In a country with a past characterized by national struggles and social divisions, there is no subject as politically loaded as history. Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar has recently joined a number of his predecessors in trying to bias history instruction in accordance with his ideology.
Last year Sa'ar ordered the term "Nakba" removed from textbooks, and this week announced that Israel's peripheral "development towns" would receive expanded treatment in history and geography classes.
The minister's announcement drew stern criticism from Prof. Hanna Yablonka, one of the country's leading historians and chair of the Education Ministry's advisory committee on history studies.
In an interview with Or Kashti published Monday in Haaretz, she cautioned against the minister's interference with the curriculum, which she dismissed as an attempt to "earn Sa'ar another two lines in the newspaper."
Yablonka lamented that the Education Ministry has no official guidelines on the goals of history instruction, and said decisions like the one to integrate the study of Israel's development towns are often made hastily and without serious, professional deliberation.
With class hours cut, teachers struggle to delve deeply into material, resulting in hollow, superficial learning rather than encouragement of more incisive, critical thinking. The War of Independence, the formative event in Israel's history, receives rushed treatment, with only cursory examination of the Declaration of Independence, lest questions arise as to the justness of the Zionist enterprise.
Yablonka reserved her toughest criticism for Israel's method of teaching the Holocaust, which she described as presenting the "pornography of evil," heavy on technical details of the Nazi murder machine but light on the ethical and educational conclusions students may draw from it.
She also condemned the policy of maintaining the Holocaust as a mandatory subject covered on matriculation exams, but not the War of Independence.
The historian's warnings over the dismal state of teaching the Holocaust should push Sa'ar and his ministry to action. Instead of releasing ad hoc statements to the media, minister and ministry should hold a comprehensive discussion over the content and goals of history instruction in the interest of cultivating a generation of knowledgeable, curious and critical students. As it approaches its 62nd year of independence, Israel is ready to deal with a mature representation of its history in the classroom.
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