Memories of a graduate of the Israeli mainstream school system

by Michal Haramati
TEL-AVIV - In the year 2000, when I was in the ninth-grade, we studied our history from a large and expansive book. Because history teachers in the junior high school are free to some extent to determine what is studied in the classroom, we learned 19th century European history and other subjects which could be categorised as general knowledge. The book covered a wide range of subjects in a matter of fact style and I enjoyed reading it even in my spare time.

Thus I discovered all kinds of fascinating facts; for example, that there was a civil war in Lebanon or that Britain was responsible for the founding of the Kingdom of Jordan. These were interesting and exciting discoveries, and realising that the politics of the Mediterranean do not exclusively revolve around the loathing of Israel gave me a sense of relief. The following year, the Ministry of Education shelved the book under the simple pretext that it wasn’t Zionist enough.

I can’t help comparing the attitude of the mainstream educational system in Israel towards its students to old Humbert Humbert (in Nabokov’s novel) who is so fearful that his Lolita might leave or expose him, that he lies and makes her believe that she has cause to fear for her own future should she betray him. Thus he shapes her internal world and perpetuates a relationship that is eternally pathological.

Is Israeli nationalism facing an internal existential threat so severe that the educational system must do everything it can to withhold knowledge from the very bearers of nationalism? Is it not possible to trust that a wide-ranging and in-depth education would strengthen Israeli youth in a way which could contribute to the state?

Allow me to briefly recount my experience of studying history within the mainstream Jewish educational system, because whilst a student this issue troubled me tremendously:

It is a well-known fact that students in Israel learn about the state of Israel within a Zionist context only. From grade school through the end of high school, Jewish and Zionist history is repeatedly featured (but not the history of the state of Israel after its establishment). The matriculation exams are dedicated exclusively to these subjects with the one exception, which I can remember from my years as a student, of the 1929 Great Depression in the United States.

When I graduated high school, I didn’t know that Britain had once ruled the Suez Canal. On the other hand, in twelve years of school I remember no less than three occasions when we learned about the Jewish settlement in Israel during the Ottoman period and I can still remember intensive preparations for high school tests which asked, in incredible detail, about the internal conflicts of this or that politician who held the reins of power in the royal courts of the Kingdom of Judea during the First Temple period.

It is unthinkable that someone could imagine that this is an important area of study while the internal conflicts of countries that share borders with Israel and have daily consequences for our country are secondary.

The only conclusion that I can draw from this state of affairs is that the people who determine educational policy fear that students would lose their motivation to join combat units if they could imagine that on the other side of these borders there are people whose existence does not only revolve around their being a continual threat to Israel (as was always the case; as is always the case).

The narrative of Jewish-Israeli victimhood has an important place in shaping Israeli nationalism. But the educational system is creating deep-seated and intentional ignorance about the history and politics of the region by imposing a severe form of censorship on the many narratives that have shaped it. Thus when a given high school graduate finally encounters information about the power dynamics which are relevant to shaping the history of his country and of which he has hitherto known nothing about, he may begin to question the credibility of the educational system. When the said graduate contemplates the manner in which the subject of the establishment of the state was taught to him, he may see the exaggerated focus on Zionist and Jewish history as an attempt to conceal something. He may think that this intentional cover-up is tantamount to acknowledging that the injustices caused to the Palestinian people with the establishment of the state of Israel do in fact contradict the moral foundation of the state of Israel.

Jewish students must become acquainted with the wider political map of the region. They have a right to learn that Iran is not just an existential threat to the State of Israel; they have a right to know the various circumstances that have caused us to refer to the peace with Egypt as a “cold” peace; they have a right to understand why the Palestinians do not have a place in neighbouring Arab countries in the region and what is the full meaning of the word “jihad”, which does not only refer to acts of terror.

The typical Israeli is proud of the fact that some of his slang words are in Arabic and that basic aspects of his cuisine have local roots. The history curriculum is just one of many examples for the way in which the education system effaces this aspect of our lives and places Jewish-Israeli nationalism so deeply within our experience that any political debate with a stranger renders the person automatically ignorant or an anti-Semite.

By acknowledging the regional context within which the state of Israel exists, the educational system would be making a small, feasible step for Zionism, which long ago ceased to be dependent on its European or biblical roots but rather on our capacity to live as Jews in the land of Israel. The implications of such an acknowledgement could be a subject for debate amongst the citizens of this country. At the same time we can assume that a proper acknowledgement that the land of Israel is situated amongst peoples who exist in their own right and not just as enemies of Israel, would be an important step towards creating sustainable life in this land.

* Michal Haramati (24) was born and raised in Jerusalem. She is in her third year of BA studies in Sociology and Anthropolgy at Tel Aviv University. This article is part of a special series on nationalism in the Israeli educational system and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 01 October 2009,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Women of Tunisia: Let your voices be heard!

The women of Tunisia have a decisive role to play in shaping Tunisia's future. Fatma Ben Saïdane reminds women of the power of their vote and the importance of civic engagement.
"It is not often that we can find a resource that provides balance and fosters Mideast reconciliation, understanding and coexistence. The Common Ground News Service provides all these consistently. Above all, this service provides the most intangible yet most essential of elements, hope for a better future for all the people of the Middle East."

- Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine

It takes 200+ hours a week to produce CGNews. We rely on readers like you to make it happen. If you find our stories informative or inspiring, help us share these underreported perspectives with audiences around the world.



Or, support us with a one-time donation.

The Israeli education system and the question of shared citizenship
Toward an equal Arab-Palestinian education in Israel
Equality in education is essential for saving Israeli society
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of a teacher
Educating for tolerant thinking within a conflict zone
An empty land?
Liberating the Palestinian and Zionist narratives in Israeli schools
# of hours per week to create one edition
# of editors in 6 countries around the world
# of subscribers
Average # of reprints per article
# of media outlets that have reprinted our articles
# of republished articles since inception
# of languages CG articles are distributed in
# of writers since inception


Other articles in this series

The Israeli education system and the question of shared citizenship by Khaled Abu Asbah
Toward an equal Arab-Palestinian education in Israel by Yousef Jabareen
Equality in education is essential for saving Israeli society by Muli Peleg
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of a teacher by Itzik Hoffman
Educating for tolerant thinking within a conflict zone by Catherine Rottenberg and Neve Gordon
An empty land? by Yonathan Mizrachi
Liberating the Palestinian and Zionist narratives in Israeli schools by Ayman Agbaria