Back to school textbook reform

What we teach our children is essential for the future

Palestinian schoolchildren take part in a lesson at a school run by UNRWA in the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Palestinian schoolchildren take part in a lesson at a school run by UNRWA in the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
It is clear that, in the current political environment in the region, thoughts of peacemaking are not on the agenda. But if by some miracle at some time in the future, perhaps after the elections, the region brings the chances of peace back to the agenda, one of the lessons learned from the failed peace process of the past is that we must all invest seriously in deepening public support for the change.
That means intensive public diplomacy aimed at warming the hearts and minds of everyone in the region to mutual recognition and acceptance. It also requires exerting significant effort at fighting incitement in the media and, perhaps most important, focusing on translating peacemaking into our educational systems. We are going to have to find new and positive ways to relate to the “Other” within the region and among us, especially for the young generations of Israelis and Palestinians.
An example of a dynamic shift of this kind occurred when the late Faisal Husseini was released from Israeli prison to join the Palestinian peace process. He understood the importance and the impact of the Holocaust on the worldview of Israelis and Jews. As a result, one of his first acts after being released from prison was to visit the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters’ Museum in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot. That visit had a significant impact on many Israelis as a deliberate act of reaching out to understand the other side.
This act by Husseini should serve as a shining example of the need for Palestinian students to be given the opportunity to understand their neighbors. It is not an act of “normalization” to learn about the “neighborhood” and those who live in it. Today, there is nothing in Palestinian textbooks that teaches the students something objective or positive about the Israeli people with whom they are in conflict, and hope to someday soon live in peace.
Palestinians need to learn about Israelis just as Israelis must learn about Palestinians. It is important to include materials about the Jewish religion, practices and holidays in Palestinian textbooks. Israeli textbooks should include more material about Islam in a way that enables Israeli students to really understand what that religion is about, as a monotheistic faith which accepts all of the prophets of Judaism and Christianity. Palestinian textbooks should include material about significant, positive Israeli and Jewish personalities in politics and in the arts and sciences, just as Israeli textbooks should include material about important Palestinian and Arab personalities in the same fields. Textbooks on both sides should include material about the life of the others as human beings sharing the same land.
Teaching about commonalities in culture between Palestinians and Israelis can also serve as an open door for exploration. Whether looking at common foods, similar music and dance or even through looking at the Arabic and Hebrew languages, there are endless possibilities for new discovery and ways to develop a more positive attitude toward fostering a desire among children to want to know more about people on the other side.
IT SHOULD become mandatory for Palestinians to learn Hebrew, and for Israelis to learn Arabic. As this will truly symbolize the emergence of a new era, perhaps preparations for this should already begin on both sides. Language education should be significantly increased, with an emphasis placed on the ability of the students to use the language in order to communicate with the other people living in this land.
Dealing with history will be the most difficult. The issues concerning recent history are mainly dealt with in the upper grades of secondary school. This is in order to challenge the students and engage them in a process of investigation and discovery. The textbooks should make true and factual references to the Oslo peace process and its failure. The PLO, representing the Palestinian people, signed agreements with the government of the State of Israel based on mutual recognition of these two entities. The peace process failed to produce the desired results according to an agreed-upon time frame. There is full justification for both sides to present their cases and narratives regarding the failed 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.
It is recommended to present the main issues of conflict between Palestine and Israel. It is recommended to present the complexity of the issues and the complexity of various possible solutions. The aim should be to engage the students to think about the issues and how to resolve them. The texts should not be dogmatic, presenting only one viewpoint – particularly on possible solutions – and should challenge the students themselves to debate the issues and to propose possible solutions. The texts should challenge students to understand what went wrong with the peace process and the lessons we can learn from the past. They should be challenged to understand the official Palestinian and Israeli positions – and to seek out alternative voices and opinions from both sides.
The issues in conflict such as Palestinian statehood, Israeli settlements, borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security can all be discussed openly. It is possible to present the positions of both sides in prior negotiations and allow students to investigate and propose how they would resolve the issues in dispute. Research, investigation and inquiry – listening to experts and seeking out the opinions of people from both sides of the conflict – will contribute to opening the minds of students to possibilities for moving beyond conflict. In the current educational system, the approach to the conflict is mostly one-sided and dogmatic, with each side adopting an approach that the other side is entirely at fault for the failure to reach peace. In reality, that is almost never the case in all of the world’s conflicts.
The students of today in Israeli and Palestinian schools are the adult citizens of tomorrow. We have a responsibility to them and to ourselves to see that they are better equipped to make peace than we have been until now. That is the essence of education for the future.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press and is now available in Israel and Palestine.