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Palestinian History and Identity in Israeli Schools

Palestine Think Tank

samedi 3 ذو الحجة 1430, par Sa’id Barghouti

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This article is based on my personal experience as a teacher of Palestinian students in Israeli public schools and through my work as school inspector and history curriculum team coordinator for Arab schools from 1975 until 2004. During this period I was engaged in efforts at textbook reform, and on research about Israel’s education system which I undertook for my doctoral dissertation.


Israel has a highly centralized public education system which is operated and controlled by the Ministry of Education. The only major exception is the ultra-orthodox Jewish education system which enjoys autonomy for ideological reasons. The state education system operated by the Ministry is composed of two separate streams : the public secular stream, and public national religious stream.

Palestinian students make up one quarter of all students in the Israeli state education system. All public schools in Palestinian communities in Israel belong to the public secular stream ; no public religious schools are available for Palestinians. Public education for Palestinians is administered by the Department for Arab Education, which is a special administrative entity within the Ministry of Education and under its direct control. The Department for Arab Education has no autonomous decision making authorities.

Up until 1987, the Department for Arab Education was headed by a Jewish-Israeli director who was appointed by the Ministry and involved in policy making to ensure control over the Palestinian population. Since then, Palestinians have been appointed to lead the Department but have been excluded from policy decision making as a result of parallel organizational reform which provided for the integration of Arab public schools into the Jewish public education system and its local authorities. Thus, while the Department for Arab Education continued to exist and came to be headed by a Palestinian employed by the Ministry, the heads of Arab Education have held no real power. The Department is only meant to oversee the education of Palestinians and answer to Jewish-Israelis who continue to be in charge.

From the beginning, Israeli politicians saw in the state education system, an instrument to realize Zionist political objectives : the founding of a Jewish nation with a shared identity rooted in Zionist beliefs. Conversely, the educational system was used to ensure a complete lack of Arab and Palestinian identity among the Palestinian citizens of the state.

In 1953, Israel passed the Public Education Law with the aim to centralize the education system. In this context, the goals of public education were defined and formalized for the first time. The first goal stated that the educational system seeks to raise youth on the values of Israeli culture, and love of the [Jewish] nation and people of Israel. This goal remained in place throughout subsequent amendments of the law. No positive goals have been formulated for the education of Palestinians based on the values of Arab, Muslim, and Christian culture and the Palestinian nation. Thus, the teaching of Palestine’s history in Israeli schools, both Jewish and Arab, is based on the Zionist narrative which holds that Jews are one people that formed their identity in the land of Israel (Palestine) more than one thousand years ago, and returned to it to form that identity again.

Of course Palestine was, and has remained, inhabited by its Arab-Palestinian population, who have marked it with its culture, landmarks, and language. But the Zionist narrative avoids facing this reality. This is expressed in Israeli educational texts and curricula through :

* the secularization of myths from the Torah, i.e. their transformation into facts : the myth of the promised land, for example, is turned into an actual land of the forefathers and the presentation of Israel as the historical homeland of the Jewish nation ;
* promotion of a system of social beliefs, such as we are victims, we call for peace, our wars are defensive, our arms are pure, Palestinians hate us, they are the aggressors ;
* selectiveness in the choice of facts and explanations, ignoring contradictory arguments, especially facts connected to Arab-Palestinian history, or at best, presenting them as a narrative that is part of distorted history.

Main findings from research

In 1953, the Ministry of Education issued the first history curriculum for Jewish public and religious elementary schools. This curriculum was translated into Arabic with some adjustments, and Palestinian students were expected to learn the same narrative as their Jewish peers. Arab and Jewish teachers were subsequently charged with the task of preparing textbooks according to that curriculum. History at that time was taught in a complete chronological cycle, with ideas introduced in elementary school (fifth through eighth grade), revisited and expanded upon in High School (ninth through twelfth grade). In my research, I undertook, among others, to investigate how Zionist history has been presented to Palestinian students in history textbooks up until 1975.

Early history textbooks for Palestinian fifth graders, tell the history of Palestine from the perspective of the [Jewish] people of Israel based on the Torah. Exceptions are a few scattered paragraphs which state that the Canaanites colonized the mountains of Judea and the Negev, the Jebusites colonized the mountains of Jerusalem, and that Palestinians differ from Canaanites and are not Semites.

As expected, the texts were strongly driven by the Torah : The Hebrews were begot from Abraham, who crossed the Euphrates and settled in an area which naturally splits into three parts, including the middle region, called Sharon, and the northern region, which is separated from the middle region by the Jezreel Valley. Canaanites that lived in that area are described as the primitive tribes.

The textbook then mentions Jacob, calling him by his last name, Israel : Israel became the father of the Israelite tribes. It then describes the exile of the Israelites to Egypt, and their flight from Egypt, led by Moses : The exodus of the Israelites led by Moses was an important event in their history that remained in the nations mind with the passing of eras. It was a great event that placed them in history as a nation. When the book gets to Joshua Ben Nun, it points to his heroic feats and the sacrifice of his people, which secured victory for them against their enemies.

