Reconciling Histories

Article excerpt

Writers and educators in Israel have taken a significant step toward lowering barriers to understanding in the Middle East.

They are rewriting the history of their conflict with the Palestinians. This fall new, officially approved textbooks will be used in Israeli schools that will challenge many of the common beliefs about Israeli history. The texts will point out that rather than being the weaker force against the Arab armies in 1947, Israel actually had a slight military edge. The new books will acknowledge that many Arabs fled from Palestine because they were afraid and, in some cases, driven out. Previous accounts claimed that Palestinians left voluntarily in hope of returning with victorious Arab armies.

Correcting the historical record is never easy or without conflict. The move by the education ministry in Israel has had its severe critics; while some have agreed that the historical dogmas of Israel should not be immune from criticism, examination, or scholarly inquiry, others have insisted that more accurate historical accounts can only please Yasir Arafat and "the ghost of Joseph Goebbels." Teddy Kollek, former mayor of Jerusalem, wrote in a letter to the Jerusalem Post on Sept. 17, "Not only are history books being rewritten, but these publicists are diffusing their misguided ideology through the written media, on radio and television, and on every occasion presented to them."

For Israel, too, revising history has limits. Ilan Pappe, international relations department head at Haifa University, wrote Sept. 14 in Ha'aretz newspaper, "The most difficult question is how to confront the deportations, the displacements, the massacres, and the rapes? Who cared to interview the perpetrators of these crimes? Nobody dared to, even a new historian such as I."

It is natural that demands are being heard in Israel for Palestinians to revise their history to take a less demonic view of "the Zionists." Palestinians praise the Israeli efforts and argue that their own history needs no revision. For Palestinians, Israeli historians are now recognizing what Palestinians knew and experienced. Nevertheless, some Palestinian scholars are beginning to write more candidly about the events of 1947 and 1948 and the role of some Palestinians in undermining the positions of their own people. …