To Get on the Same Page
By Joanna Chen
Sami Adwan is the very model of a soft-spoken professor. He measures his words, and listens carefully to what others have to say. Yet while pursuing an education Ph.D. at the University of San Francisco in the 1980s, Adwan not only refused to listen to Jewish students, he says he dropped out of classes if he knew they included Jews. A Palestinian born in the village of Surif, near Hebron, Adwan had grown up under the shadow of the Israeli occupation, hearing tales from his father and grandfather of how Jews had seized the family's orange groves and wheat fields in 1948. Returning to his homeland with his degree, Adwan joined the then outlawed Fatah Party and was thrown into an Israeli jail in 1993.
That was his real education. While awaiting charges, Adwan overheard two Israeli soldiers arguing over whether he should be made to sign a document in Hebrew that he couldn't read. Shocked to hear one of his enemies defending his rights, Adwan decided that he had some things to learn about the Jewish nation.
So much of the gulf in understanding that plagues the Middle East has to do with the willful disregard for the other's point of view. Israelis refer to the 1948 conflict that gave birth to their nation as the War of Independence; Palestinians know it as the Nakba, or Catastrophe. What Israelis call "the riots of 1920"—when Palestinians attacked Jewish neighborhoods around Jerusalem and Jaffa—are termed "the popular uprisings" by the other side. Adwan, a lecturer at Bethlehem University, has spent much of his professional career trying to bridge this gap.
Together with Dan Bar-On, a social psychologist at Ben Gurion University in southern Israel, he now codirects the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME). Since 2002 the group has produced three booklets for use in Palestinian and Israeli high schools that force each side to confront a contradictory vision of history. Each page is divided into three: the Palestinian and Israeli narratives and a third section left blank for the pupil to fill in. "The idea is not to legitimize or accept the other's narrative but to recognize it," Adwan says. "The [historical] dates may be the same, but the interpretation of each side is very different."
Side by side, the divergent world views are striking. Zionism is described in the Israeli column as "a result of ... the continuation of anti-Semitism [in Europe], the inspiration of other national movements, and the continual connection of the people of Israel to the land of Israel." It bears little resemblance to the "imperialist political movement that bestowed a nationalist characteristic to the Jews" known to Palestinians.
Educators in other conflict-ridden societies are taking notice. Last year the Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at Skopje University in Macedonia published their own parallel Macedonian-Albanian narratives based on PRIME's model. "If the Israeli and Palestinian teachers managed to overcome the incredible gap between themselves, we can do it here," says Skopje University professor Violeta Petroska-Beska. In France, which suffers from its own tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, the PRIME booklet "Learning the Other's Narrative" has sold more than 23,000 copies. It's also been translated into English, Spanish, Italian, Catalan and Basque, and later this year will be produced in German. American educators in Virginia and Philadelphia have expressed interest in introducing the narratives into classes on conflict resolution.
Closer to home, however, the text has had a harder time. "When we established PRIME in 1998, we thought peace was around the corner," says Adwan. "Today both Dan and I know it was wishful thinking." Shortly after the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, Bar-On and Adwan found themselves standing on different sides of an Israeli checkpoint near Bethlehem, begging soldiers to let them shift a couple of yards closer to each other so they could discuss the project. In 2004, right-wing Israeli Education Minister Limor Livnat threatened teachers with disciplinary action if they used the booklet. One West Bank teacher has given lessons in her house for fear of reprisals and another, from a refugee camp near Jerusalem, was threatened by colleagues and parents for teaching what they called "normalization under occupation."
Asked whether the booklets will ever be a part of the local school curriculum, Adwan shakes his head slowly, shrugs and looks out his office window. From there he has a fine view of the wall that snakes between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, dividing Israel from the West Bank.