September 9, 1999
Three Books That Shook the New York Times
The New York Times dubbed it "a quiet revolution in the teaching of Israeli history." That front-page Times article, headlined "In Israel, New Grade School Texts for History Replace Myths With Facts," and published Aug. 14, has kicked up a lot of dust among right-wing commentators. One educator mentioned in the article has even received a death threat in a letter postmarked "Bronx."
Whether a "quiet revolution" is really taking place, however, is debatable.
What's happening is that in this school year (whose scheduled start on Wednesday was threatened by a likely teacher's strike), three new textbooks that challenge hallowed Israeli beliefs about the country's history will be used in most ninth-grade classrooms.
The books, approved by the Education Ministry in the spring, argue, among other things, that the Jews outnumbered the Arabs on the battlefield in the War of Independence, and that many Arabs were expelled during that war. The books also use the term "Palestinian," which might not seem too controversial, but is a departure for Israeli history schoolbooks, according to Dr. Eyal Naveh, the author of one of them.
"The books I read in school used to refer to the Palestinians as 'the Arabs of the Land of Israel,' " he noted.
The books also integrate Jewish history with world history -- another departure, Naveh said.
"What this approach does, for instance, is to show that Zionism didn't come down from the heavens, but was one of the nationalist movements that came out of Europe in the latter part of the 19th century. Another point is that the Holocaust was not separate from World War II -- which is the way the Holocaust has been taught in Israeli schools -- but was connected," said Naveh, who teaches history at Tel Aviv University.
After the Times story, Ruth Matar of the extreme right-wing Women in Green denounced the books in her interview show on the religious nationalist radio network Arutz 7. "The Jewish state is being destroyed from within by the brainwashing of our children," Matar said. One of her guests compared the books' "falsification of history" to Holocaust denial. An edited transcript of the show went out on Arutz 7's Internet site.
West Bank settler intellectual Elyakim Ha'etzni wrote in the daily Yediot Aharonot that students who adopt Naveh's view of Israeli history "will look on their parents and teachers with the eyes of a stranger, and see them as conquerors, oppressors, usurpers and relate to Israel as a country that is not theirs."
Naveh said a guest on an Israeli talk show -- he couldn't remember whom -- described his writings as "treason." The educator mentioned in the Times article who received the death threat with a Bronx postmark, was characterized as a "kapo" and "SS," Education Ministry spokeswoman Rivka Shraga said. The educator, who wishes to remain anonymous, filed a complaint with police.
Yet aside from right-wing circles and the media, the "new history" controversy has gone almost unnoticed. Asked what sort of reactions had come in to the ministry, Shraga said a number of journalists had made inquiries, as well as some professional educators. "We haven't received any faxes, letters or calls from regular Israeli citizens," she noted.
Shai Lachman, head of the national Parents Assn., said he had never heard of the matter. Neither had Shmuel Abuav, head of the education desk for Israel's municipalities, which fund the public schools.
While the books are debuting now, during the tenure of left-wing Education Minister Yossi Sarid, they were approved during the term of the previous government, when the education ministry was in the hands of the right-wing National Religious Party.
Yitzhak Rath, spokesman for the NRP's Yitzhak Levy, who was education minister when Naveh's book was approved, said he, too, was unaware of the controversy. He said he was likewise unaware that Naveh's book had been OK'd on Levy's watch. "There are hundreds, thousands of committees -- do you expect the minister to be aware of what each of them are doing?" Rath said.
Israeli historians from both left and right contended that at any rate, the books weren't saying much that was new. Schoolbooks, they said, had been taking a critical look at Israeli history for the last 10-15 years.
"The 'myths' of Israeli history are taught in the youth movements, not in the schoolbooks," said historian Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a right-wing think tank. Oren said his impression from the previous history schoolbooks he'd read was that they actually downplayed the "power and vitality of Zionism," treating it as a merely "reactive" movement to anti-Semitism and European nationalism.
Hebrew University Moshe Zimmermann, an outspoken Israeli leftist, said the books didn't break much new ground, and were gaining interest mainly because of the Times coverage, and because a red flag goes up as soon as "post-Zionism" or "new historians" are mentioned. The Times' characterization of the books as a "quiet revolution," Zimmermann said, "accorded them a significance that was exaggerated and unwarranted."
Yediot columnist Nahum Barnea noted that another of the three books, "Passage to the Past" by Kezia Tabibyan, devoted all of 170 words to the issue of the Palestinian refugees. "The book blames the Arab leadership exclusively for the Arabs' disaster. The Israelis emerge as blameless," he wrote. As schoolbooks must be purchased by Israeli parents, Barnea concluded: "Sadly, the only revolution that will be made by these new books will take place in the parents' wallets."
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