Israeli and Palestinian history
So hard to reconcile
Some grown-ups want a common view, but their kids are kept apart
FEW foundation myths are as diametrically opposed as those of Jews and Palestinians. In the original Jewish narrative, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 meant redemption, an escape from the genocidal persecution of the Nazis and a return to the land promised by God (for the religious) or historical precedent (for the secular). For the Palestinians, it was the nakba, the Disaster: banishment from their ancestral homes as the innocent victims of aggressive Jewish nationalism.
Time has mollified both these tales. Most Palestinians, even if they still do not think Israel's birth at their expense was justified, accept that the place now has to be allowed to exist. Most Israelis, too, have come to accept the Palestinians' own right to self-determination, and Israeli “revisionist historians” have rewritten the academic accounts of the country's birth to reflect its mistreatment of the native population. What the two sides teach their children, though, are still quite different things.
Three years ago the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information (IPCRI), a think-tank in Jerusalem, conducted studies of some school textbooks on both sides. It found gradual improvements over previous years, but still a lot of problems. Israeli books sometimes contained stories that promoted pluralism and co-existence and contained positive images of Arabs. But there were also portrayals that were paternalistic and played on stereotypes and fears. Descriptions of the 1948 war tended to suggest that Palestinians either left their homes voluntarily, selling them to Jews, or were encouraged to leave by other Arabs—rather than, as sometimes happened, being forced out violently. Maps of pre-1948 Palestine sometimes underplayed the extent of Arab habitation, while maps of modern Israel never included the “Green Line”, the pre-1967 border; this makes the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank look as if they were an integral part of Israel.
Palestinian books, similarly, had a mixed record on portraying people from the other side. IPCRI's researchers noted that they contained no calls for Israel's destruction or incitements against Judaism, but sometimes glorified “martyrdom” and the need to liberate the national homeland, while being vague about just how much of it to liberate. Their maps, too, suffered from geographical amnesia—often showing all of Palestine without Israel's borders, or displaying Arab cities in Israel but not Jewish ones.
And neither side makes much attempt to explain the other society and its history. “You learn the Israeli side of the story, where the Palestinians are present as an incomprehensible actor that sometimes upsets the apple cart,” says Dov Khanin, an Israeli parliamentarian from the far-left Hadash party. Israeli textbooks also do not cover the recent history of the Oslo peace process, in which Israel began to accept the Palestinians' right to a state: a previous education minister vetoed the attempt to introduce it.
The current minister, Yuli Tamir, is pushing for improvements, says Gershon Baskin, IPCRI's co-director. She recently ordered Israeli schoolbooks to show the Green Line, and seems more serious about enforcing the mandatory teaching of Arabic, which has been allowed to lapse. On the other side, however, Hamas's election to the Palestinian Authority seems to have brought some backtracking: where the Green Line had started appearing in recent editions of a textbook for older children, in the latest issue it has disappeared again, and a mention of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, a notorious anti-Semitic text, was put in—only to be removed after howls of international protest.
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