For the first time in its 59-year history, Israel has approved a school textbook acknowledging what the country’s minority Palestinian citizens have been learning at home for generations: The Jewish state’s creation was a tragedy for them.
The updated third-grade primer stirred controversy Sunday when the Education Ministry announced its approval for Arab classrooms this fall. Israeli rightists rose in defense of the school system’s traditional one-sided teaching of history and declared the book itself a tragedy.
Under the title “Living Together in Israel,” the book describes events of 1948 and 1949, when Israel’s creation by the United Nations in what had been British-ruled Palestine prompted an invasion by Arab armies, fierce fighting and the displacement of about 700,000 Palestinian Arabs.
Previous editions gave only the Jewish narrative of the war, pointing out the Jews’ historical connection to the Holy Land and their need for a state because of persecution in Europe.
That version focused on heroism of the victorious Israeli forces and referred to the Palestinian flight as a voluntary escape.
The new edition adds the Arab perspective, noting for the first time that many Palestinians were forced from their homes and became refugees after the war’s victors confiscated their lands and barred their return.
“When the war ended, the Jews prevailed, and Israel and its neighbors signed a truce,” a key passage reads. “The Arabs call the war the ‘Nakba,’ meaning the war of catastrophe and destruction. The Jews call it the War of Independence.”
Until 1966, Palestinians who remained in Israel lived under military rule that limited their freedom of movement and other rights, the new text acknowledges. Palestinians now make up 20% of Israel’s population.
“The book offers Arab pupils a balanced picture, so that they may put what they are exposed to in their home environment into the proper context,” Education Minister Yuli Tamir said in announcing the new edition.
Although the facts presented are not in dispute, teaching them in Israel is controversial. Some Jewish citizens said the book would encourage a growing militancy among Arab Israelis, whose leaders have recently demanded that the country be declared a binational state rather than a Jewish one.
“Once the Arab pupils are taught that the establishment of Israel was a disaster, they might infer that they should be fighting against us,” said Limor Livnat, a former education minister from the right-wing Likud Party. “Our very own educational system may be raising a fifth column.”
Other critics demanded that Tamir be fired. The education minister is a member of the left-leaning Labor Party and a founder of the advocacy group Peace Now.
Last year, she ordered that maps in new public school textbooks show the boundary that existed between Israel and the West Bank before the 1967 Middle East War, provoking challenges from lawmakers, settler groups and religious leaders who claim the West Bank as part of Israel.
“The political left is constantly looking for ways to justify the other side, when we have nothing to apologize for,” said Avigdor Lieberman, a Cabinet minister from the right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu, or Israel Our Home.
Backers of the change said there was no point in hiding from children what happened in the 1948 war or suppressing open debate about it.
Dalia Fenig, an Education Ministry inspector, said the textbook’s revision was approved by a professional review board representing a wide spectrum of political views. Its 30 members weighed every word to present the Arab and Jewish narratives as gently as possible, she said.
“It is a mistaken pedagogical concept to teach Arab pupils that everyone took to the streets dancing with joy when the state of Israel was founded,” Fenig said.
Jewish high school students are taught a more balanced history of the 1948 war, drawing from complex accounts by Israeli historians.
But Fenig said the Education Ministry had no plans to introduce the Arab narrative into Hebrew-language editions of “Living Together in Israel” for Jewish third-graders.
Ghassam Hamaissee, an Arab Israeli professor at Haifa University who served on the ministry’s review board, said he advocated revising the Hebrew edition but was overruled, on the grounds that Jewish third-graders are too young to grasp the concept of competing narratives.
Hamaissee and other Arab Israelis welcomed the change to the Arab-language edition.
“It will generate openness, and this will increase the Arab population’s willingness to take part in society, to be involved and to regard the law,” he said.
The ministry is working on updated history texts for Arab seventh- and ninth-grade students to balance the Israeli narrative about the state’s origin, Hamaissee said. In any case, Arab Israeli teachers in those grades already go beyond the textbooks and give the Arab perspective in their lectures.
Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip run their own school systems and use history texts produced with European Union funds.
Starting in the sixth grade, Palestinians there learn that the 1948 war ended with “the creation of the state of Israel on Palestinian land and the occupation of such cities as Haifa, Tiberius, Nazareth and Jerusalem” as well as “the expulsion and dispersion of the Palestinian people.”