Debating the Exam: The 1948 Palestinian Exodus

“As a general rule, every war is fought twice: first on the battlefield, then in the historiographical arena.”  – Efraim Karsh, Israeli historian

Lies My Exam Taught Me?

More than ten years ago, educator James Loewen wrote Lies My Teacher Taught Me, a scathing commentary on textbook writing in the United States finding that a great deal of material in widely-used high school and college level history textbooks was flawed, incorrect, or fell into the category of myth propagating.[i] Undoubtedly, many of the materials we use in British Columbia classrooms to teach historical themes and topics, from a popular teacher-created History 12 text to DVD documentaries, suffer from similar problems.[ii] These flaws of course can always be overcome by the classroom teacher,[iii] so what is more concerning is when these historical flaws and inaccuracies find their way into the standardized examinations our Social Studies 11 and History 12 students write.

History might be the only discipline regularly taught in schools where half-truths and misunderstandings are regularly tested as facts. Having marked hundreds of history exams from British Columbian students, and hundreds more from history students in other schools around the globe, I can assert with fair confidence that there are many students graduating with very strong perceptions of important events in the past that may not be all that accurate. This is not entirely the history teacher’s fault. Too often, the examination questions themselves are the culprit as they are frequently based on false or faulty assumptions, or do not adequately encourage the historical thinking that pedagogically sound examinations should be designed to assess.

This past February’s History 12 Provincial Exam provided a perfect example where the short answer section included the following question:

Describe how the Treaty of Versailles weakened Germany.

Seemingly simple enough, most students chose to answer this question and wrote reasonably sound responses. The problem exists however in the underlying assumption of the question that the Treaty of Versailles did in fact weaken Germany. Secondly, an opportunity has been lost in such a question to assess students’ understanding of historical cause and effect, change and significance. While this question invites students to generate a list of provisions in the Versailles Treaty – military, territorial and political clauses – it does not encourage students to question if they were actually effective, but instead assumes they were. Somewhat symptomatic of many written response and multiple-choice questions on our provincial examinations in Social Studies 11 and History 12, this question makes an assumption that is at best overly simplistic and at worst historically inaccurate. Contrary to the answer this question is soliciting, you would be hard pressed to find any professional historians who would argue that the Treaty of Versailles weakened Germany, and you would find many historians who would argue that it left Germany in a comparably stronger position relative to 1914.[iv]

While all of this may seem trivial or simply a matter of historical interpretation to some, it should be clear that there is no historical consensus that Versailles did in fact weaken Germany, as this examination question so clearly assumes. In short, it is a poorly written question that does not foster critical thinking or sound historical understanding. Such questioning, indeed our entire examination process in History 12 and Social Studies 11, fails to recognize that many historical topics and issues are complex, controversial and vigorously debated in the public forum. Unfortunately many other examinations in the past have included equally problematic questions that lead students to answer in the affirmative something that is highly debatable. Perhaps the best recent example of this was provided in June of 2009 when a Jewish student publicly challenged the assumptions of one of the History 12 online practice questions.

Offended by the Exam?

Many history teachers in British Columbia will likely recall the controversy last spring over a multiple choice question that stated:

They have been fighting to regain a homeland since they were driven out in 1948. Some have lived their entire lives in refugee camps. Forty years later, Israel still refuses to recognize their right to exist as a nation.

The students were provided with the following options of: Jews, Iranians, Egyptians or Palestinians. Students who selected Palestinians of course got the question correct. However, one local student of Jewish heritage complained that the question was biased and should not have been included in the exam. He was publicly supported by the Canadian Jewish Congress who, speaking on behalf of the offended student, said that the statement used in the question was “misleading and historically inaccurate,” adding that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was “extremely complex and difficult.”[v] The Minister of Education Margaret MacDiarmid reacted to a student’s concerns and the prompting of the Canadian Jewish Congress by announcing the removal of the exam from the Ministry of Education’s web site. Neither side in this brief controversy seems to have given much consideration to whether this controversy, and the decision resulting from it, is of any educational value. On the other hand, many likely people likely regarded the statement as a historical fact and appropriate for use on the exam.

Regardless of where one’s sympathies lie on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this question again contains a problematic assumption, in this case: that the Palestinian claims to territory in Israel are valid; and, that they were deliberately driven out by Israelis in 1948. What a multiple-choice question such as this fails to recognize again, is that many historical issues are intensely controversial and have no place on multiple-choice exams so long as they encourage students to take positions that may not be well-supported by evidence.

