I was mistaken to think that the emptiness and insensitivity of the public school history curriculum are concentrated on the bagrut matriculation exams and the upper high school grades, as discussed in the article in Haaretz English Edition, “Israel’s Education Ministry Doesn’t Deal With Education, Only Hasbara.” Teachers who responded to the article challenged that conception: They explained that the most interesting, enlightening and enriching study occurs in the lower grades – 6th through 9th, and not in the preparation for the bagrut. In middle school, students are taught about Christianity and Islam, about the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and not only about “the Jewish context,” as in the higher grades, and critical discussion is encouraged about conflicting narratives within Israeli society.
So I went to see – does the middle-school history curriculum encourage critical thinking and expose Israeli children to the rich history of their land, or does it focus on justifications for Zionism and ignoring the Palestinians – their past and their culture – as in the bagrut exams? I was not surprised to discover that the curriculum for grades 6 through 9 concentrates on hasbara, just like in grades 10 through 12. And it was not formulated by right-wing people, but by a committee that was appointed by the last left-wing education minister, Yuli Tamir, and headed by Professor Aviva Halamish, a former Peace Now activist.
The curriculum for grades 6 through 9 aspires to combine general and Jewish history. And this is the result: The Hellenistic world and the Jews, Herod for and against the Jews, Christianity as a Jewish sect, Jewish life in Islamic lands and in Christian Europe, the role of the Jews in the Enlightenment, Napoleon and the Jews, the Jews between integration and rejection, the Jews in North Africa, present a position “from a Jewish point of view.” In 9th grade they focus on Zionism, the building of the Jewish Yishuv and the conflict with the Arabs during the ”state in the making.” And what don’t you find there? Parts of the world in which very few Jews lived, like China, India and Africa, which are only mentioned as destinations of European colonialism. Students are told about the emergence of Islam, and the differences between it and Judaism and Christianity – but not about its development, the rift between Sunnis and Shi’ites, or the Ottoman Empire and its historical importance – all critical issues for anyone who lives in the Middle East and wants to understand the balance of powers and the conflicts in the region.
But that is all background noise. At the heart of the curriculum is the erasure of this land’s history. The Palestinians suddenly appear towards the end of the story, during the British Mandate period, as violent Arabs who revolted against the Jewish aliyah. Nothing is taught about the development of the Palestinian communities, about the 1,300 years of Muslim rule here, about the connection to the neighboring lands and their culture, about daily life in Jaffa or Acre, about the hundreds of villages that were destroyed in the Nakba. All of those are black holes. The only period that is mentioned in the history of the country between Herod and Herzl – and only for seven hours of study time in total – are the Crusades and the establishment of the Christian “Kingdom of Jerusalem.”
And who were these people who lived here before the Crusaders arrived on the scene, and after they were defeated? Israeli public school students are not supposed to know that. Perhaps because it might prompt them to ask questions about the justice of Zionism and make them curious to know more about the Palestinian story. In the school curricula, history is what happens with the Jews from the Hellenistic period up until Israel’s founding, and all the rest is irrelevant. Because the essence of the study of history in Israel is not expanding the students’ knowledge or developing critical thinking, but raising a new generation of obedient disciples who will recite the national narrative, “for questioning the basic assumptions upon which we were raised could blur the elements of our shared identity, and threaten the foundations of our identity,” says Sagi Cohen, author of one of the high school history textbooks. I couldn’t put it any better.