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.
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.