Challenging the Exam

Questions such as the two high-lighted above provide an excellent opportunity for teachers to help students realize that history involves a lot of challenging analysis, interpretation of evidence, argument and speculation. In short, historical truths are those arguments and positions about events in the past that are most reasonable to believe based on the evidence available. Clearly our history exams, while paying lip service to critical thinking and citizenship, are encouraging uncritical acceptance of some historical arguments or widely believed myths. What our textbooks, teaching materials and assessment practices fail to address – the interpretive and controversial nature of the study of history – need to be addressed by teachers of all grades if our students are to realize the power and importance of historical understanding.

Inspired by this last example of problematic exam questioning, I set out to use this controversy to illustrate for my students a politically and morally relevant application of historical knowledge, and therefore I designed an academic controversy based on the question that offended this young student last June. What I wanted my students to determine was whether the assumptions of the examination question were correct, and whether it was appropriate for use as a multiple-choice question.


Academic Controversies in the History Classroom

Academic controversies are well-documented, instructionally sound learning activities suitable for nearly any discipline in the curriculum. Instructionally-sound academic controversies require the teacher to provide:[vi]

(a) A good question to guide and engage students in an inquiry.

(b) Quality information sources.

(c)  Appropriate scaffolding to assist students in collection evidence and making reasoned judgments.

These types of activities may take the form of debates, projects or presentations, but in the history classroom I have generally found debates to be the most powerful tools for student engagement and in-depth historical understanding. Twentieth century historical events provide countless opportunities for teachers to engage students in meaningful questions of cause and effect, significance, and moral judgment.[vii]

My History 12 class is built upon a series of debates – approximately one per week – requiring students to investigate a controversial historical topic. Students are provided with a range of primary sources and historians’ interpretations (see Appendix A for example) that are carefully edited and selected for the purposes of the debate topic. Students consider the question carefully as they identify and record relevant evidence on a graphic organizer (see Appendix B for example) that assists them in  analyzing the documents and collecting evidence in support of a historical argument.

A couple of days after the controversy is introduced, students arrive to class well-prepared to debate a position with the evidence to support it. As students debate the topic, I moderate the discussion, ask guiding questions and record which side has raised the most evidence-based points.  The points raised by each side are reviewed, and I also reveal any arguments that each side failed to raise, after the conclusion of the debate. Students then consider all the arguments made and write a conclusion that must rely on a minimum of 5 of the documents to support their final argument.  This activity provides an opportunity for some important skill development in historical thinking, analysis, reasoned judgment, communication, as well as a more in-depth understanding of important historical issues than what would otherwise be attained in more teacher-directed activities.  Year after year my students genuinely enjoy and benefit from these activities as one of my students reported on an anonymous survey at the end of the semester:

I found the debates to be very helpful as they helped me further understand the ideologies of the topic. It was fun being able to debate against my fellow peers and actually feel like I have sense of knowledge on which to base my opinion on.

Another student similarly reported the positive impact these activities had on his learning in history:

I found the debate assignments to be very helpful. This is because, whatever topic we covered, weather it be suburbia or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we looked at the question from both sides and picked them apart. This helped me when it came to answering questions on tests and quizzes.[viii]

In conducting review exams of material studied in my Social Studies and History courses I repeatedly find student achievement to be far higher on questions linked to debates compared to course content we covered by other means. Debating historical controversies has proven a very engaging learning activity, and therefore the question of Israel’s responsibility for the 1948 Palestinian exodus seemed to provide yet another relevant opportunity to “do history” rather than simply memorize and repeat it, not to mention an opportunity to draw connections to an authentic and important modern controversy.

Debating the Exam Question

On this particular debate assignment students were provided with the question:

Were the Palestinians deliberately “driven” out of their homeland by Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war?

Rather than using a bland, superficial textbook, students were provided with key excerpts from some of the leading historians of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict such as Ilan Pappé and Benny Morris. Additionally, students were provided with excerpts of both Arab and Israeli primary sources from individuals such as David Ben-Gurion, and other controversial documents such as Plan Dalet, which Pappé alleges is proof that Israel deliberately conducted ethnic cleansing on Palestinians in 1948 (see Appendix C for an extensive reading list on the Arab-Israeli conflict).[ix]

What my students noticed immediately about this topic is that it is difficult to make sense of the evidence, and it is highly controversial. The name given to the events of 1948 hint at the polarized histories: for Israelis it was the War of Independence, for the Arab states it was the Palestine War, and for Palestinians it became known as “an-Nakba” – “the disaster.” Responsibility for this problem, and the right of Palestinians to return, remains controversial and highly emotional by both sides, and therefore determining historical truth about the origins of the refugee problem has serious legal, territorial and political implications. Unfortunately, the sources on both sides take extreme perspectives and are of limited reliability, and there are very few quality Arab histories of 1948, largely because the Arab states have refused to release any relevant historical documents.[x] Additionally, the documents that are available are interpreted very differently by historians of the conflict.

