Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Past Fails to Pass Barriers

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Nov 2 2010 (IPS) - A Swedish attempt to bridge conflicting historical narratives has failed to bring Israeli and Palestinian educators together in teaching the other side’s views on history.

When two nations are in conflict, often over the same land, teaching their children about their national past, and that of ‘the enemy’, is a hot potato. The content of school history textbooks also reflects the wider debate of ‘national identity.’

No more so than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Especially, when the parties have re-engaged in a peace process – albeit fluttering – that seeks to put the past at rest.

During the so-called Oslo ‘peace years’ of the 1990s, the Israeli education system tentatively introduced amendments to traditional textbooks. For the first time, Palestinian historical perceptions and national aspirations were taught alongside Israeli views of the conflict.

However, during the past decade, with the Intifadah uprising and the rise of the Israeli right, these revisions have been scrapped under the veil of the need for “greater patriotism”.

Israel often complains that the Palestinian Authority continues to educate young Palestinians as if Israel had no historical right to exist. Eradicating such “incitement” was among the obligations the Palestinian Authority undertook within the Roadmap for Peace agreements.

A Swedish-backed educational project is the latest casualty in this inability to cross the historical narrative divide and to recognise that the other side also has a legitimate view of its past.

The Swedish project revolves around a joint textbook titled ‘Learning the Historical Narrative of the Other’, which tries to present both national narratives of the conflict. The book was banned from the outset by the Israeli Education Ministry, and now the Palestinian Education Ministry, after initially approving the project, has also backed away.

The project came about after a delegation of Swedish mayors visited Israel and Palestine a year ago, and agreed to support the initiative that Israeli Prof. Dan Bar-On of Ben-Gurion University (who died in 2008) and Palestinian Prof. Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University had begun several years ago.

The intention behind the Swedish government-backed endeavour was to address the kernel issues of how changes in history text-books can serve long-term reconciliation and peace-making efforts, and how, alongside facts, conflicting national myths and identities can be reconciled.

In addition, how to ensure that re-enforcement of exclusive national narratives for nation-building purposes can still co-exist alongside the goal of reconciliation.

Published in Arabic, Hebrew and English, the book covers the early stages of the Zionist movement more than a century ago, the war that brought about the independent State of Israel, and which the Palestinians call their “Naqba” or Catastrophe.

Each page in the book is divided into three sections of equal size – the Israeli narrative on the right, the Palestinian narrative on the left, and empty down the middle for students to fill in their own thoughts and conclusions.

At the beginning of the current school year, the Israeli Education Ministry summoned the principal of the Sha’ar Hanegev high school in southern Israel for “consultation” after instructing him to stop using this textbook.

Dr. Zvi Zameret, head of the Education Ministry’s pedagogical secretariat, sought to explain the decision in signed articles in the Hebrew press. “Both narratives as presented in the book are incomplete, ill-informed and misleading,” he declared.

Among the “distortions” which irks the Israeli educational establishment was a comparison between the Nazi Holocaust and what happened to the Palestinians when Israel was created thereafter.

Aharon Rothstein, principal of the Sha’ar Hanegev Israeli school that had introduced the textbook, while declining to speak out publicly on the row, acknowledged that he has been compelled to accept the ban.

“Unfortunately, we are hunkering down in old positions,” a teacher at the Sha’ar Hanegev school, who declined to be identified, told IPS. “There was absolutely nothing in the textbook that could be considered ‘anti-Zionist’. It’s funny when people talk to us here in the south like that. For years our children have been living under the threat of rocket fire from Gaza and they are highly dedicated to defending their country. Yet, the pressure of the security situation should not discourage us from trying to understand the other side.”

The official Israeli view on questions aroused by the textbook dovetails with a gathering campaign mounted by right-wing lobby groups against university teachers who are accused of projecting “post-Zionist anti-Israel” views of the conflict.

“This narrowing in Israeli attitudes is more than disturbing,” says Israeli historian Prof. Steven Aschheim of Hebrew University. “It cannot but have a deleterious impact on peace prospects and also on the future of Israeli democracy,” he told IPS.

At first, there were hopes that the Palestinians would not be as hidebound. Two schools near Jericho had started using the new textbook, marking the first time that the official Israeli historical narrative had been introduced to schoolchildren in the occupied West Bank.

“Teaching the Israeli narrative seemed to represent a real breakthrough on the Palestinian side,” said the Sha’ar Hanegev teacher.

However, the media noise around the Israeli ban coupled with current complications in the peace process appear to have scuttled any hope of teaching coexistence. Last week the permission for the two Jericho schools to use the text book was withdrawn. Palestinian Authority officials declined comment when approached by IPS.

In a last-ditch attempt to salvage the coexistence endeavour, a workshop about ways of pursuing the project despite the negative official reactions on both sides was held in Sweden. But only Israeli teachers attended, without the backing of the Israeli education authorities.

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