Amos Hofman. Journal of Curriculum Studies. Volume 39, Issue 4. 2007.
Introduction: ‘History Wars’ and Education
In March 2001 the Israeli minister of education forbad teaching from a recently‐published history textbook for junior high schools, A World of Change (Yaacobi 1999). The grounds for this act of censorship—the first ever in the history of Israel—were that the book appeared critical of Zionism and tacitly admitted that the Arabs might also have legitimate claims in the century‐old Israeli‐Arab conflict. The minister was concerned that this might have a negative educational influence on students in the state educational system. The book, she decided, had a ‘fundamental fault’ from a moral and Zionist point of view, and therefore must be shelved immediately (Saar 2001).
This political intervention into school textbooks was one of the peaks in an ongoing struggle to define the aims and values underlying history studies in Israeli state schools. An earlier attempt (September 1999) to stop the use of a textbook for similar reasons—Naveh’s (1999) The 20th Century: On the Doorstep of Tomorrow—ended with less dramatic results and, despite fierce resistance, continues to appear on the list of books approved by the Ministry of Education.
I will review both of these cases in greater detail in the second part of this paper. It is well known that such ‘history wars’ are found in many countries, and there is a vast bibliography dealing with the re‐writing of national history and its impact upon school curricula. It seems that everywhere national history is undergoing a fundamental revision and, because of the widespread interest in history, the ensuing debates are not limited to professional historians but are often accompanied by a general public discussion. In stable democratic societies this is usually a polite dialogue about the interpretation of national origins. The situation is quite different in countries which recently experienced a total collapse of their national narrative, or in societies undergoing rapid transition. In former totalitarian societies in Eastern Europe, as well as in countries such as Japan and China, we can witness very bitter struggles regarding the definition of their national identity and attempts to redesign school history curricula in order to accommodate new perspectives on national history.
However, even when compared to other countries, the Israeli ‘history war’ seems to be more acute and intense. That might be attributed to the unique character of Jewish history, which is so long temporally and dispersed geographically, creating a huge potential for historical debates. Moreover, the constitution of the State of Israel with its policy of the ‘in‐gathering of exiles’ has brought together populations with conflicting cultural, theological, and political traditions. This has exacerbated ancient historical conflicts within Jewish society—both inside and outside Israel—regarding the origins and national identity of the Jews, and had a decisive influence upon the study of history in Israeli schools. This paper will explore these processes in greater detail.
Generally speaking, the purpose of studying history at school is not only to know the past but also to form an orderly future, logically flowing from the past and the present. In other words, educational systems hold, in the main, a teleological view of history, seeking to form the future according to some kind of plan that will create the desired order. History is constituted as a meaningful narrative in which the protagonists are well‐known, its aims well‐defined, and the end—despite ups and downs—is a good one.
From that point of view, when attempting to evaluate a history curriculum we must first understand the historical narrative, or plot, which a curriculum relates. This historical narrative (formally presented as the official curriculum document) is influenced throughout by the values which the educational system seeks to instill in its students. There is no neutral story here, but a necessary moral message.
These then are our guidelines in this paper. I will analyse the four history curricula for elementary and junior high schools published by the Israeli Ministry of Education in the years 1956, 1961, 1975, and 1995 in order to understand their educational aims and their implications for current historical attitudes within Israeli society.
Part I: Teaching History in Israel
General Problems in Writing History Curricula in Israel
The publication of history curricula in Israel has always attracted intense public interest. The first official curriculum for the State educational system was developed and written by the then‐Minister of Education himself, the historian Ben‐Zion Dinur. The writers of subsequent curricula were also well‐known historians. All of these writers emphasized that, beyond some general pedagogic issues (e.g. the fact that students form a heterogeneous community of learners), there are some problems unique to teaching history in the Israeli‐Zionist context.
There are, in fact, two fundamental issues:
- The history of the Jewish people is spread out over thousands of years and takes place in different locations in the world; and
- Much of the history of the Jewish people is a ‘history of disasters’, that is to say of long periods of exile, oppression, and humiliation.
Jewish history, beginning in Biblical times and lasting to the present, is problematic not only because of the obvious necessity to select subjects from such a vast period of time, but also because it makes it almost impossible to form it as a continuous historical narrative. Anyone wishing to show the historical continuity of the Jewish People immediately observes that it is disrupted by the fact that the Jews are dispersed throughout the entire world. This Diaspora created several Jewish sub‐cultures, each with its own distinct history. However, as we will see, almost all curricula developers in Israel have refused to recognize the pluralistic nature of Jewish existence and sought to show national unity at any cost, despite the different traditions.
Furthermore, the result of Jewish dispersion is that the history of the Jews is closely bound with that of other nations. It is impossible, in fact, to study Jewish history as a separate field, disconnected with what has become known in Israel as ‘General history’. As we will see, two different approaches to this issue emerged: the first—the ‘background’ approach—focused on Jewish history and dealt with other nations merely as ‘background’ to the history of the Jews. The second—the ‘contextual’ approach—required integrating the history of the Jews with the history of other nations, and in some cases in which the Jews played a minor, or negligible, role in important historical events and processes, even demanded emphasizing General history more than Jewish history.
Another major problem for curriculum writers is the unique character of Jewish history, with its long periods of oppression and relatively short periods of glory. School students are well aware of a feeling of alienation that Jewish history arouses because of this situation. The humiliation of Jews in most of their countries of exile (and the term ‘Exile’ itself), the feeling that Jewish culture, at least until the Enlightenment, was merely an orthodox, rabbinical, traditional culture, the profound lack of such figures as kings and heroic military men, the terrible disasters which happened to the Jews, above all the Holocaust—all these seem to be totally opposed to contemporary Israeli ethos.
The ambivalent attitude towards the Diaspora (or Exile, as it was commonly called) during the State’s first two decades, and the perception that in Israel a ‘new Jew’ is being created (or, at least, should be created), brought about a situation in which General history was favoured by school students over Jewish history. This perception was reinforced by the fact that, as opposed to the sad phenomena of humiliation and oppression familiar to students of Jewish history, the history of Zionism, and the rise of the State of Israel stand out as a glorious chapter in the history of the nation. While this view of the new and heroic Israeli has been somewhat moderated in recent years, its traces are still evident. For example, a recent international comparative study of the historical consciousness of youths showed that young Israelis relate more to the history of the 20th century, which corresponds to the history of Zionism and the foundation of the State of Israel (Angvik and von Borries 1997: 317, 119).
However, the history of Zionism and the State of Israel is but a short chapter in Jewish history, extending at most 150 years. That unfortunate fact did not deter curriculum developers, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, who were eager to show that the entire history of the Jews leads to the foundation of the State of Israel. With such a teleological narrative they solved both the problem of the historical continuity and that of the ‘sequence of disasters’ in Jewish history. If they could prove a historical continuity of the Jewish nation from Biblical times to the constitution of the State of Israel, then even the low points of Jewish existence will have a Zionist meaning.
The two problems discussed here can be merged into one, which has occupied the writers of history curricula from the foundation of the State to the present: what relationship, and what proportions, should there be between the study of Jewish history and General history in State schools? Obviously, such questions are raised in many countries because no national history is isolated from outside influence. Yet it seems that this problem is especially acute in Israel, where separate university departments of Jewish history and General history have been created. This establishment of separate academic departments brought about a situation in which professional historians are trained as though Jewish and General histories are different disciplines. The perception of Jewish history—and later the history of the Land of Israel—as subjects separated from the general discipline of ‘history’, created many difficulties in structuring school curricula, in which a combination of the ‘two histories’—Jewish and General—was required.
