Rami G. Khouri: A new history lesson in Israel

Roundup: Talking About History

[Rami G. Khouri is director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star. This article was distributed by Agence Global.]

Here's a little event that may have big implications. The Israeli education ministry has approved a textbook for Arab third graders in Israel that for the first time describes the 1948 war that gave birth to the state of Israel as a "catastrophe" for the indigenous Palestinians and their society. The Palestinians have always referred to 1948 as their nakba, or catastrophic national shattering, dispersal, exile, occupation and disenfranchisement.

This may be the first tangible sign that the Zionist Israeli establishment is prepared to move in the direction of acknowledging what happened to the Palestinians in 1948, which is a vital Palestinian demand for any serious peace-making effort to succeed. Israelis in turn would expect a reciprocal Palestinian acknowledgment of Israel's core narrative.

The new textbook states that "The Arabs call the war the Nakba, a war of catastrophe, loss and humiliation, and the Jews call it the Independence war." It adds that, "some of the Palestinians fled and some were expelled following the War of Independence," and that "many Arab-owned lands were confiscated."

Unfortunately, the official textbook for Jewish Israelis in the same grade does not offer this Arab view, but sticks to the Israeli version of 1948 history as a moment of Jewish valor and national rebirth. Yet the new Arabic text may be significant if it reflects an Israeli capacity to become more historically honest, and sensitive to the legitimate political rights of their Palestinian foes.

The facts of the Palestinian Nakba in 1948 are quite well documented now by Israeli, Arab and foreign historians. Something like 750,000 Palestinians (about half the population) was driven out of or fled their Palestinian homes and lands in 1948, for various reasons. Those refugees now number over 4.5 million.

One of the biggest debates about 1948 is on motives, especially the Palestinian view that Zionist leaders and militias implemented a planned ethnic cleansing campaign to systematically drive out the Palestinians in order to make room for a Jewish state. Israelis argue that Arab leaders told the Palestinians to leave so that Arab armies could attack the Jewish forces, or that Jewish attacks on Arabs were only in self-defense.

Much of this debate has been resolved by respected scholars. The most recent and complete treatment of this issue is a book by the Israeli historian and University of Haifa lecturer Ilan Pappe, entitled, appropriately, "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine."...

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