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If Israelis and Palestinians are unable to agree on their tragic mutual history, maybe they can benefit from learning how the other side views it. That, in a nutshell, is the premise behind a new series of workbooks, whose third volume is to be published in the coming weeks, presenting the central historical narratives of Israelis and Palestinians side by side.

"This is history teaching at its best: presenting a number of points of view; learning that there is no one historical truth," says Rachel Zamir, a history teacher at Tel Aviv's Rogozin School, who tried out the books in her classes in previous years. "The students understand the complexity simply and quickly, and their awareness expands to the existence of the 'other.' From my point of view, it is a success when the student asks who is right in this conflict - understanding that there is justice on both sides," Zamir adds.

When the final editing is completed, and the third workbook is published, an unusual project, started five years ago, will have reached completion. The project was the brainchild of Dr. Dan Bar-On, of the department of behavioral sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Prof. Sami Adwan, a lecturer in education at Bethlehem University. The two head the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME), an NGO founded in 1998 with the help of Germany's Peace Research Institute.

Few believed that Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian teachers from the territories would succeed in their attempt to write a study program together describing the Arab-Israeli conflict. But despite the intifada, terror attacks and roadblocks - or perhaps because of them, as some of the participants say - the work was completed. Every page of the workbook is divided into three sections of equal size: the Israeli narrative on the right, the Palestinian on the left, and in the middle, empty lines for students to write their own reactions to the historical descriptions.

The first workbook started with the Balfour Declaration, in 1917. The third ends with the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, seven years ago.

Reading the three workbooks consecutively will probably send the average Israeli reader back to the history books to check, for example, whether his or her main memory of the British Mandate, as almost every Israeli schoolchild declaims it, is the series of White Papers and limitations on Jewish immigration to Palestine - or perhaps, as the Palestinians tell it, the use by the Mandate of laws and regulations to help the developing Jewish economy at the expense of the Palestinian one.

18th century or 19th?

From the beginning of the workbook, the difficulty of bridging the two narratives becomes apparent. The Israeli side describes the birth of the Zionist movement in the 19th century, while the Palestinians begin much earlier, with Napoleon's plan in 1799 to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, "considered the first plan in the world of colonialist Jewish cooperation before the establishment of the Zionist movement." (Israeli sources doubt the reliability of this information.)

And so the history goes. A long chain of death and destruction, seen through opposing points of view: the "riots of 1920-1921," as opposed to the "popular uprisings of 1920"; the "riots of 1929," versus the "1929 rebellion"; the "great Arab revolt of 1936-1939," in contrast to the "Al-Qassam rebellion"; the "War of Independence," as opposed to "the Nakba [disaster] of 1948"; the wars of 1973, 1967, 1956 and 1982, the first intifada in 1987, the Oslo Accords, and on to the outbreak of the second intifada (see box).

"Our goal is not to build a single agreed-on narrative; that is a mission impossible," Prof. Bar-On says. "The goal is to get to know and respect the narrative of the other, even if we don't agree with everything it says. Clearly this is not a process that will solve all the problems; many dilemmas will remain. But where have we ever heard of a Palestinian teaching about the Holocaust?"

"This is a different model of coexistence," Tel Aviv University historian Prof. Eyal Naveh, academic advisor to the Israeli side, explains. "All the other models are post-conflict, rebuilding history in a bridging historical narrative. Our model works differently. During the conflict, both narratives in the workbook are supposed to carry on a dialogue with each other through the empty lines. This may bring about coexistence and perhaps also a reexamination of the Israeli narrative."

Work on the project was full of crises. First among these were the physical barriers imposed by the intifada. Initially, the group would meet in various cities in the territories, but the difficulty of movement for the Palestinians, due to the many roadblocks, as well as the fear of some of the Israelis to enter the territories, led to the holding of two-day meetings, one every few weeks, in East Jerusalem.

'I don't know who I am'

Over the years, some of the Palestinian teachers left the project. In the preface to one of the workbooks, Adwan and Bar-On quote one of those who left: "I do not know who I am. I meet with Israeli teachers and we try to understand each other, but only a few hours ago I was humiliated at a military roadblock." Another teacher left after his brother was arrested by the security forces. "But most of the teachers found that this is the right way from their point of view to deal with the madness outside," Adwan says.

