‘A clash between two just causes.” As a young student in Jerusalem in 1968, I can still vividly remember hearing that description of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the first time.
Not the forces of light against the forces of darkness, as we were taught in Jewish religious school classes, but two legitimate national movements wrestling for dominance over the same small piece of land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea.
A new study of Israeli and Palestinian textbooks, commissioned by the Jerusalem-based Council of Interreligious Institutions of the Holy Land, conducted by a team of internationally respected researchers and funded by the U.S. State Department, “Victims of Our Own Narratives,” finds that both sides generally present unilateral narratives that present the “other” as enemy. This situation, according to the study’s authors, is typical of societies in conflict.
At the same time, the study found that Israeli state textbooks — when compared to Palestinian and Israeli ultra-Orthodox texts — provide more information about Palestinians, less negative overall characterizations, and multiple examples of actions by Israelis against Palestinians that were criticized as wrong by Israeli citizens and leaders.
Dehumanizing and demonizing material, according to the study, is largely absent in both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks.
Despite getting better grades from the researchers, the Israeli Ministry of Education has repudiated the study. Serious questions about the methodology and results, from the ministry and other sources, certainly should be taken into account. Ironically, the PA, despite the poorer showing of its materials, apparently, has shown more responsiveness to the study’s findings.
This study must also be seen in a historical context — the ongoing 65-year struggle of Israel to gain acceptance by its neighbors. Truth be told, this has not been an entirely one-sided affair. Recognition of Palestinian national rights by Israel required an evolutionary process. Back in 1968, the PLO, fundamentally committed to Israel’s destruction, was only a few years old and at the beginning of what would be a decades-long history of terrorism.
Israel, at the time, was divided between those who wanted territorial compromise with Jordan and Egypt, in order not to be locked into permanent control over a hostile Arab population, and those who, whether for security or historical/religious reasons, believed that no compromise was possible especially with respect to the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).
A wide consensus existed across the political spectrum that an independent Palestinian state would pose a strategic threat to Israel and, therefore, should never be accepted. In fact, the late Prime Minister Golda Meir was quoted in 1969 as saying that there were no such things as Palestinians.
Fast forward to September 1993, and the signing of the Oslo Accords between Yitzchak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, which signaled, we had hoped, mutual recognition of both Jewish and Palestinian nationalisms and the need to find a way of coexisting next to each other in two separate states. Palestinian statehood was not explicitly called for in the agreement. But everyone knew this would have to be the outcome — with the permanent-status issues of borders, security, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem to be ironed out through negotiations between the parties.
Over the course of the last 20 years there have been many rounds of unsuccessful negotiations involving different sets of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. For most of this period — although there are exceptions — each side has accused the other of not being a serious interlocutor. But a parallel question we must ask ourselves is: what has each side done to prepare its public, especially the next generation, for peaceful coexistence with the other?
Textbooks are important. But the wider political and cultural context of what takes place outside the classroom is no less so. Most Israeli leaders since 1993, reflecting crystallization of a new consensus, have expressed recognition of the Palestinians’ legitimate right to national self-determination. Unfortunately, most Palestinian leaders, including the relatively moderate Mahmoud Abbas, refuse to acknowledge the right of Jewish national self-determination and tend to dismiss Jewish attachment to the land and holy places. In addition, incitement against Israel continues to be endemic to Palestinian media, summer camps and other arenas, such as the naming of schools and public spaces after suicide bombers.
The textbook study, however flawed, may point the way toward modest improvement in how both sides convey understanding of and respect for the “other.”
Perhaps, as both Israelis and Palestinians come to see the situation as a clash between two just causes, a door may open for historic compromise — and, ultimately, for peace.
Martin J. Raffel is senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.