An empty land?

by Yonathan Mizrachi
JERUSALEM - Jewish history and Biblical studies are the two main humanistic subjects taught in Israeli schools. However, the average Israeli pupil doesn’t learn anything about the rest of the history of the land of Israel. In my opinion, the absence of this field of study greatly influences the development of Israeli pupils’ identity and their understanding of their rights on the land.

On the whole, the history of the land of Israel is taught in religious schools and deals with the Jewish historical periods, mainly with the era called “the Second Temple period”—the halcyon days of the Jewish people during the time of the great Temple built by Herod. Even the designation “Land of Israel studies” immediately takes on a narrow connotation that identifies the land in which we live by the name “Israel”. But this land has another name too, “Palestine”.

Clearly there is great significance in learning the history of the Jewish people; it has lived for two thousand years in exile and there is a clear need to teach about a common past in order to build a common narrative. The need to learn about European history is also clear. Europe greatly influenced the modern world in general and the Jewish people specifically.

Israeli students who want to widen their historical knowledge and take a broader exam in the subject learn American history, deepen their learning about the history of Israel and the historical periods that are linked to the establishment of the State of Israel but hardly deal at all with the history of the Middle East or the rest of the history of the land. Learning about the history of Islam for example is only part of the curriculum for 7th grade and no more than 2 months is assigned for that. And even then, universal Islam is taught and not Islam specifically in Israel.
The average Israeli student knows almost nothing about the later Roman period, when the City of Jerusalem was built anew; very little about the Byzantine period which greatly influenced the development of the land from the 4th to the 7th century; and of course very little about the Muslim periods which have comprised the history of the land for over a thousand years.

No less important is learning about the variety of cultures that lived in this land, even during the periods that are identified as Jewish ones. During biblical times there lived a variety of cultures and peoples. That can be learnt even from reading the Bible. In other periods, such as the “Second Temple Period” pupils must think that only Jews lived in the land. At that time the most significant culture in the land was without a doubt Jewish, but in the region, and sometimes even in the same cities, lived people of other cultures such as Hellenists, Samaritans, Edomites, Phoenicians and others.

The result is a large lacuna in the knowledge of the Israeli student from 70 C.E. until the beginnings of Zionism at the end of the 19th century.

Most Israelis are sure that the land was abandoned or almost empty from the time Jewish culture left it until the 19th century. After learning about the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. the student learns about the development of the Jewish culture and faith in exile, and then learns about the land of Israel in the 19th century during the beginnings of Zionism. So is built the understanding that the right to the land is not just historical but that Israel today is a direct continuation of something that was cut off nearly 2,000 years ago. The accepted approach is that the land was empty and waited for us, the chosen Jewish people to return to it.

If in the past mainly Jews lived in the land and the time of its greatest local culture was when the Jewish people lived there, one can understand that the presence of other peoples, religions and cultures are not an important element in local history. The past is Jewish, and it’s clear that also the present has to be like that and of course in the future the land only belongs to the Jewish people.

Lack of knowledge about the land harms the education of every pupil, but the greatest loss is the possibility of learning about the varieties of peoples, religions and cultures that lived and still live in the land. This learning, in my opinion, not only enriches the student but is also important and essential in order to accept the right of the other and the child of a different culture to live on this land.


* Yonathan Mizrachi is an archeologist and an educationalist. He is one of the founders of the organisation Emek Shaveh (Equal Valley) 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), 29 October 2009,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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Memories of a graduate of the Israeli mainstream school system
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
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Liberating the Palestinian and Zionist narratives in Israeli schools
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Other articles in this series

Memories of a graduate of the Israeli mainstream school system by Michal Haramati
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
Liberating the Palestinian and Zionist narratives in Israeli schools by Ayman Agbaria