Daphna Baram
The Guardian
October 29, 2010 - 12:00am

A piece of news from Israel this week hides a grain of hope in a rather bleak reality: a group of high school students demanded to meet a senior official at the education ministry after one of their textbooks was banned from use in schools.

The book in question, Learning Each Other's Historical Narrative, was the fruit of a joint project in which Israeli and Palestinian teachers constructed a text presenting both narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alongside each other.

Hence, for example, the Israeli students are introduced to the Nakba, the disaster the Palestinians faced in 1948 when 750,000 of them were driven away during the war that brought Israel into being – which is known in Israel as "the war of independence". Palestinian students learn of the connection Jews feel to the land, and about the way antisemitism in general and the Holocaust in particular influenced Zionist thinking.

The current administration in the Israeli ministry of education, headed by the Likud minister Gideon Sa'ar, was less than sympathetic to this liberal endeavour. The book was not authorised for use in schools and the staff of schools that decided to use it were admonished.

Such was the case with the headmaster of Sha'ar Hanegev school, near the town of Sderot – familiar to international readers because of the rocket attacks it has been subjected to over the last few years. The headmaster, Aharon Rothenstein, was summoned to the ministry and told to stop any use of the book in his school.

His students, many of them residents of Sderot and others coming from kibbutzim in the area, decided not to take the ministry's order without a struggle. "The ministry of education is a coward," one of the students told Ha'aretz newspaper. "Maybe they think if we read the Palestinian narrative we'll get convinced that the Palestinians are right," another said.

As heart-warming as the students' rebellion may be, it is doubtful whether they'll win this round. They are up against a minister and a government who understand perfectly well that the cracks in the Zionist version of history are widening and becoming apparent, not only to the Palestinians and the international community, but also to the supposed beneficiaries of the state of Israel – its Israeli-Jewish citizens.

Sa'ar has stepped into the war of narratives with a heavy boot and a loudly declared intention to clear out the educational stables. When he is not "investigating" allegedly anti-Zionist university courses and teachers, he is proposing to act against university employees who support the academic or economic boycott against Israel.

In a speech [Hebrew] to the annual conference of the Im Tirzu ("If You Will") movement – a group striving to root out what they perceive as anti-Zionist narratives in schools and universities – Sa'ar said "the lack of identity reinforcing education is an existential danger".

Like generations of Israeli politicians, Sa'ar knows that history is always written by the victors; it is that those who manage to control the wording of the story who will have the political upper hand in the present and in the future. He has no need for a Palestinian "narrative".

Naturally, a government that aspires to promote the "loyalty oath" law needs citizens who think that the concept of Israel as a Jewish state should not be questioned. It wants to produce citizens who believe that the very mention of any tension between being a "Jewish" state and a "democratic" state constitutes an existential danger. This is becoming increasingly difficult in a globalised world where more and more young Israelis are aware of international impatience with their country. Furthermore, it is harder and harder to convince them that "the world is all against us" and that all critics are nothing but "antisemites" when some of those critics are their Facebook friends, fans of the same bands, admirers of the same sitcoms, and so on.

In this sense, Sa'ar is struggling to shut the barns doors after the horses are already out and roaming all over the field. One cannot indoctrinate a generation using North Korean methods when the world is wide open to them.

This is not to say that Sa'ar and his friends are losing the war for hearts and minds in Israel. Anti-Arab racism is on the rise and segregative and xenophobic ideas gain more and more legitimacy, as they now flow openly from government quarters. A movement to stop property sales to Arabs in the northern city of Karmiel is coming straight out of the deputy mayor's office. Residents are called on to report any neighbours who plan to sell flats or houses to Arabs.

A lengthy list of racist and xenophobic bills, some of which I discussed here not long ago, is still pending. The vast majority of them are initiated by cabinet ministers, the government itself and parties that belong to the coalition. None of those bills are marginal initiatives. Among them is the infamous "loyalty oath bill". Another, which reflects the values Sa'ar is attempting to enforce, is the "Nakba bill", which has already passed a first parliamentary vote (out of the three needed for legislation).

Interestingly, no Israeli administration bothered itself with active Nakba denial in the past, when Israelis were united under the Zionist hegemonic narrative that argued simply that "the Arabs just left". But the fact that over the last 10 years "Nakba" has become a household term among Israelis – regardless of their political conviction – prompted a governmental red alert. The problem in the Israeli internal discourse was never the lack of information but the choice, taken by most, to turn a blind eye to the less comfortable bits of it. Sha'ar Hanegev students who dare to question, and demand answers, may indicate a little crack in the hegemonic wall. The one through which the light gets in.

• Comments on this article are set to remain open for 24 hours from the time of publication but may be closed overnight

• This article was amended at 14.10 on October 29. The earlier version stated, on the basis of an Israeli newspaper report, that the book is being used in Palestinian Authority schools. That statement was removed at Daphna Baram's request after readers questioned its accuracy.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017