DevMode
As a veteran teacher of history and civics, I have had many years of experience in teaching the Israeli-Arab conflict in high school. Formally, this subject is part of the high-school curriculum in Israeli schools. The obligatory one-year course in modern Jewish history includes some aspect of Jewish-Arab relations during the years of the British Mandate and the Israel-Arab wars of 1947-49, 1956, 1967 and 1973. For some ten years, the civics curriculum even included an elective but lengthy course called "The Israeli-Arab Conflict," which used Zionist, Palestinian and Arab sources.
In the Jewish Jerusalem school where I teach, there can be between 30 and 40 pupils in a class. In our educational structure, a class is not only a framework for learning but also a social micro-community. As a group, the students are quite heterogeneous in their background - the homes they come from, the socioeconomic position of their families, the political climate in which they grew up, their learning ability, and their intellectual horizons. Since this is neither an elitist school nor one in a distressed area, there is something of "the average Israeli" in the student body. The conflict is studied in the eleventh or twelfth grade, just before the students complete their high-school studies and, for the most part, prepare for their army service.

Class and Teacher

My basic ideological premise in teaching is based on the classical Zionist concept that the Jewish people has always been connected by strong historical and religious ties to the Land of Israel, and this affords them the right to return to their ancient homeland and live there as a sovereign entity. No less important is my conviction that the Palestinians, too, have national rights in their homeland, including the right to self-determination and the establishment of their state alongside the State of Israel. Among other factors that, no doubt, influence my teaching are my orientations towards peace and my emphasis on the importance of the individual human factor in history.
It is my impression that in the Israeli educational system (at least in non-religious schools), ideological pressure on the teacher in actual classroom teaching is minimal. In all my teaching years, I, myself, have never been aware of any such pressure. However, I am not immune to the political climate in Israel. Various terms like "Eretz Yisrael," "Greater Israel," "terrorist," have great significance in the vocabulary of the conflict. Even though I personally reject this terminology, for an extended period I used the biblical "Judea and Samaria" rather than "the West Bank."
I made this compromise because I was wary of being labeled "a far-out leftist" by my students since I sense that such political tags are apt to block chances of the students' accepting any message from the teacher. On the other hand, I started using terms like "occupation" and "occupied territories" long before this usage became more widely accepted among the Israeli public. My aim was to make the students think by shocking them out of those generally accepted attitudes which they took for granted, and to force them to ponder the significance of what is widely considered as "conventional wisdom" in Israel.
For example, most Israelis do not see themselves as "occupiers," so that the impact of hearing a teacher using such apparently negative terminology opened the way for an examination of the real situation of the Palestinians under military rule/occupation. I am aware of the contradictions here (the use of "Judea and Samaria, for example"), but teaching is in reality a tangled web of contradictions, soul-searching, and compromises. One of the difficulties in teaching the conflict is that simple - often over-simplified - messages are more easily absorbed than complex explanations, even though the latter are more likely to approach the truth. It is easier to generalize about "Arab aggression" than to enter into the real complexities of Arab-Jewish relations over a century of conflict.
Two important characteristics of my classes must be taken into account. First, discussion is an integral part of instruction in both history and civics. Some lessons on the conflict naturally engender lively and even raucous discussion. However, this is conducted within the limits of what is called "the national consensus" in Israel. Voicing an opinion, even raising topics, outside these bounds are considered taboo and anyone expressing them is viewed as a freak. For instance, it would be taboo to express the view that Israel's "war of independence" in 1947-49 was a "Jewish war of expansion." Likewise, a student advocating the wholesale killing or expulsion of the Palestinian population as a way of ending the conflict would be met by a shudder of revulsion and shouted down.
Second, despite the danger of such generalizations, my extended experience leads me to the conclusion that a lower socioeconomic level tends to encourage more extreme views about the conflict and the advocacy of more violent solutions. As the base of the academic-bound student population in high schools has broadened consistently, and it now accounts for about 50 percent of those finishing school, one notes with satisfaction that there are more students from homes with lower economic levels. (The reference here is only to the economic aspect and has no connection to ethnic origin.) While this does not serve to make the teaching of the conflict any easier, it is only one facet of an important and inevitable phenomenon with which every educationalist is familiar: that most students bring into the classroom ready-made opinions culled from their home environment.