Description of the Curricula
The 1956 Curriculum
The first formal history curriculum was published in 1956. Its outline was developed by the then‐Minister of Education, Ben‐Zion Dinur, an historian who had dedicated his entire professional career to the advancement of national education. As Rein (1999) has shown, Dinur connected his national ideology and his work as a professional historian and educator. When immigrating to Israel in the early 1920s, he decided to write a new Jewish history textbook ‘that will be harmonious with the Land of Israel’. Such a book, he emphasized, will focus on ‘the Land of Israel and the history of the People of Israel in this Land’ (Rein 1999: 379).
Although, as a professional historian, Dinur stressed the necessity of critical reading and analysis of sources, there is no doubt that the use of history for nation‐building was more important for him. Dinur’s opinions were similar to those of the then‐Prime Minister, David Ben‐Gurion, who requested Dinur to help him draft the National Education Law, designed to abolish the various political educational systems (or ‘streams’, as they have been called) that had been put in place at the beginning of the 20th century, prior to the foundation of the State in 1948. Dinur sought ‘to translate Ben‐Gurion’s philosophy into the language of education, and thus demonstrated the allegiance between the nation‐state and the national historian’ (Rein 1999: 383).
Unlike other national historians whose research served their national ideology (e.g. Michelet in France or Ranke in Germany), Dinur had to deal with the unique problem of the Jews as a nation that had had no political sovereignty throughout most of its history. Thus, Dinur had a double mission: first to reconstitute the territorial connection between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel; and secondly, to narrate the problematic story of the long Exile from the Homeland. Dinur therefore argued that the revolution which had taken place in the history of the Jewish People requires rethinking the national past, not only to understand it historically but also in order to achieve ‘self‐awareness’ as ‘a foundation of spiritual and moral independence, without which we cannot have political independence’ (Rein 1999: 390). The study of history, Dinur said, means ‘struggling with the past, knowing it and re‐evaluating it. That is the reason … for learning Israeli [sic] history in this generation’ (Rein 1999: 390). In other words, studying history serves, first and foremost, the interests of the present—the need to fortify the political independence of the new state.
These words, which Dinur wrote in 1951, found their educational application in the 1956 curriculum document. In his general introduction to the collection of curricular documents (at that time curricula for all subjects were published as a single volume), he emphasized that all curricula must serve the aims of the National Education Law. That Law had been enacted in 1953 after a bitter political debate between the government and various sectors of the newly‐formed State who wished to create separate educational networks. The Education Law defined public education as based upon
the values of Jewish culture and the achievements of science, upon patriotism and fidelity to the State of Israel and to the People of Israel, on [the value of] work in agriculture and industry, pioneering [i.e. Zionist] education, and upon an aspiration for a society based upon liberty, equality, toleration, mutual help and the love of others.
From that point of view, the Minister declared, ‘nothing at school should be in any way contrary to these aims’ (Dinur 1956: 7). Furthermore, Dinur stressed the interdependence of all fields, claiming that all school subjects were aimed at achieving the same ethical goals defined by the Education Law. As he wrote, there are necessary associations between the natural sciences, geography, and language; both language and literature are connected to the study of history. For example, learning Hebrew poetry should not only teach the literary qualities of the text (in Dinur’s word, ‘analysis of poetry and the ability for aesthetic pleasure’), but also enhance patriotism. Hebrew poetry since the Golden Age in Spain (i.e. 12th century), said Dinur (1956: 11), is ‘interwoven into the new vision of the Homeland’s landscape and enhances a sincere feeling for its concrete reality’. From this perspective, then, studying literature is supposed ‘to connect the young generation to certain moments of the developing project of our revival’. Literary analysis must bequeath to students ‘the entire story of our courageous effort to build our nation and correct our way of life; it will revive the entire story of daring and courage of our struggle for independence’ (p. 11). Just as literature was enlisted to aid history in its national mission, so other fields—by their unity—were supposed to achieve ‘Israeli fraternity’ (p. 14). The aim of education, summed the Minister in dramatic, even messianic terms, is that
[the public] will deserve the name of Israel gathering its exiles while continuing the glorious culture of a People who was at the beginning ‘one and unified’, and in our times has been imposed with the exalted and difficult mission to be ‘corrected for future redemption’. (Dinur 1956: 14)
From a professional‐historical point of view, the 1956 curricula was an impressive attempt to present history chronologically ‘from the beginning of mankind’s development’ (to be studied in the 5th grade) until the War of Independence (8th grade). The approach is obviously positivistic: there are indubitable historical facts, supported by material and textual evidence. Indeed, a preliminary reading of the curriculum document reveals what seems to be an incredibly dry, scientific approach, reconstituting a continuous, causal chain of events from the ancient Near East to the mid‐20th century. Obviously, however, this is not really an objective, quasi‐scientific position. In fact the curriculum presented a central narrative, which told the story of the formation and crystallization of the People of Israel, its decline from greatness, and its revival with the rise of Zionism. The writers of this curriculum clearly wished to attribute to the ancient People of Israel the traits of a modern sovereign nation. Thus, after a short description of ancient Near Eastern civilizations and ‘the development of political states in the Middle East’, the curriculum emphasized ‘the settlement of the People of Israel in their Promised Land and their unification into a nation’, which is compared to ‘the divisiveness of the Canaanites’. The curriculum sought to give the study of history a unique character and not to see it as a kind of expansion of Biblical studies. Teachers were required, therefore, to suggest to the pupils, ‘if possible’, other historical sources (but these were not mentioned in the curriculum document) and to pay special attention to ‘the unification of the Tribes’, to the struggle of the prophets ‘against the influence of foreign cultures’, and to ‘the development of the country into an organized independent state’ (Ministry of Education 1956a: 29; emphases added). Later, when dealing with the monarchy of ancient Israel, its division, and the Babylonian Exile, teachers were requested to show the pupils ‘how the Land and its People were destroyed because of alienation from the Law of Israel…, and because of internal divisions’ (p. 30).
The curriculum writers’ moral and political standpoint is evident. It is reminiscent of similar texts written in Europe during the 19th century, at a time when nation‐building was at its peak. In his famous Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Burckhardt (1958 : I, 175-179), for example, wrote about ‘the genius of the Italian people’ and of ‘the modern Italian spirit which was destined to serve as the model and ideal for the whole Western world’. It seems that Dinur saw in the Jewish people what Burckhardt saw in the Italian people during their process of national unification. Both attributed to the ‘ancient period’ of their people the decisive influence shaping their fate in modern times. In Dinur’s text, ancient events were transposed into modern times and described in contemporary Zionist terms: Hanukah is ‘the festival of religious and political liberty’; Hasmonean rule is presented as ‘fortifying the Jewish character of the Land’; while fighting the Romans the Jews created a ‘provisional government’; and after their defeat (mentioned only briefly in the curriculum document), their struggle for ‘cultural independence’ continued as well as ‘the concern for Jewish ownership of land and the preservation of the Jewish identity of the Land [of Israel]’ (Ministry of Education 1956b: 81-83).
This pattern of the history curriculum for the 5th grade is repeated for all other grades: there was heavy emphasis upon the national history of the Jewish people, and only a marginal study of other cultures. The curriculum listed 49 topics, 32 of which (∼ 65%) deal directly with Jewish history. However, if one looks at the amount of time dedicated to the various subjects, it is quite evident that Jewish history had an even greater share because it was intertwined into sections dealing with General history. The curriculum explicitly stated that in all sections dedicated to General history ‘one must not go into detail’. It recommended that ‘the teacher will give a general idea about the period and its institutions … without being delayed by excessive details’ (Ministry of Education 1956b: 81): the section dealing with the rise of Islam was entitled ‘Jews in the world of Islam’, and the discussion of feudal Europe termed ‘Jews in Christendom’ (Ministry of Education 1956c: 126). Islam and Christianity were perceived as of merely secondary importance, a kind of ‘background’, when compared to the cultural and religious unity of the Jewish people, the principal theme connecting all parts of the curriculum.
