Israelis and Palestinians: Getting Their Stories Straight


“What we’re talking about is the disarming of history, where the teaching of history no longer feeds the conflict.”

— Dr. Dan Bar-On

Many have observed – and I agree – that the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the collision of two very different national liberation movements, each with equally compelling claims to the same land. I would additionally argue that embedded within these respective claims is a characteristic use of history and memory. Israelis and Palestinians have created, in a sense, parallel mythic “narratives” – fundamentally different collective responses to the same historical events.

One oft-cited example: the 1948 War of Independence represents for Israelis the moment the Jewish People realized their centuries-long yearning to be a free nation in their ancient homeland. For Palestinians, however, this event is referred to as “The Catastrophe,” (or al-Nakba in Arabic) and represents the moment 750,000 Palestinians became refugees exiled from their homeland.

The exploration of parallel narratives is central to an important new curriculum for Israeli and Palestinian High School students that is being developed by the Peace Research Institute of the Middle East (PRIME). School textbooks are, of course, a primary way to convey and instill a people’s national ideology. The PRIME curriculum, however, rejects a singular ideological view of the conflict through a singular ideological lens, choosing instead to juxtapose the parallel narratives of Israelis and Palestinians. To date they have developed three workbooks, exploring the respective histories from the Balfour Declaration to the first Intifada.

In a recent Ha’aretz article, Dr. Dan Bar-On (a Professor at Ben-Gurion University and one of the founders of the project) commented:

Our goal is not to build a single agreed-on narrative; that is a mission impossible…The goal is to get to know and respect the narrative of the other, even if we don’t agree with everything it says. Clearly this is not a process that will solve all the problems; many dilemmas will remain. But where have we ever heard of a Palestinian teaching about the Holocaust?

In USA Today, Dr. Sami Adawan of Bethlehem University (Dr. Bar-On’s Palestinian partner in the project) made it clear that mutual co-existence is the ultimate goal of the PRIME curriculum:

The way a conflict or history is taught in the classroom can either support that conflict or (support) co-existence…The project aims to break down the stereotypes and build nuanced understandings.

The PRIME curriculum faces many formidable challenges: it is not yet used on a widespread basis in either community – and not surprisingly, there is significant opposition in both camps to using historical pedagogy of this nature. Still, in the midst of an increasingly hopeless and intractable conflict, I believe efforts such as this represent a very real spark of hope. While it cannot be denied that our collective stories help us make sense of the world, it is also possible to become imprisoned in the exclusive “truth” of our narratives. It may well be that by honoring the truths of multiple narratives, we make the first step toward real reconciliation.

(In addition to the links above, I recommend a fine profile on the PRIME project on American Public Radio’s “Speaking of Faith.”)

1 thought on “Israelis and Palestinians: Getting Their Stories Straight

  1. Jordan Margolis

    Let’s be sure the narrative adds the fact that about 750,000 Sephardic Jews were forced to leave their homes and businesses in Arab countries, but were integrated into Israel and never lived in Refugee Camps (for 50 years).
    Also, let’s note that Coca Cola is refusing to pay a Jewish Egyptian family for the factory Egypt confiscated whichf Coca Cola now uses. See the recent New York Times story this week, which is timely for another Exodus from Egypt.


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