Rewriting History (Again): What Stance on Arabs Will Israel's New Education Minister Take?

A comprehensive textbook on Israeli Arab population, written according to Education Ministry guidelines, was shelved by former minister Gideon Sa'ar. Now, it may again see the light of day.

Or Kashti
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Or Kashti
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In recent weeks the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee has been discussing the issue of racism toward the Arab population, and the increase in so-called price-tag acts of hatred and retribution against it. Committee chair MK Amram Mitzna ‏(Hatnuah‏) has invited representatives of a number of ministries to the sessions − among them, obviously, the Education Ministry.

Members of the panel apparently had the impression that the Education Ministry representatives didn’t really understand why they were expected to take special action in this realm: After all, for many years now there have been educational programs against racism, and encounters in schools between Jewish and Arab students. However, as Mitzna observed at one point, “There are so many programs and yet the situation is still bad.”

Until not long ago, the Education Ministry was headed by Gideon Sa’ar ‏(now interior minister‏), under whom it was not recommended to express any difference of opinion or to deviate, even slightly, from the limits of the discourse he himself set, as per the view of some sources there. Perhaps that is why no one mentioned in the Knesset committee the textbook that the Education Ministry commissioned to be written about the Arabs of Israel, under the naive impression that it might help reduce the level of ignorance and hostility displayed against them. However, the book, “The Arab Citizens of Israel” − which was paid for and written under ministry auspices − was never distributed to schools.

In 2008, the ministry ‏(at the time headed by Yuli Tamir of the Labor Party‏) issued a tender for writing a high-school civics textbook about the Arab population, which specified certain main topics to be addressed. It was to open with a discussion of issues related to majorities and minorities, and the relations between them in various countries of the world; then focus on both Jewish and Arab views of, and approaches to, the situation of the Arab population, and on such topics as its political organization and representation, disputes over land and national civilian service, as well as economic and social changes it has experienced, past and present.

The Center for Educational Technology, whose website defines it as “an NGO dedicated to the advancement of education in the 21st century,” and which has a great deal of experience in publishing textbooks, won the contract. In mid-2012 the work was completed − 200 pages full of historical photographs, diaries and poems, tables with statistical data and more.

However, not long afterward ‏(July 2012‏), the director general of the Education Ministry, Dalit Stauber, decided to fire the person in charge of civics studies at the ministry, Adar Cohen, who was among those who had been involved in the preparation of the book. Stauber’s rationales were ostensibly professional, but it’s hard to believe that even she herself believed them: The firing looked like yet another step in the rightward political direction that Sa’ar spearheaded in the education system during his tenure. In an atmosphere like that, the book didn’t stand a chance. ‏(Incidentally, unlike other directors general of government ministries, who resigned in the wake of the appointment of new ministers, Stauber is staying on, for now.‏)

According to an educator who is very familiar with the Cohen affair, “After they fired Cohen at the Education Ministry, they told the CET that they had best not submit the textbook for approval” − a requisite before it actually enters the curriculum. Moreover, the source added, “The fact that the ministry had commissioned the book in the first place and had paid for the work made no difference.”

According to another educator, “Though the ministry’s recommendation [not to submit the book] wasn’t official, it was unambiguous: It was necessary first to shelve the new textbook and to wait until Sa’ar left. That’s the only option. Only then would it be possible to discuss it. At the CET they decided not to throw in the towel, and to take the friendly advice.”

Unique reality

In the manuscript of “The Arab Citizens of Israel,” which has come into the hands of Haaretz, there are indeed a number of statements and expressions whose use Sa’ar had expressly forbidden in the education system. For example, according to Chapter 2, “The history of the Arab public since the establishment of the state is the story of a majority group, the members of which are natives of this country, which suddenly became a demographic and sociological minority.” And also: “In Israel, the relations between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority are especially complex, because of the continuing conflict between the peoples and because of the definition of the state as a Jewish state − a definition whose essence is not unclear and is a formulation that alienates Arab citizens.”

Israeli reality is unique, according to the book, when it comes to defining who is an indigenous resident and who is the outsider: “Both sides see the land as their homeland, and on both sides there are many who argue that the land is not the homeland of the other,” it says. “There are Jews who argue that most of the Arabs are not natives of the land, but rather immigrants, and there are Arabs who argue that the Jews of our generation are not descendents and heirs of the Jews who lived here in ancient times.”

Under the heading “Two perspectives on the history,” the textbook presents Jewish-Zionist and Arab-Palestinian views thus: “The Palestinians − and the Arabs in Israel − see themselves as the real owners of the entire land and as its inhabitants for many generations ... At the end of the 19th century the Zionist movement began to wrest control over a great deal of land and to push out the Arabs ... In the 1948 war the Jews destroyed hundreds of Arab locales and expelled hundreds of thousands of Arabs from the country. The Arabs dispersed in the region − a minority of them remained in the State of Israel, some in their villages, and some as ‘internal’ refugees in locales near their own villages that had been destroyed. Over the years, many of their lands were expropriated and they have been discriminated against in many areas of life. From this perspective, the State of Israel does not acknowledge the injustice done to the Arabs, it does not allow the refugees to return to their homes, it does not grant the Arabs in Israel full civic equality, and at the same time it demands that they evince loyalty to the state.”

