Who's Afraid of the Nakba? New Research Challenges the Way History Is Taught in Israeli High Schools

A new study suggests that teaching the narrative from the Palestinian perspective does not weaken the students' national identity, whereas the current approach perpetuates intolerance.

Or Kashti
Or Kashti
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Or Kashti
Or Kashti

Some three and a half years ago, in a rare move, the Education Ministry decided to recall all copies of the history textbook “Bonim Medina Bamizrah Hatihon” ‏(“Building a State in the Middle East”‏), which had been published weeks earlier after receiving all the requisite approvals. The main reason for the withdrawal was the book’s coverage of the Palestinian narrative of the Nakba ‏(the “Catastrophe,” Palestinians’ term for the formation of the Israeli state‏). The book was reapproved for use only after revisions were made, which pertained mostly to the chapter on the War of Independence.

The matter did not make many waves, perhaps because it was subsumed by a wave of other initiatives introduced by the former minister, Gideon Sa’ar, aimed at instilling national values in teenagers ‏(not all, only the Jewish ones‏). In the wake of the book recall, one of its authors − Dr. Tsafrir Goldberg, from the teacher education department at Haifa University − decided to try and explore the impact of instructional methods ‏(the traditional one of the Education Ministry versus two alternative approaches‏) on the national identification of Jewish and Arab students; on the extent of tolerance of each side; and on their ability to reach agreements.

The study was recently completed, and the conclusions are quite clear: identification is not harmed when students learn the narrative of the other side, and teaching according to the principles of the Education Ministry has a negative influence on the degree of interest in encountering the other and understanding his point of view.

To Goldberg’s mind, it is very possible that Minister Sa’ar was right: If the traditional way of teaching the Jewish-Arab conflict lessens the capacity for dialogue, as the study found, then anyone who does not believe in or want a resolution to the conflict must sanctify it − and censor any other option for describing history, which shapes reality. So, references to the Nakba were prohibited, first in Jewish schools and subsequently also in Arab schools; principals were called in for “clarification” chats if they dared deviate from the official line sanctioned by Sa’ar; other textbooks were revised, mainly in civics; and there were celebratory school trips to the Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron.

The study looked at some 180 Jewish and Arab students aged 16-18 from 10 schools around the country. The teenagers were divided into three groups, which learned about the beginning of the War of Independence and the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem through a variety of approaches to teaching history, with a control group that was not exposed to any of those approaches. Before and after class, the students answered detailed questionnaires that ascertained identification with their national group, openness to contradictory narratives of the conflict, and their perceptions regarding the historical topic in question. Later on they split into binational pairs, and were asked to discuss two questions: Which side is responsible for the refugee problem, and can it be resolved?

The discussions were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed quantitatively ‏(for example, the rate of cases in which the students reached an agreement‏) and qualitatively ‏(such as manifestations of dominance and even taking over the conversation‏).

The first approach the study tested was the traditional method of teaching history, as formed by Education Ministry directives. This is a fairly authoritative approach, which purports to pass on to the next generation “the events as they were.” This is an illusion, of course, but the factual description, which is ostensibly neutral, makes challenging it difficult − and, moreover, blurs the fact that we are talking about historical interpretation. For example, the problem of Palestinian refugees is mentioned in the official curriculum, but it is only allotted a single lesson, and teachers are explicitly instructed to exercise caution in handling the controversial topic.

The other two approaches the study tested took an empathetic approach − which is based on a textbook that includes Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian narratives − and a critical approach − which relies on a skeptical examination of historical sources, identified and contrasting, in a manner reminiscent of the core curriculum in the history department of any academic institution.

Examples of the last two approaches can be found in a project that professors Dan Bar-On, Eyal Naveh and Sami Adwan promoted a few years ago: teachers of both nationalities assembled a joint textbook that the Education Ministry − during the tenures of both Limor Livnat and Sa’ar − fought against. The critical approach could be found in the “Building a State...” textbook that Dr. Goldberg cowrote, until it was censored and reprinted in a softened version.

As far as is known, this is the first study of its kind to examine the impact of different methods of teaching the history of the Jewish-Arab conflict on national identity and relations between the two nationalities.