After overcoming logistical problems, participants faced a more serious challenge: the writing process itself, with academic oversight provided by professors Naveh and Adnan Musallam, who advised the Palestinian side. The teachers worked in national and cross-national groups. At the first stage each chapter was written by the Israelis and the Palestinians separately; afterward the teachers discussed the different versions. At the second stage, the draft underwent extensive discussion, in which all the teachers took part.

Throughout the project, participants adhered to the principle on which Bar-On and Adwan had decided at the beginning: No one had a veto over what is written. One could only explain one's opposition, debate it and hope that the other side accepted the objections.

One of the first arguments that arose was over the chapter on the events of 1929. "We brought the Palestinian description of the Hebron massacre," Rachel Zamir says, "and they brought a similar story about an Arab family that was killed in Jaffa by a Jewish policeman. In the discussion that ensued, the point was made that this line of description was not exactly what would lead to coexistence, but rather to a perpetuation of the conflict, and maybe we should take out these descriptions. We accepted the comment and we gave up the bloody descriptions, and left only the fact that there were killings. The Palestinian teachers, however, did not change their style. We thought perhaps we had made a mistake. But I would probably make the same decision today."

Each summer the participants traveled abroad for longer seminars of a number of days. During the first three years, these were funded by the U.S. State Department, which supported non-governmental peace initiatives after the 1998 Wye Plantation agreements. Later, Bar-On and Adwan managed to get European Union funding for the project, as well as assistance from the Ford Foundation and a number of private donors.

In the summer of 2003 in Turkey, where a meeting took place on the second volume, arguments about the 1967 War threatened to break the group apart. The Israeli teachers defined the Palestinians' first draft as "a text that would not pass in Israeli classrooms," and claimed that parts were not based on solid historical evidence. Zamir recalls a discussion among all the participants in which she expressed doubts as to the value of continuing the project. The Palestinians, for their part, argued that the Israelis were trying to force their opinion on them. In the end, the Palestinian narrative underwent some softening.

Debates continued over later chapters as well. For example, the Palestinians wrote that the terror attacks on Israeli targets in the 1970s (first and foremost Munich and Ma'alot) were for the purpose of bargaining over prisoner release. "But Israel's prime minister at that time refused the proposal, and in the ensuing attack the kidnappers and the hostages were both killed."

"It was hard for me to hear these claims," says Niv Kedar, a history teacher at the Givat Brenner regional high school. "The message that emerges is that the rescue attempts and the lack of willingness to release prisoners were the cause of the deaths. I asked the Palestinian teachers if the kidnappers themselves bore no responsibility for the deaths of the hostages. The answer I got was that this message was 'between the lines.'"

Recognizing the Green Line

In another case, involving Operation Litani in 1978, the initial Palestinian version stated that "the Palestinian presence in Lebanon was a source of concern for the colonies in northern Palestine." After a harsh confrontation, in which the Israeli teachers insisted on differentiating between communities inside and outside the Green Line, the words "colonies in northern Palestine" were replaced by "population concentrations in northern Israel." In parentheses, however, the Palestinians wrote that these were "communities/settlements built on the ruins of Palestinian homes from 1948."

"The Israelis' use of the term Eretz Israel (Land of Israel) is strange for me. We know this place as 'Palestine,'" a Palestinian teacher says. "On another occasion we described Haifa, Tel Aviv and Kiryat Shmona as settlements. There was a big argument and the Israelis explained their sensitivity to the definition. For us these are settlements, but in the end we decided to remove this definition."

There were also arguments within the groups. The Israeli teachers debated whether the chapter on "the War of Independence" should relate in detail to the expulsion and flight of Palestinian refugees, or whether this should only be mentioned, without special emphasis.

In the end they decided to limit themselves to including only a few paragraphs on the subject. "We wanted to be relevant to Israeli society, to the age group of the students," says Naveh. "Therefore there was no choice but to use a middle-of-the-road narrative. Except for a small group in the academia, post-Zionism does not speak to Israeli society."

