Truth over ‘narrative’

The objective of history should be the striving for the attainment of historical truth through sincere scholarship and intellectual honesty.

The Education Ministry has banned Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative, a high school history textbook designed for both Israelis and Palestinians which aspires to present both peoples’ “narratives.”
Though we normally oppose book banning and back the free exchange of ideas, including openness to alternative opinions and views, we nonetheless support the Education Ministry’s decision. Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative is based on the dangerous post-modernist premise employed by “new historians” and post- Zionists that there are no such things as objective historical truths. This is not the educational message we should be giving to our high school students.
The textbook is the brainchild of late psychologist Dan Bar-On of Ben-Gurion University, who developed therapy that involved meetings between Holocaust victims and children of Nazi criminals, and Sami Adwan, an American-educated Palestinian historian from Bethlehem University who had spent time in an Israeli prison as a Fatah terror suspect before embracing the idea of peace through dialogue.
The two founded the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East and began working on the project nearly a decade ago with six Palestinian and six Israeli history teachers.
Starting with Zionism’s inception and ending with the contemporary era, the textbook presents the Israeli narrative on the left side of each page while the identical event is presented from a Palestinian perspective on the right side. In the middle a blank space is left for students’ own thoughts. Schools in Jericho and Ramallah have reportedly agreed to use the textbook.
The Sha’ar Hanegev High School began using the textbook this year with a select group of students who opted for an enriched history course. However, the chairman of the Pedagogical Secretariat in the Education Ministry, Zvi Zameret, intervened and barred the school from using it.
Students at Sha’ar Hanegev protested the move. “It is difficult for us to understand the Education Ministry’s terrible fear of the textbook, which simply presents positions – Israeli and Palestinian – regarding the conflict,” one student said.
However, Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative does not simply present different, equally legitimate positions.
The textbook presents falsehood as fact.
For instance, in the “Palestinian narrative,” Zionism is defined as “an imperialist political movement” and Israel is blamed for intentionally expelling Palestinians during the 1948 War of Independence.
Zionists may have underestimated the extent of Arab opposition to the creation of a Jewish homeland, but they did not come to Israel with the objective of subjugating and exploiting the Palestinian people. And there never was a concerted Zionist effort to expel Palestinians during the War of Independence. In fact, as historians Benny Morris and Efraim Karsh have shown through painstaking research, the only party systematically interested in “transfer” or “expulsion” in this period was the Arabs.
Teaching such claims as a legitimate “narrative” might tempt us to present blood libels or Holocaust denial as just another “narrative.”
AS NEW information becomes available, and new themes and nuances become plain, Israel has a vital imperative to continually re-examine its own history and teach it honestly to its children. A critical reading of the “Palestinian narrative” is also important – in good part because it helps us to understand the extent the Palestinian distortion of reality and thus contextualize Palestinians’ sometimes violent refusal to recognize the Jewish people’s right to self-determination alongside a Palestinian state, as advocated and provided for by the UN’s November 29, 1947 partition plan.
But we must be careful to ensure that our high school students do not confuse fiction with fact, distortion with reality. Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative blurs the line between the two.
Truths and absolute objectivity are commodities in short supply in this fraught context. But the complexities of the issues must not negate the goal.
The epitome of historical scholarship is not “the presentation of a variety of views to show there is no single historical truth,” as Rachel Zamir, a history teacher who used Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative at Rogozin High School in Tel Aviv, put it.
Rather, the objective of history should be the striving for the attainment of historical truth through sincere scholarship and intellectual honesty. That is the message we should be giving our youngsters.