A few days ago, students from the London Academy of Excellence in Stratford, a school with a large Muslim population, gave a presentation defending Israel’s tactics in the First Intifada.
A group from JCoSS, the cross-communal Jewish secondary in East Barnet, however took the contrary view, on why Israel’s response had been disproportionate.
They had come together for an educational session that encouraged students to look at the Middle East conflict from a perspective they might have been unfamiliar with.
Afterwards, the two school groups were mixed in teams for a debate on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The session, held at JCoSS as part of its interfaith programme, was led by an outside organisation Parallel Histories. Founded by Michael Davies, a teacher who has taught the GCSE history unit on the Israeli -Palestinian conflict, it offers digital resources that explore historical events from both the Israeli and Palestinian points of view.
And one special guest at JCoSS this year was one of the academics who inspired the dual-narrative approach, Tel Aviv University historian Professor Eyal Naveh.
“It should be the only way the Middle East conflict is taught,” he said. “People like Michael are pioneers.”
In 2008, the team led by Professor Naveh and his Palestinian colleague Professor Sami Adwan produced the Side by Side textbook in Hebrew and Arabic for schools, which published parallel Israeli and Palestinian versions of the history of the conflict. In 2012 an English edition appeared.
Their innovative approach was rewarded with prizes and invitations to conferences abroad. But it was too revolutionary for their own societies. “The moment the Ministry of Education of both places discovered that we were doing it, they banned the book,” he said. “They did not allow the teachers to put the book in classes.”
While it remains off-limit in schools in Israel, it has been used by youth groups and university students and in pre-university gap year classes.
“I see the whole project as a successful failure. Why successful? Because we were able to produce a book after ten years of tedious work,” Professor Naveh said. “Why failure? Because the idea was to introduce the book to the respective schools in both societies and the politicians and the officials in the society refused to accept it.”
Originally, Professor Naveh had been asked by a European group to write a new history textbook that would present a single narrative including different perspectives, similar to books covering areas of European history post-conflict, such as Germany and France. Hopes that the 1993 Oslo accord would pave the way to peace remained alive.
But no sooner had the group of Israeli and Palestinian educators met for the first time in 2000, the Second Intifada broke out. “We realised we were unable to write a common narrative in the midst of a violent conflict. We thought a dual narrative approach would enable us to continue,” he said.
It was too dangerous to meet at home, so they carried on their work in summer sessions abroad.
In between the two accounts of history in Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine was a white space which “symbolised that the two narratives were not able to talk with each other at that point yet”, he explained.
In Israel, he said, school textbooks have to be approved by a Ministry of Education committee. The reason they gave for rejecting Side by Side was that textbooks have to cover the official school curriculum and that did not include the Palestinian narrative.
“I call it bureaucratic censorship,” he said.
But the work goes on elsewhere. Parallel Histories is now offering fellowships to teachers who are interested in its approach.
Meanwhile, Prime (the Peace and Research Institute in the Middle East), the NGO to which he and Professor Adwan are attached are contemplating a potentially more controversial new book: about the impact of historic trauma, looking at the Holocaust and the Nakba (the Palestinian exodus during the creation of Israel).
It is not an attempt to draw equivalence between the historic events, he says, “I am not comparing it in the sense that it is similar. Obviously, it is not.” But as a step towards reconciliation, “I simply think each side should know the trauma of the other”.