'A Tale of Two Narratives: Israeli and Palestinian Textbooks and the Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem

By Grace Wermenbol
Submitted to Session P4994 (Schooling the Nation: the Politics of Education in Historical Perspective, 2017 Annual Meeting
The Levant;
Arab-Israeli Conflict;
LCD Projector without Audio;
With the 70th anniversary of what Benny Morris termed “the birth of the refugee problem” approaching, this paper analyses the origins and continuous effects of mass displacement as presented in Israeli and Palestinian textbooks since the 1993 Oslo Accords. This timeframe covers the incorporation of revisionist historiography developed in the 1980s and the early 1990s, but also demonstrates the transition in the educational narrative under the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. While previous studies concerning the presentation of the 1948 War in Israeli and Palestinian schoolbooks do exist, including those by Ruth Firer and Sami Adwan, a study solely dedicated to the changing presentation of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) remains absent.

Applying collective memory theory to the educational realm, this paper demonstrates that education remains one of the primary realms through which a state can transmit “approved knowledge” to the younger generation (Michael Apple, 1986). The paper’s analysis of this purported official version of history is based on two research methods: primary source analysis and ethnographic data collection through elite interviewing. The primary research method consists of a textual analysis of 16 history textbooks used in the Israeli-Jewish state sector and 13 history textbooks in schools run by the Palestinian authority in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. In addition to examining the presented historical narrative in these books, this paper exhibits that that which is “hidden” or “missing” has been intentionally omitted in the attempt to shape the narrative of schoolbooks in line with the authors’ and/or society’s views. Previously conducted interviews with former Israeli and Palestinians ministers of education and government officials, executed as part of an ongoing DPhil, reveal the motives behind this hidden or missing information.

This paper argues that while both Palestinian and Israeli textbooks fail in their attempts to educate students on the complicated reality of the 1948 War and its continued pertinence, this failure has occurred for different reasons. In Israeli textbooks, minimization of the continued suffering experienced by Palestinians reflects the hawkish political reality of the last twenty years. Conversely, Palestinian textbooks’ tepid narrative on al-Nakba, which solely offers limited insight into its role in Palestinian history and consciousness, illustrates the international constraints accompanying financial support and the ever-present accusation of incitement. These identified shortcomings lay the foundation for future reexaminations of the Israeli and Palestinian educational systems and their role in the perpetuation of the conflict.