Two versions of history

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When israel’s education ministry announced that history textbooks for third-graders would now include a heretofore unmentionable truth -- that the creation of a homeland for Jews in 1948 resulted in the exile of 700,000 Palestinians -- it seemed an enlightened step.

“History is written by the victors,” as Winston Churchill said, and for the last 59 years, Israeli elementary school textbooks have taught only the Jewish version of events: The outcome of the Arab-Israeli war was justifiable because of Jews’ historic roots in the Holy Land and their need for a permanent refuge from persecution. The Palestinian exodus from Israel, called the Nakba (catastrophe) by Arabs, was nowhere to be found.

The education ministry’s apparent openness, however, is deceptive. For the new, balanced textbooks will be printed only in Arabic and distributed only to Arab classrooms. Hebrew editions of “Living Together in Israel” won’t be revised. Some education officials sought to amend Jews’ textbooks too, but they were overruled by those who said Jewish third-graders cannot understand divergent interpretations of history.


Education Minister Yuli Tamir says the new books will help Arab children reconcile the history they learn at home with the history they are taught in school. But Jewish children, who are less likely to hear the Palestinian version of events in their homes, need this information even more than their Arab peers, who at least may have the personal experiences of family and friends to educate them. If Israel acknowledges the fact of the Palestinian exodus, then it should be taught to all children. Instead, the ministry seeks to placate Palestinians without standing up to hard-line Jewish conservatives, who oppose the revisions even for Arab classrooms.

History is continually being revised. Although written first by the victors, over time the voices of the defeated and disregarded demand inclusion. China and Korea insist that Japan acknowledge wartime atrocities; Native Americans, that their 4,000-year history become a part of this country’s founding narrative; and women, that their deeds get equal scrutiny with those of men.

Whether most Palestinians fled their homes voluntarily or through coercion and force, and whether they have a right to return, will likely be argued until the end of time. But that thousands did flee and have spent subsequent decades living in refugee camps -- the United Nations says that descendants have swelled the number of refugees to 4 million today -- is not at issue. Why not teach that truth?

By amending history textbooks for Arab children, Israel has acknowledged the validity of the Nakba. And if it’s valid for Arabs, it should be valid for Jews as well.