Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Teachers who don't toe their government's line on troubled history

GOVERNMENTS like to control what school students are taught about, as well as what they are taught about it. This is particularly obvious when politicians start talking about history, using expressions like "our national heritage", and demanding that teachers emphasise the "positive" virtues of the British Empire, for instance.

If history is taught properly it should not be rote-learning an indigestible mass of meaningless "facts", such as kings and queens in order, which is the kind of learning some of our ministers (and maybe tame 'educators') approve; but should bring a realisation that there is more than one side to a story, and encourage the young to enquire, to seek the truth, and to think for themselves logically.

One answer to the question "why do we need to learn all this stuff?" is that THEY (whoever they happen to be, running a particular country) don't want you to learn about it! And sometimes what everyone should know, because we're still living with the effects, is what they don't want you to know.

In Israel an officially approved history textbook published not long ago leaves out the 1982 Lebanon war; and though schools must teach about the Holocaust of course, teachers are not supposed to talk about the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe, by which so many of the country's population were made into "Arab refugees" when the state was set up.

Nevertheless, as Asaf Shtul-Trauring reports in Ha'aretz , some teachers think they have a duty to their students, not to keep the truth from them, rather than to the government to keep to its line.

"When Shira (not her real name ), a history teacher at a junior high school in the center of the country, mentioned "nakba" in a class three years ago, none of her students had any idea what it referred to. Today, she says, the word just surfaces naturally among the students. They know about it and talk about it. According to her, the reason is clear - Amendment 40 to the Budget Foundations Law, more commonly known as the 'Nakba Law'.

"'Shira' is one of around 100 teachers and educators who teach the Nakba ('catastrophe' - the Palestinians' term for the loss of their land to Israel in 1948 ) to their students with the help of a unique study kit called 'How do you say Nakba in Hebrew?' The kit was developed by Zochrot, a small Tel Aviv-based organization seeking to raise public awareness of the Palestinian Nakba, especially among Jews in Israel.

"Zochrot is distributing the kit to teachers at a time when the Nakba is recurring in headlines as a subject that is not to be touched - especially not in schools. But over the last two years Zochrot has distributed 300 copies of the study kit. It covers pre- and post-1948 Palestinian settlements; Israeli and Palestinian recollections of the conquest and destruction of villages; and the refugees' flight and their expulsion. The kit did not receive the ministry's approval and most of the teachers using it conceal their source.

"Eitan Bronstein, the founder of Zochrot, stresses that the kit's goal is not to present the Palestinian narrative. 'For me, the Nakba is part of our history,' he says, 'just as it is part of Palestinian history.'

"'Dafna,' a history and citizenship teacher in northern Israel, uses a section of the kit that presents three competing theories on events in the village of Ein Azael (along the eastern slopes of the Carmel ). Students are asked to present the different versions of events and discuss them.

"In the Palestinian narrative, the emphasis is on 'Zionist gangs' that bombed the triangle of villages Aghzam, Jaba and Ein Azael, in violation of the cease-fire. On the other side, there is a passage from the book The War of Independence, printed by the IDF, whereby the villages were attacked after their residents fired on the Tel Aviv-Haifa road, thereby effectively blocking it.

"'This opened up our eyes, because the contradictions between the different versions were really crazy. Nowhere [before] did I hear the Palestinian narrative,' says Michal, an 11th-grade student in Dafna's class. She adds: 'It was very interesting to see not just the Israel side, and to go beyond the point of view that we learn in Israel - that we are heroes and they are always trying to oppress us.'

"Both Dafna and Shira were concerned about being interviewed using their full names, for fear of sanctions from the Education Ministry. The ministry said: 'Teachers are not permitted to teach content, in any subject, that was not approved by the relevant professionals at the Education Ministry.'"


That a measure restricting civil rights and attempting to curb what is taught by teachers was brought in as an amendment to a budgeting law will sound amusingly familiar to British teachers and anyone else who remembers how Margaret Thatcher's notorious Clause 28, forbidding the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools, was smuggled in tacked on to the end of a local government finance bill!

The teachers in Israel who are refusing to toe the line and putting their duty to teach their students honestly first, deserve a salute. Their defiance should also be an example to educators everywhere.

For a report on the Nakba law see:


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