Similar questions arose in the Palestinian group regarding the actions of the mufti of Jerusalem in the 1920s and '30s, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini; on the extent to which the Arab countries were responsible for the refugee problem; the Jordanian policy toward the refugees; and the Oslo Accords.

Prof. Adwan says: "This may be the starting point for a new historiography. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that the Palestinians are still under occupation; they do not feel secure enough to talk freely about various points of view."

The first workbook came out in 2002, and about six teachers from each side began to use it in some of their history classes, usually for older high school students. The pilot workbook featured small pictures of Israeli and Palestinian flags at the top of every page. When the Palestinian students saw this, they asked to block out the Israeli flag. "It was hard for them to study from a workbook featuring the same flag as at the roadblocks," a teacher explains.

Immediate ban

It was agreed at the outset of the project not to ask for authorization from the Israeli or Palestinian education ministries. Thus, the heads of the Israeli Education Ministry under Limor Livnat, of the Likud, first heard about the initiative at the beginning of 2004, via a small item in the media. They immediately banned it. "You must instruct teachers that they are prohibited from teaching with this workbook in any way," the chairman of the ministry's pedagogic secretariat, Prof. Yaakov Katz, wrote to the principals of the schools of some of the Israeli teachers. "If they do not desist, I will be forced to take disciplinary action against them," he added.

Nevertheless, before the ban was issued, Rachel Zamir managed to teach the main elements of the first workbook for an entire year at the Rogozin school. She later used parts of the book as worksheets handed out to students. Niv Kedar also used the material for history lessons. Other Israeli teachers taught some of the material in their civics classes or homerooms. In other cases, the workbooks were used in lessons taught in small groups during after school hours.

The Palestinian side also kept a low profile, with some Palestinian teachers using the workbooks in their classes.

"It isn't simple to teach Israeli history in a refugee camp," the Palestinian teacher says. "You have to be very sensitive, and know how to insert the subject into the lesson. I believe it can be done, but slowly. The process will be completed only after the occupation ends," the teacher says. "I tell my students that what the other side believes is important. I propose they think about Israeli history, look at the reality from other perspectives, without giving up Palestinian identity. Otherwise we will be Israeli."

Bar-On and Adwan already have their next targets in their sites: Increasing the number of Israeli and Palestinian teachers using the workbooks, and publishing them in a single volume and offering it to the Israeli and Palestinian education ministries. They also want to develop a Web site that will serve as a teacher's guide, featuring, among other things, suggested lesson plans, background material and teacher feedback.

In the past year, 14 teachers from each side have used the workbooks. Prof. Adwan estimates that a few thousand Palestinians have been exposed to at least some of the content. "There have been students who refused to study the Israeli narrative, and who left the classroom," he explains. "Some said Israeli history is propaganda and twists what really happened. Others wondered if the Israelis really teach the Palestinian narrative. But there have also been more understanding responses."

According to Zamir, students very quickly grasp the basic idea of the project. "Usually one lesson is enough for them to understand that every chapter in history has a number of points of view. For me, as a history teacher, the very fact that students understand that one place can have two names depending on national allegiance, is already a success," she notes.

After studying the two narratives, the students in the younger classes are asked to write two articles, one for a Palestinian newspaper, the other for a Jewish one, before the establishment of the state; or to draw one poster for Independence Day and one in memory of the Nakba. At the end of each period of study, Kedar elicits feedback from his students. He says almost all agree that the Palestinian narrative should be taught. In answer to a question as to whether they were surprised at the narrative of the other side, many responded that it had a lot of logic. "If I were on the other side, I would want the same thing," one student wrote. Another wrote, "I'm sure that if I were in their situation, without a state, I would behave in the same way."

