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Shared History Booklet Project

by Sami Adwan and Dan Bar-On


  1. Project Background and Description
  2. The Participants
  3. The Process
  4. Summary
  5. Bibliography


In periods of war and conflict, nations tend to develop their own narratives, which from their perspective become the only true narrative. These narratives devaluate and even dehumanize their enemy's narrative. If the enemy's narrative is described at all, it is presented as being unjustifiable and the enemy is depicted as faceless and immoral with irrational or manipulative views. These narratives become embedded into everyday culture, into the national and religious festivals, into the media and into children's school textbooks. Textbooks are the formal representations of the society's ideology and its ethos. They impart the values, goals, and myths that the society wants to instill into the new generation (Apple, 1979; Bourdieu, 1973; Luke, 1988). Children growing up during times of war and conflict know only the narrative of their people. This narrative is supposed to convince them, overtly and covertly, of the need to dehumanize the enemy. It usually indoctrinates children to a rationale that justifies the use of power to subjugate the enemy. This not only causes the development of narrow and biased understandings among children, but also leads to the development of negative attitudes and values towards the Other (Levinas, 1990).

This state of affairs is true also for the Palestinian/Israeli situation. Research on textbooks shows how each side, Palestinian as well as Israeli, presents its own narratives. In an analysis of 1948 Palestinian refugee problems (Adwan & Firer, 1997, 1999) in Palestinian and Israeli textbooks since 1995, both sides failed to talk about the complexity of the refugees' problems. The Israeli texts put most of the blame on the Palestinians and the Arabs for the refugees' plight, while the Palestinian texts mainly blamed the Israelis and the British. The texts even fail to agree on the facts, e.g., the numbers of 1948 Palestinian refugees. Israelis write that there were between 600,000 - 700,000 Palestinians who became refugees as a result of the 1948 war, while Palestinians wrote that there were more than one million Palestinians who became refugees as a result of the 1948 fighting.

Another comprehensive analysis of narratives of the conflict/relation in Palestinian and Israeli history and civic education (Firer and Adwan, 1999) shows that the texts reflect a culture of enmity. The terminology used in the texts had different meanings. What was positive on one side was negative on the other side. For example, the 1948 War in the Israeli texts is called "The War of Independence," while in the Palestinian text it is called "Al-Naqbah (The Catastrophe)." While Israeli texts refer to the first Jewish immigrants to Palestine as "the pioneers," the Palestinian texts refer to them as “gangs” and “terrorists.” The heroes of one side are the monsters of the other. Also, the maps in the texts eliminate the cities and towns of the other side. The texts show the delegitimization of each other's rights, history and culture. There is also no recognition of each other's sufferings. The Holocaust is barely mentioned in Palestinian texts, and likewise the trauma of Palestinians is ignored in the Israeli texts. The findings show also that both sides' textbooks fail to include the peaceful periods of coexistence between Jews and Palestinians.

Daniel Bar-Tal (1995) analyzed the content of 124 Israeli school books from 1975-1995. According to Bar-Tal in times of intractable conflict each side develops beliefs about the justness of its own goals, beliefs about security, beliefs about delegitimizing the opponents, beliefs of positive self image, beliefs about patriotism, beliefs about unity and beliefs about peace. These beliefs constitute a kind of ethos that supports the continuation of the conflict. The study showed that beliefs about security were emphasized in the Israeli textbooks. There was rarely delegitimization of Arabs but most of the text stereotype Arabs negatively.

Nave & Yogev (2002) present in their book "Histories: Towards a Dialogue with Yesterday" a different approach that created a heated debate in Israeli society around the issue of teaching history. According to them, history textbooks are supposed to tell the story of the past. At the same time the content and the messages convey the ways in which the collective memory is constructed. These processes of construction form the basis for the society’s perception of its own normative identity, and its aspirations for its future image. History lessons are perceived not only as a source of information and as tools for analyzing the human experience. They are seen as bequeathing values and as tools for molding the students' collective memory, connecting the young generation to its roots and creating feelings of belonging to their national group. The changes that the Israeli society underwent in the 54 years of its existence require changes in approaches to history teaching. Nave & Yogev suggest that in order to prepare the young people for a possibility of a peace process with the Palestinians, one has to introduce different perspectives that will enable the student to view history as an on-going dialogue between the present and the past.