To summarize, the 1956 curriculum may be perceived as a prototype of history programmes written in the national and pedagogic spirit of the 1950s. Accordingly, the study of history must be based upon clearly verifiable facts which constitute a distinct historical narrative. While that narrative contained some unfortunate, horrifying periods of oppression and death, it ended happily, and on the heroic note of the revival of the People of Israel in their Promised Land. The Jewish sense of historical victimization was overturned and became a history of progress.
The 1961 Curriculum
It is not clear why a new history curriculum was published in 1961, and even who wrote it. Reading the curriculum document makes it evident that its authors did not want to change either the basic contents of historical studies in schools or their orientation. It seems that they wished mainly to rephrase the values and aims for studying history, and perhaps make them more explicit. The division into topics is much more detailed (instead of 49 topics in the 1956 curriculum, there are 169 in the 1961 curriculum), but more importantly, 70% of them focus on Jewish history, and only 30% on General history.
The bias towards Jewish history was expressed with no hesitation in the introductory chapter of the curriculum document, elaborating the aims of teaching history (Ministry of Education 1961: 3):
- To instill the students with knowledge of the great past of the Jewish people—their spiritual heritage, their deeds and vision—and knowledge of the people who were in contact with the Jewish people, and their reciprocal influence.
- To instill students with the knowledge that our People, one of the smallest of nations, has kept its religion, its customs and its ideas throughout 2000 years of exile, did not deprecate itself before great nations and their cultures, and did not stop existing as one People in the countries of its Diaspora.
- To nurture love in the hearts of the students for the lofty spiritual assets of our Nation, and to arouse in them the will to behave according to them; to instill in their hearts admiration for the great figures of the People of Israel, its martyrs and heroes, and to arouse in them the will to learn from their good deeds.
- To provide the students with knowledge of the most important historical facts and the connections between them; the understanding of the spiritual and material forces acting in human society and general concepts regarding its development, while paying special attention to the understanding of the historical foundations of the political, social and cultural situation of our times.
- To nurture among the students the value of co‐operation between nations and the reciprocal influence of all the good and best in every nation’s culture, to develop toleration towards other nations, and to teach them the importance of international organizations.
It is evident from this list of objectives that the scholarly aspects of history (knowledge of facts and the connection between them; the historical foundations of political reality) are found here in the fourth place only (section 4). The aim of this curriculum was obviously ideological and political—the study of history was meant to serve, first and foremost, national‐cultural interests. The history of other nations was studied only if it has some kind of connection to Jewish history. Even if there was a ‘reciprocal influence’ between Jewish history and the history of other nations (as mentioned in section 1), it was only marginal because ‘our People’, according to the writers of this document, never ‘deprecated itself’ before other nations, and has always continued to ‘exist as one People’, regardless of any specific political or social situation in which it might have found itself.
Section 5 of this curriculum differs from all the other curricula because it emphasizes co‐operation between nations and the ‘good and best’ in every people. However, an analysis of the curriculum document itself reveals that, regardless of these general aims, it was typically ethnocentric, and made no serious attempt to express the idea of international co‐operation. Indeed, in a section dealing with teaching methods, it was explicitly stated that only Jewish history was to be studied, while the history of other nations was to be taught only in order to gain ‘knowledge relevant to the understanding of the reciprocal relationship between them and the Jews’ (p. 4).
Another innovation of this curriculum was the division it applied between the ethical values of the General State school system and those of the National‐Religious State school system. It is worthwhile to quote the document in full (see table 1; Ministry of Education 1961: 3). The words in table 1 speak for themselves. In fact, two different concepts of Jewish history have emerged: a history of the deeds and actions of the Jews; and a history of those of God. It seems, however, that even the secular state system was seen as fundamentally theological in that its list of aims emphasized especially the unique contribution of the Jewish people in the sphere of religious values (‘the first to believe in one God’; ‘the lofty elements of Jewish Law’; ‘the vision of the Prophets of Israel’; ‘studying the Torah’; etc.).
|Table 1. Ethical aims of the 1961 curriculum.|
|General [secular] State School System||National‐Religious State School System|
|(6) To implant in the hearts of the students the knowledge, that our People, which is one of the most ancient nations and the first to believe in one God, nurtured sublime social ideals and [thus] contributed to the world’s moral advancement.||(6) To implant in the heart of the student the knowledge that he is a son to the People of Israel, Chosen by God, and that he must prove worthy of this and live the kind of life which will lead the People to fulfill its destiny as a People of God.|
|(7) To nurture in the children the recognition that the lofty foundations of Jewish Law [the Torah], the vision of the Prophets of Israel about the End of the Days, the Jews’ public learning of the Torah, their attachment to religious manners, their profound belief in the eternity of Israel, their ongoing connections to their Homeland and their belief in their redemption—all these gave our People the strength to stand against its oppressors and to preserve its independence. These [principles] brought them to our Homeland, to gather the exiles and to reconstitute the State of Israel.||(7) To implant in the hearts of the students the recognition that one can observe God’s Providence in all human history, and especially in the miracle of the existence of the Jews among the nations, and that the fate of our People depends upon the fulfillment of the Torah, and to make them understand the dangers of spiritual and national assimilation in the past and in the present.|
|(8a) To instill the students with the knowledge that the foundation of the State of Israel is a result of centuries of yearning and fidelity to it, and of the efforts and achievements of the great pioneering movement of the three generations of revival (the return to Zion and the gathering of the exiles, the rejuvenation of the wilderness of this Land, the revival of the Hebrew language and of Jewish culture, the return to a life of work and creativity, and the defence of the nation’s possessions).||(8a) To make the students recognize that the miraculous revival of our State [is the result of] the revelation of Providence, and to appreciate in this spirit the yearnings of past generations and the efforts of the pioneers, who brought about the great events which made our independence come true (the return to Zion and the gathering of the exiles, the rejuvenation of the wilderness of the Land and the War of Independence).|
|(8b) To imbue them with love for the State of Israel and the will to act for its sake and to guard it, to develop it and strengthen it in the spirit of the sublime values of the Torah and the Prophets and in the spirit of the pioneering ideals of the generation of the revival.||(8b) To imbue them with love of the State of Israel which God granted us, and the will to act for its sake and guard it and its [unique] character in the spirit of our Torah.|
|Note: Paragraph numbers are those of the curriculum document. My emphases.|
This traditional orientation required that ‘studying the history of our People from the Exodus from Egypt until the Return to Zion will be co‐ordinated with the Bible curriculum and closely attached to it, without harming the principles of Bible teaching’ (p. 5). This guideline was different (and in a sense opposed) to the statement in the 1956 curriculum, according to which ‘the teacher should not teach history … as a repetition of Biblical studies’ (Ministry of Education 1956a: 29). In 1956, Bible and history were perceived as two separate and mutually complementary subjects, while in 1961 the Biblical period was in fact extracted from the history curriculum and submitted to the domain of Bible studies.
