A question on the history matriculation exams this summer surprised people familiar with the battle of narratives that plagues the subject. For the first time in this exam that accompanies high school graduation, students were asked to analyze a historical source on the Palestinian Nakba – when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1947-49 war – and the Israeli responsibility for it, even it it's partial.
The text that students were asked to address isn’t an insignificant one; it comes from the memoirs of Yigal Allon, who commanded the elite Palmach strike force and was later a leader of the new Israeli army during the war. Allon wrote proudly about how, in the war, he managed to “cleanse the interior of the Galilee” of its Arab residents via psychological warfare.
This thought-provoking question was intended for students in a more-thorough history curriculum than the regular one, but its principles are already trickling down into the exam for the regular program.
The question on “the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem” appears in the exam in history in a special program underway at around 55 high schools. The program covers less material but delves more deeply into certain periods. It includes two texts for analysis.
One was published in June 1948 in a Jaffa-based Arab newspaper; it criticized the “fifth column, those who abandon their homes and businesses and go to live in other places.” The other quotes Allon on the conquest of the eastern Upper Galilee and the Hula Valley in the far north.
“We only had five days until the looming date May 15. We saw a need to cleanse the interior of the Galilee and create Jewish territorial contiguity throughout the Upper Galilee,” Allon wrote in “The Book of the Palmach.” Allon aimed to trigger the flight of “tens of thousands of hostile Arabs remaining in the Galilee, and who in an invasion could strike us from the home front.” So he spread a rumor that “huge Jewish reinforcements had arrived in the Galilee and were going to burn all the villages in the Hula.”
He asked Jews who had connections with Arabs “to advise them as friends to flee before it was too late. And the rumor spread throughout the Hula Valley that it was time to flee. Tens of thousands fled. The ploy achieved its goal completely … vast areas were purified.”
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As for the Palestinian source, students were asked to distinguish between a historical fact – the departure of wealthy Arabs from Jaffa and other cities – and the writer’s opinion of them (“fifth column”). The students were also asked to compare the two texts and explain whether the comparison “jibes with what has been studied on the creation of the refugee problem.”
Thus the innovation here is the recognition of an Israeli contribution to the “problem.” While there are quotes in works by Benny Morris and other scholars that address the expulsion of Palestinians and the prevention of their return during and after the war, it’s hard to ignore the place the issue has received in an official exam. Maybe next year the term Nakba will even be mentioned.
The change is also significant in the context of battles over the past two decades, especially by right-wing education ministers, against attempts to tweak the historical narrative that generations of students have learned by heart. In the early 2000s, then-Education Minister Limor Livnat fought the textbooks that appeared shortly before she took office (and had been approved by the Education Ministry; the textbook “World of Changes” was banned).
Similarly, in 2009, then-Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar recalled from stores a textbook that proposed a discussion based on conflicting sources on the causes of the refugee problem.
Within this controversy was a piece by a Palestinian scholar who wrote that the Plan D of the Haganah, the pre-state army, was a “historic opportunity [for the Jews] to cleanse the country of Arabs, to negate the Arab presence by erasing it.” Also, in 2016, then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett oversaw the publication of a rewritten civics textbook stating that most of the refugees fled “fearing for their lives or answering the call of local leaders or leaders of neighboring Arab countries.”
Prof. Eyal Naveh of Tel Aviv University – whose late-‘90s textbook was harshly criticized by the right wing – says he doesn’t remember anything about the “refugee question” on previous matriculation exams. “This is great progress,” he says. “The beginning of healing. ... After all, the Allon quote can be used to criticize the beginning of the state – and still the writers of the exam had enough confidence to use it.”
Naveh says that asking for a comparison between the two texts might mean nothing less than deep pedagogical change.
“The comparison allows students to realize that there is no single truth, but that history, like any human matter, is given to different interpretation, to which students must add their interpretation,” he says. “This exam holds a dialogue with the past, links to contemporary dilemmas, and provokes critical thinking. Students must deal with the questions – and that’s excellent.”
Tsafrir Goldberg of the University of Haifa was one of the authors of the textbook “Building a State in the Middle East” that was shredded in 2009.
He says that the new history program, known by the Hebrew acronym Sahlav, “allows a critical discussion and invites teachers to challenge their students with thoughtful questions and hold a discussion and debate on loaded questions. Bennett was the one who decided that the matriculation exam in history had to be designed according to the innovative lines of Sahlav. Therefore, it should be seen as a clear blazing of a trail.”
The letters of the Hebrew acronym Sahlav don’t stand for anything particularly inspiring: “curiosity, thinking and learning enjoyably.” The goal is to encourage “active learning” – an approach that might prevent students from forgetting what they learned a few minutes after the exam. One way to do this, education researchers agree, is ongoing engagement with complex issues that might also be loaded; for example, the Nakba.
