Professors' history project opens new chapter for Israeli, Palestinian students
By Martin Patience
JERUSALEM — The year 1948 resonates with Israelis just as 1776 does with Americans—as the year their nation was born in blood during a war for independence against all odds.
For Palestinians, 1948 means something very different. It marks the defeat of the Arab armies, the failure of Palestinians to establish their own state and the beginning of exile. It was the year 750,000 Palestinians became refugees in neighboring Arab countries—the start of a period they call "The Catastrophe," or al-Nakba in Arabic.
The battle lines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict extend to the classroom, where the two sides' versions of their shared history diverge sharply. Now, two university professors aim to change the way the conflict is taught by exposing Palestinian students to Israeli history lessons and Israeli students to the Palestinian version of history.
The project is the work of Dan Bar-On, a social psychology professor at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, a city in southern Israel, and Sami Adwan, an education professor at Bethlehem University in the West Bank. Together with teams of Israeli and Palestinian historians, they devised a series of booklets that set the competing versions of history side-by-side on the same pages for students.
The professors say the project is an effort to bridge the chasm between the two peoples. "The way a conflict or history is taught in the classroom can either support that conflict or (support) co-existence," Adwan says. "The project aims to break down the stereotypes and build nuanced understandings."
Says Bar-On: "What we're talking about is the disarming of history, where the teaching of history no longer feeds the conflict."
Aimed at 15-and-16-year-olds, the five-year project produced three booklets, distributed in seven Israeli schools and seven schools attended by Palestinians or Israeli Arabs. The first booklet was published in 2002 in Hebrew, Arabic and English. It covers events in 1948 as well as the Balfour Declaration in 1917, when occupying Britain declared its support for a "Jewish homeland" in what was then known as Palestine.
Israeli history holds that the declaration was the "first time any country expressed support for Zionism"—the creation of a Jewish state in modern-day Israel. To Palestinians, the idea of a Jewish state in their midst was one concocted by foreign powers and first expressed by Napoleon in 1799.
The professors' booklet also shows differences over the first Palestinian uprising, which lasted from 1987 to 1993. Palestinian history states as fact that the violence began after an Israeli truck driver "deliberately crashed into an Arab car, "killing four Palestinians. Israeli history injects doubt by saying, "the Palestinians claimed ..."
Sonia Nour, 45, a Palestinian history teacher at the Talitha Kumi High School in Beit Jala, a West Bank town, says the project opens the eyes of her students. "The children are not aware of the other side," she says, "and we provide them with that information. We need to clear the road for them and teach them how to study in an open and democratic manner."
Nour says she has had problems with some parents who don't believe their children should learn Israel's version of events.
Shai Meizlemann, 35, an Israeli history teacher at Democratic High School in Kfar Saba, close to Tel Aviv, says the project touches on issues that are contentious. "Teenagers are often highly emotional, particularly when it comes to teaching the conflict," he says. "But teaching history involves being rational and looking at the other side—and the project encourages this."
The second booklet, out this year, deals with the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Israel calls the war a pre-emptive strike; Palestinians describe it as a war of aggression by Israel.
Bar-On and Adwan say writing the booklets was often emotional. "One man's hero was another man's terrorist," Adwan says. He recalls the intense debate about treatment of the Oslo peace accords signed by Israel and the Palestinians in 1993. "Palestinians saw it as the starting point of ending the conflict, whereas Israelis saw it as the creation of peace," he says.
The history project has produced controversy in the classroom, Bar-On says. Palestinian students complained about having to look at the Star of David on Israel's flag, so reprints of the first booklet removed pictures of both flags. By griping, the Palestinian students "sacrificed their own flag," Adwan says.
"We need to listen to one another," says Ahmed Mahmoud, 17, a Palestinian at Rashidiya High School in East Jerusalem.
The third booklet of the series, to go to classrooms next year, will look at more recent events, such as the second Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. Israel blames the Palestinians for the start of the violence, attacking Israeli citizens and failing to live up to the Oslo accords. The Palestinians say the uprising grew out of Israel's continued expansion of West Bank settlements, seizure of Palestinians' land and limits on their travel and mobility.
Bar-On says the two professors have tried to avoid attracting the attention of the Israeli and Palestinian education ministries. But eventually they hope the ministries will approve the comparative histories for use in national curricula. Both ministries refused comment.
Bar-On and Adwan say they've become close friends through their collaboration. The events covered in the booklets are deeply personal for both, they say.
For Bar-On, losing a friend in the Six-Day War made him think about
the plight of the Palestinians. For Adwan, once jailed for being a
member of a political group declared illegal by Israel, an encounter
with a respectful Israeli prison guard made him realize that "they
weren't all the same."