The leaders of Likud and the National Religious Party yesterday called for the dismissal of Education Minister Yuli Tamir, shortly after Tamir announced that her ministry had approved a textbook for Israeli Arab schools that says the Arabs refer to the 1948 War of Independence as "Nakba," meaning "catastrophe" or "disaster."
In an unprecedented move, the ministry has approved a geography text for third-grade children that says some Arab citizens were expelled from their homes and became refugees because their villages were destroyed during and after the war. The textbook - "Lihyot Yahad Beyisrael" ("Living Together in Israel"), an Arabic translation of a Hebrew text published about a year ago, is slated to be integrated into the curriculum in the coming school year.
"Tamir is giving the Arabs the legitimacy not to recognize the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people," said NRP Chairman Zevulun Orlev, calling the decision "anti-Zionist."
"The day the education minister made the decision," he said, "is the Nakba Day of the Israeli education system."
Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu said Tamir's decision was unacceptable and damages Zionist values instead of strengthening Jewish heritage.
"I can't remember a greater absurdity than this in a decision made by an education minister in the State of Israel," said Netanyahu.
Avigdor Lieberman, the minister for strategic affairs and chairman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, said Tamir's decision reflects the "political masochism" of the Israeli left.
MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima), a former director general of the Education Ministry, said the "wretched" decision "is not justified from a pedagogic standpoint and is not a matter for political intervention." Tirosh was director general of the ministry in 2003, when the geography curriculum on which the Hebrew and Arabic versions of the textbook are based was approved. That curriculum also featured the word "nakba," said Dalia Fenig, who is in charge of geography studies in the Education Ministry.
Arab MKs welcomed the initiative, but said it did not go far enough.
"The majority must not converge solely within the bubble of its narrative," said MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al).
Balad chairman Jamal Zahalka called the step a positive but small one. He called for Arab cultural autonomy, in which Arabs would set the curriculum for all matters connected to their history and heritage.
The Education Ministry defended its decision, with Tamir saying she thinks the narrative of Arab citizens deserves a place in the State of Israel. "It will generate debate in the schools and will only contribute to Israeli children's learning about the need to live with one another," Tamir said. "The Arab public deserves having us give expression to its feelings as well."
The textbook sets the stage for the 1948 war and describes how Arabs as well as Jews refer to it.
"The Jewish leadership agreed to accept the United Nations' Partition Plan, the Arab leadership opposed the decision, and then war began," the book states. "On May 14, 1948, the leaders of the Yishuv [the Jewish prestate settlement] declared the establishment of an independent Jewish state - the State of Israel. Immediately after the state was declared, the war intensified, and armies from five Arab countries invaded the State of Israel. ... At the end of the war, the Jews overpowered the Arabs and cease-fire agreements were signed between the State of Israel and its neighboring states. The Arabs call the war 'Nakba,' that is, a war of disaster and loss, while the Jews call it 'the War of Independence.'"
In its description of what happened to the Jews and Arabs during and after the war, the textbook states:
"The price of the war was very high. Many Arabs and Jews were killed in the war. Some of the Arab residents were forced to leave their homes and some were expelled, and they became refugees in the neighboring Arab countries. Most of the Arabs who remained in Israel continued to live in their communities, but some of them became refugees and were forced to move to other Arab communities in the State of Israel, because their villages were destroyed during and after the war."
Fenig said the book does a good job of bringing together both the Jewish and Arab narratives of Israel's independence.
"It's a mistaken pedagogic approach to teach Arab students that everyone took to the streets in joy when the State of Israel was established," she said. "You have to give expression to the feelings of the other side as well, so it will be able to become connected to the Jewish narrative and to historical facts - including those that mention that the Arabs did not agree to a division of the land. These are things that used to be swept under the rug in the Arab sector. This is a brave act that needed to be done."
Fenig said the textbook was reviewed by a team of some 30 people from across the political spectrum.
"We consulted with many people about how to sensitively bring in the feelings of the Arabs and the Zionist narrative," said Tzfiya Fine, who headed the staff at the Center for Educational Technology that developed the textbook. "There are some who think that if you don't write about these subject, you don't talk about them either. I believe that it's worthwhile for the Arab students to learn their history from textbooks."