It is clear from previous research that the way Palestinian and Israeli texts each present their historical narratives affects the views of the students reading them. The presentation impacts the way each side perceives itself, the other, and their relationship, through what is written, but also what is not written, in the texts. It is also clear that in order to rid each side of delegitimization, hate, and violence, the historical narratives need to change. One way to do this is by changing the way the other is being portrayed. We argue that in order to do this, children should learn and respect the other's narratives, as they are presented from that side's perspective.

We therefore decided to develop an innovative school booklet that contains two narratives, the Israeli narrative and the Palestinian narrative around certain dates or miles-stones in the history of the conflict. This would mean that each student will learn also the narrative of the other, in addition to the familiar narrative, as a first step toward acknowledging and respecting the other. We assumed that a joint narrative would emerge only after the clear change from war culture to peace culture took place. This requires time and the ability to mourn and work through the painful results of the past. We could not expect this to take place while the conflict was still going on. In addition, we had to consider the roles of teachers. Studies have shown that teachers have more power than the mere written texts in forming children's understandings and value systems (Nave & Yogev, 2002; Angvis & von Borris, 1997). As a result, this project focuses on the centrality of teachers in the process of using shared history texts in the classroom. The teachers should therefore develop these narratives and try them out with their ninth and tenth grade classrooms, after the booklet has been translated into Arabic and Hebrew. There will be an empty space between the narratives for the pupils and teachers to add their own responses.

2. THE PARTICIPANTS Go to contents

The co-founders of Peace Research in the Middle East (PRIME), Sami Adwan and Dan Bar-On, and two history professors, Prof. Adnan Massallam (Bethlehem University) and Prof. Eyal Nave (Tel Aviv University and the Kibbutzim Teachers Seminar in Tel Aviv), chose the team to work on this project. The team includes six Palestinian history and geography teachers, six Jewish Israeli history teachers and six international delegates, as well as one Jewish Israeli observer. The Palestinian teachers, who are from Hebron, Bethlehem and East Jerusalem, had never before participated in dialogue encounters with Israelis. Several of the Israeli teachers, who teach in high schools in the center and north of Israel, had participated in previous encounters with Palestinians.

3. THE PROCESS Go to contents

All the participants convened four times for three days workshops at the New Imperial Hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem in March, June and August 2002 and in January 2003. As the political and the military situations were very fragile, it was unclear until the last minute whether the Palestinian teachers would get permits to enter Jerusalem, or if they would be able to reach the places where the permits were issued. The workshops were called off several times, but each time we found ways and the energy to call them on again and finally we succeeded to make them happen, mostly with full participation.

As the project operated within the reality of the conflict, it is critical to note the contexts from which the participants came. First, while the situation on both sides was bleak, difference and asymmetry existed with respect to the intensity of the general realities on the ground. For Palestinians, the reality has an unrelenting effect on day-to-day life with experiences of occupation and living under the thumb of the Israeli army. This translates into restricted freedom of movement, curfews, borders checkpoints and a lot of fear of shootings, killings and house demolitions. Most have suffered serious losses and have had their own home or that of relatives damaged. Meanwhile, for Israelis, because of Palestinian suicide attacks, the every day reality reflects itself mostly in fear. This involves fear of riding buses, and of going downtown or anywhere with crowds. Many on both sides even fear sending their kids to school. Rather unsurprisingly, given the situation, faith and hope have been difficult for both sides to hold on to – hence our sheer amazement at the fact that the seminars had such high participation and commitment. One of the Israeli teachers mentioned during the fourth seminar: “This work over the last year was my only source of hope in the current desperate situation.”

