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
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
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
"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
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. …