Matti Friedman
The Associated Press
July 22, 2009 - 12:00am

The Israeli government will remove references to what the Palestinians call the "catastrophe" of Israel's creation from textbooks for Arab schoolchildren, the country's education minister said Wednesday.

The reference to "al-naqba" or catastrophe, what the Palestinian's call their defeat and exile in the war over Israel's 1948 creation, was controversially inserted by a dovish education minister for the first time in 2007.

The phrase remains contentious six decades after Israel was founded.

"No other country in the world, in its official curriculum, would treat the fact of its founding as a catastrophe," Education Minister Gideon Saar told Israel's parliament on Wednesday.

"What will you do to a teacher who addresses the class and begins to explain what happened to the family of a child who asks?" Ahmad Tibi, an Arab Israeli lawmaker, asked Saar in parliament.

Teachers will be free to discuss the personal and national tragedies that befell Palestinians during the war, said Saar, who represents the hardline governing Likud Party. But textbooks will be revised to remove the term, he added.

The decision applied to a third-grade textbook for Arab schoolchildren. Jewish textbooks make no mention of the term.

When former education minister Yuli Tamir introduced the term, some hardline Israelis accused her of making Israel look like it was apologizing for its own existence.

Tamir "is expressing a sort of political masochist spirit and ... a total lack of national pride," Cabinet Minister Avigdor Lieberman said at the time. Lieberman is now Israel's foreign minister.

Yossi Sarid, a dovish former education minister, said Saar's decision showed insecurity.

"Zionism has already won in many ways, and can afford to be more confident. We need not be afraid of a word," Sarid said.

The 1948 war saw Arab nations invade the newly founded Jewish country after a United Nations decision to partition the British-controlled territory of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Jewish forces won, seizing territories beyond what the U.N. had alloted to it, while Egypt and Jordan took what was left of the territories the U.N. intended for a Palestinian state for themselves.

More than 700,000 Palestinians are thought to have fled or been expelled from areas that came under Israeli control.

Official Israeli histories of the country's establishment, especially those written for schoolchildren, have typically focused on the heroism of Israeli forces and glossed over the Palestinian flight, attributing the mass exile to voluntary escape if mentioning it at all.

In recent years, several Israeli historians have published books claiming that while many Palestinians did flee of their own accord, many others were forced from their homes as fighting raged and then never allowed back because the nascent Jewish state feared it would be swamped by refugees.

Palestinians demand the right to repatriate the surviving refugees and more than 4 million descendants to their original homes in Israel.

Israel rejects the demand, saying the refugees should receive compensation and be resettled where they now live or in a Palestinian state.

The Arabs who remained inside Israel now make up about 20 percent of the country's population of 7.3 million.


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