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Palestinian and Israeli cooperation - History from different angles
17 December 2010
The new textbook reflects two views of history: on the left-hand page is the official Israeli version, on the right the Palestinian and in the middle is a blank space for the pupils to write their own reflections.
There are not many pupils who have done this, however, because the textbook is seen as a threat and it is barely found in schools in either the Palestinian territories or Israel.
“Today, history teaching helps add to the conflict. It is high time it started being used to reach peace instead”, say the Israeli and Palestinian researchers LUM has met.
Lisa Strömbom has written a thesis on the Israeli history debate in which she links the peace process to the ‘new history writers’. They are known as such because during the 1990s they began to view the country’s history with partly new eyes – according to them, the 1948 War of Liberation was not as just and unblemished as everyone had previously agreed. The history that is taught to Israeli schoolchildren says that the Jews began to build their country in a relatively uninhabited region; the Palestinians left the country of their own accord or on the recommendation of their own elite. The ‘new historians’ emphasised unpleasant truths about massacres and expulsions.
One of these historians whom Lisa Strömbom has interviewed is Professor Eyal Naveh of Tel Aviv University. LUM meets him in his office in a break between two lectures. The window is open and a desk fan helps to reduce the sultry heat. Eyal Naveh is not only known for conveying a new Israeli version of history. He also works to make the Palestinian version of the conflict, which has now gone on for over 60 years, known to Israeli schoolchildren. Last year he published a history textbook, together with Palestinian history professor Sami Adwan and others, containing both Israeli and Palestinian versions of history – a dual narrative approach.
“We must at least know the other side’s view of the past if there is ever going to be peace”, says Eyal Naveh.
As a history researcher, he would of course have preferred there to be a common, objective history on which both sides could agree. However, he points out that Israel is not the only country to have difficulties in agreeing on how history should be written. On the contrary, this is always the case in conflicts. For example, it was not until the 1980s that France and Germany could agree on the history of the Second World War, and it took even longer before the Polish-German history could be written.
“The difference here is that the conflict is still ongoing and peace is not exactly around the corner”, says Eyal Naveh with a wry smile.
He shows us the textbook, which on every spread has two versions of the same event: on the left, the official Israeli version and on the right, the Palestinian. In the middle is a blank space for the pupils to fill in their own reflections.
However, so far there are not a lot of schoolchildren, either Israeli or Palestinian, who have had the opportunity to write their reflections in the space. In Israel all teaching materials must be approved by the Ministry of Education and this book will never be given the green light, according to Eyal Naveh. A few teachers have started to use the book on their own initiative, but they have been strongly opposed by influential nationalist forces that believe that an overly in-depth insight into the Palestinians’ view of history would undermine Israel’s legitimacy.
Both Eyal Naveh and Lisa Strömbom say that there is a fear of being labelled ‘anti-Israeli’.
“The current history debate is very different from that of the 1990s”, says Lisa Strömbom. “Indeed it has always been controversial to question the traditional version of history, but in the 1990s there was a debate and it was lively.”
Lisa Strömbom believes that there is a link between the debate in the 1990s and the brighter situation in the peace process at the time. The process stagnated after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. After that, and particularly after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2001, the history debate in the Israeli media has ceased. Textbooks that take up the Palestinian perspective on history have been revised or removed from classrooms. History teaching has also been complemented by a new subject, ‘heritage’, which gives a more ideological picture of Israel’s history.
“Academics critical of society, human rights organisations and peace activists are branded disloyal to the state and are often described as a threat”, says Lisa Strömbom.
Professor Sami Adwan, Eyal Naveh’s Palestinian counterpart, works at the University of Bethlehem. Bethlehem is one hour by car from Tel Aviv, but it might as well be on another planet; for many Palestinians it is easier to get to Europe than into Israel.
LUM goes to meet Sami Adwan to hear how the book has been received on the other side of the wall, among Palestinians.
Sami Adwan says that he will be travelling to Sweden in a few days, with others including Eyal Naveh, to present his book within a ‘tolerance project’ run by Kungälv Municipality. The idea was that he would travel with a Palestinian delegation, but now it seems that the others have backed out. There is a strong Palestinian movement that wants to boycott all cooperation with Israeli academics because this ‘normalises’ the occupation of the West Bank and delays a solution to the conflict. Sami Adwan has a divided view of the boycott: cooperation is good as long as it is not with those who support the occupation of Palestinian territory.
Within the framework of the PRIME peace institute he has written a number of history books with Israeli researchers. These address events of which Israelis and Palestinians have different views: the Balfour Declaration, the war that preceded the founding of the State of Israel, the Six-Day War in 1967, the refugee question and the Intifada.
The books are used today as supplementary reading by a few teachers, but not without risk, explains Sami Adwan. Pupils, parents and other teachers often react very strongly to the teaching of the Israeli view of history.
“But it is not about questioning or criticising the Palestinian view of history. It is only about showing the other side”, says Sami Adwan. “Today, history teaching helps add to the conflict. It is high time it started being used to reach peace instead”.
Find out more about the Dual Narrative History Project.
Lisa Strömbom defended her doctoral thesis in November. The thesis is entitled Revisiting the past. Israeli identity, thick recognition and conflict transformation.
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