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Textbooks Replace Myths With Facts As Israel Reassesses Its National Identity

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November-December 1999

Israeli history textbooks are now being re-written, reports Ethan Bronner in The New York Times (Aug. 14, 1999) as a new generation of historians are replacing myths with facts about the nation’s founding.  

"Schoolchildren have long been taught that 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," the Times reports. "But the start of this school year marks a quiet revolution in teaching of Israeli history to most Israeli pupils. Now, officially approved textbooks make plain that many of the most common Israeli beliefs are as much myth as fact. The new books say, for example, that it was the Israelis who had the military edge in the War of Independence. They say that many Palestinians left their land not—as has been traditionally taught—because they smugly expected the Arab states to sweep back victoriously, but because they were afraid, and in some cases expelled by Israeli soldiers."  

The new books freely use the word "Palestinian" to refer to a people and a nationalist movement unheard of in previous texts. They refer to the Arabic name for the 1948 war—the Naqba or catastrophe—and they ask the public to put themselves in the Arabs’ shoes and consider how they would have felt about Zionism.  

Eyal Naveh, a history professor at Tel Aviv University and the author of one of the new textbooks, says: "Only 10 years ago much of this was taboo. We were not mature enough to look at these controversial problems. Now we can deal with this the way the Americans deal with the Indians and black enslavement, we are getting rid of certain myths."  

Michael Yaron. who is in charge of the history curriculum at the Ministry of Education, states: We are beginning a new era in history teaching where for the first time in Israeli textbooks, the picture is not black and white. That was an important goal of mine...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..."  

One ninth grade text, Passage To The Past by Kezia Tabibyan, not only mentions the 1948 massacre carried out by radical Zionist forces in the village of Deir Yassin, something Ms. Tabibyan says had never been done in a ninth grade text before, but also engages in a kind of historiography by asking students to reflect on the use of myths in nation-building. She says: "If I want to educate the citizens of Israel after 2000 they must know that there is another point of view...They must deal with Deir Yassin. They must know that there was another people that had their life here."  

Columnist Jim Hoagland, writing in the Washington Post (Aug. 29, 1999) notes that. "The new textbook suggests that many Palestinian Arabs left their homes during the 1945 war out of fear or because they were forced out by Israeli soldiers...This is admirable truth telling, the beginning of a coming to terms with the long suppressed Palestinian existence and history, even if there is not an immediate political response available for those who have lived as refugees for over a half century. This is history as prologue—history as a foundation for a better, more equitable future—that should be met on the Arab side by a willingness to re-examine and correct myths and lies taught in its standard history books."  

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