The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their villages by Israel’s armed forces during the 1948 war and the creation of the ongoing refugee problem is rarely acknowledged in Israel’s public discourse or school system. This is starting to change, but the change is modest and gradual, and it does not challenge the mainstream hegemonic discourse of Israeli historiography. A clear manifestation of the official efforts to block the change are The Nakba Law of 2011 which prevents publicly funded institutions, including schools and municipalities, from commemorating Nakba events; the sidelining of the Palestinian national issue from the Israeli and international agenda; and public antagonism toward Palestinian national aspirations.
Since Israeli archives and military authorities continue to censor historical documents related to the operations of the Israeli army during the 1948 war, it is hard to be too optimistic about the possibility of bringing alternative narratives about the Nakba to light. It is important to also consider that historical developments and public consciousness are dialectical, and they unfold as a result of the continued struggle between various camps regarding the history and identity of Israeli society. This struggle engulfs the educational system every time it is asked to deal with state history and its ramifications on interpreting events, decisions, and processes that have been marginalized or buried for a long time.
A Realistic Middle Ground
He himself represents a realist middle ground position between what he depicts as the peaceniks—those who support recognizing the Nakba and consider allowing the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes—and those who not only deny it, but also regard the claim of refugees to be a lie. According to Ben, his camp is aware of the Nakba and invites others to tackle it as part of Israeli history and to pressure governmental ministries, especially the education ministry, to integrate it into the curriculum.
Smotrich’s statement, which denies Palestinians the right to be present in their homeland, actually admits what most leaders of the Israeli establishment know but refuse to acknowledge: the intention of the Israeli army to oust most if not all Palestinians.
But it is hard to tackle the subject of the Nakba in the Israeli curriculum without mentioning the recent speech before the Knesset of Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist Party, in which he said to his Palestinian colleagues “You’re here by mistake, it’s a mistake that Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948.” This statement, which denies Palestinians the right to be present in their homeland, actually admits what most leaders of the Israeli establishment know but refuse to acknowledge: the intention of the Israeli army to oust most if not all Palestinians from areas allotted to the Jewish state in the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan. Smotrich represents an Israeli sentiment whose strength is hard to evaluate, but has been expressed by many, including Morris, who originally revealed the historical facts behind the expulsion of the Palestinians during the 1948 war. Most Palestinians who remained in what became Israel stayed in areas that were allotted to the Arab state in the same partition plan that facilitated the establishment of Israel.
The Nakba and Israel’s School Curriculum
In September 2021, Haaretz published a report on the recent history matriculation exam in 55 Israeli schools when students were asked for the first time to analyze an original text taken from the memoirs of Yigal Alon, a prominent officer during the 1948 war, in which he explains how he participated in cleansing the “interior of the Galilee” from its Arab inhabitants in order to “create Jewish territorial contiguity throughout the Upper Galilee.” The part cited from Alon’s memoirs includes an explanation of how he used rumors to frighten the Arabs and make them run away for fear from Jewish forces. According to the report’s author, Or Kashti, including this question in the matriculation exam may be the first step in a broader process in which the events of 1948 are taught and analyzed in new ways.
Ben’s and Kashti’s treatment of the topic reiterate the conclusion made in a study conducted by this author in 2014, in which five different positions were identified in the Israeli public consciousness regarding the Palestinian Nakba:
- Denial of the Nakba and treating it as a historical lie and propaganda;
- Denial of responsibility for the Nakba;
- The view that the Nakba is used to delegitimize Israel;
- The Nakba as a collective memory to be respected;
- The Nakba as a tragic historical event that continues until today.
The study showed that the most dominant position among the five is the first one, which denies the Nakba and Israel’s responsibility for the consequences of the 1948 war. This position blames the Palestinian leadership for leading to the war by refusing to accept the 1947 partition plan and blaming the Arab states for not assimilating the refugees into their communities, as Israel has done with Jewish immigrants.
