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Last Updated: Friday, 28 April 2006, 08:29 GMT 09:29 UK
Professors bridge Mid-East divide
By Martin Patience
BBC News website, Jerusalem

The year 1948 resonates with Israelis as the year their nation was born in blood during a war for independence against all odds.

Israeli-built barrier
The Mid-East enemies are not just divided by concrete and steel
For Palestinians, 1948 means something very different - the defeat of the Arab armies, the failure of Palestinians to establish their own state and the beginning of exile, when 750,000 Palestinians became refugees in neighbouring Arab countries.

The battle lines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict extend to the classroom, where the two sides' versions of their shared history diverge sharply.

Now, two university professors aim to change the way the conflict is taught, by exposing Palestinian students to Israeli history lessons and Israeli students to the Palestinian version of history.

The project is the work of Dan Bar-On, a social psychology professor at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, a city in southern Israel, and Sami Adwan, an education professor at Bethlehem University in the West Bank.

Teenagers are often highly emotional, particularly when it comes to the conflict, but teaching history involves being rational
Shai Meizlemann, Israeli teacher
Together with teams of Israeli and Palestinian historians, they have devised a series of booklets that set the competing versions of history side-by-side on the same pages for students.

The professors say the project is an effort to bridge the chasm between the two peoples. "The way a conflict or history is taught in the classroom can either support that conflict or (support) co-existence," says Prof Adwan.

"The project aims to break down the stereotypes and build nuanced understandings."

His colleague Prof Bar-On says: "What we're talking about is the disarming of history, where the teaching of history no longer feeds the conflict."

Differences on display

David Ben Gurion reads Israel's declaration of independence in 1948
Looking back to 1948 is very different for Israelis and Palestinians
Aimed at 15-and-16-year-olds, the five-year project produced three booklets, distributed in seven Israeli schools and seven Palestinian schools.

The first booklet, published in 2002, covers events in 1948 as well as the Balfour Declaration in 1917, when Britain, which administered the League of Nations Mandate over the area, declared its support for a "Jewish homeland" in what was then known as Palestine.

The Israeli version holds that the declaration was the "first time any country expressed support for Zionism" - the movement to create a Jewish state in modern-day Israel.

In the Palestinian version, the idea of a Jewish state in their midst was one concocted by foreign powers and first expressed by Napoleon in 1799.

The professors' booklet also shows differences over the first Palestinian uprising, which lasted from 1987 to 1993.

Palestinian history states that the violence began after an Israeli truck driver "deliberately crashed into an Arab car, killing four Palestinians".

Israeli history injects doubt by saying, "the Palestinians claimed".

'One man's hero'

Shai Meizlemann, 35, a history teacher at an Israeli high school in Kfar Saba, close to Tel Aviv, says the project touches on issues that are contentious.

"Teenagers are often highly emotional, particularly when it comes to teaching the conflict," he says. "But teaching history involves being rational and looking at the other side - and the project encourages this."

Palestinian refugee in Baghdad
Palestinian refugees are now scattered all over the Arab world
Professors Bar-On and Adwan say writing the booklets was often emotional.

"One man's hero was another man's terrorist," says Prof Adwan, recalling the intense debate about treatment of the Oslo peace accords signed by Israel and the Palestinians in 1993.

"Palestinians saw it as the starting point of ending the conflict, whereas Israelis saw it as the creation of peace," he says.

Recruitment drive

The third booklet of the series published this year looks at more recent events, such as the second Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. Israel blames the Palestinians for the start of the violence, attacking Israeli citizens and failing to live up to the Oslo accords.

The Palestinians say the uprising grew out of Israel's continued expansion of West Bank settlements, seizure of Palestinians' land and limits on their travel and mobility.

Now, the two professors are hoping to recruit more teachers to be involved in the project. They also hope the Israeli and Palestinian education ministries will approve the projects' booklets and their booklets will be widely available in classrooms.

Professors Bar-On and Adwan say they've become close friends through their collaboration. The events covered in the booklets are deeply personal for both, they say.

For Prof Bar-On, losing a friend in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war made him think about the plight of the Palestinians.

For Prof Adwan, once jailed for being a member of a political group declared illegal by Israel, an encounter with a respectful Israeli prison guard made him realise that "they weren't all the same".

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