Learning Each Other's Historical Narrative

In 1998, the Palestinian educationalist Sami Adwan and the Israeli psychologist Dan Bar-On founded the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East. Now, they have developed an unusual history textbook for the school system. By Joseph Croitoru

The concept of "an enemy" provides the mental ammunition for waging war. Although easily created, such notions are extremely difficult to overcome. Undaunted by the enormous challenge of changing deeply entrenched and polarized attitudes, the Israeli psychologist Dan Bar-On and the Palestinian educationalist Sami Adwan have worked persistently for years to build bridges of understanding in the region.

In the eighties, Bar-On introduced a radical therapeutic approach by bringing together the children of holocaust victims and those of former Nazis.

His objective was to do away with what he calls the unrealistic preconceptions that each side has of the other side. It was no coincidence that Bar-On's subsequent interest in the plight of the Palestinians led to a close cooperation with Sami Adwan, an educational theorist who for years has been studying the way Israel is portrayed within the Palestinian educational system.

Dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis

After the Israeli-Palestinian peace process came to a standstill in the mid-nineties, in 1998 in the Palestinian town of Beit Jala, with support from the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt, the two academics founded the Institute for Peace Research in the Middle East, which works to establish a continuous dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

Within the context of this initiative, Bar-On and Adwan have worked together with Israeli and Palestinian historians and teachers to develop a history textbook for the school system. What makes this book so special is that it takes prevailing historical views of the conflict that are held by Israelis and Palestinians and confronts them with each other – an unprecedented approach within both the Israeli and Palestinian educational systems.

In addition to learning what shapes their own community's understanding of historical events, students are required to confront the historical perspectives and contexts that shape the other community's sense of reality. It took a number of years to complete the book, which has been compiled based on the results of classroom tests conducted in selected Israeli and Palestinian schools.

The roots of the conflict

Both sides have extremely divergent views of history. For instance, they disagree on fundamental issues such as the actual historical roots of the conflict between the two communities.

For Israelis, this development is closely tied to the rise of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century. By contrast, for Palestinians, who see themselves as the victims of the Zionist settlement movement, the conflict dates back to Napoleon, who proposed to settle European Jews in Palestine in 1799. Palestinians view this as the actual beginning of a key alliance between Jews and European imperialism, yet this event is not even mentioned in the Israeli version of history.

The Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement

Consequently, historical views held by Jews and Palestinians of the Balfour Declaration, a statement made in 1917 by the British in support of a national home for the Jewish people, could not be more different. Israelis see the Balfour Declaration as merely a matter of course, since it granted the European Zionist movement, as yet another national movement of European origin, what it perceived as its rightful claim – a territory.

For the Palestinians, however, this gesture made by the British was yet another example of ongoing European colonialist ambitions in the region, as manifested by the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which, from an Arab perspective, robbed the Arabs of their national independence.

The Palestinian historical narrative mentions the year 1917 as the first in a long list of catastrophic dates, including 1948, 1967 and 2002, that brought death, destruction and displacement to the Palestinians. From an Israeli perspective, these years are clearly associated with Arab aggression.

A tale of two peoples

The new common history textbook makes no secret of that fact that each side accuses the other of being the first to call to arms. In addition to common arguments and counter-arguments, students learn in detail how both sides resort to similar forms of political indoctrination. Right from the very beginning of the violent conflicts between Arabs and Jews in Palestine, for example, each community created its own heroes and martyrs to serve as models of patriotic self-sacrifice for future generations of schoolchildren.

The textbook by Dan Bar-On and Sami Adwan also clearly shows the relative nature of the term terror: Both parties in the conflict feel that they are the victims of terror, yet they reject all responsibility.

This unusual project to create an intercultural history textbook will soon enter its final phase. Plans call for a gradual expansion of the circle of teachers who have used this book to teach history outside the normal curriculum, and the textbook will one day be integrated into regular history lessons.

During this period of growing hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians, it is an incredibly promising sign that this book could even be created – and its very existence is a great success.

Joseph Croitoru

© Joseph Croitoru/Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Paul Cohen


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