Once upon a time . . . in Israel and Palestine
Thursday, October 13,
Here's something to chew on during today's Yom Kippur fast. Imagine a textbook in which Israeli and Palestinian children read about their history in their own languages—but from two dramatically different perspectives at once. Well, the textbook exists. If Israeli Dan Bar-On and Palestinian Sami Adwan get their way, one day their textbooks will replace what Israeli and Palestinian students are currently taught. For nearly four years, the two psychologists, historians Eyal Naveh and Adnan Massalem, and seven teachers have been writing school textbooks that provide two parallel narratives of major events in their histories.
Consider, for example, their reference to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the British supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
"The Zionist movement was born in the major centres of Jewish population in Europe, and its purpose was to return the Jewish people to its land and put an end to its abnormal situation among the nations of the world. The first time any country expressed support for Zionism was in a letter sent by Lord Balfour, to help establish a Jewish political entity in the land of Israel." Yup—that's the Israeli narrative.
"With the rise of nationalism (in Europe), Zionism appeared as a drastic international solution to the Jewish problem, transforming the Jewish religion into a nationalist attachment to a special Jewish homeland and a special Jewish state . . . British imperialism found in Zionism a perfect tool to attaining its own interests. . . the Balfour Declaration is a conspicuous example of the British policy of seizing another nation's land and effacing . . . a native people's aspirations for national liberation." And that's the Palestinian narrative. Same facts, two stories—and both appear in the same book.
Dealing with tough issues isn't new to either Dan or Sami. I met them two years ago, at the height of Israeli-Palestinian violence, when their then-tentative effort was constrained by territorial closures and curfews. By now, they've completed nearly three books and have been awarded the Victor Goldberg prize for peace education. Dan (a child of Holocaust survivors) came to the Israeli-Palestinian issue after a decade of conducting encounters of German adult children of Holocaust survivors and Nazi perpetrators seeking to bridge their hostility. Sami, a former campus activist with the Palestinian Fatah movement (the PLO group led by Yasser Arafat), had served time in Israeli prison where meeting different prison guards convinced him that the enemy had "more than one face." The two men fought inner demons and prejudice as they developed trust and common purpose, and wanted to harness their professional skills and personal experience into a larger effort for the next generation.
As psychologists, the two men know that, like individuals, nations can interpret the same facts differently and that societies in conflict develop exclusive narratives that are morally superior and exclude the "other."
In their dispassionate review of current textbooks on both sides, they found, for example, that Israeli books hail early Jewish immigrants as "pioneers" and the 1948 war that led to Israel's establishment as the "War of Independence," while Palestinian books refer to the same immigrants as "gangs" and "terrorists" and to the 1948 war as "al Naqba" (the catastrophe). The Holocaust is barely mentioned in Palestinian texts, while the trauma of Palestinians is ignored in Israeli texts. Israeli maps don't demarcate the old green line separating the West Bank and Gaza from Israel, while Palestinian textbooks contain no maps or draw a border without labelling either side. And on and on...
Dan and Sami believe that, right now, the gulf separating Israelis and Palestinians makes it impossible to create a joint story (or "bridging narrative") that captures their respective experiences, aspirations and traumas. But since they're destined to live side by side, future generations can at least try to understand each other's story. This lies at the heart of their alternative approach.
For Israeli and Palestinian teachers and students alike, this is radical stuff. So far, it's taken seven teachers countless hours to deal with their own barriers to understanding and the reactions of 500 Israeli and Palestinian students. Just transforming hostility to curiosity takes immeasurable perseverance, and involving the official public school systems may prove to be an insurmountable challenge. But Dan and Sami paraphrase Margaret Mead and say "never doubt that a small group of committed Palestinian and Israeli teachers can change the world when the time is ripe." They want to prepare for that time now.
Before dismissing their efforts as naive or futile, look closer to home. After the close call of the 1995 Quebec referendum, the Institute for Research on Public Policy published Si je me souviens/As I Recall, a volume chronicling 34 events from the arrival of the British in 1795 to the 1995 referendum—from anglophone and francophone perspectives. The editors explained that "divergent assessments of historical events stir up powerful emotions and exacerbate current political tensions . . . this collection seeks to bridge the divide not by finding common ground, but by bringing to light the distinctive perspectives of each side." So maybe Dan and Sami aren't that far off after all.