Joint History School Book for Israelis and Palestinians

Difficult Times for a Visionary Project

A history book that tried to be fair to both sides in the Middle East conflict has had trouble gaining the approval of either side, says Joseph Croitoru

source: Peace Research Institute in the Middle East
A revolutionary history school book: "Learning Each Other's Historical Narrative" by Dan Bar-On and Sami Adwan

​​ The year 2003 could have represented a new beginning for both Israeli and Palestinian school education. That was the year that saw the publication of a truly revolutionary history school book by the Israeli psychologist Dan Bar-On and the Palestinian educational scientist Sami Adwan. They were assisted by Israeli and Palestinian teachers and historians and had the support of the German "Peace Research Institute Frankfurt". The text book, "Learning Each Other's Historical Narrative" was subsequently expanded several times.

Conflicting views

What makes this book different from other text books is that its authors have brought the often conflicting historical viewpoints of Israelis and Palestinians on the Middle East conflict together, confronting each with the other. It is an approach which already renders the historical context of the conflict's origins problematic. While, from the Israeli point of view, the conflict has its origins in the late 19th century, Palestinians see Napoleon as to blame for the disastrous Zionist settlement of the country, for which plans had been drawn up by the French as early as 1799.

photo: dpa
"Divergent interpretations": the Balfour Declaration of 1917 formally announced Britain's commitment to the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine - for Jews the end of their diaspora, for Palestinians the groundwork for the Nakba. Pictured: British foreign minister Arthur James Balfour visiting a Jewish settlement in 1922

​​ But the true origin of the fateful alliance between the Zionists and European imperialism, as the Palestinians see it does not even feature in the Israeli version of this history. And when it comes to evaluation of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – the letter which formally announced Britain's commitment to the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine – interpretations are just as divergent.

For the Israelis, Balfour's conclusion was a matter of course since it gave the Zionist movement, which had come into being in Europe, something to which as a normal European-style national movement they believed it entitled – a territory. For the Palestinians, on the other hand, the British action was simply a direct continuation of European colonialism. In the Palestinian version of events, 1917 is merely the first link in a disastrous chain that includes 1948, 1967 and 2002, years that brought death, destruction and dislocation to Palestinians.

Similar forms of indoctrination

For Israelis, on the other hand, the same years are associated with high points of Arab aggression. The fact that both sides accuse each other of having been first to take up arms is something the book makes no attempt to conceal – the simple presentation of arguments and counter-arguments is not what this book is about. Its intention, after all, is to raise awareness in its young readers of the fact that both Israelis and Palestinians use similar forms of indoctrination.

photo: dpa
Problematic historical context of the conflict's origins - both sides accuse each other of having been first to take up arms. Pictured: An Israeli soldier stops a Palestinian on his way to the village of Bilin near Ramallah

​​ The expectations both sides – and other countries – had for the project have only been partly fulfilled. Only a few dozen Israeli and Palestinian teachers use the book in voluntary classes, though this still means that at least a few thousand school pupils have been introduced to the controversial work over the years. Although much has been said about how valuable the experience has been for participants there has still been no official recognition from the respective school authorities. The untimely death of Dan Bar-On is one of the main reasons why the project has faded a little from view in the last few years. Before his death in 2008 at the age of only 69 Bar-On had been a tireless promoter of this original educational experiment both at home and abroad.

It was due to such efforts that word spread to the Swedish town of Kungälv, where the Israeli Palestinian experience is now to be harnessed in order to apply the teaching concept in classes for children from immigrant families. With the help of Sami Adwan and Israeli historian Eyal Naveh, the Swedes have been supporting use of the text book in several schools in Israel and the Palestinian Territories for some time.

photo: Neve Shalom
The book's intention is to raise awareness in its young readers of the fact that both Israelis and Palestinians use similar forms of indoctrination. Pictured: Israeli and Palestinian children learning together in the cooperative village of Neve Shalom

​​ Last August, the mayor of Kungälv, Anders Holmsköld, paid a visit to the schools and also used the opportunity to meet with Palestinian Minister of Education Lamis al-Alami. He was able to persuade her to have the text book officially introduced into two Palestinian schools as part of a pilot project.


However, the Israeli Shaar Hanegev High School in the southern Sderot region, where the book has already been in use for around two years suffered a setback. Whether it was down to the Swedish involvement or simply a reaction to the official Palestinian approval of the book is impossible to say. In any case, the Israeli Ministry of Education has now banned it from Shaar Hanegev. The decision has caused outrage in left-wing liberal circles where it is seen as yet more evidence of a general shift to the right in state education policy.

While right-wing journalists have welcomed the move, critics have accused the education ministry of trying to nip in the bud any manifestations of pluralism in the country's schools. The ministry has refuted the idea of any such motivation. It is nonsense, they claim, to talk about something having been banned when it was never officially recognised in the first place.

Joseph Croitoru

© 2010

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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