As for secular values, these—according to the 1961 curriculum—are exclusively included in Zionism and in ‘the pioneering ideals of the Generation of Revival’. However, because this is such a short period in Jewish history, the developers of the curriculum added an appendix (to be studied in the 8th grade) entitled ‘Knowledge of the Nation’, focusing on the contemporary situation of the Jews all over the world. Eighth‐grade history was thus almost entirely devoted to the history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, as a kind of climax of the entire course of studies—the solution, so to speak, of the historical narrative describing the fate of the Jews. In this narrative the State of Israel was a dominant factor, with its influence reaching far beyond its borders—not only geographically, but also chronologically. Jewish history, according to this curriculum, seems to have been striving from its beginnings to the dramatic moment of the constitution of the State of Israel. The curriculum document notes that ‘when studying chapters dealing with the exile of the Jews one must emphasize the dependence of Jews upon external factors, a dependence tearing the Jews spiritually and raising problems of double loyalty’ (p. 29). The evident conclusion is that the exile (or even ‘diaspora’, to use the more moderate term) is illegitimate by definition:
It is necessary to point out that among the Jews there are individuals and groups, whose attachment to Jewish values in general is weak (assimilation of all kinds); and the fact that the State of Israel exists carries within it a correction to this distortion of the curse of exile. (Ministry of Education 1961: 32)
As for the National‐Religious system, its attitude toward these subjects seems to be totally outside history. Its main purpose was to form the consciousness in the minds of its students that they are children to a chosen people, and for this reason they must maintain an appropriate way of life. It sought to instill in them the idea that history is an expression of God’s will, and that the existence of the Jewish people is a divine miracle. It wished to explain to them that the rise of the State of Israel is ‘mysterious and amazing’, revealing the influence of Divine Providence, and that Israel is a state ‘which the Lord has given us’, and therefore we must guard its uniqueness ‘in the spirit of the Torah’. All these aims and purposes have nothing to do with the study of history specifically, and may be applied to many other fields of study.
This situation had far‐reaching social and political consequences. Many people believe that the sources of the national‐messianic attitudes typical of the religious sector in Israel lie in the Six Days War (1967), in which the Biblical Land of Israel was occupied by the Israeli army and later settled mainly by orthodox Jews. However, it is important to note that this vision of the Land of Israel (today identified with the political Right) had its educational roots within the National‐Religious system several years before the Six Days War. The settler movement in the areas of Judea and Samaria, which began in the mid‐1970s, was led by graduates of an educational system who had been taught in a messianic spirit since the early 1960s. We may conclude that it was not the Six Days War that gave rise to the Israeli version of political messianism (that is to say to its national‐religious version); rather but that the graduates of the National‐Religious stream were in a favourable position for interpreting the Six Days War in messianic terms. The people who had been educated according to this curriculum since the early 1960s were the same people (indeed the same age group) who were the settlers in the second half of the 1970s.
The 1975 Curriculum
The history curriculum of 1975 signified a revolutionary approach to the study of history for both the General State School System and the National‐Religious State System. Surprisingly enough, it broke the nationalist attitude of the two previous curricula, suggested novel approaches to the study of history at school, and seemed to make a serious attempt at reconciliation between the General and Religious State systems.
There were several reasons for developing a new history curriculum in the early 1970s. First, there was a structural reform in the State school system at the beginning of the 1970s, establishing junior high schools (termed ‘the middle division’), which separated grades 7-8 from elementary school and the 9th grade from high school (which was henceforth termed ‘the upper division’). It was decided that history would not be taught in the 5th grade, but would begin progressively in the 6th grade by studying subjects from the Biblical period. The study of history as a separate discipline began only in the 7th grade. It was therefore necessary to find ways to provide for a reasonable curriculum in this field, which would expand over 3 years only (grades 7-9), before the students moved on to high school.
Moreover, in line with the pedagogic perspectives of the times, the 1975 curriculum was more professional. It determined that Jewish history and General history should not be separated, but rather seen as two aspects of a single discipline. The curriculum focused on several fundamental historical concepts (e.g. chronology, event, process, historical explanation, etc.) perceived as the building‐blocks for the actual subject‐matter to be taught at school.
More importantly, the developers of the new curriculum were probably influenced by the concern within leading intellectual circles that too large a dosage of national history is a potential cause of hatred between nations as well as racial and cultural prejudices. Perhaps after the Yom Kippur War (1973) in which Israel suffered a blow to its expansionist policy, and subsequently to its national pride, they were convinced that nationalist aspirations had to be tamed.
The general guidelines (serving as an introduction to the curriculum document) seem to have expressed agreement between both streams of the State educational system. The curriculum defines ‘historical studies’ as characteristically humanistic in orientation: ‘history is human experience in its entirety. … Without knowledge of the past, people cannot understand their present’ (Ministry of Education 1975: 5). And while the curriculum seeks to highlight ‘the unique road of the Jewish people’, it emphasizes that studying history is based on the supposition that ‘there is a basic similarity between people of all periods’, that it is important to ‘evaluate people by their deeds, and not by their social background’, and that ‘there are differing points of view that may be accepted, even in national matters’ (pp. 12-13). Similarly, the curriculum declared that the study of history at school should ‘emphasize the pluralistic nature of social life, culture and thought, through the knowledge of the desires, the actions and the achievements of previous generations’. In the National‐Religious sector it was even stressed that one has to know the history of other nations ‘in order to emphasize the shared human destiny’.
Yet this pluralistic‐humanistic attitude was unable to mask significant differences between the secular and religious systems. In fact there was no concession regarding the claim of the National‐Religious sector that history is the work of ‘Divine Providence’, and that ‘the fact of the eternal existence of the Jewish people [is to be interpreted] as evidence of God’s care of His people’. While the General curriculum declared non‐committally that students should be able to ‘see the present as a process and a result of a [past] development’, the National‐Religious curriculum argued confidently that ‘the major criterion for the evaluation of the past and the present is the messianic idea of the redemption of the Jewish people and the redemption of humanity’ (pp. 5-6). The General system emphasized that the study of history should develop an ability to judge historical events according to ‘universal moral values’; however, the National‐Religious system stressed that events must be judged according to ‘absolute moral values’. For the religious sector, moral values are stable, unlike the transience of scientific and technological achievements.
Regarding patriotism, the curriculum of the General State system spoke in very general terms about nurturing ‘a sentiment of identity with the nation and the State’. The National‐Religious sector elaborated this issue. Studying history, it argued, should nurture ‘an identity with the Law of Israel [the Torah], the Nation, the Land of Israel and the State’. It went on to explain that students must recognize the continuity of the Halacha, the common destiny of the Jewish people, the importance of the Land of Israel and its special holiness, and finally the role of the State of Israel, whose unique character they should strive ‘to defend in the spirit of the Torah’. The religious message was therefore much more complex, and in a sense more historical: the State only appears at the end of the long process of the formation of the Jewish people, which began thousands of years ago with the granting of the Torah and continued later with the settlement of the Land of Israel, described in the Bible (pp. 9, 12-14).
In sum, compared to the 1961 curriculum, this curriculum does represent a somewhat more moderate approach to the historical fate of the Jewish people and of the relationship between it and God, but the theological perspective is very much in evidence.
How did this curriculum deal with the connections between Jewish and General history? Its writers stated clearly that they intend to give more time to the history of other nations because, in their opinion, ‘the uniqueness of Jewish history will stand out more clearly against the background of General history, sometimes [even] by the contradictions between them in several areas’ (p. 8). Furthermore, they emphasized that the starting point for studying history is the First Temple period, but this should not be perceived as a repetition of Biblical studies. ‘The Bible is not a history book’; teaching Bible is meant to deal with ‘the sphere of moral, religious and literary values’ (p. 8). From that perspective, the document concluded, the study of history cannot benefit from Biblical studies. These opinions are, of course, completely opposed to those of the 1961 curriculum.
It is interesting to point out that, despite the obvious differences between the secular and religious systems, the actual syllabi are very similar. There are only few cases where there are significant differences between them. For example, while studying the period of the Babylonian Exile the General State system suggests subjects such as ‘religion and science in Babylon’, or ‘the nature of a great pagan culture’—subjects omitted from the National‐Religious syllabus. The General school also teaches the subject of ‘early Christianity: Jesus, St. Paul and the foundations of the Christian religion’—a subject not taught in National‐Religious schools. Islam is taught in both streams. It seems that Christianity is still perceived as Judaism’s most significant adversary, while Islam is not considered dangerous from the point of view of Jewish education (pp. 18, 27).
