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Government officials warned Israeli teachers last week not to cooperate with a civic group that seeks to educate Israelis about how the Palestinians view the loss of their homeland and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
Israel’s education ministry issued the advisory after Zochrot – a Jewish group that seeks to raise awareness among Israeli Jews of the events of 1948, referred to as the “nakba” by Palestinians – organised a workshop for primary school teachers.
The ministry said the course had not been approved and told teachers not to participate in Zochrot-sponsored activities during the coming school year.
In a letter to the education ministry protesting against Zochrot’s activities, the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, an advocacy group for Jewish settlers, had called the group’s educational materials “part of a criminal vision to wipe Israel off the face of the earth”.
It was unclear whether participants in the workshop for primary school teachers would be punished, but a teacher identified as a trainer for the seminar might be investigated by the education ministry, the Jerusalem Post reported.
The warning is the latest move by the education ministry, headed by Gideon Saar, a member of the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, to use school curricula to advance a more strident Zionist agenda.
In March, for instance, the ministry banned Israeli schools from distributing a booklet for children about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Critics had objected to parts of the declaration that refer to freedom of religion and protection of asylum-seekers.
The ministry’s latest move involves the controversies that still swirl over the events that led to the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 – what Israelis describe as their “War of Independence” and what Palestinians call the nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe”.
Eitan Bronstein, Zochrot’s director, said the ministry was trying to “frighten off” teachers from learning about a period in Israel’s history that until now, he said, had been presented in schools only from a “triumphalist perspective”.
The group, which was founded eight years ago and whose Hebrew name means “remembering”, has provoked controversy by organising visits to some of the hundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed by the Israeli army during and after the 1948 war.
Zochrot members place signposts at the former villages using their original Arabic names, and bring Palestinian refugees back on visits, upsetting Jewish residents who live in communities built on those lands.
In recent months, Zochrot has concentrated on developing a programme on the nakba for schools, allowing teachers to address the subject from a Palestinian perspective for the first time.
Mr Bronstein said more than 300 high school teachers had asked for Zochrot’s information kits over the past year, and a few primary school teachers had started to show an interest too. That has provoked a backlash from education officials and right-wing groups.
“A small but growing number of teachers are curious about the nakba and want to find out more,” he said. “The problem is that the education authorities see this development as threatening and are prepared to intimidate teachers to stop them from getting involved.”
Last week’s workshop was the first Zochrot had arranged for primary school teachers.
Hebrew textbooks focus chiefly on the success of Israel’s troops during the 1948 war. The books say that the 750,000 refugees either left voluntarily or were ordered to leave by Arab armies. Most historians now say that Israeli troops either physically expelled the Palestinians or frightened them so much that they fled.
In 2006 an Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, published a popular book in English – but little read inside Israel – that went farther, arguing that Israel had implemented a military plan to “ethnically cleanse” Palestinians even before Israel’s founders declared statehood.
A year later Yuli Tamir, the dovish education minister, provoked public outrage by approving for the first time the use of the word “nakba” in an Arabic textbook for the quarter of the school population who belong to the country’s Palestinian minority.
The book was banned last summer by Mr Saar, Ms Tamir’s successor.
Mr Saar has also backed legislation to punish groups and individuals who commemorate the nakba. The bill, which enjoys wide support, is working its way through the parliament.
Zochrot’s kit includes teaching units on life among Palestinians before and after the 1948 war, personal stories from refugees, a tour of a destroyed village, and a discussion of the refugees’ right of return.
Amaya Galili, Zochrot’s educational coordinator, said that although the group offered complete lesson plans, most teachers incorporated only elements of the programme so that officials would not notice they were using Zochrot’s material.
A history teacher in Jerusalem, who did not want to be identified, said she was one of half a dozen in the city who had participated in Zochrot’s courses.
She said, however, that her new-found understanding of the nakba had had almost no impact on either the curriculum or the pupils at the school.
“There are many other ways for the school to make sure that an atmosphere of fear prevails towards Palestinians. It’s easy to insert a nationalistic and religious agenda into the classroom – and, after all, I am just one teacher.”
The changes at the education ministry have become increasingly apparent since Mr Saar’s appointment nearly 18 months ago.
Earlier this year, the ministry demanded that its logo be removed from a joint Hebrew and Arabic website called Common Ground, which aims to promote greater understanding between the country’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens. Officials had objected to Zochrot’s posting of a story written by a Palestinian girl about the nakba.
Ms Galili said the ministry’s response to Zochrot’s work contrasted strongly with its encouragement of private initiatives by right-wing groups.
One, called Gush Katif week, brings former Jewish settlers from Gaza into 400 schools to celebrate life before Israeli troops and Jewish settlers withdrew from the Strip in 2005. Another, Mibereshit, run by a far-right rabbi and financed by evangelical Christians in the US, offers pupils tours of the country, including the settlements, in a bid to “strengthen Zionist education”.
“Many of these programmes sound superficially reasonable. They’re presented as ‘instilling positive values’ or ‘learning to love the land’. But, in fact, they are cover for dubious initiatives by religious and settler groups”, Ms Galili said.
Over the past year, Mr Saar has emphasised courses on Zionism, Jewish heritage and Judaism. He also has increased pupils’ visits to Jerusalem’s Palestinian districts and introduced a programme to bring soldiers into the classroom to help enlist pupils into the military.