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Questioning History

10/04/2015 8:00 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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This is the entrance to a cemetery of Deir Yassin notable citizens before the massacre of the villagers in April 1948. The Jews who know occupy the land have put up a sign in Hebrew and English that reads "Holy Place. No Entrance." (AP Photo)

deir yassin

Entrance to a cemetery of Deir Yassin

Last month students from around the country sat for their ISC history examination, which is administered by the CISCE (Council for the India School Certificate Exams). The test covered a range of topics in modern history, with a focus on India and what is called "world history", although there is very little focus on non-Western countries. The ISC syllabus doesn't even cover the African continent except for a minor mention of Egypt in relation to battles fought there during World War II. While most of the questions focused on European and Indian history, the final section was about the Middle East, of which two questions centred on Palestine:

1. Give a brief account of the Arab-Israel conflict in Palestine after the First World War and explain how it led to the outbreak of war in 1948.

2. State the results of the Arab-Israel war (1948-1949).

These essay topics reveal a topical part of twentieth-century history that young people should study, especially if one wants to understand current events. If one were to judge the CISCE curriculum by its learning outcomes for the history syllabus, it would seem that such questions would enable students to develop a complex understanding about Palestine or anywhere else:

1. To develop the capacity to read historical views in the light of new evidence or new interpretation of evidence.

2. To encourage diminution of ethnocentric prejudices and to develop a more international approach to world history.

3. To develop the ability to express views and arguments clearly using correct terminology of the subject.

4. To familiarise candidates with various types of historical evidence and to provide some awareness of the problems involved in evaluating different kinds of source materials.

These four goals seem to be at odds with the questions on the exam as well as one of the textbooks used by ISC students. For example, if the CISCE wants students to use "correct terminology", be able to understand history "in the light of new evidence", and interpret that evidence then a student should be able to approach the above questions with a critical eye geared towards incorporation of the last two decades of research produced by Palestinian scholars and Israeli "new historians".

What would happen if a student approached this test paper in a way that challenged its very premise? How would an examiner evaluate a child who called into question the phrasing of "Arab-Israeli conflict" as if there were two equal sides or the validity of the notion that there was a war in 1948 rather than a planned ethnic cleansing operation?

In all likelihood most students probably prepare for this exam by mugging up details from their teachers and textbooks. At my school students study Norman Lowe's Mastering Modern World History. (Leave aside the fact that India doesn't even factor into Lowe's account of modern world history except for a couple of minor mentions like its independence movement.) This textbook is European in its outlook: Europe is the centre and the rest of the world is the periphery.

The ISC syllabus approaches West Asia from a Eurocentric perspective. Its language is problematic too: it identifies the October 1973 war as the "Yom Kippur War" and the events of 1948 as Israel's "War of Liberation". One must wonder: why is the 1973 war identified by a Jewish holiday (it was also Ramadan) or who exactly was Israel (which didn't yet exist) seeking liberation from?

deir yassin

Bullet-riddled cactus are seen in the village of Deir Yassin

If the CISCE took into account the historical scholarship over the past couple of decades, they would be able to read historical views in the light of new evidence. To see what happened in 1948 in Palestine, then, would require students to understand how settler colonialism got its foothold in the region at the same moment India was emerging from the ashes of British imperialism. They would learn not only how the British enabled European Jews to colonise this land as a way to strengthen their hold on Egypt's Suez Canal, their sea route to India. Too, there were Indian soldiers sent to Palestine by their British commanders who witnessed events unfolding there, some of whom are still alive and whose stories would make wonderful source material.

If such narratives were to be collected, Indians would have a better sense of what happened in 1948 and could answer the ISC questions more fluently. They would learn that there was no war in 1948, but rather a planned removal of over 750,000 Palestinians from their native villages and cities. They would learn that over 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed and trees were planted on the ruins to prevent refugees from returning. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, was the architect of what he called Plan Dalet, and what Palestinians call an nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe.

There were those from neighbouring Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq who arrived to fight the new conquerors, but they reached too late as most Palestinians had already been expelled. Still, Lowe reproduces the myth that Arabs attacked Israel after it declared its independence: "In May 1948 Ben Gurion declared the independence of the new state of Israel. It was immediately attacked by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon". But a good student of history would ask: Israel declared its independence from whom? From their British partners who, at least initially, trained them militarily and politically? From the Palestinians who did not have the military advantages and materiel that the European Jews had access to?

"They would learn that there was no war in 1948, but rather a planned removal of over 750,000 Palestinians from their native villages and cities."

Because Palestinians didn't have an army and were not backed by a European power, they fled to safety in neighbouring countries. There were also a number of massacres of unarmed Palestinian villagers, the most famous of which is Deir Yassin, something Lowe seems to allude to: "After some Jews had slaughtered the entire population of an Arab village in Israel, nearly a million Arabs fled into Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria where they had to live in miserable refugee camps". What he doesn't say is that this particular massacre was committed on 9 April, a good month before Israel declared its statehood. Lowe also fails to mention that these ethnic cleansing operations began long before 1948 and the ongoing nakba has continued unabated ever since.

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