When we conducted the debate, my class was split almost exactly down the middle with some arguing that yes, the Palestinians were deliberately “driven” out of their homeland by Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war; while others argued that the evidence was not strong enough, too inconsistent or simply did not prove that Israel was ultimately responsible. By the end of the debate, and as evidenced by the students’ written conclusions, most students argued that the issue was a muddled one and difficult to make concrete statements about because of the flawed evidence and polarized positions taken by historians. The following excerpt from students’ conclusions well illustrates their understanding of this topic:

Sources D and M both make the case that the Jews stole Palestinian land, but the authors are political activists who support the Palestinian cause. On the other hand, several Jewish sources such as Source L were written by Zionists who claim completely that they were not driven out. The most balanced sources are from Benny Morris and Mark Tessler, because they address both sides’ arguments and come to the conclusion, in Tessler’s words, that “there is no single cause of the Palestinian refugee problem… there is a mixture of fact and propaganda in both Arab and Israeli arguments.” Also, it is a general conclusion, with many sources corroborating, that regardless of Israeli intent, the majority of the soon-to-be refugees took flight of their own decision, due to real or perceived threats and attack (Sources I, J, K, M, N, O, S) …Instances like Deir Yasin, Ramla, Lydda and quotes from Ben Gurion and Joseph Weitz make it appear that the exam statement is correct. However, it also seems apparent these cases were not official policy and those cities may have had significant strategic positions, and many sources infer that they are exceptions to the rule.” (Sources L, F, O, H, S).[xi]

Some students also demonstrated a developing ability to corroborate sources and a sophisticated use of evidence:

The argument that intentional Jewish intimidation was used in order to drive Arabs out of the country is dampened by the fact that many Arabs have admitted over-exaggeration of attacks… Edward Selim Atiyah says that Arabs were encouraged by an Arab press that was unrealistic about the “ensured” victory over Israel. The Arab government was also to blame (Source M). Benny Morris also corroborates that sentiment with evidence that many Arab leaders advised or ordered evacuations (Source O). Even Count Bernadette, who was opposed to Zionism admitted that many incidents were exaggerated by Arab officials to induce more fear (Source S). It must also be pointed out that is was Arab countries who declared war, and not the Israelis who began a war of ethnic cleansing. Tessler argues that “once you have determined responsibility for the war, you determine responsibility for the refugees (Source S).[xii]

Conclusions and Implications

In their conclusions to this debate, I also asked students to address the following, now that they were informed enough to make a reasoned judgment of the controversial exam question:

Is the statement included on the History 12 provincial exam biased against Israel, or is it valid and supported by historical evidence?

Was the minister of education justified in pulling the exam?

To both questions, the students’ responses were quite insightful and carry important implications for the teaching of history. One student who argued during the debate that Israel was responsible for the refugee crisis wrote in her conclusions that:

The statement is biased against Israel. It suggests a deliberate and preconceived plan to drive the Palestinians out of Israel was in place and that it was the only cause of Palestinian exodus. There were other reasons for the Palestinian exodus, such as fear of expected Israeli retaliation, panic caused by exaggerated reports, encouragement by Arab governments to leave temporarily, and violence that erupted from Arab discontentment with the Partition.”[xiii]

Generally, almost without exception all 28 students in my History 12 class came to the conclusion, after studying the issue, that the question was inappropriate for a multiple-choice section on a Provincial Examination. A sampling of their responses reveals some important suggestions for how examinations should be created, as well as a sound understanding of historical thinking.

