Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue. Editors: Paul Scham, Walid Salem, Benjamin Pogrund. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2005, 298 pp, $23.95 paper, $59 cloth.

As the peace process in Palestine lurches along and cynicism grows about the possibility of ever having a just, lasting and comprehensive settlement, it is refreshing to come across Shared Histories, which is both hard-nosed and hopeful. Subtitled "A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue," this book is the work of scholars from three Jerusalem-based institutions: Paul Scham (the Hebrew University's Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace), Walid Salem (the Palestinian Center for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development), and Benjamin Pogrund (Yakar's Center for Social Concern).
In 2002, after three years of preparation, they convened Palestinian and Israeli historians and others to share views on Israeli and Palestinian history. Seven topics were chosen from 1882-1949, and a Palestinian and an Israeli each prepared a short paper intended to present respective views of that subject, which appear in this book.
However, there is more, as Shared Histories presents eye-opening dialogue by the papers' authors and others on what happened in the Holy Land from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries. In sometimes caustic interplay between the participants, both professional historians and laypersons show how the process of understanding can proceed. Unlike in negotiations, no agreement is sought in Shared Histories, but its reasoned disagreements can bring to a wider audience the elusiveness of peace.
This volume's premise is that intangible elements, especially the historical narrative of the two sides, make a difference in peace-making (prior to an agreement) and -building (after accord is reached). While the editors - the designers and implementers of the project on which Shared Histories is based - fully recognize and advocate the need for compromise in the tangible issues that divide their societies, they also believe that it is dangerous to ignore history.
The project was first called "Shared History," but a participant pointed out that it is more "Shared Histories," as two basic narratives of the past exist. This does not eliminate the possibility of a shared narrative, but that is not the editors' assumption. They believe that the narratives must be enriched by understanding the "other." This project developed out of a belief that Palestinians and Israelis cannot have peace without understanding - on a societal level - each other's "historical narrative." By that, the editors mean how, through history, a society understands itself and others - its coming into being, place in the world, and relationship to enemies as well as friends.
Conventional wisdom of Palestinian-Israeli peace-making sees discussing history as counter-productive. That point of view may be valid for ice-breaking negotiations, but after the ice has been broken, continued ignorance of historical narratives, whether by negotiators or the public, is dangerous to the success of the process. Failure of education by both sides to create public understanding of the issues means that both see the other in terms of stereotypes handed down through many decades of conflict; thus, understanding and the ability to create peace between the two societies remain lacking.
Academic history has a major role in unearthing sources of information and changing the narrative. Academics' debates bring out new viewpoints and perspectives, sources for other aspects of historical narratives, as few non-historians will spend years unearthing and grounding themselves in innumerable secondary sources. Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives emerge from struggle between the two peoples, thus reflecting each side's ambivalence about the other's national existence. When Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization formally recognized each other in 1993, over a century of conflict was not eliminated. One of the remaining problems whose importance was underestimated was the role of the accumulated history of both sides, a fact that highlights the significance of understanding the historical narratives in the context of peace-making.
Not surprisingly, each side was caught up in its own narrative. For example, in the Israeli view the 1993-5 agreements with the Palestinians represented recognition of Israel and promised ending violence against it. Israelis understood that their recognition of the PLO was a fundamental shift, but didn't see that the Palestinian narrative, encompassing such issues as Israeli responsibility for the events of 1948 and Arab suffering, continued.
On the contrary since most Israelis consider the Right of Return by Palestinians a euphemism for destroying the Jewish state, they believed that recognition of Israel's existence necessarily involved dropping the demand. Since few Israelis understood the importance of Return as a component of Palestinian identity and narrative, they assumed that it could be dropped. When it came back as part of final-status discussions in the late 1990s, Israelis were shocked. For Palestinians, peace without recognizing their suffering since 1948 was inconceivable, and indicated Israeli bad faith. While some Palestinians knew that there was no possibility of Israel accepting a blanket Right of Return, they were astonished that Israelis from the "Peace Camp" were intransigent on any acceptance of responsibility for 1948. They didn't comprehend that, according to Israeli narrative, flexibility on this issue undermined Israel's legitimacy.
The juxtaposition of solid scholarship with all-too-human debate on issues underpinning the question of the Right of Return and other hot topics makes reading Shared Histories especially relevant. Many on both sides of the conflict stick to their version of history while the globalizing forces of the 21st century economy threaten to pass them by. Of course, a long-term way of dealing with two narratives is to try to merge and even reconcile them. Most non-historians - and certainly some professional historians as well - see this as necessary and desirable. However, this project is based on the assumption that before any attempt can be made to merge them, the separate and in many cases contradictory narratives must be recognized and understood by both sides. Since both consider their legitimacy is under direct attack from the other side - by violence and many other means - respect for the other's narrative must be demonstrated as part of a peace process.
However, the editors stress that "respect by no means implies agreement" though this project - like much of the work on coexistence that they have been involved in for many years - provides a framework in which acceptance can take place. Contact with the other side, on both a human and an intellectual level, can show tangible proof of acceptance. Narratives are always modified through time; contact and acceptance can help move them in directions that include a respected place for the "other." Contradictions can be softened, helping to reject some of the conventions of peace-making, especially the notion that the only way that Israelis and Palestinians can get along is to stay apart. At another but related level, Truth Commissions in South Africa or in Central America exemplify the necessity of gaining comprehensive knowledge of developments, actors and victims in conflicts, so preparing for understanding and peace.
In the long run, Zionism and its antitheses will be overtaken by globalization, as nationalisms are diluted and become quaintly less relevant to daily life. Meanwhile, historical debate is important. In this respect, the commitment of Messrs Scham, Salem and Pogrund, and their collaborators, are noteworthy; and descriptions of a period in the history of Palestine, developed and discussed in the book, will help end violence. There are many events of great interest both before and after the period covered in Shared Histories, and the editors hope to cover further issues in a subsequent volume, which should be something to look forward to.