Constructing Transparent History: A Textbook Case

May 1, 2011
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Sivan Zakai

The founding of the State of Israel was cause for dancing in the streets. Or it was a catastrophe. Zionism stemmed from the rise of modern antisemitism and the failed promise of emancipation for Jews in Western Europe. Or it was an imperialist political movement that opposed the integration of Jews into their European homelands. These are the stories told in the Dual-Narrative History Project of the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME), an organization that works to “build an intellectual infrastructure of peace” by exposing Israeli and Palestinian high school students to each other’s historical narratives.

The PRIME dual narrative history, Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative: Palestinians and Israelis, doesn’t look much like a typical history textbook.1 Each page is divided into three columns: On one side is an Israeli narrative, on the other side a Palestinian narrative, and between the two is a column of blank lines. The textbook, written by Israeli and Palestinian history teachers under the supervision of Palestinian historian Adnan Musallam and Israeli historian Eyal Naveh, covers a range of topics, including the Balfour Declaration, the wars of 1948 and 1967, and the First Palestinian Intifada.

PRIME’s co-directors, Sami Adwan and the late Dan Bar-On, hoped that this textbook would help Palestinian and Israeli teachers become “emissaries for peace-building.” “We regard history,” they wrote, “as an attempt to build a better future by ‘looking under every rock’ rather than throwing them at each other.” Yet their textbook has met with resistance and, in October, 2010, the book was banned by both the Israeli and Palestinian education ministries.

Despite the fact that it has been rejected by its primary audience, the book may yet still have an impact — though different than the one intended. The true value of this work may lie not in the dual-narrative columns on either side of the page but rather in the blank space in the middle.

History textbooks are notorious for concealing how history is constructed, thus making it difficult for students to understand the very discipline the books are supposed to teach. Textbooks — and the two narratives of the PRIME textbook are no exception — often
provide inadequate explanations of the relationships between causes and events. They rarely provide students with an opportunity to directly encounter the primary and secondary sources from which the textbook narrative was constructed. And they frequently use a passive voice, creating the appearance that historical events were inevitable, not contingent.

But by providing a blank column at the center of each page — a space for students’ own words — the PRIME textbook diverges from the typical model of high school history books. It defies convention, making it possible for students to see that the textbook is not a sacred, inviolable source to be treated with deference, but rather a source to be examined, critiqued, and questioned. In doing so, this textbook presents opportunities for students to learn not just historical information, but also the complex process of historical interpretation and analysis.

The blank column quite literally provides space for students to engage in their own examination of history. A skillful teacher can use the space to help students consider: How do we know what we know about the past? What — other than that it is “ours” — makes one historical argument more compelling than another? How can we look beyond our cherished myths in order to examine existing historical evidence? How might we think critically about history while also honoring the stories that have come to define who we are? This blank space transforms the textbook from an account of what happened in the past into a tool for examining what history is and why it matters.

The layout of the textbook suggests that students’ analysis is central to the study of history. If Israeli and Palestinian history teachers adopt this belief — regardless of whether they teach from the dual-narrative book itself — then in the end, the textbook might effect the sort of change its authors intended, though by a more circuitous route. History education that provides space for students’ voices can help young people understand that they are not passive recipients but active contributors to an evolving historical narrative.

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Sivan Zakai is a curriculum consultant and lecturer at the Fingerhut School of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

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