MAXWELL:  Israel turns a page, finds a sense of humanity

9/12/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Perhaps the approach of the new millennium is a factor in Israel’s determination to become the modern, civilized democracy it claims to be.

For the first time ever, for example, the word “Naqba” is being used in history textbooks in Israel, according to a recent New York Times article. Even the term “Palestinian” to identify members of an Arab nationalist movement is showing up in school books.

To use Palestinian is to acknowledge a place called “Palestine,” to say that a specific people is real and distinct. To use Naqba, meaning “catastrophe,” is to fess up that, in 1948, Zionists displaced Palestinians from their rightful homes in Judea and Sumaria (today called the West Bank of the Jordan River).

Saying that Palestinians suffered a catastrophe explodes the myth that they arrogantly walked away from their land and houses in the belief that the Arab alliance would run the Jews into the Mediterranean Sea. The new books tell it like it was: Palestinians ran in terror or were expelled by the Jews.

The world is witnessing temblors in the Holy Land. Just a few years ago, the Israeli government, along with the overwhelming majority of Jewish citizens, would have stopped textbooks from mentioning the words Naqba and Palestinian because these terms and major revisions of landmark events show that much of Israel’s history has been airbrushed for narrow ideological and religious purposes.

Why such changes now?

“We are beginning a new era in history teaching where, for the first time in Israeli textbooks, the picture is not black and white,” Michael Yaron, who is in charge of the history curriculum at the Ministry of Education, told the Times. “That was an important goal of mine when I came, to make sure the Palestinian perspective was included.

“My second goal was to end the practice of separately teaching Jewish and Israeli history on the one hand and world history on the other. It was absurd. We used to spend one year teaching the Holocaust and the next teaching World War II. Now we will teach Jewish history in larger context of other events. This doesn’t minimize Zionism. It puts it in context.”

Context, indeed.

A modern democracy cannot have _ inside its borders _ an officially dispossessed, abused people, such as the Palestinians. A modern democracy cannot have _ inside its borders _ an official enemy that is kept in a warren.

Under Ehud Barak’s leadership, Israel has begun the process of making peace with the Palestinians. The nation has signed important agreements and has started carrying out the transfer of 160 square miles of West Bank territory to the Palestinian Authority.

The transfer of land to the Palestinians is perhaps the first installment on granting statehood to the Arab diaspora _ a repugnant condition that Jews surely understand.

Barak also has kept his word and released 199 prisoners, sending them to their families and homes in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Even if some of these men commit new acts of terrorism, Israel has done the right thing. The conditions under which the prisoners languished made Israel one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. The atrocities prison staff committed undermined Israel’s claims of being civilized.

When it banned Shin Bet, the nation’s security service, from torturing terrorism suspects, the Israeli Supreme Court moved the nation toward the moral high road. Again, a modern democracy should not have an official policy that sanctions the violent shaking of fellow humans, shackling them in painful positions, keeping them awake for long periods, placing urine-soaked hoods over their heads and beating them.

Obviously, many of these recent moves are driven by the practical realities of life in a changing Middle East, of facing the new attitudes of a new generation of Israeli Jews and Arabs. Even so, they are the right moves because they bring dignity to Palestinians and Jews.

Barak, a military hero, is no olive-branch wielding Laborite who believes that Jews and Palestinians will integrate and live together as brethren. He is too much of a pragmatist for such naivete.

After handing over agreed-upon land to the Palestinians, he spoke to the Cabinet, revealing the design of his motives:

“We are separating from parts of the land that are dear to us all. But we are a responsible government, and we must move toward a permanent settlement and peace agreements throughout the region in order to consolidate Israel’s security and future.

“Deep in our hearts, there is deep pain. In order to ensure the future, sovereignty and strength of Israel, we must make difficult, sometimes painful decisions to separate peacefully from the Palestinians, to no longer rule over them.”

To no longer rule over them.

This new philosophy clearly shows that Barak, unlike his predecessor, the recalcitrant Benjamin Netanyahu, knows that a modern democracy should not rule over other people, especially a proud, fighting group such as the Palestinians.

During the next several months, if reports are accurate, Israel will cede more West Bank land to the Palestinian Authority, release more prisoners, permit the Palestinians to complete a seaport in Gaza and build passageways that will let Palestinians move freely between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Such practical, humanitarian moves will bring the state of Israel even closer to being a modern democracy, one that can truly stabilize the Middle East.