During 2009-2010, Sa’ar and the head of the ministry’s pedagogical secretariat, Dr. Zvi Zameret ‏(whom Sa’ar appointed‏), banned the use of textbooks that also contain the Palestinian narrative. Such a prohibition hints at anxiety lest exposure to the Palestinians’ claims undermine the students’ faith in the state.

Dr. Goldberg’s study shows that neither the critical nor the empathetic approach affected a student’s identification with his nationality. “It turns out that a nontraditional approach does not undermine the students’ national perception, does not turn them into disciples of the other side, and will likely not stop them enlisting in the IDF,” he says.

By contrast, real differences were found in connection with the teenagers’ degree of interest in getting to know the other side: Interest in the other showed a decline after a class conducted in the traditional-authoritative method, as opposed to an increase was noted after a class employing the empathetic approach ‏(and, to a lesser extent, also the critical approach‏). The impact was greater among the study’s Arab participants than their fellow Jewish students.

When you think about it, these findings should come as no surprise. Imposing the viewpoint of the dominant group reduces interest in the other on the part of the minority group, whereas teaching that includes some kind of recognition ‏(or at least the beginnings of such‏) in each of the narratives increases interest on the part of the minority. According to Goldberg, “if the Arab students learn in accordance with the official and approved text, they may know more but will seemingly understand the Jewish side less.”

Harder to reach agreement

Significant differences were also found when the teens were divided into pairs and asked to discuss the refugee problem. From a purely quantitative standpoint, it turned out that students who learned in keeping with the traditional approach decidedly reached a lower rate of agreement between them, compared to ones who learned according to the empathetic approach and the critical approach ‏(for example, 38.5 percent, 53.3 percent and 75 percent, respectively, agreed on the responsibility for the refugee problem‏). Less definitive differences also surfaced in quantitative analysis of the conversations: those held by students who learned according to the alternative methods tended to be more equitable.

The study was funded by The Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University. The research proposal won praise from five evaluators for the Israel Science Foundation ‏(if Sa’ar had remained in his post, it is safe to presume that someone there would have received a none-too-friendly phone call‏), and articles based on it have already been accepted for publication in scientific journals.

Nevertheless, some caution is warranted: The sample is not especially large, and it is based on students who volunteered to take part in the study. Presumably students from an extremist settlement would not choose to take part in such a study.

The reason Goldberg relied on a small sample of volunteer students, in activity that took place in the afternoon, is that the Education Ministry refused to grant him permission to conduct the study in schools. The series of requests and appeals Goldberg submitted to ministry officials when he began the study is touching in its naivete. In Sa’ar’s aggressive and violent Education Ministry, an examination that might be interpreted as criticism of the status quo never stood a chance.

We need to pause for a moment over the reasons Education Ministry officials gave for rejecting Goldberg’s application, especially because, in their politely phrased bureaucratic language, they are actually no less blunt than the extremism of Sa’ar and his spiritual sons, the activists of Im Tirtzu ‏(a stridently Zionist organization‏). So, for example, they argued that the instructional material that demonstrates the empathetic approach ‏(the book assembled jointly by Israeli and Palestinian teachers‏) did not receive the ministry’s approval, and therefore “it is inconceivable that it be permitted in a research experiment”; the text that expressed a critical approach ‏(and was rejected by the ministry‏) is not permitted for use “in any framework at school, including as an intervention program instigated for research purposes,” and also “the use of the term ‘the Israeli narrative’ is not acceptable to the professional and authorized responsible bodies in the Education Ministry.”

Let us hope that the new education minister, Shay Piron, will let the school system take a breather from the trench warfare his predecessor waged against any person or opinion that differed from his. At the ministerial changing of the guard ceremony, Piron said he wants to create students who are curious and critical. Dr. Goldberg’s study suggests there is no need to be so afraid of learning the other side’s point of view. Not only is national identification not harmed, but, just maybe, it will be possible to imagine another reality.

Israeli Arabs marking Nakba Day in Wadi Ara on April 16, 2013.Credit: Jack Khoury
Dr. Tsafrir Goldberg next to an armored vehicle from the War of Independence. Credit: Emil Salman

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