The Arab-Israeli Conflict in Israeli History Textbooks, 1948-2000
By Elie Podeh
Bergin and Garvey, 2002. 216 pp. $81.95.
How do Israelis learn about the Arab-Israeli conflict? Israeli television and newspapers discuss the here-and-now, but most Israelis learn about the conflict’s long history through their school textbooks. Podeh, a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argues that Israeli textbooks are biased. “The aims of this study are not merely academic,” he says. Instead, he writes that his “findings are relevant to the ongoing efforts toward a peaceful solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Podeh examines textbooks used in Israeli schools since 1948 in his well-organized study. He identifies three “generations” of textbooks, asserting that quality improves with each. The first generation, from Israel’s birth in 1948 until 1974, was characterized, he argues, by hostility towards Arabs. The second generation, 1974-93, was marked by introspection about how the Arab-Israeli conflict might be solved. The third generation, since 1993, shifts focus from conflict to peace. Podeh evaluates the textbooks based on their treatment of eleven historical subjects, ranging from early Islamic history to the position of the Arab minority in Israel, and subjects in between, including Jewish immigration, conflicting British promises to Arabs and Jews during World War I, and the Arab-Israeli wars.
The author argues that Israel’s collective memory includes an intense nationalism that encourages Israeli enmity towards Arabs and, in turn, perpetuates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He finds that the first generation of books reflects a potent Zionism and anti-Arab sentiment that, by the third generation, dilutes to a more innocuous form. He suggests that the third generation reflects a more “mature” Israeli society willing to self-criticize and acknowledge the role of Arabs as “victims of the conflict.” Still, it is not enough for him; what he pines for is a joint Israeli-Arab textbook “that will combine the Zionist narrative and the Arab-Palestinian counter-narrative.” It seems Podeh wants to give Israel’s New Historians a monopoly on Israeli history.
Podeh’s work is undercut by his own biases, for he dismisses well-documented studies of bias in Arab textbooks as un-academic and “politically motivated,” and he fails to mention that academia in Israel is full of revisionist historians far to the left of their society. Podeh’s unwillingness to acknowledge the incitement in Arab textbooks and the unresolved historio-graphical disputes among Israeli historians diminishes the value of his conclusions. Indeed, his work has value only if readers focus on his information and strip away his politicized analysis.
Suzanne Gershowitz is a research assistant at AEI.