The mention of the Arab term nakba or "catastrophe" in an official third-grade Education Ministry textbook for Arab schoolchildren caused an uproar among Israeli politicians on Sunday. In a discussion on the Jewish victory in Israel's 1948 War of Independence, the textbook, meant for Israeli Arab nine-year-olds, notes: "The Arabs called the war 'nakba,' a war of disaster and loss, while the Jews call it 'the War of Independence.'" That line in the textbook, approved by the Education Ministry for distribution to Arab Israeli schools that ask for it, has garnered angry condemnation and even calls for Tamir's dismissal from right-wing MKs.
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MK Zevulun Orlev (NU-NRP) called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to fire Tamir, saying that by allowing the Palestinian version of events into schoolbooks she was erasing Jewish history and granting the Arabs legitimacy in refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Similar condemnations came from Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman and MK Alex Miller (Israel Beiteinu).
MK Limor Livnat, minister of education when the original curriculum for the textbook was drawn up in 2002, said that telling the Arab narrative of the 1948 war would lead to Arab students believing they should take up arms against Israel.
According to Orlev, the problem lies in the book's failure to take a stand on the use of the Arab term nakba, mentioning it without also saying that the term denies the legitimacy of the Jewish presence in the land.
"If the State of Israel gives legitimacy to the Arab sector to see the War of Independence as a nakba - for a period, they even called it a Holocaust - it tells them they can deny that Israel is a legitimate Jewish state," said Orlev.
"If Israel arose on the disaster of the Palestinians, it can't be legitimate. But the Jewish right to Israel isn't dependent on the Holocaust. It's inherent and part of Jewish history, a legacy of our nakba 2,000 years ago."
Responding to the criticism, Tamir said it reflected "a real fear to deal with the reality of a complex society, which has at least two narratives. There's a lot of tension, and the fact that we don't talk about it doesn't make the tension or the conflict go away."
The copy of the textbook provided to The Jerusalem Post by the Education Ministry has a single mention of the word nakba on page 134. The book notes that it is the Arab name for the war. In going through the politically-charged telling of the war, the textbook also notes that during the war "some of the Arab residents had to leave their homes and some were expelled and became refugees in neighboring Arab states. Most of the Arabs who remained in Israel continued to live in their own settlements, but some whose villages were destroyed during and after the war were made refugees and went to live in other villages inside Israel. The Arab residents who remained in Israel became Israeli citizens, and the State of Israel asked them to keep the peace and to join in building the state as equal citizens. These things were publicized in the document called 'The Declaration of Independence.'"
According to the chief inspector of geography at the ministry, Dalia Fenig, who is responsible for implementing the curriculum in the school system, the criticism of the chapter is unfair.
"The chapter also talks about the generational bond of Jews to the land," - on page 129 - "the Jewish yearning for the land, the desire to be a people like all peoples, the fact that the state made the decision to value equality and relate to people as equals" - on page 135.
The book's detractors, she said, "took a word and a sentence and started to yell. When you read this chapter, you see there's nothing there that's not okay. It's a shame if [the complaints] cause the curriculum to be canceled, since it could be a basis for mutual dialogue."
The original curriculum was developed in 2002 by a committee chaired by then-head of the ministry's Pedagogic Secretariat Prof. Ya'acov Katz, a professor of education at Bar-Ilan University who is also a former adviser to opposition head Binyamin Netanyahu and a resident of Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion.
Katz rejected outright the suggestion that the original curriculum called for telling the narrative from the Palestinian perspective. At the same time, he was careful to note, he was not speaking specifically of the textbook in question, since he had not seen it.
"You have to distinguish between a curriculum and a textbook. The curriculum is a short official document that defines the goals and purposes of teaching a subject. The textbooks come to fill this [plan] with content, interpretation and the different perspectives of the textbook authors," he explained. "The curriculum in 2002 was approved for all Israeli citizens, Arab and Jewish, and it's widely used and widely known. Arab schoolchildren are tested on the War of Independence."
According to Katz, "this curriculum [from 2002] has a phrase that says that the Arab population relates to the War of Independence as a disaster, a nakba. That's a simple fact. But to go from that to textbooks that discuss another narrative passes the line. These things aren't absolutely subjective. We're trying to describe facts. You can't sweep the narrative of the majority under the carpet and say, they have nakba and the Jews have 'independence.' That doesn't happen in any country on Earth. The study plan mentions the concept of nakba, but turning that into an alternative parallel history of Israel isn't legitimate."