In the first (March 2002) workshop teachers got acquainted with each other by sharing personal details (“the story behind my name”) as well as other biographical stories. That was not an easy process, to listen to stories that contained painful moments, which were related to the other’s violence or oppression. But it was an important process because it enabled the teachers later to work together on their joint tasks more openly.

During this first workshop we formed three mixed task groups. Each task group created a list of all the events that were relevant to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and chose one event they would like to work on. In the plenary we followed this process and agreed on the three events: One group worked on the Balfour Declaration of 1917, another on the 1948 war and the third on the First Intifada of 1987. A program was set up how the groups could communicate and develop their relevant narratives to be reviewed at the second workshop. Prof. Naveh and Prof. Mussalam provided their professional view of how such narratives should be developed and what they should be composed of. It was the role of the international participants to do some of the translations, when necessary, to summarize the task groups’ work and to write an evaluation at the end of each seminar. An additional flavor to our seminars were our evening strolls in the Old City of Jerusalem, which members of both groups did not do lately because of the severe security conditions. In a way we felt like in a self-created bubble, disconnected from our hostile surroundings.

In the second (June 2002) workshop, teachers actually developed their narratives, partially by working in the original task groups and partially by working in uni-national groups. We also devoted time to continue our personal acquaintance and joint walks as this became an important ingredient of this kind of work, especially in the current hostile atmosphere outside the group. Between the second and the third workshops the respective narratives were translated into Hebrew and Arabic, as the workshop’s language was English.

During the third (August 2002) seminar the teachers had their first opportunity to read both narratives in their own native language, the way they will have to present these narratives to their pupils in the following year. This time, most of the work was done in the plenary and it was interesting to follow jointly how these narratives were accepted by the teachers. Most of the questions posed during these sessions were informative – was the translation precise? Who was the person you mentioned in 1908? Why did you try to describe this event so briefly, while the others are described at length? Interestingly, there were almost no attempts of delegitimization of the other’s narrative. According to our interpretation, the fact that each side could feel safe with their own narrative made it easier to accept the other’s narrative, being so different from one’s own. At this workshop we learned about the sudden death of a Palestinian teacher from Hebron of cancer, while we were convening. There was some deliberation if we should stop the workshop, but the Palestinian teachers felt that he would have liked them to continue and they decided to stay and continue our work. The whole group later decided that his picture and a dedication would be in the opening page of the forthcoming joint booklet. The groups departed with the task to introduce corrections in their narratives as a result of the discussion and to develop a glossary for the teachers and the pupils, concerning definitions which the other side may not be familiar with.

In November 2002 the booklet was supposed to come out in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The teachers were then supposed to try it out in their classrooms, which meant that in this experimental phase already hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian pupils would be exposed to this new booklet. The following teachers’ workshops would then be dedicated to get the pupils responses, make corrections, support the teachers in their work and develop more such narratives around additional dates. However, the continued and renewed curfews of the Palestinian towns and the additional necessary proof-readings did not enable us to follow this time table. Therefore, when we convened for our fourth workshop in January 2003, the booklet was not yet ready, but the texts were on paper and most of the teachers have at least tried them out in one classroom. We devoted the first day to listen to their evaluations of these initial testings and then devoted the second day to decide about three additional dates around which more narratives will be developed.

The teachers’ reports of their classrooms were very interesting and diverse. For example, one Israeli teacher taught these texts in a classroom comprised predominantly of children of foreign workers, children of new immigrants (partially not Jewish) and Arab children. She had first to make them acquainted with the Israeli narratives (that many of them never learned about before) and only then introduce the Palestinian narrative. She was very creative in visualizing for her pupils what these texts actually represented. Her students could quite easily accept the two narratives as legitimate as they lacked the emotional involvement and identification with “their” narrative. Another Israeli teacher reported that his students were suspicious (“are these texts really translated into Arabic and taught there?”). Some students showed great interest and asked to take them home to study them further.