The textbook follows the narrative from the Torah, era after era, until the destruction of the temple and the Babylonian capture. From there, the Jews return from captivity during the reign of Cyrus the Great. The book does not deviate from heroic descriptions of the Israelites, justifying all of their wars, and describing the indigenous population of Canaanites and others as enemies and primitive people while using contemporary Hebrew names for names of places and localities, and ignoring their original names.

This method is repeated with regard to the history of Palestine under Hellenic rule. The main thrust of the text here concerns the heroic deeds of the Maccabees and their wars, Judah Maccabee went forth with his brothers to secure the foundations of governance and protect the people from enemies, battling the Adamites, and Omarites and the inhabitants of the Galilee, as well as standing up to military campaigns of the Seleucids.

Sixth grade history textbooks do not differ in method or content. The history of Palestine under Roman rule is the history of Jews in Israel until the destruction of the temple in 70 BC. About seven hundred years of the indigenous Palestinians’ history is absent from the pages of the book until the onset of the Arab-Islamic conquest. It briefly mentions the Arab conquest of Jerusalem under the heading The Conquest of Jerusalem, with one sentence in particular standing out : Omar [the second Muslim caliph] treated the Jews, who helped the Muslims, well, left them their property and pardoned them from paying taxes. The aim of this sentence is to provide assurance of a Jewish presence in the city at that time.

Although this book revolves around Arab-Islamic history and Islamic civilization until the fall of the Abbasid empire, it does not mention Palestine until the start of the crusades. It also remains silent about Arab initiatives in Palestine, such as the building of Ramla by Sulayman bin Abd al-Malek, and the construction of the Hisham Palace in Jericho. Casual mention is given (pp. 155-156) of the building of the Dome of the Rock, and then the Aqsa mosque, during the reign of Abd al-Malek ibn Marwan.

Returning to the history of Palestine, a history textbook for seventh graders called Yearning for Zion contains the following sentence : facing [the Christian oppression of Jews in Europe], their attachment to their beliefs grew and their desire to return to Zion, the land that the Romans forced them out of in the first century AD, deepened. Under the heading The Relationship Between Jews in Diaspora and the Land of Israel the book reviews at length stories of individuals or small groups of Jews that immigrated to Tiberias, Safad, and the villages of Galilee between the years 1141-1662. It describes their achievements in every field, portraying them as the ones who made the area blossom.

To sum up, the textbook omits the history of Palestine from 638 to 1791 except insofar as it pertains to Jews. The two main exceptions are the construction the walls of Jerusalem by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1542, to protect the city from Bedouin attacks (p. 186), and the mention of Napoleon’s siege of Akka (p. 301).

The Zionist historical narrative is completed in the eighth grade history textbook which presents the contemporary history of Palestine. The topic is divided into two units : The English in Israel (instead of the British Mandate in Palestine) and The Founding of the State of Israel. Thirty of sixty class periods that eighth graders must attend are devoted to this second chapter. In the spirit of the curriculum, the narrative in this book revolves around subheadings with suggestive meanings, such as The Continuous Yearning for Return and National Independence (pp. 178-182). This chapter, as well as the chapters that follow, address at length everything that has any connection to contemporary Jewish history from the perspective of the Zionist historical narrative, until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Under the heading War of Independence (p. 222), the book states that the armies of the Arab countries entered the country in May of 1948 and fought against the Israeli forces . . . which were able to push back these armies until the four countries that have shared borders with Israel were forced . . . to sign a truce. As for Arab-Palestinian society, it is completely absent in the textbook. Moreover, not even one word is spent on the Palestinian refugees.

This trend repeats itself in the high school curriculum and textbooks, and which are all translated from Hebrew, with the only exception of the book The History of Arabs prepared by Salman Falah (a former education inspector) who writes that Omar Ibn al-Khatab divided greater Syria into the regions of Hims, Hama, Aleppo and Israel [sic].

Efforts at educational reform

In 1975, I began my work as school inspector and coordinator for the history team in the Arab schools and set out to change the situation. A first success came in 1976 when a new curriculum was issued for elementary and middle schools. The new curriculum differed from its predecessor in the following ways :

* The name Palestine was inserted into the curriculum for the first time, instead of the land of Israel. Places were named using their original Arabic names rather than the Hebraized names of the older curriculum ;
* The emphasis on the Torah narrative was reduced, and the histories of other peoples, like the Canaanites, were highlighted. Emphasis on the Zionist narrative of the history of Palestine was reduced, and an Arab-Palestinian historical narrative was introduced for contrast. For instance, a new headline read : The beginning of Jewish colonization and the Arabs in Palestine instead of the previous Yearning for Zion and the Return to Israel. In other words, the focus of the curriculum shifted from the Zionist historical narrative of Israel towards a history of Palestine.

