Israel tells schools not to teach nakba

Jonathan Cook,

Members of the Haganah (with rifles) "escorting" Palestinian Arabs
being expelled from the city of Haifa on May 12, 1948. (AFP picture archive)

The National, August 21, 2010

NAZARETH // Government officials warned Israeli teachers last week not
to cooperate with a civic group that seeks to educate Israelis about
how the Palestinians view the loss of their homeland and the
establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

Israel’s education ministry issued the advisory after Zochrot – a
Jewish group that seeks to raise awareness among Israeli Jews of the
events of 1948, referred to as the "nakba" by Palestinians – organised
a workshop for primary school teachers.

The ministry said the course had not been approved and told teachers
not to participate in Zochrot-sponsored activities during the coming
school year.

In a letter to the education ministry protesting against Zochrot’s
activities, the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, an advocacy group
for Jewish settlers, had called the group’s educational materials "part
of a criminal vision to wipe Israel off the face of the earth".

It was unclear whether participants in the workshop for primary school
teachers would be punished, but a teacher identified as a trainer for
the seminar might be investigated by the education ministry, the
Jerusalem Post reported.

The warning is the latest move by the education ministry, headed by
Gideon Saar, a member of the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s
right-wing Likud party, to use school curricula to advance a more
strident Zionist agenda.

In March, for instance, the ministry banned Israeli schools from
distributing a booklet for children about the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights. Critics had objected to parts of the declaration that
refer to freedom of religion and protection of asylum-seekers.

The ministry’s latest move involves the controversies that still swirl
over the events that led to the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 –
what Israelis describe as their "War of Independence" and what
Palestinians call the nakba, Arabic for "catastrophe".

Eitan Bronstein, Zochrot’s director, said the ministry was trying to
"frighten off" teachers from learning about a period in Israel’s
history that until now, he said, had been presented in schools only
from a "triumphalist perspective".

The group, which was founded eight years ago and whose Hebrew name
means "remembering", has provoked controversy by organising visits to
some of the hundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed by the Israeli
army during and after the 1948 war.

Zochrot members place signposts at the former villages using their
original Arabic names, and bring Palestinian refugees back on visits,
upsetting Jewish residents who live in communities built on those lands.

In recent months, Zochrot has concentrated on developing a programme on
the nakba for schools, allowing teachers to address the subject from a
Palestinian perspective for the first time.

Mr Bronstein said more than 300 high school teachers had asked for
Zochrot’s information kits over the past year, and a few primary school
teachers had started to show an interest too. That has provoked a
backlash from education officials and right-wing groups.

"A small but growing number of teachers are curious about the nakba and
want to find out more," he said. "The problem is that the education
authorities see this development as threatening and are prepared to
intimidate teachers to stop them from getting involved."

Last week’s workshop was the first Zochrot had arranged for primary school teachers.

Hebrew textbooks focus chiefly on the success of Israel’s troops during
the 1948 war. The books say that the 750,000 refugees either left
voluntarily or were ordered to leave by Arab armies. Most historians
now say that Israeli troops either physically expelled the Palestinians
or frightened them so much that they fled.

In 2006 an Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, published a popular book in
English – but little read inside Israel – that went farther, arguing
that Israel had implemented a military plan to "ethnically cleanse"
Palestinians even before Israel’s founders declared statehood.

A year later Yuli Tamir, the dovish education minister, provoked public
outrage by approving for the first time the use of the word "nakba" in
an Arabic textbook for the quarter of the school population who belong
to the country’s Palestinian minority.

The book was banned last summer by Mr Saar, Ms Tamir’s successor.

Mr Saar has also backed legislation to punish groups and individuals
who commemorate the nakba. The bill, which enjoys wide support, is
working its way through the parliament.

Zochrot’s kit includes teaching units on life among Palestinians before
and after the 1948 war, personal stories from refugees, a tour of a
destroyed village, and a discussion of the refugees’ right of return.

Amaya Galili, Zochrot’s educational coordinator, said that although the
group offered complete lesson plans, most teachers incorporated only
elements of the programme so that officials would not notice they were
using Zochrot’s material.

A history teacher in Jerusalem, who did not want to be identified, said
she was one of half a dozen in the city who had participated in
Zochrot’s courses.

She said, however, that her new-found understanding of the nakba had
had almost no impact on either the curriculum or the pupils at the

"There are many other ways for the school to make sure that an
atmosphere of fear prevails towards Palestinians. It’s easy to insert a
nationalistic and religious agenda into the classroom – and, after all,
I am just one teacher."

The changes at the education ministry have become increasingly apparent since Mr Saar’s appointment nearly 18 months ago.

Earlier this year, the ministry demanded that its logo be removed from
a joint Hebrew and Arabic website called Common Ground, which aims to
promote greater understanding between the country’s Jewish and
Palestinian citizens. Officials had objected to Zochrot’s posting of a
story written by a Palestinian girl about the nakba.

Ms Galili said the ministry’s response to Zochrot’s work contrasted
strongly with its encouragement of private initiatives by right-wing

One, called Gush Katif week, brings former Jewish settlers from Gaza
into 400 schools to celebrate life before Israeli troops and Jewish
settlers withdrew from the Strip in 2005. Another, Mibereshit, run by a
far-right rabbi and financed by evangelical Christians in the US,
offers pupils tours of the country, including the settlements, in a bid
to "strengthen Zionist education".

"Many of these programmes sound superficially reasonable. They’re
presented as ‘instilling positive values’ or ‘learning to love the
land’. But, in fact, they are cover for dubious initiatives by
religious and settler groups", Ms Galili said.

Over the past year, Mr Saar has emphasised courses on Zionism, Jewish
heritage and Judaism. He also has increased pupils’ visits to
Jerusalem’s Palestinian districts and introduced a programme to bring
soldiers into the classroom to help enlist pupils into the military.

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