Encountering Peace: Back to school – what we teach our children – part 2

New 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.

A boy in Moaz Hatorah in Bnei-Brak (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
A boy in Moaz Hatorah in Bnei-Brak
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
There is an urgency for reflection and reform of our textbooks (in Israel and Palestine) regarding what we teach and what we don’t teach about “the other.” While real life has a lot more influence on shaping the opinions that we hold regarding the other people living on this land, our textbooks reflect what we as societies have decided to impart to the next generation. This is a reflection of our values and even our hopes and dreams.
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 people. There is a clear right for each side to give their own version of history in their textbooks. Israelis and Palestinians have struggled for their freedom and liberation and students from both sides must know their history, as it is an essential element of collective nation-building and in defining their national identity. Historical texts should reflect the views of their own history and should challenge the students to identify with their pasts as a link to the present and the future.
New 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. Normally, it may take decades before “new historians” present other voices.
It is understood that Palestine is in its formative stage of development regarding understanding history (this is not a negative statement or any form of judgment – it is descriptive). Therefore, there should not be any exaggerated expectations regarding the willingness or ability of Palestinian textbooks to present alternative views or other voices. However, Palestinian educators should be aware that the Palestinian cause is significantly strengthened by not presenting a dogmatic monolithic approach to history.
Palestinians are entitled to their own view of their own history and no one can contest this basic right. The Palestinian collective historical narrative reflects the creation of the State of Israel as a non-legitimate act of the international community. Zionism is understood by Palestinians as an extension of international imperialism and colonialism, and as such, the birth of the State of Israel is viewed as having been born in “sin.” This is a legitimate view of history from the Palestinian viewpoint.
IN ORDER for this presentation not to be considered dogmatic or as one that views Israel today as a non-entity or as an entity that should not exist, it is important to once again refer both to the Palestinian strategic decision to make peace with Israel (the Oslo Accords and the exchange of letters of mutual recognition) and to the basic values elaborated in the Palestinian Declaration of Independence regarding the Palestinian national decision to resolve the conflict by peaceful means, based on mutual recognition and on the basis of two states for two peoples.
Just as I recommend to the State of Israel that there should be voices and expressions in Israeli textbooks explaining Palestinian perspectives on the conflict and the peace process, likewise it is important to include such expressions of Israeli points of view in Palestinian textbooks. These can be taken from existing sources as well as having them commissioned especially for this purpose.
It is important for the students on both sides to have a “peak” 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 in which they live. In this context, it would be possible, for example, to deal with difficult issues such as the Holocaust and its impact on Israeli and Jewish worldviews.
THE PALESTINIAN cause is better served by providing the students with the tools to understand the complexity of their world and the problems that we face. Factual and historical accuracy is extremely important for the textbooks to acclaim legitimacy. The textbooks must be able to provide accurate and factual explanations for the changing reality over time. For example, presenting Acre as an Arab city (as is done in the current textbooks) is a very incomplete look at historical reality and infers a non-recognition of Israel.
It is not wrong to say that “Acre was an Arab city after the fall of the Crusades and remained Arab under Ottoman rule and until the end of the British Mandate. In 1948, most of the Palestinian Arabs of Acre became refugees, like many other Palestinian cities, towns and villages in Palestine. But as in many [of these places]... many Palestinians remained in Acre, and today Acre is located in the State of Israel. The Palestinian Arab presence and identity of the city is strongly felt, particularly within the Old City walls.” This kind of statement clarifies for the student that Acre was a Palestinian city, but today is in the State of Israel and the Palestinian presence and history there remains strong. This also does not place any questions in the reader’s mind about the existence of Israel and where Israel can be found on the map.
It is equally important to use internationally verifiable factual data on controversial issues. References in the Palestinian textbooks that “Arabize” the Canaanite peoples do not provide internationally verifiable historic facts and further puts into question the entire Palestinian narrative. It is clear that Palestinians are trying to ascertain that the Arab presence in the land came prior to the Jewish presence. However, claiming that the Canaanite peoples were Arab is beyond the ability of today’s historical accounts to certify and opens the textbooks for severe international criticism.
Palestinian claims to the land are substantial enough to not have to rest on questionable historic accounts. In this vein, references should be made regarding historical Israelite and Jewish presence in the land as well as to documenting that the Jews were exiled from the land by the Romans. Distorting historical facts does not grant greater legitimacy to Palestinian claims for historic rights to Palestine. In fact, ignoring historic facts weakens Palestinian claims. Likewise, attempts to erase or to minimize the Arab character of Palestine/Eretz Yisrael in Israeli textbooks is a distortion of historical reality, and gives credence to the incorrect notion that the Land of Israel was a land without a people for a people without a land. There was a people living on this land before the emergence of the Zionist movement, and although they were not organized for many years as a separate national movement, the land had hundreds of Arab communities with deep roots and cultural impacts for hundreds of years.
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.