To evaluate the BC Provincial, it is important to be reminded that the Israeli-Arab conflict has many facets and is difficult to evaluate. The provincial question has addressed one side of the conflict that has substantial evidence, yet it has not addressed the other that also has sound evidence. Thus, it can be concluded that the statement is biased against Israel by not considering both sides of the arguments. This is an example of what bad historians do: not viewing the full picture. By keeping the question or removing it, both parties would be displeased.”[xiv]

“The question could have been used as a document based question addressing the topic or as an essay question to give opinions instead.”[xv]

“The minister of education was completely justified in pulling the question, because, especially in light of the sources here, the statement is biased. It is not a clear cut question and there is evidence for both sides. The question should have been more open-ended to allow students to argue whether or not the Palestinians were driven out. As it stands, it is a blanket statement that blatantly ignores the fact that there are two sides to this issue.”[xvi]

So what might be the implications for the teaching and assessment of historical understanding as revealed by these grade twelve students?

To begin with, perhaps multiple-choice questions have little value in assessing students’ historical thinking. Greater portions of standardized tests in History and Social Studies should be document-based and analytical, rather than simply assessing recall of dates and dead people. Teachers perhaps need to be well-grounded in the historiographical debates and problems of evidence that are involved in the subjects they teach, especially considering that many of our teaching materials (which exam questions are created from) are too simplistic to adequately address complex and controversial topics such as the Arab-Israeli conflict. This activity also demonstrates that, if provided with scaffolding and guidance, students can investigate and develop complex, evidence-based arguments on difficult historical topics. Moreover, debates such as the one discussed here very likely help students better learn the material they might encounter on multiple-choice exams and quizzes. Finally, that the teaching of history is different from other disciplines of study, and therefore we must ask students examination questions that allow them to demonstrate meaningful and thoughtful applications of historical knowledge.

[i] James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, Simon & Schuster, 1995. Many of Loewen’s arguments could also describe fundamental flaws in commonly-used high school history and social studies texts in B.C.

[ii] Commonly flawed historical assumptions observed in students’ examination responses include a diverse range of topics such as gross exaggerations of the role of individuals (Gandhi, King Jr.) in shaping historical events, or the extent to which authoritarian states were totalitarian (Italy, Germany).

[iii] It is worthy to note that most studies conducted on history education in Canada and the United States reveal that the majority of high school history teachers have no more historical knowledge than the material published in the textbooks they use in their courses. See Keith Barton and Linda Levstik, “Why Don’t More History Teachers Engage Students in Interpretation?,” Social Education, 67,6 (October 2003): 358.

[iv] For a detailed understanding of the limited effects that Versailles had in weakening Germany see Gerhard Weinberg, Germany, Hitler and World War II. Cambridge University Press, 1995, or his book A World At Arms: A Global History of World War II (1994). See also Ruth Henig, Versailles and After. Methuen, 1984. In Margaret McMillan’s brilliant work on the Paris peace conferences, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (2002), she argues that Versailles might have weakened Germany but was never seriously enforced.

[v] Janet Steffenhagen, “Ministry removes controversial Middle East question” in Vancouver Sun, June 24, 2009.

[vi] For a more developed explanation of the research and instructional implications of academic controversies, see Barrie Bennett and Carol Rolheiser, Beyond Monet: The Artful Science of Instructional Integration, Center for Development and Learning, 2001. These kinds of activities are also commonly referred to as creative controversies.

[vii] For a detailed overview of historical thinking and its applications for sound instructional practices see Roland Case & Peter Seixias, Teaching Historical Thinking, Critical Thinking Consortium, 2008.

[viii] History 12 student feedback survey, January 2010.

[ix] To research the historical controversy on nearly any topic, Wikipedia is often a valuable resource. In the case of the Palestinian refugee crisis there are countless debates and podcasts by some of these historians. The “new historians” such as Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé have been engaged over the past decade in some very personal and intense debates over Israel’s conduct in the 1948. The “new historians” are so-called because they have based their research on recently accessible Israeli archives and have written controversial revisionist accounts of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

[x] These points were nicely summarized in a statement by Shlomo Ben-Ami in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs: “The birth of the state of Israel in 1948 has long been the subject of self-congratulatory historiography by the victorious side and grievance-filled accounts by disinherited Palestinians. To the Israelis, the 1948 war was a desperate fight for survival that was settled by an almost miraculous victory. In the Arab world, accounts of the war tend to advance conspiracy theories and attempt to shift the blame for the Arabs’ defeat. In both cases, the writing of history has been part of an uncritical nationalist quest for legitimacy” (2008).

[xi] John, student assignment, December 2010. Student names have been changed to protect their identity.

[xii] Catherine, student assignment, December 2010.

[xiii] Krista, student assignment, December 2010.

[xiv] Carl, student assignment, December 2010.

[xv] Jeremy, student assignment, December 2010.

[xvi] Sophia, student assignment, December 2010.



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