti-Semitic rhetoric,  I do feel obliged to question the way history is thought in Israeli schools, because:

1. this is where I live now, and were my hypothetical children would most likely be educated

2. Israel professes to be a democratic state, and therefore cannot abide by deliberating omitting historical facts

3. Acknowledging the existence of a Palestinian point of view, will not not instill anti-patriotic feelings, and will not diminish the image of Israel (if something, it will improve its rating in the rest of the world)

Some may argue that what prevents Israel from fully recognizing the Palestinian Exodus, is the fear of the right of return. But “Isn’t it possible to acknowledge someone’s pain without promising to turn back the clock and undo the events that led to it? Surely we know from our personal lives that sometimes it is simply the acknowledgment itself – the admission of responsibility – that has a healing effect […] Would admitting the truth of 1948 instantly undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel? Only if you believe that Israel’s legitimacy was predicated on the notion that its birth would be bloodless. Israel’s advocates can argue that the creation of a Jewish national home in 1948 was so morally necessary it remained, and remains, just – even if it came at a tragically high price.” (Jonathan Freedland, “Maybe Israel jsut needs to aknowledge Palestinian pain“) . Amen.


[ PART II, coming soon]

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