Despite these differences, however, the main parts of the syllabi are similar. Counting the topics of the curriculum, we find for the General State system 55% of the topics deal with Jewish history, and 45% with General history. This is a real difference compared to the 1961 curriculum, and even to that of 1956.
The 1995 Curriculum
The most recent history curriculum (1995) is intended only for the General State School. A number of administrative and social changes occurred during this period which influenced the structure of the curriculum, primarily a severe reduction of the number of hours devoted to history in junior high schools and the deepening heterogeneity of the student population—a direct result of the integrative schools founded by the school reform of the mid‐1970s. There were also changes in the way the field of history was perceived, changes which were first evident at the universities—greater attention to social and cultural history (at the expense of political history) as well as growing interest in the history of non‐Western cultures (Ministry of Education 1995: 6).
However, more importantly, in the 1995 curriculum there was no longer a parallel presentation of the two State school streams. This no doubt reflected the deep ideological rift between the secular and the religious (or orthodox) sectors of Jewish society in Israel, which had steadily deepened over the two decades since 1975. The National‐Religious sector gradually became identified with the political Right and was totally absorbed by the settlement of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. This was perceived by the majority of secular intellectuals—identified with the Left—as an aberration of the spirit of Zionism. The attempt to reconcile the two systems (evident in the 1975 curriculum document) has totally failed. The 1995 history curriculum was therefore written from an entirely secular perspective.
The most dramatic change in the 1995 curriculum was the different relationship between Jewish and General history. The writers of the new curriculum stated in the introductory chapter that their aim was to ‘overcome the division’ between these two domains of historical discourse—a statement which in fact admits the failure of the 1975 curriculum to achieve that. However, while declaring that history is to be studied along the major events of Jewish history, they defined an additional criterion that they took into account—‘the decisive influence of Western culture upon Israeli society’. ‘The major phenomena of the history of the Western world’, they emphasized, ‘are those mainly selected for this curriculum’ (Ministry of Education 1995: 6).
Consequently, while the introduction to the curriculum document as well as the detailed description of its aims actually repeated those of 1975 (pp. 9-12), the study of history that is outlined does not begin with the First Temple period (i.e. during Biblical times), and not even with the period of the Second Temple, but with a subject of General history—the zenith of the Classical period (Greek culture, the Athenian polis, etc.). The 1995 curriculum is thus totally different from earlier curricula in that the study of history is completely divorced from Biblical studies and begins with the rise of the West. Even the destruction of the Second Temple—an event of tremendous significance in Jewish history—is mentioned merely as one of the ‘concepts’ to be studied in the chapter about ‘Judea facing Rome’ (p. 15), and not as a separate section studied for its own sake. There seems to be great emphasis on the absorption of Classical values into Jewish culture of that period—perhaps a hint to the roots of contemporary secular Judaism. These influences are studied while learning some fundamental ideas of Western culture (e.g. citizen, democracy, theatre, empire, republic, Roman law, etc.). Typical Jewish concepts (Hellenist Jew, forced conversion, Kiddush Hashem, zealots) were mentioned only in the context of Western ideas and did not have a favoured place.
Similarly, the 7th‐grade programme dealt more comprehensively with Islam and Christianity than with Judaism (two topics for Jewish history compared with nine regarding Moslems and Christians) (pp. 17-18). There was strong emphasis on the development of rational, scientific, secular thought in Western culture, as well as special topics about the crystallization of the modern European and North American states.
In the 8th and 9th grades, more time is devoted to Jewish history, but mainly in the context of anti‐Semitism, the rise of the Zionist movement, and the foundation of the State of Israel. In all these sections there is nothing regarding the history of the Jews outside the framework of Western culture: the Jews of North Africa and Asia are mentioned only in context of ‘the Jewish community in the Mediterranean basin during European colonization’ (and in this connection the concepts of ‘emancipation’, ‘modernization’, ‘Europeanization’), and the question of ‘anti‐Semitism in the [European] colonies’, and in the discussion about ‘the destruction of Jewish communities in colonial countries’ (pp. 23, 27).
In addition to the historical‐chronological discussion from ancient Greece to modern times, the curriculum offered a few cross‐sectional topics, dealing with various technological and social aspects of European history. Only one topic—‘the Jewish press’—has anything to do with Jewish culture. There is no reason given for the choice of that specific topic (p. 30).
The influence of contemporary historiographical trends is evident in the discussion of the Zionist settlement in Israel and the Arab opposition and resistance to it. In the curriculum this process is termed ‘the clash of two national movements’. The conflict between the two communities—not mentioned at all in the 1956 curriculum, and termed ‘the war of the Arabs against the Jewish settlement and Zionism’ in the 1961 curriculum (Ministry of Education 1961: 26), and ‘the Arab‐Israeli conflict’ in 1975 (Ministry of Education 1975: 42)—was termed here ‘the Zionist‐Arab conflict’ (Ministry of Education 1995: 26). This outlook is in line with Israeli post‐modern thought, common among the so‐called ‘new historians’ in Israel.
The 1995 history curriculum may be interpreted, therefore, as a political manifesto of secular, left‐wing, ideas. I believe that this almost anti‐Jewish orientation was caused by the very deep rifts within Israeli society between the secular and the religious sectors of the Jewish population. The writers of this curriculum reflected the widespread opinion amongst secular Jews that anything ‘Jewish’ is identified with religious orthodoxy, and for that reason they avoided placing it in the curriculum. They emphasized the close connection between the modern State of Israel and European history in order to show that Israel’s history and traditions are not necessarily Jewish at all.
Counting the topics of this curriculum, we find 43% dealing with Jewish history, compared with 57% dealing with General history. For the first time, the scale had been tipped in favour of General history.
Summarizing the ratio of topics in Jewish history and in General history for the General State school system gives the findings presented in table 2. It is evident that the trend within the General State system has been to increase the study of General history at the expense of Jewish history. However, the overall historical narrative that the official educational system wished to teach the students was not abandoned. In the 1995 curriculum, just as in the 1956 curriculum published 40 years earlier, the rise of Zionism, the settlement of the Land of Israel and the foundation of the State of Israel were presented as the only reasonable ‘solutions’ to ‘the Jewish situation’.
|Table 2. Distribution of Jewish and General history topics, 1956-1995.|
|Year of curriculum||1956||1961||1975||1995|
|Jewish history topics||32 (65.3%)||119 (70.5%)||15 (55.5%)||57 (43/5%)|
|General history topics||17 (34.7%)||50 (29.5%)||12 (44.5 %)||74 (56.5%)|
Nonetheless, this narrative, which was so dominant in the curricula of the 1950s and 1960s, has gradually become more and more concealed since the mid‐1970s, and it seems that it can no longer serve as a focal point for national identity. One of the most obvious reasons for that is that this narrative, in all curricula, was based only upon the story of European Jews. All official history curricula—even the most updated—almost completely ignore non‐European social groups, which make up ∼ 50% of the Jewish population in Israel, not to mention non‐Jewish groups of Israeli citizens. In all the history curricula there is no discussion at all of Israeli‐Arab society, and there is almost total disregard of the history of Jews from Islamic countries.
This state of things is especially surprising for the 1995 curriculum. Public opinion seems to have it that governments today are more sensitive towards ethnic minorities and support cultural pluralism, but there is no hint of this sentiment in the Israeli history curriculum. The curriculum document has a distinct Western orientation, which its authors proudly declare in their introduction. The concrete result is that a large proportion of school students are alienated from their own history—their individual pasts, and that of their families. In other words, the declaration in the introduction to the curriculum that ‘without knowing one’s past one cannot understand one’s present’, is not applied to all social groups alike. It is not surprising, therefore, that many alternative systems of education are being founded—designed to serve the needs of sectors and ethnic groups in society wishing to preserve their unique traditions.