It is hard to find any other description like this today, of the Palestinian narrative, in other civics and history textbooks. Indeed, because of its similar viewpoints, three years ago the Education Ministry ordered confiscation of a history textbook that it had already approved.

The history book, called “Building a Country in the Middle East,” uses the word Nakba ‏(“catastrophe” − the term Palestinians use when referring to their fate following the formation of Israel in 1948‏), and talks about how “the vast majority of the Arabs who lived in the territory included in the State of Israel left, compelled by the circumstances of the war ‏(in 1948‏) or expelled during the war, and the State of Israel decided not to allow then to return.”
The same book also quotes documents composed a few years ago by the Committee of Heads of Local Arab Councils in Israel, setting out its vision of the future, and relates explicitly to “the question of the existence of the Palestinian nation.”

One of the topics discussed in “The Arab Citizens of Israel” is the proposal to replace the national anthem “Hatikva” ‏(“The Hope”‏) with the Shaul Tchernichovsky poem “Ani Ma’amin” ‏(“I Believe”‏), which could also be appropriate for Arab citizens. In addition, there is mention of a number of difficult, explosive and painful issues: the military government and the struggle to annul it; inequality in employment, education, welfare and infrastructure in the Arab sector; Arab, Palestinian and Israeli identity; how to deal with the uprooted inhabitants of Ikrit and Birim, who were promised that they would be able to return to these Galilee villages but have never been allowed to do so; the status of the Bedouin in the Negev; and other items in a long and bloody list, from the beginnings of the Zionist movement up to the past few years.

“The Arab Citizens of Israel” does not present the familiar narrative concerning the confrontation between the Jewish and Arab sides, but succeeds in bringing different voices from within those respective groups.

“This book was written with an underlying optimistic, basic assumption that despite the difficulties, it is possible to maintain a shared, egalitarian life for Jews and Arabs,” according to the introduction. “This requires an effort by both the sides to create a joint fabric of life based on dialogue, mutual respect and a common struggle against stereotypes. To this end, it is necessary to have a deep understanding of the difficulties, the tensions and the antagonism that shape the conflict between the Jews and Arabs in Israel, as well as a willingness to look at an optimistic future picture of relations between the two peoples.”

‘Waiting for instructions’

If “The Arab Citizens of Israel” is ultimately submitted to and approved by the Education Ministry − after all, it was written in accordance with the outline stipulated by the ministry itself − it would be able to allow the nation’s students to grasp the more complex picture of reality. Perhaps this is what the staff did not like in Sa’ar’s Education Ministry. But then, suddenly, two weeks ago, there was renewed interest at the ministry in the fate of the textbook. Although there has been no promise that it will finally be approved, there has been an indication of change.

Sources at the ministry, who refuse to disclose how much money was spent on preparation of the book, said it was “used on a trial basis,” by a small group of teachers, and in the coming days “will be submitted to the textbook department for purposes of evaluation in advance of [formal ministerial] approval.”

A decision on this matter could be the “entrance exam” for new Education Minister Shay Piron − an opportunity to show where he is heading: toward continuation of a policed, censored curriculum, or toward greater openness in the study of history and civics in the country’s schools.

The CET has told Haaretz, with respect to the textbook: “We are waiting for instructions from the Education Ministry.”

In contrast to the hopeful signs with respect to the textbook, another decision taken recently at the ministry is cause for concern. Until recently, the civic studies inspector there was also responsible for the so-called civil education and shared life unit − a not especially large unit, created in the wake of a report on civics education by a panel headed by veteran law professor Mordechai Kremnitzer.

Since the report was submitted in 1996, the Education Ministry has allocated meager funding to what is referred to as the Kremnitzer unit, and pushed it to the sidelines. ‏(Such a situation, grave in itself, is, however, preferable to the deep freeze that has been imposed on another, similar report, authored by two academicians, which was submitted to the Education Ministry a short time before Sa’ar took over.‏)

In the organizational structure that has prevailed until now in the ministry, the civics inspector has been in charge of how that subject is taught in schools, while the head of the Kremnitzer unit was specifically responsible for advancing studies and activities promoting Jewish-Arab coexistence and education toward better citizenship ‏(for example, programs connected to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination‏).

Until he was fired last year, Adar Cohen held both positions, which helped to advance both the civics and citizenship curricula. However, a new decision to separate the two roles and to transfer the leadership of the unit to the ministerial inspector of social sciences diminishes the authority of the person in charge of civics education, and his ability to advance it in the school system.

The Education Ministry has responded, in a rather confusing way, that the unit deals with civics, citizenship education and integration of democratic values in all areas of learning and for all age groups and, accordingly, it has been decided to appoint as its head a professional who is experienced in these areas.

Arab refugees fleeing in 1948.Credit: Fred Csasznik

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