One of the Palestinian teachers had to ask the permission of his principal (who actually came to our workshop and showed great interest in our work). He gave his students the texts and invited them to his house to discuss them (as the school was closed because of the curfew). Another Palestinian teacher brought written reactions of her pupils. Some of them expressed an interest to meet Israeli pupils to discuss these texts together. Others wanted to know more about this date or that person, mentioned briefly in the texts. There were reports of students who right away started to deconstruct the other’s narrative. In general there was a surprise effect by presenting the two narratives, a surprise that created interest and curiosity. We could feel a general feeling of ownership and accomplishment of the teachers from both sides, in spite of the deteriorating external situation. They felt that they are creating something new for the future, which no one tried to do before.

During the second day the plenary discussed the general concept of the final book. Will we continue to focus on the historical aspects, or will we turn now to specific topics (like women, religions), or even to our contemporary situation? The plenary decided in favor of the historical continuity of the book and chose three additional dates: the twenties, 1936-1948 and the Six Days 1967 war. These additional dates will fill in the gaps among the initial dates (1917; 1948, the first intifada) and create a continuity of dates. The teachers divided the dates between them and committed themselves to prepare a draft for the following workshop. We decided to convene again in March 2003 to review these new narratives, in addition to further explore the testing of the initial narratives in more classrooms.

In the third year we plan to run a formal evaluation by comparing the bi-narrative classes with single narrative classes. In June 2004 we would like to have a conference at PRIME, where we will summarize the first experimental phase. We hope that by then to have a more positive political climate into which this work will fit better. In the following second phase we would like to recruit more teachers and use the help of the first group of teachers as assistants for accommodating the new ones.

4. SUMMARY Go to contents

The conflict that was taking place around us often affected also our interactions. Yet, we all continued to do the work, and we were rewarded with glimmers of hope and excitement about the implementation of this project in the schools. We acknowledged to each other that peace could only be a result of both sides winning; a “peace” in which only one side wins has no value. Someone said: “The disarmament of history can happen only after the disarmament of weapons. But one can prepare it now.” Events of the last months have highlighted the fact that without an informal peace process, involving face-to-face encounters between Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian peoples, a real and long-lasting peace will not be achieved. Furthermore, the booklet these teachers are creating and their implementation of it will provide a concrete way to spread the effects outward of this face-to-face encounter between a small group of teachers. As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.” In this case, “Never doubt that a small group of committed teachers-Palestinian and Israeli- can change the world, or at least one part of it.”

5. BIBLIOGRAPHY Go to contents

Adwan, S. & Firer, R. (1997). The narrative of Palestinian Refugees During the War of 1948 in Israeli and Palestinian History and Civic Education Textbooks. UNESCO, Paris.

Adwan, S and Firer, R. (1999). The Narrative of the 1967 war in the Israeli and Palestinian History and Civics Textbooks and Curricula Statement. Eckert Institute: Braunschwieg, Germany.

Al-Ashmawi, F. (1996). The Image of the Other as Presented in History Booklet. International Textbooks Research, 18 (2):221-229. Braunschweig, Germany.

Angvik, M. & von Borries, B. (Eds) (1997). Youth and history: A comparative European survey on historical consciousness and political attitudes among adolescents. Hamburg: Koerber Foundation.

Apple, M.W. (1979). Ideology and curriculum. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Bar-Tal, D. (1995).The rocky road toward peace: Societal beliefs in times of intractable conflict, the Israeli case. Jerusalem: The Hebrew University, School of Education. (in Hebrew).

Bourdieu, P. (1973). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In R. Brown (Ed.), Knowledge, education and cultural change. 71-112. London: Tavistock.

Luke, A. (1988). Literacy, booklet, and ideology. London: Falmer Press.

Nave, E., & Yogev, E. (2002). Histories: Towards a dialogue with yesterday. Dafna Danon (Ed.). Tel-Aviv: Bavel (in Hebrew).

We are thankful to the Wye River People-to People Exchange Program of the USA State Department for the three-year grant that helped us implement this research project. We also wish to thank Dr. Shoshana Steinberg for her help in developing this sumary.

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