Today’s New York Times reported on a recent study of Israeli and Palestinian Arab history textbooks. Most of the article is dedicated to Hamas’s latest textbooks, which clearly reflect that organization’s unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy of any Jewish presence—much less of a Jewish state—in historic Palestine. Hamas also seems determined to imbue in its young people a wildly counterfactual view of the achievements of and prospects for violence in the Palestinians’ resistance to Israeli domination.
As a leader of the study noted, textbooks are tremendously important in representing a national ethos: they shape a generation’s understanding of their country’s history and thereby of their perceptions of the rights and wrongs of its current policies and those of its adversaries. The new textbooks thus not only imply a rigidly hostile stance by Hamas toward any possible negotiated settlement of the historic conflict between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs; they also make it less likely that future Hamas followers and leaders will be disposed to significant compromise with Israel.
Hamas’s use of textbooks for hatefully nationalistic mythmaking is disturbing, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Writers of history textbooks below the university level are seldom known for scrupulous objectivity: compatibility with cherished national myths tends to take priority over finicky concern with historical accuracy. I am aware of growing up with a carefully sanitized understanding of American history from my own school curricula. My high school textbooks barely hinted at my countrymen’s unconscionable, quasi-genocidal treatment of native Americans. I didn’t learn that Abraham Lincoln among others rejected the flimsy pretexts advanced to launch an aggressive war of expansion against Mexico. And how many Americans know that one of the bloodiest and most brutal colonial wars in history was fought by this country to suppress the Filipinos’ resistance to American rule after we “liberated” them from Spain? I know about these things only because I didn’t stop reading history after I got out of high school. (I would be interested in hearing from teachers and from younger readers if their school curricula were more enlightening on these kinds of issues than what I am recalling.)
I’m curious to know what the study found out about Israeli textbooks, so it is disappointing to me that the Times article had practically nothing to say about that. Certainly, Israeli governments have been assiduous in fostering a number of myths that have served to disavow Israeli responsibility for Palestinian suffering. The hoariest Israeli myth of all–still widely believed by Jews and non-Jews both inside and outside of Israel—was that the Arab exodus from Palestine in 1948 was voluntary, that it had been instigated by Arab leaders who promised their compatriots they would be able to return home after the coming Arab victory in the war with Israel. I don’t know anything about Israeli textbooks; I would be interested in knowing if any of them continues somehow to propagate this long discredited tall tale. I would certainly be surprised if Israeli textbooks have come clean about the liberal use of expulsions and terror in the ethnic cleansing that helped make a Jewish majority possible in the new state of Israel. It is now known that these practices were utilized not only by the openly terrorist Stern Gang and Irgun, but also by the regular Jewish armed forces.*
I would be surprised, too, if Israeli textbooks gave a frank account of Israeli “counterterror” in the years after 1948. Do Israeli high school students know how a young army major named Ariel Sharon led the 1951 massacre of over 50 Arab villagers in their homes in the village of Qibya? Are they given any inkling of the neo-colonial character of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank after 1967—the restrictions on Palestinian manufacturing and agriculture, the appropriation of natural resources, the suppression of dissent?
I’m not suggesting symmetrical equivalence: I don’t doubt that the Hamas textbook narratives are more hateful and more fanciful than what is to be found in their Israeli counterparts. Officially sanctioned Israeli history–like officially sanctioned US history–is probably guilty more of errors of omission than commission. But it still must support a highly selective narrative of Israeli innocence and rectitude. Americans are overwhelmingly more aware of that story line than of the Palestinian narrative of dispossession and oppression. The Times’ story on textbooks both reflects and reinforces that imbalance.
* The two probably most important books on this topic, both by Israeli historians, are relatively recent: Benny Morris’s Birth of the Palestine Refugee Problem Revisited (2004) and Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006). But I’m sure that time isn’t the only obstacle to the incorporation of their findings in Israeli school curricula—much less in the national consciousness.