Israeli Textbooks Anger Nationalists

Article excerpt

When Issa Jaber was teaching civics and history, he tried as much as possible to stick to the books. The texts, issued by the Israeli Ministry of Education, teach the history of the Jewish state's establishment in 1948 from a natural perspective - its Zionist founders.

Except that for an Arab teacher to stand in front of a classroom and speak about Israel's War of Independence and not mention that Palestinians call the same event the Nakba (Catastrophe) isn't so natural. Recognizing that, this week Israel's Minister of Education approved an Arabic textbook mentioning the Nakba, a move that is garnering applause in some corners and outrage in others.

"All the time as teachers we were facing a dilemma: to teach the curriculum as it is, or to teach what we feel inside," says Mr. Jaber, who now runs the education system of Abu Ghosh, an Israeli- Arab town close to Jerusalem with about 1,000 secondary school students per year.

The controversy seems to focus on a few little lines that were written for little people. The textbook in question is written for third graders and was originally written in Hebrew and translated into Arabic.

But the book's importance extends beyond the classroom. To traditional Zionists, teaching children to view 1948 as the Nakba legitimizes the decision of Arab countries to refuse acceptance of Israel's creation as a state. And to many of Israel's 1.2 million Arab citizens, ignoring this term is like denying a piece of their history.

"Now we can express what we know and what we feel. And should do it responsibly, on the level of education and not on the level of politics," Jaber says.

Like so much else in this part of the world, it is a task easier said than done. Many right-wing Israeli politicians, from former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to members of the ruling Kadima party, have attacked Education Minister Yuli Tamir's decision to allow references to the Nakba in Israel's textbooks. Several members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, are demanding that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismiss Ms. Tamir, whose reputation as a left- leaning peacenik and civil rights activist has often put her on a collision course with hardline nationalists.

Recently, for example, Tamir tried to mandate the use of maps in Israeli schools showing the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 boundary with Jordan.

An agenda that might seem logical abroad - making sure Israeli schoolchildren know where the border was 40 years ago and what areas are considered occupied by international law - is deemed unacceptable by some right-wing groups here.

"Using the word Nakba is a political interpretation of reality, and it's an outlook that's been used to delegitimize Israel's right to exist. We need to fight this concept, not accept it," says Zevulun Orlev, a member of Knesset from the National Religious Party. Mr. Orlev said the measure was anti-Jewish and called for the education minister's dismissal.

Different groups, different histories

The word Nakba touches on issues that complicate the lives of educators and would-be peacemakers alike, in particular the status of Palestinian refugees. Palestinians say their ancestors were pushed out by force, while most Israelis say that the majority of Palestinians who left did so under encouragement from Arab leaders who told them to get out of harm's way and allow their armies to drive out the Zionists. …