Israel To Ban 'Catastrophe' Reference In Texts

Israel's education minister says the country is removing references to what Palestinians call the "catastrophe" of Israel's creation from textbooks for Arab schoolchildren. The phrase was inserted by a former education minister in 2007. Botrous Mansour, general director of the Nazareth Baptist School, in Nazareth, offers his insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And the battle of words made its way into Israeli textbooks this week, too. The Israeli minister of education has banned reference to the Arabic word nakba from Arabic language Israeli textbooks. The word nakba means the catastrophe. And it resonates for millions of Palestinians. It's the word that they use to describe the creation of the State of Israel, when millions of Palestinians became refugees at the end of the 1948 war. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: While there are now about 4.5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants, in 1948 the number of Palestinian refugees numbered roughly 750,000, not in the millions.]

Botrous Mansour is general director of the Nazareth Baptist School. That's a school in Israel for Israeli Arabs where the textbooks in question are used. And he joins us from his home in Nazareth. Mr. Mansour, what's your reaction to the education ministry's decision?

Mr. BOTROUS MANSOUR (General Director, Nazareth Baptist School): I think this decision has no basis, not historical, because I think in other countries when governments wanted to just ignore the suffering of another people in a time of conflict, this did not work. I think it's contradictory to the right of speech. And I also think it's not practical in the world that we live in today, which is a flood of information and Internet. So this is an absurd decision. And I hope they rethink it. Or maybe somebody can appeal to the high court and change that according to the Israeli constitutional law.

SIEGEL: Now, as I understand it, the Ministry of Education is reversing an action taken by the previous Ministry of Education just two years ago when that minister, a member of the Labor Party inserted this statement into a primary school text for Arab-Israeli students. The Arabs called the war, the nakba, a war of catastrophe, loss and humiliation. And the Jews call it the Independence War or the War of Independence. Does that statement in the history texts strike you, as principal of an Israeli-Arab school, does strike you as a fair way of teaching what people think about that war?

Mr. MANSOUR: The 2007 decision, I think, is an open-minded decision. A person who studies history should not be from one side. There are two sides still going on. And I think it should be obvious that the independence of Israel came on the expense of another people, who have still until today, six decades after that, are still suffering from it. So, I think that decision was more knowledgeable one.

SIEGEL: Here, though, is the rational of the current Israeli education minister, who is of the right wing Likud Party. He says you cannot expect any country to describe its own founding as a catastrophe. If someday there is a Palestinian state, we wouldn't expect it to go on at length about the setback it dealt to Israeli settlers in the West Bank when it was created.

Mr. MANSOUR: I understand the rationale, but I'm not saying that it should emphasize the nakba, but at least try to give a balanced observation of what happened in 1948.

SIEGEL: Now, in the Israeli system, are you obliged to use a text that doesn't have that paragraph in it, or to not use the text that does have that paragraph in it?

Mr. MANSOUR: We're not free to use our own texts. Our school is called the Christian private school, but we're obliged to use the Israeli curriculum. So you can't just ignore the other side of the story. Maybe teachers will be teaching that, but asking the students to answer the questions in the exams in a way that will please maybe the government, but that will be very, very odd, also. I don't know how we're going to deal with it.

SIEGEL: Mr. Mansour, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. MANSOUR: You're welcome. It's a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Botrous Mansour is general director of the Nazareth Baptist School that is a school in Israel for Arab students. We also tried to contact the Israeli Ministry of Education and we received no response to our call.

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Correction Sept. 30, 2009

The original broadcast of this story said that "millions of Palestinians became refugees at the end of the 1948 war." That is incorrect. While millions of Palestinians are now considered refugees, the actual number who became refugees because of the war has been estimated at about 750,000, according to the United Nations' Palestinian refugee agency.

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