The importance of learning the other’s past

May 12, 2017
R.B. Kitaj, Arabs and Jews (Jerusalem), 1985. Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art. Copyright R.B. Kitaj Estate.

The recent commemoration of Israeli independence brings us back to 1948, when Jewish and then Israeli forces battled with local and then regional Arab forces over the future of Palestine after Britain’s surrender of its mandate. It is not difficult to understand the high level of motivation of Jewish soldiers to secure a safe haven for their people a mere three years after the second world war. Nor is it difficult to understand the sense of jubilation, often verging on the messianic, that Jews in that country and beyond felt at the attainment of statehood. To gain sovereignty in the ancestral homeland after 2,000 years of dispersion — and especially after the murder of nearly one-third of the Jewish people — was a historic achievement by any measure.

By the same token, it is understandable why Palestinian Arabs regarded 1948 not as a year of liberation but as the “catastrophe,” as the Syrian scholar Constantine Zurayk dubbed it (using the Arabic word “Nakba”). They were repeatedly bewildered and agitated — first, by the arrival of the initial waves of Zionist settlers in the 1880s, then by the seeming favoritism shown to the Zionists by the British in the Balfour Declaration, and finally by the United Nations Partition Plan that granted 55 percent of the land to the Jews, who represented one-third of the population of Palestine. The flight and expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs in the midst of the armed hostilities of 1948 seared a sense of injury onto the Palestinian psyche that has not healed to this day.

The difficulty in assessing these two perspectives on history is that they both contain a great deal of truth. It would be easy if we could assert that one of these narratives meets the standards of historical veracity and the other does not. Many partisans on both sides of the conflict make this facile claim, resting content in the self-assurance of their own story. It is far more difficult to hold on to complexity.  What do we do when there are not only competing narratives at work, but competing truths in which are embedded competing rights? How do we reconcile them? 

This is a serious educational, as well as ethical, challenge. A pair of courageous researchers have grappled with this problem for decades. Sami Adwan, a Palestinian scholar of education who teaches at Hebron University, joined forces with Dan Bar-On, an Israeli psychologist at Tel Aviv University who died in 2008, to think past the zero-sum game of historical narratives according to which my story of the past is true and yours is false. For too long, they maintained, Palestinians taught a self-satisfying and heroic account of their past to their children, ignoring or denigrating the Israeli story; but Israelis did a similar thing with their children, neglecting or distorting the depiction of Palestinians.

In a 2013 study sponsored by the U.S. State Department, the joint research team surveyed hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian textbooks. While finding little evidence of dire demonization by either side, they concluded that both groups offered “negative descriptions and lack of information about the other’s history, religions, culture and sufferings.” 

As an antidote to this tendency, Adwan and his Israeli colleagues (Bar-On and later Dan Bar-Tal and Eyal Naveh from Tel Aviv University) developed an alternative: a dual-narrative approach that places Israeli and Palestinian versions not in isolation from one another but in juxtaposition. They did so in a volume titled “Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine,” as well as in an experimental school curriculum available in Hebrew, Arabic and English called “Leaning Each Other’s Historical Narrative.” Adwan and his colleagues worked over the years with Israeli and Palestinian teachers who were willing to test this new approach, refining and improving the curriculum, though rarely with the support of either the Israeli or Palestinian ministries of education.

What do we do when there are not only competing narratives at work, but competing truths in which are embedded competing rights? How do we reconcile them? 

It may well be that such a dual-narrative approach will not be the prime catalyst to bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians. But it also may be that a meaningful peace will not be achieved in the absence of some serious degree of historical recognition of the other.  Scholars and activists have come to understand that in post-conflict situations (such as Northern Ireland and the Balkans), it is highly desirable to undo opposing groups’ negative views of the other by revising the way in which they present history.   

There is much work to be done in this regard: more innovation in pedagogy, curriculum development and scholarship. With that need in mind, UCLA is sponsoring a conference, which I organized, featuring Adwan on May 18-19 titled “Learning the Other’s Past” to consider questions relating to history, education and a dual-narrative approach in Israel and Palestine. With scholars and teachers from Israel, the Palestinian territories and the United States participating, the focus is designed to help generate a pedagogical roadmap for the next generation of educators and historians engaged in this important work. 

Children are not born with hatred in their hearts. It is parents and teachers who have the greatest power to guide them one way or another. Efforts like the Adwan/Bar-On initiative provide both with an important educational tool to overcome historical ignorance and distortion on the path to a better understanding of the other.   

For more information about the “Learning the Other’s Past” at UCLA, visit this story at international.ucla.edu.

David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA and the author of “Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford, 2017).

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