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History or Brain-washing?

This afternoon my younger daughter has her final history exam. This is the last time she will be required to study history. Last week, she had the ‘mock’ exam. The day before, she revealed to me that they had not covered half the syllabus in class – they spent so much time studying the Holocaust that they only reached the Israeli history in the last couple of weeks, but she missed most of the classes because of her exam schedule. I sat down with her and looked at the cramming book she was using to prepare for the exam. Together, in a few hours, we selected topics we were confident would allow her to answer sufficient questions, and crammed: she rote-learned lists of causes and consequences, lists of committees and their conclusions, list and lists and lists. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when she told me yesterday that she did really well in the exam and her course-work grade going into the final exam was therefore 95.

In case you think she’s clearly in a particularly bad school (she isn’t, it’s actually a good school, at least by Israeli standards), let me share what happened the night before my son’s final history exam. He attended what is arguably the top school in Jerusalem. He came to me that evening and asked which war he should learn for the exam. I didn’t really understand the question (I was much more naive then). ‘What do you mean, which war? And the exam’s tomorrow – how can you possibly learn a war by then?’ It was clear to him I was much too hysterical to help, so he decided that as the 6-Day War was the shortest, that would probably be the quickest to learn (!!). Half an hour later I was a little calmer and went upstairs to see if he needed help. I was horrified to find him watching TV. ‘What are you doing?’ I screamed. ‘You need to study. There’s so much work to do.’ ‘Don’t worry,’ he nonchalantly replied, ‘I’ve got it,’ and he reeled off a list of causes and consequences. ‘That’s it?’ I cried. He showed me the book, and some exam papers, and to my dismay, that seemed to be all that was required.

I tell these stories of the way my children have been taught history, because judging by the examination questions, it seems this is the approach approved by the Education Ministry. There have been several fascinating attempts to bring alternative narratives into the classroom, to encourage students to think, critique, compare and contrast, analyse. But these programs are banned by the Education Ministry. One book, “Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative” was produced by Israeli and Palestinian teachers working together under academic supervision over the course of several years. Unable to agree on a single narrative, the book presents both narratives side by side, with space in the middle for students to reflect upon what they are learning. Zochrot has also produced an educational kit called “How do we say Nakba in Hebrew.” They will be running a teacher-training course based on this booklet at the beginning of July. But the few brave teachers who use the book do so in secret – rather than bring the book into the classroom, they prepare materials based on the book, and do not disclose where their materials come from – to do otherwise is to invite trouble with the Education Ministry.

Banned Textbook

I may not agree with all aspects of the Palestinian narrative. I may not agree with all the principles and policy statements of organizations such as Zochrot. I do believe, however, that our children have to be taught to see history from different points of view. That teaching a one-sided, ‘one and only true’ version of history is demagogic and dangerous. The Education Ministry clearly does not want our children to be taught to think for themselves. When banning the first book mentioned above, the Education Ministry official stated, “At this time (2003) it is preferable for our children not to be exposed to the Palestinian narrative, as this may undermine their belief in the Israeli narrative.” I find that statement frightening, coming from the Education Ministry. Yes, learning different narratives may be uncomfortable. It may make us re-assess where we are and where we should be going. That’s one of the reasons for learning history. Our government frequently hurls accusations at the Palestinian Authority for teaching hatred in their schools. We may not actively teach hatred (though selected phrases in one of the officially approved books such as ‘rivers of blood’ attributed to the Palestinians may indeed fan hatred) but we are certainly not actively teaching the skills needed to make peace.

We teach history in schools for a number of reasons. Certainly, imparting a sense of who we are and where we have come from is one of them. It is not, however, the only one. We also teach history in order to teach students to analyse and critique, to examine evidence and probe for underlying causes and motivations, and to put themselves and their current society into a wider historical context. That’s one of the things that distinguishes history from memory. It’s bad enough that Israeli students learn such a narrow slice of history – with almost no world history whatsoever. It’s completely unacceptable if we then limit the depth of that slice by insisting that our children learn only one, official version of so-called reality. That’s not called history. It’s called brain-washing.



3 thoughts on “History or Brain-washing?

  1. Thank you –
    I feel like you give words to my thoughts, albeit more eloquently and from a clearer view. How do we get this out to a broader community and what can be done? I know that living in the diaspora always makes it more challenging to speak out or act. The Jews (and the world) tend to polarize – you’re either for or against, pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian – all right or all wrong, no grey, – a construct that is so narrow minded and void of all actual complexity. I would love to see this forum you provide lead to more than many of us nodding our heads – ideas or thoughts – who else out there is reading????

    Posted by Paula Klein | June 16, 2011, 4:14 pm
    • Thank you, Paula. I know criticizing Israel is always complicated from the Diaspora – but I believe that Israel desparately needs critical friends: friends in the sense that they truly support Israel, but critical in that they are not afraid to say so when they are worried and concerned about Israel’s future. As you well know, being critical of Israel is not the same as being an enemy of Israel. As for how to get my words out to a wider audience – I am constantly searching for ways to achieve that and would welcome help from all my readers. Whether you send the link to people you know will agree or disagree, or click on the ‘like’ button to share my link with all your facebook friends, and their friends, each click widens the circle. Bloggers more experienced than me tell me the most important thing is to persevere, so that’s my part of the bargain. And hopefully together we can reach out and give people something to think about.

      Posted by jerusalempeaceseeker | June 20, 2011, 11:02 am
  2. I know exactly what you’re talking about Paula and experience it here all the time. My Jewish friends look at me in horror sometimes when I express my opinion and/or criticism of Israel and I am made to feel like a traitor. I have to then defend myself and tell everyone how I love Israel so much I made aliyah etc. etc. What if we came up with articles like yours with thought provoking discussion questions that are adapted for the diaspora? Some of us could try to hold discussion forums that take people out of their comfort zone and confront them with the fact that these aren’t black and white situations. Additionally, if there were ever funding to get speakers over here who can speak as Israelis (that will bring a lot of credibility and no one can say they don’t love Israel), I think that would be wonderful.

    Posted by Aviva Kurash | June 22, 2011, 3:04 pm

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