Reconciling histories

Writers and educators in Israel have taken a significant step toward lowering barriers to understanding in the Middle East.

They are rewriting the history of their conflict with the Palestinians. This fall new, officially approved textbooks will be used in Israeli schools that will challenge many of the common beliefs about Israeli history. The texts will point out that rather than being the weaker force against the Arab armies in 1947, Israel actually had a slight military edge. The new books will acknowledge that many Arabs fled from Palestine because they were afraid and, in some cases, driven out. Previous accounts claimed that Palestinians left voluntarily in hope of returning with victorious Arab armies.

Correcting the historical record is never easy or without conflict. The move by the education ministry in Israel has had its severe critics; while some have agreed that the historical dogmas of Israel should not be immune from criticism, examination, or scholarly inquiry, others have insisted that more accurate historical accounts can only please Yasir Arafat and "the ghost of Joseph Goebbels." Teddy Kollek, former mayor of Jerusalem, wrote in a letter to the Jerusalem Post on Sept. 17, "Not only are history books being rewritten, but these publicists are diffusing their misguided ideology through the written media, on radio and television, and on every occasion presented to them."

For Israel, too, revising history has limits. Ilan Pappe, international relations department head at Haifa University, wrote Sept. 14 in Ha'aretz newspaper, "The most difficult question is how to confront the deportations, the displacements, the massacres, and the rapes? Who cared to interview the perpetrators of these crimes? Nobody dared to, even a new historian such as I."

It is natural that demands are being heard in Israel for Palestinians to revise their history to take a less demonic view of "the Zionists." Palestinians praise the Israeli efforts and argue that their own history needs no revision. For Palestinians, Israeli historians are now recognizing what Palestinians knew and experienced. Nevertheless, some Palestinian scholars are beginning to write more candidly about the events of 1947 and 1948 and the role of some Palestinians in undermining the positions of their own people.

Disputes over history textbooks are known even in the US, where issues involving the Civil War and the civil rights movement are not fully resolved. In today's emotional debate over evolution, biology texts have become historical battle grounds.

History establishes identities for peoples, states, and nations. The selective choice of events and their interpretation become the basis for patriotic myths and legends. In areas marked by centuries of cycles of violence, a historical narrative's starting point becomes critical. Does one begin with a group's last victory - diminishing demands for revenge - or does one exploit the emotions of the last defeat to create the atmosphere for renewed warfare? Does one dehumanize a people or individuals by searching for the most atrocious of past acts, or seek to put the emotions of previous battles in a more balanced framework?

Reaching a common understanding on history is essential in any permanent reconciliation in ethnic or civil wars. In Sarajevo, efforts to bring together Serbs, Muslims, and Croats in a single educational system have failed; students are segregated into ethnically distinct classes to be taught different versions of national history, art, and language. In the new Northern Ireland peace settlement, Minister of Education Martin McGuinness is a former activist in the Irish Republican Army. Already fears are being expressed by Protestants in that conflicted territory that history texts will be distorted by politics.

As states become more secure and confident - as in Israel and the new South Africa - citizens can confront the past honestly. It is more difficult in deeply divided states still struggling with their future. But, ultimately, the process of bridging divisions must start with reconciling history.

*David D. Newsom, a former US ambassador and undersecretary of State for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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