Sixty percent of the grade in the program is based on exams crafted by the teachers and papers assigned by the teachers; 40 percent is based on the open-book exam developed especially for the program. Two years ago, some 7,000 students took the exam. During the pandemic, schools are only choosing one external exam from the humanities, so the number of students who took the Sahlav exam dropped by about half. There has been almost no difference in the average grade between the Sahlav exam and that of the regular history matriculation exam.
Schools that want to be part of the Sahlav program must meet certain conditions, including more classroom hours for history and the teachers attending a raft of training seminars. The program is underway in schools throughout the country, but not equally: About half the schools are at kibbutz and moshav agricultural communities, and no schools from the Arab community are included.
The outcome might be an unintentional widening of gaps – on one side there are teachers who insist on exploring controversial issues and students who learn to ask questions and look at things from different perspectives. On the other side, the teachers and students rely more on rote learning.
According to Gilad Maniv, responsible for history teaching at the Education Ministry and the developer of Sahlav, the program is based on the regular history-teaching program but more in-depth, so the questions are more challenging.
It’s not only about Israeli responsibility for the Palestinians’ flight from the Galilee, it’s about inviting students to weigh in on, and perhaps also confront, statements by famous scholars (for example Tom Segev, on the indifference of the Education Ministry and of “most people in the country to the struggle of the clandestine immigrants” – Jews who entered illegally during the British Mandate. Also, “in the curriculum, the First Aliyah and the Second Aliyah are lumped together. Is this justified?)”
Such a challenge isn’t new. When Bennett was education minister, students were asked whether “the main emphasis in teaching the War of Independence” should be on its status as “an existential war of the Yishuv [the Jewish community in the pre-state period] and the State of Israel.”
“Textbooks deal with the Nakba and the refugee problem, so the test reflects the curriculum,” Maniv says, adding that since the test is open-book, “it allows a thinking skill like making a comparison.”
The R&D unit of history teaching
Naveh of Tel Aviv University suggests a slightly different explanation. He says the changes are mainly the result of “pressure and criticism by academics and journalists that has gone on for decades. The Education Ministry works slowly, but things trickle in.” Another possibility is that the small, exclusive framework allows greater freedom.
Maniv defines the program as “the research and development unit of history teaching.” The changes require “long-term preparation.” Teachers “who have gotten used to dictating the material for the exam have to read the historical sources again and address complex issues.”
This is also difficult for students; sometimes they have a hard time weaning themselves off “technical learning,” certainly when the other subjects are still taught the old way.
Maniv says this was the context of a student protest a few years ago at a school where the Sahlav program was taught. They petitioned the principal to “return dictation to history lessons.”
Still, Maniv says that for next year his unit plans to add an open-book part for the regular matriculation exam. “If matriculation exams continue to exist in the coming years, they will be in the Sahlav format,” he says.
The “Palestinian refugee problem” only reached the official curriculum at the end of the ‘90s, but more than a decade passed before textbooks began to discuss it. Since then, it has appeared every few years on the regular matriculation exams.
Another example, completely different from the Sahlav approach, can be found in the history matriculation exam from the winter of 2020: “Explain two factors in the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem: one factor associated with Palestinian society and one contributing to this problem.” Such wording, according to Goldberg of the University of Haifa, “invites much less discussion.”
However, according to the answers published by the Education Ministry last year, the factors leading to the refugee problem didn’t only include the “severe shock” of the departure of wealthy Palestinian families who “had led the country” (that is, it was the Palestinians’ fault). The answers also included the fact that “after the invasion by the Arab armies there were cases where the Israel Defense Forces removed the Arab population or expelled them and destroyed their villages.” And there are other factors: “The refusal of Arab countries, except for Jordan, to take in the refugees,” alongside “[the refusal] of the State of Israel to allow the refugees to return to its territory.
In a study a few years ago, Goldberg found that about 5 percent of students who took the exam chose to answer questions about the refugee problem. “This figure may indicate the extent of investment by teachers in teaching this loaded issue, or the number of teachers who choose to teach it,” he says. “Apparently, students have to feel confident enough to answer” these questions.
In another study, teachers reported that the fear of teaching sensitive historical issues stems less from concerns about censorship from above and more about self-censorship, especially “the mess that can develop in the classroom.” Another explanation is that the subject is usually taught at the end of the school year, when pressure to complete all the material before tests and matriculation exams doesn’t allow for a deep dive.
Similar questions appear occasionally in the history matriculation exam at state religious schools, too. According to Roy Weintraub, a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University who studied the subject, state religious schools “don’t want to suppress injustices that Jews committed in the War of Independence. From our perspective, learning about the suffering of the Palestinians during the establishment of the state helps us claim that there is no difference between the settlement of Jews on land conquered in 1948 and land conquered in 1967. This is part of the narrative that the settlers present as the successors of the pioneers.”