Let the book do the talking

The conflict in the Holy Land continues unabated with no political solution in sight. However, a group of Palestinian and Israeli teachers are attempting to change traditional attitudes through education.

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By  John Irish Published  April 8, 2004

|~||~||~|Driving through the West Bank town of Beit Jala, Ayman, a 45-year old taxi driver asks curiously why his latest fare is taking him to a Lutheran school. Particularly as it is located at the end of a dirt track, high up on a hill overlooking the illustrious tourist destination of Bethlehem. True, there are no monks to extol the virtues of Jesus’ birthplace and no spiritual splendours to keep the average tourist occupied. Instead, the long and winding road leading to the Talitha Kumi school is covered in dust with buildings crumbling on either side and people making their way from place to place. Even the reminders of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict are muted, with only occasional ‘Occupation Kills’ graffiti adorning street walls. Beit Jala is an intriguing place. On the one hand it is Palestinian, on the other hand it is 90% Christian. As Ayman explains, until the siege of the Church of the Nativity in 2002, the area was relatively peaceful. However, now it finds itself caught in between Palestinian militia and an Israeli army determined to protect its people. It is of little surprise then to see the roots of an educational rapprochement between the two sides lying in this town. Since 2002, Talitha Kumi has been one of six Palestinian and six Israeli schools to use a new historical textbook to supplement the curriculum. “After the Oslo accords, there was hope for peace,” says Wilhelm Golle, the school’s German principal. “In 1998 we established a link with the Peace Research Institute Middle East (PRIME) with the objective of teaching our students Israeli history and Israeli students learning Palestinian history.” According to Golle, getting the book published was a battle in itself. Teachers from both sides vigorously expressed their own point of views highlighting the gulf between the two perspectives. Eventually, in 2002, the first 50-page instalment ‘Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative’ was published in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Each page is neatly divided into two with an Israeli and Palestinian narrative relating to critical moments from the Balfour Declaration down to the creation of Israel in 1948. The students can also add their comments to a few lines in the centre. Be it Israeli Independence or the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe), 14-15 year old students are able to discover what each society has taught them for years. “Although there may be some question marks over the text, just getting it published in the current climate is a big success,” says Golle. “If the solution cannot be resolved by politicians, then I believe a real conflict resolution can only be done when you bring the people together and show them at the very beginning the other point of view.” The textbook highlights just how much divergence there is between both sides. Take the two respective descriptions of the Balfour Declaration. The Israeli perspective describes it in many ways as a trivial side issue. “At the height of World War I, Britain tried to marshal support for its war efforts from Jewish Organisations in the US and from Jews in Russia; the Balfour declaration was aimed at gaining Jewish support.” Meanwhile, the Palestinian angle is much more direct, outlining it as an opportunistic move from the Jewish side. “The Balfour Declaration is considered a political gain for the Zionist movement at the expense of the Arabs and Muslims, who originally owned the Holy Land.” Salima, a 14-year old, sits attentively, as her teacher goes through some of the passages. The textbook itself is only used as supplementary text to the curriculum. Until 2000, the curriculum for Palestinians was wholly based on Jordanian textbooks in the West Bank and Egyptian books in Gaza. When asked her opinion on the books, Salima shows guarded enthusiasm. While she feels it helps her understand more what the Israelis think, she thinks it is too late. “The war is the same every day, what will a textbook teach us in the end?” Naturally, a project that touches the region’s future generations faces intense scrutiny. While it attempts to look at both sides of the story, clearly there are alternative viewpoints within each society. According to one of the project’s co-ordinators, Sami Adwan, the narratives are not aimed at reflecting the societies themselves. He says the book does not bridge the divide, but merely creates an opportunity to understand where the other is coming from. “Some people have said our narratives are true others have said they are full of propaganda, but at least it is opening up people’s minds,” says Adwan. The ideological battle engulfs high school textbooks throughout both societies. Since 2000, the Palestinian Authority has gradually attempted to overhaul the use of Egyptian and Jordanian textbooks into something with a Palestinian flavour. Those calls came after years of criticism from Israel that school books used by the Palestinians incited ‘anti-Semitism’, hatred and violence. Even the new civic textbooks are facing criticism though. A map of the region fails to mention Israel, while the capital of Palestine is Jerusalem. Any references to Israel are ambiguous and hazy. While Palestinian teachers say these books need to install a national pride into the children of the future, Israeli moderates and conservatives are uniting against them. Yossi Beilin, architect of the recent Geneva Peace Accords released a statement calling the textbooks ‘inappropriate.’ Even former moderate education Minister Yossi Sarid, an advocate of a less Zionist approach in Israeli textbooks ,refused to comment on the issue. Here lies the problem. While these textbooks continue to circulate, the historical narrative attempting to show both sides of the story is also getting a bad press. “I don’t think we need to support anything that wants to kill us, which is exactly what the Palestinian Authority wants to do,” one Shas party leader told reporters. “Why should our children want to read about the Palestinian lies?” Before Ariel Sharon came to power, a moderate and global perspective on regional history was beginning to creep into Israel’s curriculum. Even Palestinian literature began to appear in Israeli textbooks. Poet Mahmoud Darwish was just one example. Howvever, since the current Minister of Education, Limot Livnor, took office, that policy has been reversed. The twelve schools involved in the bilateral history project are caught in a catch 22. Neither Ministry of Education officially opposes the use of the PRIME book, but then again neither are ready to endorse it. A veil of secrecy has been placed over the Israeli and Palestinian teachers. On both sides of the wall, the growing tensions have pushed the teachers into a corner, with both ministries warning teachers about using these books. One of the Israeli teachers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, claimed that while it helped raise awareness of each other’s viewpoints, often students disagreed or were simply not interested in hearing the second side of the story. Talitha Kumi’s principal, Golle, agrees with this, suggesting that years of suspicion would not disappear overnight. “Both sides are strengthening their points of view,” he says. “I can understand it as this is what you do in times of conflict. It was a similar story in Germany. We only introduced German-French history in the mid-50s and 60s, almost ten to twenty years after WWII” Nevertheless, hope remains. While one might expect parents to be overtly negative, both Golle and the Israeli teacher agree that the older generation is pragmatic on the issue. “I hope there will be an end to the conflict, but it won’t be in my generation, but for my children there is still hope to see an end to the conflict,” explains a parent waiting for his 8-year old son outside Talitha Kumi. “To do that we must understand the other point of view and if that means supporting the school’s programme, then so be it.” All in all, it is evident that the ongoing Intifada and Israel’s determination to divide the two societies to protect itself can only lead to increased wariness at the very least. However with the launch of a second PRIME book at the end of March, as Ayman the taxi driver says on the way out of Beit Jala: “This is good, very good, but very difficult.” ||**||

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