When I was a student I had to read history books made up of small, densely printed letters; the paper was grayish and there were only a few small black-and-white pictures, sporadically interspersed. The text was archaic, annoying and flowery. Today's textbooks are printed on chromo paper, with a lot of colorful photos, suited to students who watched TV and surfed the Web way before they ever encountered their first textbook. In addition, the texts tend to be written in the students' language.
Aryeh Kizel, a lecturer in the Oranim Academic College and the Gordon College of Education, and a fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute, read all of the textbooks on general history published in Israel from the state's establishment to up until two years ago - about 75 in all. His study, entitled "Historia meshuabedet" ("Enslaved History," published by the Mofet Institute) identifies three generations of writers and discusses substantial changes in writing. The bottom line: Just as was the case in my youth, the books broadcast narrow-mindedness and do not encourage critical thinking.
According to Kizel, the Zionist narrative has consolidated opinions about the history of other countries, too, and tends to harness it for own its purposes. This is reflected in the fact that the books emphasize national movements and just wars. The state is more important than the individual, politics supersede everyday life.
The French Revolution, for example, is considered "good for the Jews," which is why textbooks fail to discuss many of its murderous phases. The textbooks of 1950s' socialist Israel also tended to praise the Russian Revolution.
What Israeli students are required to know about the world took place almost exclusively in Europe. Asia and Africa don't exist. At most, they are mentioned in generalizations relating to various nations, such as the one Kizel found in a text dated from 1953: "The Chinese, as opposed to the Japanese, are by nature lovers of peace and haters of war ... They are lazy, adhere to the old-fashioned and are stagnant. Third, they are fatalists and do not get very upset about what is happening around them. And finally, they have a unique tendency to take bribes, which is destroying everything good in that country." Students today don't learn much more about China.
The textbook's author, Shlomo Horowitz, was fond of such generalizations. He wrote of the Germans that they "totally lack any sense of criticism, nobody accepts authority as they do, they like order and discipline and hate strangers in general and Jews in particular." The treatment of German history is particularly enlightening: From an Israeli perspective, there is a direct line between Bismarck and Hitler; the developments in post-1945 Germany are hardly discussed. Students also hardly learn the history of the United States - perhaps the most surprising discovery in this study.
The good news is that the general history textbooks apparently cause less damage than we may think. Israel is living the American dream; innumerable films and books deal with the new Germany; masses of young Israelis escape to India and South America after their military service. So while the textbooks may enslave history, the same cannot be said of the students.
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