Part 2: Nationalism, Education, and History
It is possible to understand the situation described in Part I from a broader perspective which views the case of Israeli nationalism (that is to say, the history of Zionism) as part of the history of modern nation‐states and their educational systems. This issue is closely connected to the current historiographical debate in Israel regarding the place of traditional Zionist values within the State’s educational system.
Since the late 18th century there has been an intimate connection between history and education as the two central aspects constituting the public sphere in modern societies. The status of both education and history has been revolutionized in modern times—the age of the nation‐state, which has turned education into an affair of the state, and history, more than any other field, into the primary instrument for achieving the moral goals of education. If in the ancient past history was considered a ‘philosophy teaching by example’ for the exclusive use of rulers, today it is perceived as a field constituting the citizen, a discipline whose students are required to learn significant moral lessons from a national point of view.
Why did such a process take place, and what made both history and education the cornerstones of modern society? The traditional explanation (e.g. Kohn 1961, Kedourie 1967) is that, although nationalism as an ideology developed in Europe only towards the end of the 18th century, nations have always been the primary elements of human history. From that point of view the modern nation‐state was a natural—even a necessary—result of the very existence of nations. According to this explanation, the national state expresses the unique spirit of the nation, and the study of history reinforces this national spirit.
However, several contemporary thinkers (notably Gellner 1983, Anderson 1991) argue that the true order of things was the other way round: first the national state was created and then it ‘invented’ the historical nation together with its national ideology. Thus, national educational systems, supported by the state, were given a central position. These educational systems were the organs which had to ‘create’ or ‘constitute’ the nation and grant it a historical identity. In other words, it is the state which creates its own history so that the past will explain the established fact of the (national) present. From that point of view, the role of education and the study of national history are essential to the establishment, the unity, and the actual daily functioning of the modern nation‐state.
In his classic work, Nations and Nationalism, Gellner (1983: ch. 3) defines the age of nationalism as ‘the age of universal high culture’, in which all citizens are required to know how to read and write in order to be able to communicate by means of a common, standard language. This common (‘generic’) culture enables the ‘reproduction’ of people who are able to work and function in an industrial society:
The employability, dignity, security and self‐respect of individuals hinge on their education; and the limits of the culture within which they were educated are also the limits of the world within which they can, morally and professionally, breathe. (Gellner 1983: 36)
Under these conditions, ‘a man’s education is by far his most precious investment, and in effect confers his identity on him’ (p. 36). For this reason in the modern nation‐state all take part in a single system of education, a system which is ‘large [and] indispensable’ as well as expensive to establish and upkeep. Only the state is big and rich enough to accept this heavy burden and grant the necessary education for the ‘reproduction’ of its citizens; state and culture find themselves hooked together into a unified identity expressed in national ideology (p. 29).
In a similar vein, Anderson (1991: 6) defines the nation as ‘an imagined political community’: ‘the members of even the smallest of nations will never know most of their fellow‐members, meet them, or even hear of them’, yet all hold in their mind ‘the image of their communion’. The process of nation‐building, Anderson (1991: 113) emphasizes, was accompanied by a systematic penetration of national ideology—not only by means of directives of the central government, but mainly by means of the educational system which creates national solidarity on the basis of a common language (or, we might add, on the basis of a common curriculum).
One of the means that intellectuals employed in order to establish national ideologies was the development of narrative histories. Historical narratives gave birth to ‘national imagining’, a means to connect and unify all generations, past and present. Anderson (1991: 197-198) quotes Jules Michelet, who claimed to be writing history ‘on behalf of the dead’, whom he took out of their graves in order to create ‘a family’ or a ‘community of the living and the dead’. The dead, then, enabled the emergence of the French nation after the Revolution of 1789; they are the ones—according to another French historian, Ernest Renan—who ‘forgot’, in a sense, the important linguistic and cultural differences which existed in France in former times. Even the bloody civil wars of the 16-18th centuries were fundamental to the process of its crystallization as a unified monarchy, but once that monarchy (and later, the republic) was established, the differences that caused these wars were forgotten.
Following Renan, Anderson (1991: 200-201) notes that the modern state deploys ‘a systematic historiographical campaign’, in which all past conflicts and traumatic events appear, but only in order to make them disappear in favour of the unified national present. Old rifts paradoxically become the building stones of new national histories, seeking to forget these very events in the name of the national unity it wishes to create.
This ‘vast pedagogical industry’ operates in most countries. New nations create—by means of their educational systems—a continuous historical narrative (or national ‘biographies’), even though historical reality proves that there were ruptures in the continuous series of events. In order to make people forget these ruptures a ‘narrative of identity’ is created, which defines the nation’s past according to its present. The history of a nation, as opposed to that of an individual person, is created from the present to the past—the national present defines how one looks at the national past. In Anderson’s (1991: 205) words: ‘World War II begets World War I; out of Sedan comes Austerlitz; the ancestor of the Warsaw Uprising is the state of Israel’.
From Anderson’s point of view, the birth of the State of Israel is but a ‘re‐imagining of an ancient religious community as a nation’ (p. 149, n. 16). Zionism and the State of Israel sought to redesign the Biblical religious vision in secular terms. In the same manner, Gellner (1983: 106-107) claimed that Israel is merely a ‘diaspora nationalism’, and its impressive success can be explained as the result of its national ideology, which made the Jews—a group of communities with no territorial base—into a ‘secular monastic order’ or a closed, tribal‐like community. In other words, the religious concepts of Judaism were expressed in a secular‐nationalistic language. The Diaspora was redesigned and made into a modern nation by way of the development of a continuous narrative of the history of the Jewish people, a story in which the foundation of the State of Israel is the climax and the ‘good end’ of the historical plot. That was the primary purpose of the history curricula examined in this paper.
National Identity, Education, and History in Israel
I mentioned earlier that during the last decade the historical narrative which served as a firm base for curricula until the end of the 1970s is under an intensifying attack by various sectors of Israeli society. During this period Israeli society has been undergoing a severe crisis of identity, questioning the very essence of ‘being an Israeli’. Critical thought about the connections between the traditions of Judaism and Israeli culture, grave doubts about the demand for total identification with the State, the necessity to redefine the relationship between the State’s Arab and Jewish citizens—all these influence the ways in which historians view national and regional history. One must add to this the opening‐up of archives revealing new historical sources which press historians to re‐evaluate and rewrite the past. The influence of all these processes on the educational system is not immediate, but it is well felt in public discourse and in the end also affects school curricula.
From the perspective of historical research, the identity crisis of society is expressed as a struggle between historians who call themselves ‘new’, ‘post‐modern’, or ‘post‐Zionist’ and those who are termed ‘old’, or ‘orthodox’. In very general terms, the ‘new historians’ accuse their predecessors of being so completely identified with the Zionist enterprise and so totally absorbed with the foundation of the State that they distorted historical ‘truth’ and presented a one‐sided account of the events leading to the establishment of the State. The post‐modern historians insist that the ‘orthodox historians’ believed that any critical approach towards Zionism might weaken it, and even cause the destruction of the State of Israel. Therefore, instead of describing the complex issues of the Jewish‐Palestinian conflict, or the problematic attitude of Zionist leadership to the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, these ‘old historians’ behaved as people recruited for the Zionist cause: they published non‐critical research which always justified Zionist ideology and the actions of its leadership. The ‘old historians’ distorted facts, concealed mistakes, and turned a blind eye on failures and cruelties inflicted by the Jewish side on the Arabs during the War of Independence (1948). From that point of view the ‘old historians’ did not fulfill their duties toward scholarly ‘truth’; every time there was some doubt regarding the justification of Zionism they preferred to give up their intellectual autonomy to support Zionism and its leadership. The ‘new historians’ propose several new definitions for traditional Zionist concepts, summarized in table 3.