The Nakba is a prominent “present absentee” in the Israeli public sphere and consciousness. Its presence is suppressed, and the best way to illustrate this argument is by looking at how the Nakba is hidden in the history curriculum in Israeli schools.
To be sure, the Nakba is a prominent “present absentee” in the Israeli public sphere and consciousness. Its presence is suppressed, and the best way to illustrate this argument is by looking at how the Nakba is hidden in the history curriculum in Israeli schools. In fact, the Nakba is distorted and sterilized in the history curriculum in order to exonerate those responsible for it.
There are tensions between different goals of the Israeli school curriculum, such as that between knowing main historical events and introducing different perspectives on them, on the one hand, and nourishing an exclusive and closed national identity, on the other. This is the case when it comes to the history of the Nakba that led to the establishment of the state of Israel and its consequences, not only for Jews but also for Palestinians.
Looking at the contents of history books taught in Israeli schools today makes it clear that the Nakba is hardly mentioned as a significant event that has current ramifications on the daily life of millions of Israelis and Palestinians. The 1948 war and the establishment of the State of Israel are taught from an Israeli perspective, one that serves the Israeli narrative of “a just war” and the myth of “the few against the many.” Although several history books are available to be used in history classes, none is allowed to directly introduce the Nakba and those that did were recalled for what authorities saw as incorrect information in them; they were reauthorized but only after severe editing. When the Nakba is mentioned in books, it is framed as part of the unfolding events of the Israeli war of independence. It is also framed as representing the Palestinian narrative and is explained as a result of the military defeat. The explanation provided is that the name Nakba was given to the 1948 war by the Arabs; the term reflects how they, not the Israelis, see the events.
When the Nakba is mentioned in books, it is framed as part of the unfolding events of the Israeli war of independence.
One of the most used books in schools is entitled Creating a Democratic Jewish State in the Middle East. This book goes into specific details about the history of the 1948 war and addresses most of its aspects and ramifications. It is instructive to review its handling of the cease-fire agreements between Israel and the Arab states and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem.
The sub-section on the cease-fire agreements and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem opens with three major questions:
- What is the major difference between a cease-fire agreement and a peace agreement?
- Why did many Palestinians leave their homes during the independence war?
- What caused the Palestinian refugee problem?
The short section on the cease-fire agreements details the entry of Arab armies into Palestine and the attempt to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state in the areas allotted to it in the 1947 partition plan. This section clarifies that the agreements with the Arab states are not a peace agreement but paved the way for the UN recognition of Israel within what has become known as “the Green Line,” which are the borders that spread over areas far beyond what has been devoted to Israel in the 1947 partition plan. The description of the cease-fire agreements clarifies that the 1948 war was not only with the local Palestinian inhabitants, who opposed the establishment of the Jewish state, but also involved Arab armies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Palestinian Refugee Problem
The subsection on the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem addresses the second and third questions mentioned above. As phrased, the Nakba is belittled and restricted to the refugee problem, which was created mostly as a result of decisions made by the refugees and their leadership rather than the result of strategic plans and military orders issued by Israeli leaders.
The text starts with a declarative statement that the war caused great suffering for all civilians–Jews and Palestinians–some of whom lost their homes. From the outset, then, it posits parity between Jews and Palestinians without clarifying that there is a huge gap between the very small number of Jews who had to leave their homes, compared with some 650,000 Palestinian civilians who lost theirs and became refugees. The text states that Israel rejected the return of the refugees, but it blames Arab states for refusing to resettle them in the host countries. The book then explains the reasons for the Palestinians’ flight as being the fear of atrocities and revenge; the weakness of the Palestinian leadership; the belief that the Arab siege is coming; refusal to live under Jewish rule; and expulsion by Jewish forces. The text states explicitly that the expulsion did not result from a Zionist attempt at ethnic cleansing or from instructions by the political leadership.
The text states that Israel rejected the return of the refugees, but it blames Arab states for refusing to resettle them in the host countries.