At least on the Israeli side, it appears that most students did not change their essential positions. One of Zamir's younger students wrote that the Palestinians "have always been violent toward us and attacks are nothing new. This gives us the courage to fight." In contrast, however, another student wrote that the study "caused me to understand them more. Until now I thought only we were right, but now I understand what they are fighting for." "Sometimes I wonder whether through these workbooks I am undermining 'the just cause' of Zionism among the students," Zamir says. "But I believe that the Zionist narrative is deeply rooted in them from kindergarten. The conflict is harsh and the project does not blur it. On the contrary, perhaps it sharpens the differences. All in all we have planted a small seed that will grow in keeping with the desires and abilities of each student, and will make possible greater psychological ability to compromise.

From the Israeli Side

1. Zionism: "The national movement of the Jewish people. Developed in Eastern and Central Europe as a result of disappointment with emancipation, continued anti-Semitism, the impact of other national movements and the continuing bond between the people of Israel and the Land of Israel.

2. The Balfour Declaration: "The first time any country supported Zionism... Expressed the support of the British government for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel."

3. The War of Independence: "On November 29, 1947, the United Nations approved by a large majority the proposal for two independent states alongside each other (Resolution 181). The Jewish community celebrated that night with dancing in the streets. However, the next morning acts of terror began, carried out by the country's Arabs and volunteers from Arab countries, who did not accept the Partition Plan."

4. The origin of the refugees: "During the war a number of massacres, robberies and rapes were carried out by Jewish fighters. The best known massacre was at Deir Yassin, where 250 Arabs were murdered by Irgun and Lehi fighters. The incident was roundly criticized in the country and harsh public debate broke out."

5. The Six-Day War: "The war began on June 5, 1967, and ended six days later, on June 10, 1967. Israel fought three Arab countries: Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and attained a victory that became a landmark in Zionist history. The backdrop to the war's outbreak was the relationship between Israel and the Arab countries in the 1960s."

6. Israel and the territories it occupied: "Israel administered occupied Judea, Samaria and Gaza, first under military rule and subsequently under civil administration."

7. Mass immigration: "The establishment of Israel was the moment for which Jews had longed for many years. However it was still not the complete fulfillment of the Zionist dream. The first years of the state were devoted to bringing as many Jews as possible to Israel."

8. The first intifada: "On December 8, 1987, an Israeli truck hit a Palestinian car in the Gaza Strip, killing four occupants of the vehicle. The Palestinians claimed the act was intentional and deemed it malicious murder."

From the Palestinian side

1. Zionism: "A colonialist political movement ascribing a national character and racial attributes to Judaism ... Led to Jewish immigration to Palestine, claiming historical and religious rights."

2. The Balfour Declaration: "The unholy marriage between British imperialism and the colonialist Zionist movement, at the expense of the Palestinian people and the future of the entire Arab nation."

3. The Nakba of 1948: "Resolution 181 of the United Nations on the division of Palestine into two states, Arab and Jewish, symbolized on the one hand the beginning of the countdown to the establishment of Israel, on May 15, 1948, and on the other hand the beginning of the countdown to the Nakba of 1948, the uprooting and exile of the Palestinian people."

4. The events of the Nakba: "The actions of the Zionist gangs were intended to sow terror among the Palestinian inhabitants to cause them to abandon their villages, especially after the massacre at Deir Yassin."

5. The situation after 1948: "The Jewish state began to enact a series of laws and regulations the aim of which was to wipe out the identity of the Palestinians remaining in the territories it took over ... Among other things, the Law of Return was passed in 1950 that allows every Jew from any place in the world, without reference to citizenship, to immigrate to Israel. In contrast, Israel prevented refugees from returning to their cities and villages. It destroyed more than 500 villages and Palestinian settlements and built colonies over them."

6. The June 1967 war: "The war that Israel started against the Arab countries is known as the 'June 5 aggression' because Israel was the initiator of the declaration of battle and opened an offensive."

7. Israeli policy in the occupied territories: "The policy was based on two fundamental principles: Judaizing the land and causing the people to disappear. This is part of the oppressive racist policy that was imposed on 1.5 million Palestinians, and a policy of land expropriation."

8. The first intifada: "On December 8, 1987, the day the intifada broke out, an Israeli truck driver in Gaza intentionally ran into an Arab car, resulting in martyrs' deaths of a number of Palestinians. After news spread of the incident, huge demonstrations broke out all over the West Bank and Gaza."