|Table 3. Zionist vs post‐Zionist historical terminology.|
|Zionist terminology (‘orthodox historiography’)||Post‐Zionist terminology (‘new historiography’)|
|Ingathering of exiles||Non‐selective immigration|
|Redemption of the Land||Purchase of land|
|Resettling the Land of our Fathers||Colonialism|
|War of Independence||War of 1948|
|Armed bands of Arabs||Arab para‐military organizations|
|Land of Israel||Palestine|
|The State of Israel||The Israeli state|
|Jewish People||Israeli citizens|
|Jewish state||State of all its citizens (civil state)|
The debate between these two interpretations of history is not only an argument between two academic schools, but between two educational approaches. The first views the study of history at school as an instrument to maintain national myths which crystallize the people around Zionist ideology, strengthen national pride—by teaching absolute national values, justifying the Zionist settlement of the Land of Israel, describing Jewish nationalism as a unique national movement and the State of Israel as the only reasonable solution to the ‘Jewish problem’. The second approach views the educational‐ethical role of the study of history as enhancing critical, rational thought among students, preparing them to an era of peace with the Arabs, an era in which classical Zionist thought, which separated Jews and Arabs (and more generally, separated Jews and non‐Jews—that is to say Jewish history and General history), should be replaced with an appeasing approach and readiness to recognize the enemy’s suffering as no less than that of the Jews.
In this context I wish to return to the passionate public debate focusing on the two history textbooks mentioned at the beginning of this paper. The dispute was opened by the well‐known author Aharon Meged, who for years has been denouncing the ‘new historians’ and defending the orthodox version of Zionism. In 1999, on the first day of school, Meged published a caustic newspaper article on a textbook (for the 9th grade) entitled The 20th Century: On the Doorstep of Tomorrow (Naveh 1999)—a book written in order to comply with the 1995 history curriculum. According to Meged, the book presents ‘a distorted and deceptive picture of reality’ because it is possible to understand from its text that the Arabs also have legitimate claims for the Land of Israel and that the Zionist movement was not always right in its actions. Meged was especially angered by Naveh’s remark that during the War of Independence ‘in almost every zone [of war] and in every battle the Jewish side had an advantage over the Arabs’. According to Meged, this comment is factually wrong, and in any case the understanding that the War of Independence was a war of ‘the few [Jews] against the many [Arabs]’ is essential as an educational foundation for learning the history of the State (Meged 1999: B‐5).
It is interesting to point out that only the 1956 curriculum—the first history curriculum to be published after the 1948 war—points to ‘the heroic war of the few against the many’ (Ministry of Education 1956c: 182). In the other curricula surveyed in this paper this expression does not appear, not even in the most ‘nationalist’ curriculum of 1961. However, there is no doubt that in textbooks, and certainly in the history classrooms, this perspective has been often presented as an unquestionable historical fact. The 1995 curriculum opened the possibility of rethinking such facts, some of which have become powerful national myths. Meged’s complaint, therefore, is about post‐Zionist trends, which he views as typical anti‐national historiography, weakening the bond with the country:
School students who will study the history of the State of Israel according to Eyal Naveh’s book will not only receive a distorted picture of [historical] reality on the eve of the foundation of the State, … but will lack any ‘feeling of justice’ about our being here.
Meged’s article received much attention in the press and many reactions for and against his views appeared. One of these was an advertisement printed on the eve of the Jewish New Year (10 September 1999) by an organization called ‘Women for the Future of Israel’ calling educators, parents, and students ‘to object, not to buy, not to study and not to teach’ Naveh’s book. This public appeal claimed that Naveh ‘has revised our history …, encouraging the students to identify with the Arab side’. At the same time Naveh and the Ministry of Education’s general supervisor of history were both threatened and received anonymous abusive letters.
Supporters of Naveh responded by encouraging the critical approach to historical studies and stressed that historical truth is much more important than national myths. They sought to sustain an approach to history that does not focus upon the national state, but respects ‘the other’ and views conflicting demands of various social sectors as points of departure of equal value for a historical and social debate (e.g. Ben Amos 1999, Segev 1999, Shohat 1999). It is worthwhile to note that, despite this public debate, the book continued to serve as an optional text for high schools.
About a year after the controversy around Naveh’s book, an even greater public outrage was caused by the appearance of A World of Change (Yaacobi 1999)—the writing of which was supported, ironically, by the Ministry of Education itself. The book caught the attention of right‐wing circles shortly after its publication. This time the leader of the struggle against the book was Yoram Hazoni, a researcher at the Shalem Centre, who published several critical articles about this book in the local and international press, as well as a booklet summarizing his opinions (Hazoni 2000a), sent to historians and educators throughout the country.
Like Naveh’s book, A World of Change also deals with the history of the 20th century according to the 1995 history curriculum. The editors sought to integrate Jewish and General history, and to do so while discussing the critical period of the crystallization of Zionism as a national movement since the late‐19th century. Most importantly, the book was written from an understanding that Israel is in the midst of a peace process with the Arab world and, therefore, a new interpretation of the Arab‐Israeli conflict is needed. The book includes chapters on the Oslo Accords (1993) and the peace settlement with Jordan (1995). In addition, for the first time attention was paid to the Palestinian refugee problem and to the tension between Left and Right on this subject. The writers of this book apparently assumed that Israeli society can democratically accept ‘the others’ within it, and that the public is prepared for a critical discussion of the origins of the social and political polarization characterizing Israeli society (for example, regarding the relationship between secular and orthodox Jews, or the ethnic tension in Israel between social groups of different origins).
The authors’ optimistic assumptions did not prove realistic. Hazoni argued with enthusiasm that the 1995 curriculum, upon which the book is based, purposefully avoided dealing with fundamental topics in the history of the Jewish people. He emphasized that the historical narrative on which this curriculum is based began with Athens and Sparta, and not with the ancient history of the Jews. To his mind, rather than integrating the Jews into history, this curriculum excluded them, as if the Jews were merely ‘reacting to events taking place in the sphere of General history’. Thus, he argued, Zionism is presented only as part of the history of European nationalism, the foundation of the State of Israel as part of the Cold War, and the peace process as part of the end of the Cold War. From that point of view, as Hazoni (2000b) stressed, even though the 1995 curriculum is ‘intelligent, elegant, and of a high standard’, it in fact represents ‘a far‐going historiographical revolution’, which deserves a public debate before entering school textbooks.
As for the book A World of Change, Hazoni mentioned a few basic faults which to his mind make it deficient as a school textbook. For example, some important national figures are not mentioned (e.g. Haim Weizmann, the first President of Israel); the book has no photographs of outstanding national leaders (e.g. there is no picture of David Ben Gurion—the first Prime Minister and considered the founder of the State of Israel—but there are photos of other world leaders, such as Stalin, Roosevelt, and Nasser); the War of Independence is only briefly mentioned; the book presents the similarities between (and even equates) Zionism and the Palestinian national movement; the book has no maps illustrating the Arab struggle against Israel (e.g. their invasion into the newly‐founded State in 1948), but there are maps illustrating the Arab refugee problem; the book minimizes the Holocaust and does not even mention the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or show any explicit photographs of the horrors of the Holocaust.
The discussion of the qualities of a textbook is, of course, legitimate. However, this time the argument diverged from the limits of a debate about historiography and became a political issue. In November 2000, the Education Committee of the Knesset, relying on the Shalem Institute publications, decided to ‘temporarily stop the use of this book’ at State schools. The chair of this committee, Zevulun Orlev (of the National‐Religious Party), noted that the Knesset Committee has a right to intervene in the work of the educational system because its duty is to make sure that it acts in the spirit of the 1953 National Education Law. School texts, he said, ‘are not academic and scientific documents, but wish to educate students for values’. From this point of view the Committee announced that it is ‘troubled by the negative educational implications’ of this book regarding the Holocaust, Zionism, and the State of Israel, and demanded that the writers make ‘corrections and additions’ in order to return the book to the educational system. The committee’s decisions gave rise to a heated discussion in the press (e.g. Golan 2000, Pode 2000, Saar 2000) and in scholarly papers (e.g. Yogev and Naveh 2000).