Following the publication of the new curriculum, I also oversaw the preparation of a series of books that replaced the previous textbooks. A new book which most strongly related to Palestinian history was a history textbook for the sixth grade. It said, for example, that The Torah states that the prophet Moses . . . , and that Joshua Ben Nun resorted to subterfuge in his battle against the Canaanites. This stylistic change, which makes mention of the Torah in reported language, improved the objectivity of the text, allowing for a critical approach towards the Torah-Zionist narrative. A seventh grade textbook surveying at length the history of Palestine under the rule of the crusaders, moreover, notes : The crusaders also built relationships with the Muslims in their everyday life by hiring Arab craftsmen, as well as being influenced by their Eastern style of dress and manners.

Part two of the history textbook for the eighth grade contains the heading Palestine in the Age of Political Organizations, and says : For forty years in the nineteenth century, the Ottomans tried to control the inhabitants of Palestine by recognizing local leadership. In this way, the Arab-Palestinian narrative began to gain ground in textbooks, albeit in a limited fashion.

As for high school, I oversaw the preparation of a new curriculum in 1999, which was only approved by the Education Ministry after a two-year long battle. This curriculum included an entire unit called Modern Arab-Palestinian Society. It covers the Palestinian presence on the land until 1948. In the unit on The War of 1948, we prepared a chapter titled The Origin of the Refugee Problem (Expulsion ? Escape ?). By the time I stopped working with the Ministry of Education in 2004, a version of the textbook that included this chapter had not yet been published. The Arab-Palestinian narrative did however appear in a general, brief form in the three sections of textbooks over which I oversaw preparation.One chapter ends with the sentence, many Palestinians whose cities and villages were occupied were forced to leave their homes and became refugees, because of the dangers of war and its destruction, and because of a number of massacres that were perpetrated against them, such as the Massacre of Deir Yassin in April 1948.

The ideological backlash

In April 2004, I left my post at the Ministry of Education, but I continued to follow the government’s development of the curriculum. A new high school curriculum was issued in 2007, which was followed in 2008 by a new curriculum for elementary and middle school levels, replacing both the 1976 and 1999 curricula. The new curriculum for elementary school completely erased modern Palestinian history. Also erased was the unit called The History of Arab-Palestinian Society in the Modern Era for high schoolers. Again, the Zionist historical narrative is imposed on Palestinian students in history textbooks which ignore the history and culture of the Palestinian people. Just as in the period before 1975, anything connected to the history of the Palestinian people has been erased in the revised curricula of 2007 and 2008.

Such orientation will leave a negative impact on students in the long term. First, the connection between the Palestinian-Arab students and their history, culture and identity is severed. This effect is reinforced by the lack of extra-curricular educational activities in Arab schools, such as the commemoration of important events, including the Nakba, massacres, and important political events. This in addition to the prohibition on commemorating national personalities and thinkers such as Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish and Edward Said. Such commemorations are now about to become explicitly banned by the Ministry of Education. Severing this connection means that the cultural wellsprings, which allow students to build their collective history and identity, are dried out. As a result, students are likely to slide towards alienation from their homeland, and opportunities for reflection on the Palestinian people’s history and their ongoing Nakba, which are vital for students to form their world view, are missed.

The second impact of a Zionist historical narrative in curricula, including the use of Hebrew names and the Hebraization of Arabic names of places in textbooks, is to raise students on the idea that the country, Palestine, called Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), belongs to Jews. Palestinian students are inculcated with the idea that Jews are the original and oldest inhabitants of the land and the most attached to it. Raising Arab-Palestinian students on this idea, while not providing adequate cultural and historical knowledge to challenge it, encourages alienation from their homeland.

Feelings of alienation will later on undermine the capacity of students to tackle oppressive policies, especially in matters of land and social culture, and transform them into easy prey for the dominant Israeli political discourse which can be summarized as follows : this is the land of the Jewish people. We returned to our rightful historic homeland and built it up. You Arab-Palestinians are just passers-by, strangers to this land, and a source of annoyance to our presence. This is the discourse underlying Israeli political demands for the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Palestinian history teachers can do little to correct this negative trend. They are limited by the state curriculum and textbooks, and banned from deviating from these texts. They are also monitored by officials in the schools, and by the Ministry of Education. Ultimately, Palestinian students have no choice but to memorize history as it is presented in the textbooks, because they will take their final high school graduation exams (bagrut), in which the Ministry of Education prepares the questions and evaluates the students’ answers.

Some would argue that history classes and textbooks are no longer central for students to get to know their history and build a collective memory and identity. New means of communication, as well as the role of television and computers, have become the vectors of that memory. Scholars, however, agree that school textbooks, and especially history textbooks, have remained central in building memory and fashioning identity. This, because students, like others in society, absorb information from various sources in a haphazard and unsystematic manner, and usually in an individual setting. History classes on the other hand, meet day after day, year after year, and from an early age until maturity. School history education is delivered through systematic, didactic and pedagogical methods, and in a collective setting with peers. History classes and history textbooks therefore remain the central and strongest element in the fashioning of identity, and play a crucial role in building collective memory, or, as in our case, erasing it.

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