One of the most amazing things about the Oslo peace process is that since the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, the ministers of education of Israel and the PA have never met. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will meet with President Mahmoud Abbas. Defense Minister Ehud Barak will continue to meet with PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. Other Israeli and PA ministers will continue to meet, but the ministers of education - no meetings will take place between them.
Former education minister Yuli Tamir was more than willing to meet her PA counterpart, Dr. Lamis Alami. But Alami replied that she is serving in a technocrat government whose job is to make sure that the educational system is working, not to get into matters of a controversial nature, such as curriculum content. Even peace-minded Fayad was approached to assist in arranging a meeting, but no progress took place.
Former PA minister of education Naim Abu Hummous told me, as I was leaving a meeting with Yasser Arafat where I raised the issue of peace education, that the issue of Palestinian textbooks and how they present Israel is a matter in the hands of the PA president, not the minister of education.
It is important to note that the issue of Palestinian textbooks has been highly exaggerated. The textbooks are more problematic in what they do not contain rather than how they actually present Israel, Jews, history, maps, etc. From this standpoint, Israeli textbooks are not much better.
SOME OF THE problematic issues in textbooks and curricula include those dealing with history. There is little or no chance that Israelis and Palestinians will share the same understanding and interpretation of the history of the land and the conflict between its peoples, and both have a clear right to present their own version of history in their textbooks.
Both peoples have struggled for their freedom and liberation; their students must know their history as it is an essential element of collective nation building and in defining their identity. Historical texts should reflect each side's own views of its history and should challenge the students to identify with their pasts as a link to the present and the future.
States usually tend to enlist a unified "national" view of history as a means to develop the ethos of the society - a shared collective memory upon which citizens develop their sense of patriotism and loyalty. Usually there is very little room for alternative views or other voices, and if these alternative views do exist, their legitimacy and accuracy are often questioned and even sometimes referred to as next to treasonous, such as post-Zionist views of history are often related to in Israel.
Israelis and Palestinians are entitled to their own view of their own history and no one can contest this basic right. Both collective historical narratives reflect their national struggle in the context of a long and bloody conflict in which the "other" has been a bitter enemy. This is a legitimate view of history. For this presentation not to be considered dogmatic or as one that views the other side as a nonentity or as an entity that should not exist, it is important to refer both to the strategic decision of both sides to make peace and to resolve the conflict by peaceful means, based on mutual recognition and on the basis of two states for two peoples.
It would also be wise for textbooks in Israel and in Palestine to present voices explaining each other's perspectives on the conflict and the peace process. It is important for the students on both sides to have a "peek" into the narrative of the other side, not as a means of convincing someone of the justification of the other's narrative, but as a means of increasing the students' ability to understand the complex world that they live in. In this context it would be possible, for example, for Palestinian students to deal with difficult issues such as the Holocaust and its impact on Israeli and Jewish worldviews and (not as a comparison) to enable Israeli students to understand the impact of the Nakba on Palestinians.
It is worth noting the groundbreaking work on historical narratives that was conducted by a group of Israeli and Palestinian teachers under the direction and initiative of Prof. Dan Baron and Prof. Sami Awdan from PRIME. Those teachers have prepared textbooks for high schools providing parallel narratives (on opposite sides of the page).
JERUSALEM IS the Holy City for the three monotheistic religions. This is stated clearly in the Palestinian textbooks. However, beyond that general statement, the Jewish presence - historical, religious and modern - is absent. The books refer to Jerusalem as having always been an Arab city. This is not a true representation of historic fact and the texts must be historically accurate. Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel and, as a result of the peace agreement, in the future part of Jerusalem will be the capital of the state of Palestine. The textbooks about Jerusalem will have to reflect that new future reality.
It is incorrect to ignore Jewish presence and Jewish affinity for Jerusalem. There are proven facts of a Jewish presence and connection to the city. It is wrong to ignore this as it puts into question the political intentions behind ignoring these facts. Once again, the reader can easily assume that the Palestinian Authority views the future of Jerusalem as one void of Jews and Israelis. The Palestinian cause is not strengthened by ignoring Jewish religious and historical connections to Jerusalem.
Likewise, it is incorrect for Israeli textbooks to ignore the Palestinian national connection to Jerusalem as they do, instead only referring, in a very insignificant way to the Islamic connection to the city. This also does not do justice to the importance of Jerusalem to Arabs and Muslims around the world.
THE ISSUES CONCERNING recent history are mainly dealt with in the upper grades of secondary school. This allows the ability to challenge the students and to engage them in a process of investigation and discovery. Both sides' text books should make true and factual references to the Oslo peace process and its failures over the years. The PLO, representing the Palestinian people, signed agreements with the State of Israel based on mutual recognition. The peace process failed to produce the desired results according to an agreed time frame. There is full justification for both sides to present their case and narrative regarding the peace process, along with all of the violations of the agreements committed by both sides. The framing of a proper approach would be to assert that both sides remain committed to making peace with each other and continue to hold firm to the vision of two states for two peoples.
The texts should challenge the students to understand what went wrong in the peace process and what are some of the lessons that we can learn from the past. The students should be challenged to understand the official positions of both sides in the negotiations.
Students should have an opportunity to read the agreements, at least the main important elements, and to understand what was hoped would emerge from them. The students should be encouraged to engage in researching the developments of the past years. Research, inquiry and investigation must be part of the way we teach about each other to promote education for tolerance, understanding and peace.
The writer is the co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. www.ipcri.org