The Knesset Committee’s decision brought about a protest by professional historians. The Israel Historical Society published a manifesto in which it claimed that the Knesset Committee’s actions are ‘a callous political intervention in scholarly affairs’, causing the society’s members ‘great concern’. The Historical Society declared schoolbooks ‘have to be left to professionals—academic researchers and educators’, and hinted that the Education Committee’s demand to stop the use of this book, albeit temporarily, might ‘raise the impression that history studied at school is used in order to advance certain political views’ (Israel Historical Society 2000).
And indeed, there is no doubt that the events of the following months justified the Historical Society’s concerns. After a change of government in 2001, the new Minister of Education, Limor Livnat (of the right‐wing Likud party), appointed a committee of specialists to review the book A World of Change. This Committee recommended some fundamental revisions in the book, especially regarding the Holocaust and the Jewish uprisings in the ghettos as well as a more detailed discussion of the Zionist willingness to reach a compromise with the Arabs and a presentation of Israel’s vital motives in its struggle with the Palestinians (Gorni 2001a).
The Minister’s conclusion was swift and unprecedented. She decided to shelve the book immediately and not to use it in any State school curriculum. According to the minister, the book had ‘a fundamental fault’ from a moral and Zionist point of view, and because the revisions demanded by the review committee could not be carried out, it should be immediately shelved (Saar 2001). The chair of the Review Committee, Yosef Gorni (considered to hold very moderate political views, closely allied with the Left), called the Minister’s decision ‘unreasonable from a national point of view’ and emphasized that his committee never recommended shelving the book (Gorni 2001b). However, political considerations proved stronger than historiographical ones and the Ministry stuck to its opinion that this book would not be used in the State educational system. Thus came to its (temporary?) end the first case of a political disqualification of a school textbook. From our perspective as developed in this paper, it is no surprise that such a case occurred to a history book.
Reading the numerous press articles about these books, one might think that this controversy reflects a novel polemic within Israeli society. However, in fact the issue of Zionist settlement of the Land of Israel and its harsh outcome for the Arab population have been a focus of public debates since the foundation of the State, and even earlier.
In this context it is worthwhile mentioning the short novel Hirbet Hiza’a by Yizhar in 1949 which describes the shocking expulsion of Arabs from their village. Interestingly enough, this work was even part of the compulsory literature curriculum for high schools in the 1960s. Even Meged (1965) himself, in his important work The Living off the Dead, brought up the same issues. In this novel Meged describes a writer who has a contract with an important publishing firm in order to write a book about Abraham Davidov, a ‘national hero’ of the War of Independence. However, the writer cannot fulfill the contract, because the more he learns about Davidov, the more he finds that the legendary hero was in fact a person with many faults which darken the mythological public figure. One day, as the disappointed biographer walks in the streets of Tel‐Aviv, he meets a friend—a literary critic, who tells him that a work about Davidov could in fact prove to be ‘a very educational book’, which could win the writer an important prize. A discussion between them develops:
‘What’s wrong with an educational book?’ I said ‘I didn’t say anything was wrong. … Seriously, Davidov was a national hero, was he not? … An interesting type, this Davidov, isn’t he?’ I said I enjoyed the stories about him very much. [As we continued to walk, he said:] ‘Who was Davidov, in fact?—A regular person, who knew how to work hard, and from here to there killed a few Arabs. In any other place in the world such a person is born, he lives, he dies and then buried. Once a year his wife, together with her second husband, comes to his grave and places some flowers on it. In this country we make him into a hero. … And not him only. [Who was the Hero of Tel‐Hai? An ex‐officer, who protected his home from robbers. So what? There are people like this all over the world, no one remembers their names. Here, almost 40 years later, people stand at attention to his memory, sing the national anthem, wave the national flag, send the children home from school at 11:00, and the teachers go to have a rest. … Or Hankin, the person people name streets after, and plant trees in his honour. He was merely a smart real estate agent, nothing more. … Why does this country need heroes? Everyday deeds, which people do because they have to, such as working the land, keeping watch at night … are romanticized. Eternal Israel! Virtuous People! They want to persuade you that fate is in fact choice. And in order for you to feel that you are choosing, they stuff you with stories from the Bible, national songs, and the dead are taken out from their graves in order to make them into national heroes. Who needs all this? I live in this hot, sweaty country because I was born here, that’s all! I don’t need Davidov for that. It’s laughable! Childish! … Why don’t we sell our national anthem to the Arabs? They could sing it today instead of us, with tears in their eyes: “let us return to the land of our fathers”. We might make some money on that!’ (Meged 1965: 63-64).
Of course, it is possible to interpret these words by Meged as a critique of the critics of Zionism, or of the loss of Zionist values, but I think that his words reflect his actual opinions when he was 35 years younger. In any case, from a historian’s point of view, Meged’s early work illustrates that the so‐called ‘post‐Zionist’ opinions were already being voiced in the mid‐1960s, and no less harshly than those voiced today (Naveh and Yogev 2002).
Conclusion: The Breakdown of Israeli Narrative History
As long as Israeli society remains insecure regarding its national identity there is no chance of reaching an agreement about a single, unified history curriculum which would satisfy the majority of the population. In other words, the division between Jewish and General history expresses the dominant cultural trends within Israeli society, and especially the broadening rift between secular society with its Western attitudes and religious‐traditional society which is often anti‐Western. The fact that all history curricula have been unsuccessful at bridging the gap between Israel’s national history and the history of other nations is not only the cause of the major political debates, but also their effect.
In the first two curricula (1956, 1961) there was a bold attempt to create a continuous historical narrative, ending with the establishment of the State of Israel as the highlight and the logical end to the history of the Jews. To use White’s (1974: 277-303) terms, these curricula might be interpreted as typical examples of historical ‘emplotment’. White, analysing history from a literary perspective, argued that historians order the otherwise chaotic and morally neutral past as meaningful stories (plots) based upon certain literary genres. The type of story into which certain events will be integrated—the plot which gives them meaning—is also the one granting them a moral dimension, according to which we judge the past. Emplotment gives moral value to the story of the past—because we judge the past according to the successes and failures of the figures or the processes presented before us.
However, unlike the earlier curricula, the curricula of 1975 and 1995 are problematic when we attempt to apply White’s model. The developers of these curricula, as opposed to the earlier ones, declared unequivocally that ‘historical studies are essentially selective’, and their conclusion was that there is no single historical narrative which the curriculum can present (Ministry of Education 1995: 8). This conclusion was not clearly expressed in the syllabus, but it seems evident in the structure of the document which renounces the dramatic narrative of the rise of the People of Israel, their decline, and finally their resurrection. We must emphasize that the problem is not the fact that events have to be selected, because obviously the two earlier curricula were also based upon selection. The problem is that in the latter curricula the narrative pattern was broken, as though the writers of these curricula came to realize for the first time the problematic situation of Jewish‐Zionist‐Israeli history. This version of history does not really enable the emplotment of a historical narrative giving meaning to Jewish history in its entirety.
The curricula of 1975 and 1995 (especially the latter) clearly reflect the identity‐crisis of today’s Israeli society, and the confusion regarding its future. If we said that the role of a history curriculum is not only to order the past but to form the future, clearly the current curriculum fails in both of these missions, at least regarding our national history. However, this situation might well change in the future, if, and when, Israeli society stabilizes and the extreme tensions of today calm down. When that utopian situation becomes reality, there is no doubt that a new history curriculum will be written.