The real 'nakba'
The flap over new third-grade textbooks for Israeli Arab schools has produced a divide along predictable political lines. Education Minister Yuli Tamir, from Labor, is defending a mention of the term "nakba" (catastrophe) as the Arab description of the War of Independence. Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu and others have accused the government of teaching Israeli Arab children to reject the legitimacy of a Jewish state.
If what these critics were saying were true, it would be very disturbing. Fortunately, it is not.
The Hebrew version of the textbook, called Living Together in Israel: Textbook for [the study of] Homeland, Society and Citizenship, is already in use in some schools that have decided to include it in their curriculum. As befits an elementary school text, the Hebrew version does not include an Arab perspective on the history of the land and the conflict; the Arabic version does.
Unit 3 of the Arabic version is titled "This Land is our Homeland." Sticking carefully to basic facts, this chapter weaves together the Jewish and Arab perspectives on the Zionist enterprise. It explains why the Jews came to this land, why they wanted a state, how the Arabs reacted, and how the War of Independence started with the refusal of Arab side to accept the UN partition plan and with the invasion of five Arab armies.
The controversial line reads: "The Arabs call the war 'nakba,' a war of disaster and loss, while the Jews call it 'The War of Independence.'"
Contrary to the impression given by the headline in The New York Times ("In Arabic Textbook, Israel Calls '48 War Catastrophe for Arabs") and by some of the critics, the textbook does not itself endorse or justify the use of the term "nakba." Anyone reading the chapter would conclude that Jews and Arabs suffered greatly from a war that the Arab side chose and started.
Indeed, the text seems to be written to help persuade an Israeli Arab third-grader who was being told by much of his surroundings that the Jews are interlopers who stole his land that there is another way of looking at things. Far from presenting the Arab "narrative," the text seems to be designed to open minds to the Jewish narrative, while including accurate points of reference, such as the costs of the war, that might help reconcile the distortions these students receive from their environment with the facts.
It should not be surprising that the book has such a Zionist didactic purpose, given that the head of the Education Ministry committee that drafted the curriculum behind this text was Prof. Ya'acov Katz, a professor of education at Bar-Ilan University, former adviser to Netanyahu, and resident of Gush Etzion. That curriculum, produced in 2002, stipulated that the text include references to the Arab description of events, such as the term "nakba."
Though there are certainly legitimate pedagogical questions over how best to educate Arabs and Jews toward living together, that goal is certainly a worthy one. In particular, it is important that Israeli Arab children learn real historical facts, not just propaganda designed to foster hatred and rejection of the state in which they live. The way to do this, we would suggest, is not necessarily to reject all use of the term "nakba," but to define it more accurately.
The Arab catastrophe was not the fact of Israel's creation, but the Arab rejection of it. If the Arab world had accepted the UN partition plan and decided to live in peace with Israel, both Israel and Palestine would be celebrating their 60th anniversaries next year. All the wars and the refugee problem would not exist, and the unfathomable price imposed in blood and treasure for the failed Arab attempt to destroy Israel would have been saved.
Nor is this "merely" history; it is the present. Even today, the Arab world, including the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, face a choice between continuing to try to destroy Israel or living in peace with Israel. It is the same choice they faced in 1937, 1947, 1967, 2000 and 2005. The costs of the catastrophic course the Arab world has chosen until now cannot be recouped, but the costs of continuing the conflict can still be spared.
The textbook's chapter ends thus: "The Arab residents who stayed in the land became citizens of Israel, and the State of Israel called on them to keep the peace and join in building the country as citizens with equal rights... [As stated] in the Declaration of Independence: The state will uphold equality for all its residents, safeguard all the holy places, and strive for peace with its neighbors."