Difficulties in Teaching the Conflict

Ignorance: In the average Israeli classroom there is a striking degree of ignorance about the basic facts in the conflict, such as Israel's territorial gains in the 1948 war, the international context of Israeli-Arab wars, or the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem. In particular, there is much ignorance about "the enemy." Data on the population, economy and culture of Arab countries is extremely sketchy, even in the most recent textbooks.
For example, my students do not, as a rule, know why their city, Jerusalem, is holy to Muslims, which goes to show how unfamiliar they are with fundamental aspects of the past history and the present situation in the region. Moreover, before the Oslo agreement, students could only say "terrorists" when asked what they know about the PLO. This means that, although the PLO was constantly in the news they were watching, hearing and reading, these young Israelis knew nothing about the organization itself, its background and goals. (In its basic approach, the media still appears unable or unwilling to change this sad situation.) This kind of ignorance, naturally, leaves the student defenseless against negative stereotypes. Without being acquainted with the basic facts, real understanding is impossible. One cannot identify with the fate of another individual, and even less with a collective, if one knows nothing about their past, their problems and their aspirations. Not knowing means in effect not sympathizing.
False knowledge: From the "climate" of opinion outside the classroom - the mass media, including television, radio and the press; family; friends; politicians; the Internet - the pupil absorbs innumerable false or unfounded "facts" based on prejudice or ill will. The climate is, of course, also influenced by real current events such as wars, acts of terror or peace negotiations. Among the more prominent of such unfounded "facts" one can mention the following examples:
• All the Jews during the British Mandate period merely wished to live peacefully with their Arab-Palestinian neighbors;
• It was at the request of the invading Arab armies that the Palestinian population left its lands and its country in 1948;
• The bulk of the Palestinian population in "the territories" has nothing against Israeli rule but is "incited" to oppose it;
• The Israelis always offered the Arabs peace, but our outstretched hand was constantly rejected.
I am sure that a Palestinian teacher can provide a similar list of items of "false knowledge" among the students in his/her classroom.
Misunderstanding: If one looks at the conflict from the point of view of motivation, then ignorance and prejudice are certainly among the main factors behind the deep misunderstandings which characterize the relations between the adversaries. Consider, for example, the Arab claim that the Palestinians were the helpless victims of Zionist colonialism or the oft-heard Israeli mantra that the Arabs were, and still are, plotting to drive the Jews into the sea. Or one can take the frequent portrayal of the Arabs in the Israeli media, and even in some textbooks, as faceless aggressors rather than as human beings. One could provide no end of similar examples of hostility, buttressed by ignorance on both sides.
Such ignorance leads, as we have noted, to indifference and even revulsion towards another people with which one is not acquainted and with whom one has no real contact. From false knowledge develops a string of negative stereotypes whose common denominator is the tendency to demonize the Other, and to blacken his/her motives. Needless to say, stereotypes and demonization constitute a serious obstacle to that realistic analysis of the conflict, which should ideally be the starting point of the teacher in approaching this sensitive subject.
The Lack of a Human Dimension: The rational treatment of subject matter in history or civics, which is after all the professional inclination of any conscientious teacher, cannot overlook the emotional aspect of the conflict. An overly abstract approach may negate strivings by a student for accommodation with the Other, an accommodation that is dependent not only on rational factors but also on human contact and insight. But in our reality, it is still the tendency to which we have referred, to demonize the enemy in such a long conflict, which inevitably colors the teaching of that conflict in the classroom. Not only in the contemporary media, but also frequently in some older Hebrew textbooks,1 the student is exposed to terms like "bloodthirsty gangs," "bandits," "thugs," "primitive people incited to perpetrate pogroms against the Jews," etc. The constant, insidious demonization, which has become an integral part of presenting the conflict, proves to be a powerful agent in the dehumanization of the enemy.
The consequence of this distortion of the image of the Other is the perception in the mind of the student that negotiation and accommodation with such "creatures" are out of the question. In my experience the absence, due to this perpetual misrepresentation, of seeing a genuine human dimension in the Other is the greatest barrier to a realistic teaching of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Surmounting the Obstacles

