Israeli Professor Dan Bar-On is a psychologist – but the award-winning project he initiated is not geared towards how people gain insight into themselves, but into their bitterest enemies.
In order for people with years of painful and violent interaction to coexist peacefully, he contends, they don’t necessarily have to like or agree with each other, but they must understand their point of view and their view of the history between them. This can happen, he has found, when they really listen to each other’s personal stories.
“The idea is not that you have to agree with the other narrative, but you have to listen to it, to respect it and try to understand it,” Bar-On told ISRAEL21c. “You can’t de-legitimize it — if you want to live with the other side, you have to learn to live with their narrative.”
Bar-On, the Chair of the Department of Behavioral Science at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has harnessed this idea into an ambitious educational curriculum development project entitled ‘Learning Each Other’s Narrative,’ which he co-directs with his Palestinian partner, Sami Adwan, an education professor at Bethlehem University.
Last week, the project was awarded the prestigious the inaugural Victor J. Goldberg IIE Prize for Peace in the Middle East, of the Institute of International Education.
The organization, “commends your commitment to overcoming the barriers that divide the Middle East,” IIE president Allan E. Goodman said in a letter to Bar-On and Adwan, adding that their project “has demonstrated success in bringing people together across religious, cultural, ethnic, and political divides.”
The IIE, founded in 1919, is a non-profit organization engaged in the international exchange of people and ideas, which designs and implements programs of study and training for students and teachers, including the prestigious Fulbright scholarships administered for the US State Department.
The Israeli-Palestinian four-year project, launched in 2001, targets teachers and schools as a critical force over the long term for changing the entrenched and polarized attitudes on both sides of the Middle East conflict.
It is based on the premise that at this stage in their polarized history, there is not enough common ground for Israelis and Palestinians to create a bridging historical narrative. Therefore, Bar-On believes, in order to accept one another, students in each community need to know the other’s narrative of the same set of events and confront the historical perspective that shapes the other community’s sense of reality.
The goal is not to create a single “bridging” historical narrative that is shared by both communities, but to break down stereotypes and build more nuanced understandings.
It is an approach developed by Bar-On during the many years he served as a psychologist who worked with Holocaust survivors and their families and who interviewed and worked with descendants of Nazi perpetrators in Germany. Out of this work, grew a project which brought together descendants of Holocaust survivors and their German counterparts: the children of those who played a role in Nazi Germany. They listened and tried to comprehend one another’s narrative of the events surrounding World War II and the Holocaust.
“I brought together 18 members of these two groups in a dialogue group that lasted from 1992 till 2003. What I learned from that experience is that you have to work on this slowly and intensively, that the process goes through several specific stages,” Bar-On says.
After years of this work and seeing how it was possible to bridge different narratives, he became interested in applying the technique to Israelis and Palestinians — and the best place to do that was the classroom.
As a faculty member at BGU, he had already experimented in using personal storytelling as a route to expanding understanding of between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. His Jewish and Arab students were told to interview people from their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Then, as a class, they listened to the stories.
‘Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative’ takes the work a step further, bringing this approach to the high school classroom and formalizing it into a curriculum.
The program operates under the umbrella of an organization called PRIME. In 1998, Bar-On initiated a conference with a group of Israeli and Palestinian academics at a conference in the town of Beit Jallah near Bethlehem. The conference resulted in an initiative to encourage joint research projects aimed at furthering the peace process and created the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East, founded with the support of the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany and the World Bank.
But with the outbreak of the intifada in 2000 and the stalling of the peace process, the organization was refocused and the idea of creating a joint curriculum for Jewish and Palestinian school-aged children was born.
Bar-On and Adwan, the PRIME co-directors, put together a team of twelve Palestinian and Israeli teachers from Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and added two history professors, Prof. Adnan Massallam of Bethlehem University and Prof. Eyal Nave of Tel Aviv University to the team.
They decided to aim for the age group of 15-16 year olds, who would have already had experience studying history. Working together, the high school teachers and academics carefully developed and wrote the parallel historical narratives of the Israeli and Palestinian communities, focusing on specific historical events, from the Balfour Declaration to the Oslo Peace Accords.
The team then translated both narratives into Hebrew and Arabic, and then tested their use together in both Palestinian and Israeli classrooms working, as Bar-On puts it, “under the radar,” knowing that getting the approval of national educational authorities would be a political minefield, and merely seeking the cooperation of the principals of their schools.
Unlike other projects that are limited to revising existing Israeli and Palestinian texts, the project is aimed at engaging teachers on both sides in an entirely new collaborative process for teaching the history of the region. There has been much publicity and furor regarding the hostile content of Palestinian textbooks in recent years. The Israeli texts, while less incendiary, like history texts in most countries, “tend to demonize the other side, and emphasize the moral superiority of their own side,” said Bar-On, just as textbooks tend to do in most countries.
During the first year of the project, an initial version of a curriculum booklet covering three historical events was developed and translated into Hebrew, Arabic and English. During the project’s second year, the first booklet was tested in both Israeli and Palestinian classrooms and additional material was developed for a second booklet covering three additional historical events.
The third, final, comprehensive booklet will be “more refined,” he explains, reflecting the real-life feedback from the classroom, and a teacher’s guide will be developed to help future teachers who take on this challenging direction.
As the project is only half-completed, Bar-On and Adwan were surprised – and pleased – at being nominated for, and winning the Goldberg Prize.
The positive reinforcement is helpful in work that demands “a high level of ability to handle frustration with no immediate gratification,” Bar-On says, “There really is no quick payoff for this kind of work — you just have to believe fully in what you are doing.”
What is much more gratifying than prizes, he says, is the fact that the curriculum materials that have resulted from the project have been harnessed for Jewish-Arab dialogue work overseas.
“What we absolutely didn’t expect is that the booklet has been translated into Spanish, and Italian, and French. In France, 20,000 copies have been sold. It is being used as a tool in European classrooms with both Jews and Muslims in them. It is the beginning of a process that we think is original and worthwhile.”
When the project nears its completion, a professional evaluation of curriculum materials and teaching methods will take place, comparing classes taught with PRIME’s shared history booklet to classes taught by the same teachers using traditional texts. Evaluators will also study the effectiveness of methods and materials developed during the project to train new teachers.
If the project’s results are promising, a plan will be developed to expand the number of Palestinian and Israeli schools utilizing the PRIME Shared History Booklet and to gain official approval by the Israeli and Palestinian Ministries of Education to make the Booklet part of their standard curriculum.
Bar-On knows that this won?t be easy, and doesn’t even plan to make the effort if the peace process hasn’t progressed significantly.
“When we changed the focus of our organization in 2000, we decided to look to the future for the time when the peace process will be resumed. We thought that when this time came, we would be ready with a curriculum that could be quickly put into place in classrooms,” he says. “For now, we are forging a new way to resolve our issues, in a way that isn’t limited to exclusive and selective groups, but to a wider population, and has the potential to bring people to live together in a more positive way, not necessarily loving each other, but respecting each other.”
It is a process that one can’t depend on political leaders to initiate, he contends. Making an effort to understand the narrative of the other side in a historic conflict is a process that “politicians simply don’t know how to approach and deal with.”
According to IIE president and CEO Goodman, the committee that awarded the project the Goldberg prize expressed hope that the pioneering project will lead to future projects that follow the same model and “foster the deeper understanding that is necessary to build a lasting peace, and by recognizing your efforts, we hope to encourage you, and to inspire others, to continue on this path.”