This framing of the issues invites students to draw several conclusions. First, the Nakba is reduced to a refugee problem, which happened in the past and does not necessarily have current ramifications. Second, all civilian populations suffered, including the Jewish community. Third, many civilians fled or were deported during the war. Fourth, the refugees are to blame for leaving their homes. Fifth, Israel’s decision not to let Palestinians return is justified by the prevailing emergency situation and the Palestinians’ refusal to accept the partition plan. Finally, the Arab states are equally responsible for refugee suffering.
Although the creation of the refugee problem is briefly treated in the book (as well as in other available books), its framing and the causes behind its creation depict it as a normal development in a war situation and a byproduct of the Palestinian leadership’s decision-making. This framing of the Palestinian refugee problem renders it a historical event that should not raise questions about Israel’s responsibility or trigger self-blame or guilt among Israeli students learning about it. The section on the refugees includes five original documents or parts of them from 1948. The first document is part of a poem by Haim Hefer about those Israeli soldiers who lost their lives for the sake of the homeland. The other four are citations from official documents and speeches of Israeli leaders explaining the responsibility of the Palestinians for the refugee problem and reiterating the danger entailed in their situation for the security of the state.
The matriculation exam for a few schools includes a question about a historical source relating to the Nakba and Israel’s partial responsibility for it. The fact that such a question is raised is evidence of a slight change in Israeli attitudes on the subject, but one should not read too much into this: the specific content about Israel’s responsibility for the Nakba is still limited to students who choose to take an advanced history course, and their numbers are minimal. Furthermore, even when the topics are related to supplemental Nakba documents, they are framed within a broader historical process that is consistent with the hegemonic Israeli narrative; namely, Israel had no choice but to defend its existence. The fact that the Palestinians were the indigenous population of Palestine, facing colonial efforts to uproot them from their homeland, is nowhere mentioned in the curriculum (and as a result, students are not made aware of it).
Nonetheless, the history curriculum suggests some empathy toward those who paid the price for what are presented as the unjust decisions made by Palestinian leaders. It opens new spaces for some discussion regarding certain Israeli responsibility for what happened in 1948 but limits it to small numbers of students who choose to take advanced history for the matriculation exam.
Nonetheless, the history curriculum suggests some empathy toward those who paid the price for what are presented as the unjust decisions made by Palestinian leaders.
The curriculum implies very minor Israeli responsibility for some of the expulsions and evacuations of Palestinian villages. The curriculum depicts the Jewish military forces as behaving like any army would behave in such circumstances, leading to the conclusion that the unfortunate result of the 1948 war should not change the status quo that resulted from it. The treatment of the creation of the refugee problem, and the alluding to some Israeli responsibility, may enable optimists to argue that these offer starting points for change. But realists can argue that the sophisticated change in the curriculum strikes a balance between the inability of the education ministry to ignore new historical evidence regarding the 1948 war and avoiding a serious treatment of the Nakba that might lead to a direct clash with the nationalist camp in Israeli society.
There Is No Denying the Nakba
The current curriculum seems sufficient for the education ministry to claim it is attentive to scientific research without really challenging the hegemonic Israeli narrative regarding the “just war” of “the few against the many,” fought by the “most moral army in the world.” Furthermore, the continuous debate concerning the Nakba in academia and the media does not commit those in charge of the curriculum, since they are more attentive to politicians who make fateful decisions regarding their professional future than to professors and journalists.
For the time being, the big gap will remain between the form in which the history curriculum is written and taught and the recognition of the historical facts as introduced by Israeli and Palestinian historians. Another generation of pupils will grow up with the hegemonic Israeli moralistic discourse that distorts and denies historical events and an educational system that works to turn them into disciplined citizens, willing to continue the atrocities of the Nakba while denying its presence. Simultaneously, the public debate on the topic demonstrates that history books cannot defeat a reality in which the Palestinians’