Accepting the hypothesis that the desired object is to prepare the minds of the students for the possibility of accommodation, or even of real peace, between the adversaries in the conflict, obligates facing up squarely to the difficulties involved in the educational sphere. In one important aspect there has been tangible progress: in the presentation of facts about the other party, and even about the conflict in general. Regrettably, the chapter on "The Israeli-Arab Conflict" in civics has been withdrawn from the curriculum, but textbooks in history on the subject have been getting more informative and less tendentious. This is especially true of the new textbooks that appeared in the 1990s, for example, in their presentation of subjects like colonialism and the Cold War as the international context for the history of the Middle East. The teacher can also take advantage of the constantly increasing amount of authentic information available to the public, particularly in view of more contacts (and friction) with the Palestinians. Here, even tourism to Egypt and Jordan can help.
On the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox (the "Haredi") school system still persists in following a tradition according to which factual knowledge about the culture of the secular world is doled out only in meager portions. Where history is hardly taught, uninformed and extremist views on the conflict dominate the landscape. This is doubly significant because their proportion in the school population - about 15-20 percent - is increasing rapidly, especially in the younger age groups.
With all the importance of textbooks and educational policy, much still depends on the teacher. From my experience I can recommend to teachers that encouraging discussion has distinct advantages. Topics like "terrorism," "secure borders," "the fate of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories," are naturally raised in learning about the conflict and they provoke strong emotions in all directions. Such "emotional" topics should, in my view, be discussed openly, since the controversies and quarrels which erupt in the classroom are in themselves part and parcel of the educational message: that the conflict is between living human beings rather than a win-or-lose electronic game. In addition, the very fact that arguments and counter-arguments are aired in the open encourages the students to reflect during and after the discussion. Thus preconceived moulds of prejudice can be thought through and broken down.
It was not I, but one of my students, who initiated the most instructive experience of this kind in a classroom. At the height of the first Intifada, the consensus in Israel, and in my school, had swung to the right. A "leftist" student proposed conducting a class discussion in which he would argue for formal discussions between the State of Israel and the PLO, which was then outlawed as a "terrorist organization." I objected, sensing that in the prevailing atmosphere, he would be branded as an outcast in class. He insisted and I finally gave way.
His technique was to divide the students at random according to the seating arrangements. Each student would be asked to argue for or against the negotiations as convincingly as possible, and to the best of his/her ability, regardless of the arguer's real views. As I recall, according to where I was sitting, I provided quite convincing arguments against any recognition of the PLO. It turned out that the results of the voting that followed the discussion were quite unexpected. The great majority voted against the national consensus and for negotiations, and, of course, against the teacher. It seems that with each student facing the necessity of thinking through his/her position analytically, the consensus mould broke down and the students were free to reach their own novel conclusions.
Furthermore, in teaching the conflict, the teacher can, and should, consistently refer to the human dimension. This can be implemented, to a bigger extent, by adding to the dry historical facts letters, reminiscences, the words of popular songs, documents and other contemporary material. This approach incorporates the testimonies of eyewitnesses and actual participants in the events studied, through personal presentation, photographs, films and writings. The intention is to involve the students in the real scale of feelings which arose, let us say, in 1948 among individuals, Jews and Arabs alike, engaged in conflict and fighting: the fear of death before battle, the pride of victory, the thirst for revenge by the defeated, the anguish of uprooted refugees. On this sort of canvas, the adversary is presented not only as "the enemy," but as a human being with the same emotions as one finds in every individual. If in teaching the annals of war, one can in this way assure the human dimension, there is room for hope that the awakening of feelings of empathy will, in turn, lead to a deeper understanding of the depth of the conflict and, subsequently, to thoughts of accommodation.

'Peace Education' or Learning about the Conflict

It could be claimed that the emphasis on teaching about the conflict is self-defeating. Why stress bloodshed, hatred, prejudice and suffering if the numerous peace-oriented people-to-people peace education projects in and out of school set out to foster understanding, togetherness, tolerance and a peaceful future? I have nothing against different approaches to peace education, but am convinced that "short-cuts" won't have lasting effects: there is no alternative to "working through" the complex issues of emotion, hypocrisy and sheer falsehood which today surround the conflict. These are the foundations on which the perpetuation of the conflict is founded. Overcoming them demands that the educationalist encourages a broad and open discussion of the issues among the students as a necessary psychological basis for fostering better understanding. Then, indirectly lies the prospect that the message of conciliation will come as the natural outcome of such understanding.

This article is based, in part, on a paper submitted to the Georg-Eckert Institut in Braunschweig, Germany


1. See Daniel Bar-Tal's article in this issue, p. 5.

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