Violence is an ever-present factor in the lives of Palestinian Children, who are a common sight at Friday afternoon protests across the West Bank. People are unable to shield their children from the occupation even if they try, argue Palestinian parents. But how can you explain a conflict as complicated as the one in Israel and Palestine to a school kid?
The complex history makes it difficult to find a starting point to the dispute which has been punctuated by wars and violent outbursts. As a result, this has created a confusing time line. Yet, education largely determines the children’s perception of the situation and has important implications for future developments in the conflict. Education has therefore been the subject of a number of research projects. The most recent of these, entitled ‘Victims of our own narratives? Portrayal of the ‘Other’ in Israeli and Palestinian Schoolbooks’, was presented last year.
Victims and perpetrators
It is perhaps easy to argue that, similar to other conflict zones, Israeli and Palestinian schoolbooks dehumanise each other and present themselves as the victims. But this stereotype is only partially true, as argued by last year’s study, conducted by a team of researchers led by Yale professor of Psychiatry Bruce Wexler. If mentioned, such dehumanisation was solely portrayed in relation to a concern over the other’s actions – such as “the violent efforts of Palestinians and other Arabs to destroy Israeli targets through violence” (Wexler 2013). Dehumanisation for the sake of it rarely occurred in the school books that were analysed.
Aside from condemning actions by demonising the other, researchers found that textbooks on both sides show trends of victimising the self (i.e. the nation, the people) and subsequently portraying the other as perpetrator. Furthermore, schoolbooks on both sides present the other not as an enemy protecting what it sees as its own homeland, but rather as seeking the destruction or domination of the ‘self’ and even “call for individuals in their communities to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice of life for the collective good” (Wexler 2013).
These narratives do not portray a falsified history, it is argued, but their opposing narratives about similar events and periods of time are primarily caused by a selective focus. An emphasis on ‘the other’ as an evil force aimed at destroying ‘the self’ is consistently present in school books on both sides of the conflict.
Protecting the homeland
Interestingly, neither side recognises or includes reference to each other’s territory in their textbooks. Thus, in Israeli school books there is no indication of the border with the occupied territories and Palestinian ones do not portray Israel as a geographical area.
This is partly because the territory of the ‘other’ is never identified as such, Wexler argues that both Israelis and Palestinians grow up with a “patriotic attachment to the whole land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea”. This will make any two-state solution a hard pill to swallow for both parties. By portraying Israel and Palestine as the same region, children are taught that any peace negotiation that creates a potential border on the territory means giving away part of their homeland. This will have an effect not only on the current peace negotiations, but also on those yet to come.
Despite a number of similarities in teaching materials regarding ‘the other’, the researchers also found differences between Israeli and Palestinian textbooks. Most notable is the distinction that is made between Israeli ultra-Orthodox and state schools. The latter create a more nuanced image of Palestinians and are more self-critical, both compared to Israeli Ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian schools. Such nuances and self-criticism are crucial in providing children with a realistic image of the conflict surrounding them.
The need for a more balanced image of the conflict is voiced by the two girls in the video below:
Although the situation could be worse, both Israeli and Palestinian school textbooks do not portray the other in a nuanced way. They miss an opportunity of bringing children from both sides closer together as well as fostering a mutual understanding of the other’s identity, wishes and hopes.
Schools could be the place to build bridges towards a better – more peaceful – future, but currently, they don’t.
By Lisanne Oldekamp
Photo by Lisanne Oldekamp (2012)