You often hear adults say ‘they are too young’, when discussing children and youth learning about the historical narrative of the ‘other’ side. The subject of historical narratives in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of the most important stages of reconciliation. Yet, adults are very reluctant to expose children to this vital stage. I often teach mixed groups of teachers and principals about how important it is to learn about the historical narrative of the other side as it can provide a breakthrough in the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis, and a huge step forward.
As important as this subject may be, it is extremely difficult to do. Historical narratives are anchored in our personal and collective identity. They shape the reasons why we are here and why we pay such a high price in the conflict.
So this provokes the question, when should we teach our children and youth about the other side’s narrative? A common reply from some people is that they should first learn about their own narrative before the others narrative. For if not, children and youth will be confused about their own identity and narrative. How will they defend their narrative and identity if they are not confident in their own position? Moreover, they may even join the other side and lose their loyalty.
However, our identities and historical narratives are not created in a vacuum, for we understand ourselves in relation to those who are different than us. We cannot understand ourselves without the others. But if you do not meet, see or talk to the other, it is easy to fall into the trap of dehumanizing the other in order to maintain our own historical narrative and identity. We are the good, rational, enlightened, and modern, while they are evil, irrational, backward and ancient. This dynamic not only affects how we understand people outside of our group, but the people within our group who are slightly different, as well. Just as we dehumanize the other, we can dehumanise our own inner-group people who are deviant. Because of this, we can respond to both groups (the other and our subgroup) who threaten our identity, ideology, historical narrative and religion, with hostility and violence. Unfortunately, in some schools in Israel and Palestine, this distractive dimension exists. Our curriculums teach us that we are always right and just from such an early age, and the other is the opposite. That is to say, we already construct the other in our historical narrative and identity in a negative, racist and prejudice manner.
Many people say that education is the way to enlighten people, help them to excel, and make them more open minded and tolerant. But, as a matter of fact, we have learned at Musalaha that the educational sphere can be used as a tool to control society. It can reinforce the binary understanding of us and them, and create division, negative feelings and even violent action. In some countries, where military service is mandatory, the military is an inseparable component of the education system. Military personal are even sent to recruit and teach about the importance of the military at schools. The education system is not the solution, but it can be. We need to critically construct our curriculums in relation to other people around us and be careful how we talk about the other side. This change should not only happen in schools, but in our homes. A place with even greater influence.
As we have raised our 4 boys, my wife and I have deliberately tried to expose them to different cultures, languages, religions and ways of life. As they grew, it did not diminish their identity nor historical narrative. On the contrary, it has given them the tools to interact with different people in different contexts in a positive manner. It has given them the ability to better discern in life and to understand the conflict in Israel/Palestine to a greater extent. Our children are more ready to engage with the other than we are.
Musalaha Executive Director — Salim J. Munayer