Struggling to bridge the Mideast education gap
Israeli and Palestinian students given conflicting curriculums, CAROLYNNE WHEELER reports
Special to The Globe and Mail
JERUSALEM -- They are two maps of two nations in exactly the same place, one called historical Palestine, the other called the Land of Israel.
And these two versions of geography, widely used in public schools in Israel and the Palestinian territories, reveal the enormous gulf between schoolchildren on either side of the Green Line and the difficulty these neighbours will have in one day trying to live peacefully side-by-side.
"That is very crucial in the conflict in both nations: What does it mean to be Jewish, and how is it presented, and what does it mean to be Palestinian and how it is presented?" said Ruth Firer, a professor of education specializing in peace and human rights at Hebrew University.
With senior-level Palestinian textbooks criticized for not showing Israel and for promoting resistance, and Israeli education officials instructed to add the pre-1967 Green Line that outlines the West Bank in textbooks, the issue of what Israeli and Palestinian children are learning is once again at the fore.
As children shape their beliefs based on what they learn about their own
history, geography and culture, the very future of Israeli-Palestinian relations is at stake.
In Israeli schools, the 1948 conflict that followed Israel's declaration of independence is known as the War of Independence; in the Palestinian Authority, it's known as Al-Naqba, the catastrophe. Israeli textbooks and classes focus on the coming of immigrants and Holocaust survivors to found the Jewish state; Palestinian texts generally do not name Israel on their maps and focus on the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees driven from their homes and still living in camps in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
Even geography classes are divided, with Israeli schools including Judea and Samaria, the biblical name for the West Bank, in their maps of Israel without a nod to the Palestinians on one side, and Palestinian
schoolchildren learning about the geography and climate within the borders of historical Palestine, with no mention of Israel.
Attempts to understand each other, or even acknowledge each other's rightful existence, are rare. And children's own impressions are already visible, in their classroom discussions and in their schoolyard banter.
In a school funded by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, a young girl wearing a white head scarf and striped school tunic speaks in her
eighth-grade classroom about how Israelis are trying to destroy Islamic sites in Jerusalem's Old City in order to build a new temple.
In the playground of an Israeli public school on the edge of Tel Aviv, a group of 13-year-old girls paused, perplexed, when asked what a
Palestinian is. "An Arab. A terrorist," said Sofi, 13, a freckle-faced girl carrying a pink backpack.
"When each side learns to see in each other only the enemy, . . . it is a kind of abstract: 'They are the evil,' " Prof. Firer said. "The damage is huge."
In Palestinian schools, a new generation of textbooks and courses
introduced since 2000 are the first to be developed by Palestinian -- rather than Egyptian or Jordanian -- educators. Many of the books have been criticized in the West, most recently by U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, for their content; a report issued last month by the pro-Israel lobby group Palestinian Media Watch points out passages in the 12th grade curriculum that include references to "Zionist gangs" that "stole
Educators who have developed Palestinian school lessons say their great challenge is reconciling the need to teach non-violence with real life outside the classroom. "That is part of the reality of how Palestinians are affected," said Sami Adwan, an education professor with Bethlehem University. He and Prof. Firer conducted a five-year analysis into ninth-grade textbooks in Israeli and Palestinian schools, and found in the Palestinian texts a focus on Israelis as occupiers, soldiers and settlers.
But the controversy over textbooks does not rest with the Palestinians. Many left-wing Israeli academics are also lobbying for a change in the Israel-centric approach to history and geography in their public schools.
Most prominent has been the debate over Education Minister Yuli Tamir's instructions to restore the Green Line -- which outlines the 1949
Armistice lines that divided Israel from the other parts of the
Palestinian mandate -- to maps in all Israeli textbooks. Until now, schoolbooks, which are produced privately according to ministry
guidelines, contain a mix of maps of Israel: Some show Israel from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River without noting Palestinian areas, and others outline the West Bank and Gaza.
But academics lobbying Israeli schools to teach more about their
Palestinian counterparts say the trouble goes beyond school atlases.
"The Israeli narrative is a very stable, fixed -- ancient, almost -- narrative. I think it's very racist because Palestinians don't exist in this narrative at all," said Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a professor in Tel Aviv University's School of Education.
There are attempts to bridge this enormous gap. Prof. Adwan, for instance, was named a Fulbright Scholar in peace education to New Jersey's Monmouth University, for his role in developing a history curriculum for both Israeli and Palestinian schools.
He, along with Israeli psychology professor Dan Bar-On, designed a way of simultaneously teaching both Israeli and Palestinian narratives, in an effort to teach empathy. So the Balfour Declaration, issued by a British foreign minister in 1917, is described simultaneously as a
Zionist-colonial move to give Palestinian land to Jews, and the first international recognition of Jewish rights to establish a Jewish country.
But though critically acclaimed, just 30 teachers in Israel and the West Bank have expressed interest in the program, showing the limited reach, and impact, of education in coexistence.
"I'm not really optimistic at this stage, though peace education should continue," Prof. Adwan said. "It's needed when it's most difficult and hard. It gives you hope that you are working, and sharing, and trying to influence in a positive way. Peace education in our situation will support and subsidize and maintain the peace agreements."
So they continue. Advocates say the tone of the debate has changed in the 14 years that have elapsed since Oslo; now, rather than debating a two-state solution, the debate is over the borders, the settlements, refugees and the status of Jerusalem. And that, they say, gives some reason to press on with efforts to teach co-existence.
Even in the Tel Aviv schoolyard, after 20 minutes of talk in which Sofi and her friends debated whether there could be peace before it's their turn to join the army, there was room for a change of heart.
"We think they're bad and that they are preventing peace. But it's possible that they think that we are bad and that we are preventing peace," she said. "And maybe that's what's preventing peace."