Mini-textbooks teach two intertwined histories

Imagine a textbook that uses both the phrases “War of Independence” and “the Catastrophe” to describe the watershed moment in 1948 that made Israel a state. And that same textbook describes the Balfour Declaration as both the first statement of international recognition of the need for a Jewish homeland and the first international denial of a Palestinian homeland and allowing the right to colonize that same land.

No such textbook exists. But there are booklets published about this shared history of the Middle East conflict with the Israeli and Palestinian narratives included side-by-side. Blank space is left in between for students to write their own narratives.

Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian ministries of education have approved these booklets, so the only students using them are doing so in select private schools, secretly or abroad.

Sami Adwan, a Palestinian professor of education at Bethlehem University, spoke about the booklets in San Francisco last week. His Israeli counterpart, Dan Bar-On, a professor of psychology at Ben-Gurion University, was unable to travel, but filmed a 14-minute video about his role in co-authoring “Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative,” which began the evening at St. Ignatius High School on May 10. The event was sponsored by a number of local Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups.

Bar-On is a well-known Israeli psychologist whose earlier work focused on the psychological effects of the Holocaust on the children of its perpetrators. The Israeli-born son of German refugees wrote the first book on the topic and was involved in bringing together children of Nazis and Holocaust survivors.

“It was easier for me to study the Holocaust because it was in the past,” Bar-On said. “And because I came from the ‘good’ side. In this conflict I was much more involved. I belonged to the occupier, to the side that prevents the Palestinians from having their own state, yet I believe that we have a right to be there, too.”

Adwan, who earned both his master’s degree and doctorate in San Francisco, said that at that time if he found out his professor was Jewish or if he learned a Jew was in his class, he dropped the class. Something shifted for him later, when he served more than a year in an Israeli prison for anti-occupation activism and was impressed by the humanity shown by one of the guards. He realized in that one moment that “they are not all the same.”

Adwan and Bar-On met at a conference in Europe and began to work together in the hopeful period following the Oslo Accords. Adwan had been analyzing Israeli and Palestinian textbooks to see how differently they portrayed the conflict. To no one’s surprise, each version told a completely different story.

The two men co-founded PRIME, Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (, based in Beit-Jalah in the West Bank.

“Pupils read their own [side’s] narrative, the one they are more familiar with, and see the other as propaganda,” said Bar-On. “They see their own as morally superior.”

“We wondered how we could challenge it in a legitimate way,” said Adwan, “as we did not want to isolate ourselves from our own communities because that is counterproductive.”

Bar-On and Adwan shunned experts and historians. They assembled a group of Israeli and Palestinian high school teachers to write their own versions of events.

This was the first time many of the participants learned of the other side’s pain. Not all of them completed the project, especially when Palestinians found it more difficult to travel freely, but the first booklet was published in 2002. More followed.

They have been translated into many languages, including French, Italian and German. “I’ve been invited to Morocco to introduce it, and I’m going to Spain to train some teachers, and [then to] Macedonia,” said Adwan.

The pair has also won numerous international peace prizes. But Adwan acknowledged that their approach is “bottom-up,” and they have a long way to go before their efforts will really have the opportunity to change anything.

Adwan estimates between 4,000 and 6,000 students have been able to use their booklets, and is hopeful their work will influence many more. “Education,’ he said, “has a key role in making peace.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."