Family & Education

A new way to teach the Arab-Israeli conflict

Parallel Histories offers a two-pronged approach, looking at historic events from both Israeli and Palestinian points of view


It may be the centenary of the Balfour Declaration this year, but how many British schoolchildren could say what it is? Despite extensive media coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict,  teaching of it has declined in the UK. According to the Guardian, three out of five exam boards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, have dropped it from their GCSE syllabus since 2014.

But one history teacher is doing his best to encourage children to study it. Michael Davies, of Lancaster Royal Grammar School, has launched an online resource to enable students to go beyond news headlines and explore the background to the century-old dispute.

Parallel Histories adopts a distinctive approach. It does not tell the story in a single narrative but presents events from two contrasting perspectives — one from the Jewish side, the other from the Palestinian.

He explains this in his introductory video: “What you are looking at is a new way of learning history when historians can’t agree on how to teach it. That often happens when a conflict is ongoing and both sides are too far apart on their shared past.”

The idea came after a study trip to Israel and the West Bank two years ago, where he met the authors of Side By Side, a textbook produced by Israeli and Palestinian academics in 2000, which recounted the history from the different national viewpoints. 

“I thought this is a great way to teach the type of history that people run away from because it is so contested,” he says.

Currently on sabbatical in the United States, he has assembled a multi-national research team of students and recent graduates. “I want them to be able to tell both sides, so that if a partisan on either side listens to that story, they would say the person telling it understands their story,” he says.

Each unit of Parallel Histories contains a package of video micro-lectures: on the First Intifada, for example, there is a trio of talks on the causes, events and consequences of it from the Israeli view,  and a corresponding trio from the Palestinian one. The talks include links to photographs, maps, documents and articles that users can access as they wish along the way. Mr Davies is working with an American-Israeli software company, TouchCast.

“The problem with a textbook is it is written for this mythical person called a 14-to-16-year-old,” he says. “So if you are a bored and not super-gifted 15-year-old, it is far too much and if you are a smart and interested 15-year-old, it’s far too little. But if you give somebody something flexible, they can get as much out of it as they have an appetite for.”

While Edexcel’s GCSE Middle East unit covers 1945 to 1995, he believes it essential to go back to the First World War to explain the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict. His aim is to continue to the end of the Second Intifada in 2005. Four units have been completed so far.

He grew up himself in Northern Ireland among people who “live and breathe their history”. His own father served as a young soldier in the British army trying to police Mandatory Palestine after the Second World War.

At the completion of each episode of Parallel Histories, he makes a point of reminding his audience: “Once you’ve looked at one side, pop over and have a look at the other side, too.”

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