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Israel, Palestine and the Teaching of History

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During a 1996 visit to Rwanda, two years after the 1994 genocide, Columbia University Professor Mahmood Mamdani asked to be taken to a school so he could speak with a history teacher. He was told that Rwandan schools no longer taught history due to unresolvable disputes over the curriculum.

"History in Rwanda," Mamdani found, "comes in two versions: Hutu and Tutsi."

History in Israel and Palestine also comes in two versions: Jewish Israeli and Palestinian. Four excellent new books, in four different ways, address the implications of this dichotomization for youth, education, justice and peace.

In Narrative and the Politics of Identity: The Cultural Psychology of Israeli and Palestinian Youth, Philip Hammack, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, provides a highly readable and thoughtful analysis of identity narratives based on interviews with 45 Israeli and Palestinian youth. Despite the diversity of life stories, individual narratives were strongly associated with two master narratives.

The Jewish Israeli master narrative goes like this: Once the kingdom of Israel thrived but then it was destroyed and its people sent into exile around the world. Despite contributing to the advancement of many societies they were subject to persecution, pogroms, and ultimately the Holocaust. Needing a state of their own, Jews founded Israel in the 1948 War of Independence and it has remained ever since a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.

The Palestinian master narrative goes like this: After centuries of Ottoman rule, Palestinians were prevented from forming their own nation by Zionist designs on their land, culminating in the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) that made Palestine a nation of refugees. Despite ongoing loss and dispossession, Palestinians have maintained their identity and continue to insist on their right to return to the homes for which many families still have the 1948 keys.

And what are students taught in school? One might hope they would be exposed to multiple narratives, including those of serious historians, and encouraged to think critically about collective memory, social identity and historical truth.

Systematic evidence on this question is provided by Nurit Peled-Elhanan in Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education. Peled-Elhanan, a professor of education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and recipient of the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Human Rights and the Freedom of Thought, presents a detailed analysis of Israeli history and geography textbooks.

Without exception, she concludes, the books are "propagators of collective popular memory more than the product of historical or geographical inquiry." They "don't engage students in the historical and geographical disciplinary modes of inquiry but rather induce them to 'master' the master narrative."

Palestinians are largely absent, appearing only "as terrorists, refugees and primitive farmers -- the three 'problems' they constitute for Israel." As "an obstacle or a threat to be overcome or eliminated... their stories, their suffering, their truth or their human faces cannot be included in the narrative." They are simply Arabs who "do not belong where they have lived for centuries."

Education about Israel and Palestine in the United States is equally ideological. In The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans: Addressing Pedagogical Strategies, Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman, a teacher and writer raised in a Zionist Jewish family in Los Angeles, provides a thorough analysis of the Jewish Israeli narrative Americans are taught.

What students need, Knopf-Newman concludes, is to hear the voices of Palestinians. She suggests a variety of novels, stories, poems, songs, films, websites and other resources appropriate for students of various ages. Options range from Mornings in Jenin, a deeply moving multigenerational novel of a Palestinian family from the 1940s through the early 21st century, to Palestinian rap and hip hop.

But adding the voices of Palestinians to the voices of Jewish Israelis is not enough to generate a history curriculum. We also need the voices of historians.

In Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine, Palestinian and Israeli historians and teachers report their effort to generate a consensus historical narrative broadly acceptable to Palestinians and Israelis. Unfortunately, the task proved impossible in the present political climate. Instead, the book divides history into nine time periods and presents two narratives for each period on alternating pages.

Side by Side is an advance over the usual teaching of history in Israel and the United States but its parallel narratives are disturbingly reminiscent of the equally irreconcilable Hutu and Tutsi histories. Whether in Palestine, Israel, America or Rwanda, students need real history and real education.