Best wishes to the 11th-grade pupils taking their matriculation exam in history Thursday morning. May they have the best of luck. They aren’t to blame for the warped structure of their curriculum and the unreasonable mix of material.
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History is a compulsory subject for matriculation. Thirty percent of the final grade in history is based on a paper about the Holocaust that the student writes. The other 70 percent is based on the score on the matriculation exam, the material for which could be given the umbrella name “Resurrection.” Here is a brief history of time according to the Israeli education system.
The material for study is divided into several sections, starting with the Second Temple period, under the title “From a People of the Temple to People of the Book.” It goes on to nationalism and Zionism (“building a nation in the Middle East”), and from there to the British Mandate and the establishment of the State of Israel. Israel’s wars are given a hefty chapter. The War of Independence is mandatory reading, followed by either the Six-Day War or the Yom Kippur War. The kids memorize the reasons, the results, the number of casualties and the ramifications, too. The peace agreement with Egypt, for example, perhaps the State of Israel’s greatest achievement since its establishment, is mentioned as an aside, as one of the outcomes of the Yom Kippur War.
That is the revamped study program launched in 2014, constructed laboriously by people with good intentions. The rationale was termed “a proper combination of general history with Jewish history,” but due diligence shows disheartening results. The root of the problem lies in dosage, proportion and bias. General world subjects are viewed through the narrow prism of the Jewish world. For instance, decolonization is taught through what happened in Iraq. The average pupil might grasp decolonization as a bad thing, since after it came the “Farhud” – riots against the Jews of Baghdad. The Roman Empire, a sweeping historical phenomenon that had great influence over the development of human culture, is mentioned in the context of people and rebellions in the tiny backwater province of Judea. It’s like looking at the world and its wonders through the hole of a straw.
Obviously, thousands of years of history cannot be crammed into one examination. There must be filtering and choosing, and every choice involves painful concessions. Nor is there anything wrong with stressing Israel’s history. The connection to geographical and national roots can interest the pupils and give them a sense of identification. But how can they be given the matriculation test in history without any exposure to at least some of the periods and events that shaped our world? Hellenism and democracy in Athens and Rome, the golden age of Islam, papal power and the Crusades, the Renaissance and the era of enlightenment and wisdom, the political revolutions in England, France and America, slavery and the civil war in the U.S., the modern and industrial revolution, the world wars and the Cold War, the rise of communism and its fall.
Teaching history like it’s done in Israel is a pedagogic missed opportunity and a political sin. Alongside this narrow, ethnocentric history, pupils of course also learn Bible as a mandatory school subject, as well as Judaism and “Jewish thought” with a nationalist-religious orientation, by means of outsourcing. Many high school pupils travel to the concentration camps for a week; there is also a week of “Gadna” military training for teens, and visits by army representatives to tell students about the draft.
This is indoctrination: the systematic implantation of positions, ideas, beliefs and, above all, an over-arching worldview of the Chosen People, isolationist and condescending, hounded and threatened, at the center of human history and the planet itself.
Thus good soldiers are formed and later, good cogs of the society. But history, wicked, obstinate and ironic that it is, also remembers where this assembly line can lead.