Disarming the Teaching of History: Parallel-Narrative Textbook in Israel-Palestine
Two years ago, an article I wrote called “Disarming History: Dual-Narrative Textbooks in Israel-Palestine” was published in FOR’s Fellowship magazine - in this piece, which is a shorter distilled version of a longer research project, I was attempting to provide different dimensions of context to both the paradigm-shifting dual-narrative history textbook project by PRIME (Peace Research Institue in the Middle East), and to the wider background of international history textbook revision.
Over a decade in the making, what grew as a series of experimental booklets titled Learning Each Others Historical Narrative, was released as a full textbook this year renamed Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine.
This article offers relevant background to the histories of struggle and power dynamics around history and social science textbooks in Palestine and Israel, and the history of international conflict reduction through textbook analysis and revision, which formed as an interdisciplinary field after World War I. Against these backgrounds, this new approach to the teaching of history, a tremendously politicized subject, within an entrenched conflict of such magnitude and global significance, is all the more stunning and visionary. Looking back on the history textbooks that raised my generation in the US, which largely did not inspire serious critical thinking/questioning in relation to the nation, and taking into account how much controversy flares here with both conservative and progressive revisions/erasures/additions, the work of PRIME is a formidable pedagogical achievement. The term “disarming the teaching of history” comes from social justice educators Sami Adwan and the late Dan Bar-On who convened this project.
It is important to include valuable critiques of the perspective that puts historical narratives at the center, such as this piece written by critical psychologist Dennis Fox, “Competing Narratives about Competing Narratives: Psychology and Palestinian-Israeli Conflict”.
At the same time, it should be emphasized that the Palestinian and Israeli teachers, historians, and social psychologists who struggled for many years in this collaboration are aware of the dangers and difficulties of side-by-side historical national narratives that may represent a false “level field” within a context of vast asymmetry of power, and may “normalize” the injustice of the occupation, which continues with every kind of support from the US government. Indeed, in the preface explaining the dual-narrative approach, the editors offer a distillation of four key issues that arose in the development of these parallel texts, including writing and testing them in classrooms: Perceiving and managing mutliple narratives (differences between childen and adults), introducing multiple narratives within stressful situations, the constant tension of coping with the asymmetry of power alongside the symmetry between narratives, and understanding the narratives as a reflection of different stages in the development of nationhood. (Side by Side p. xi)
The dual-narrative approach does not claim to be “the” solution, but rather a step, an educational experiment, a strategy, working among many others. As the editors state in the introduction, “There is nothing final about the narratives presented in this book. These are the narratives that our teachers wrote at a violent stage of our conflict in 2002-2007. We suggest that the effort be repeated in ten years. We are sure that the texts will change, as historical narratives are always influenced by what happens in the reality of a given time. We hope that by 2012 or 2017, the political climate between our two peoples will have improved so greatly that the historical account of of our bloody past will change accordingly.” (Side by Side p. xvi)