What about Balfour? British students no longer studying Palestine-Israel

Sunday 23/04/2017
Ground-breaking resource. Michael Davies (seen on screen) working in conjunction with a team of students from New York University, Hebrew University, An-Najah, Oxford, Tulane, SOAS and with TouchCast and a British foundation to create Parallel Histories.

London - In the year marking the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a milestone on the road to the establishment of the state of Israel, British schoolchildren are no longer study­ing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that it precipitated.

Of the five exam boards for Eng­land, Wales and Northern Ireland, three have removed Israel-Palestine from their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) syl­labus since 2014. The Council for the Curriculum, Examination and Assessment said only one school out of 170 chose Israel-Palestine as a GCSE option.

“I suspect that many teach­ers feel uncomfortable teaching a topic in which they would have to play the role of arbiter in between two conflicting versions. Trying to take a stand on the middle ground when there is no middle ground is a precarious position,” said history teacher Michael Davies.

“Exam boards say they’ve dropped it because schools don’t choose it as a topic. Schools say they don’t teach it because there are very few textbook resources and publishers don’t make the resource because there isn’t the demand. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Parallel Histories, which was founded by Davies and bills itself as a ground-breaking interactive learning resource for students and teachers alike, aims to break that cycle, and reintroduce the study of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Britain’s schools. “The history of Israel and Palestine is fascinating in its own right. It illustrates so many big ideas, the power of religious belief, imperialism, nationalism and racism in its various formats,” Davies said.

“It’s a great opportunity to teach students the critical and analytical skills they need to evaluate the rela­tive weight of competing evidence, as well as develop an appetite to en­gage with very different interpreta­tions [of history]. I think those skills help to make young people better citizens,” he added.

Parallel Histories aims to equally and equitably present both sides of this divisive subject through inter­active videos exploring alternative interpretations of the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“When I’ve surveyed students about their preferred learning methods, interactive video beats everything else — podcasts, TV documentaries, popular history books and particularly textbooks. This technology takes teachers out of the firing line and allows them to facilitate classroom analysis and discussion of the two competing narratives,” he said.

The project’s interactive videos span three periods: 1914-22, 1929 and the Great Arab Revolt 1936-39. The next three videos will look at the first intifada, the story of Gilad Shalit and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and the six-day war. There are plans in the works to tack­le the war of independence/naqba, the Oslo Accords and the 2000 Camp David negotiations. Davies also plans to develop the interactiv­ity so that there are virtual rewards for those who explore both sides.

The project has researchers in Britain, the United States, the Pal­estinian territories and Israel whose job it is to present both sides of the subject. “I believe there is a lot of misunderstanding today regarding the conflict; people construct their opinions based on emotions and personal connections, without fully comprehending the complexities or historic influences,” said Israeli re­searcher Noa Shusterman.

A graduate student in New York University’s international relations programme and a Fulbright scholar, Shusterman praised the Parallel Histories approach of showing both sides of the story. “Learning about the history of the conflict from both narratives can provide students with a well-rounded perspective, helping them distinguish between facts and myths and also under­stand better the role of narratives,” she said.

Parallel Histories is being piloted in two Lancaster schools but there are plans to expand. Davies said he has received positive feedback from educational publishers but ultimately the decision must come from schools and exam boards.

“My plan is to generate buzz about Parallel Histories from the grass roots upward,” he said. “If teachers and students in the class­room use it and like it, that will cre­ate a demand for the subject to be taught more widely as part of GCSE and A level.”

There are also plans to translate the videos into Arabic and Hebrew so they can be made available to students in the occupied territories and Israel so that the inheritors of the conflict can study it for them­selves.

“It’s an area of the world where the history is completely lived and breathed. Sometimes you get the feeling talking to people who live there that the past is more alive to them than the present… and that for a history teacher is magic,” he said.

“Looking beyond that, I can see that Parallel Histories model is a good way to teach the history of any conflict while it’s still going on. The partition of India and Pakistan would be a good challenge… I’d also like to have a look at a parallel his­tory of race relations in the US, too, and maybe the Iran/Iraq war, as part of the Sunni/Shia divide.”

As for the Palestine-Israel con­flict, it is something that must be studied as part of history but it is also something that is lived and breathed today, Davies said, add­ing: “The last time I visited the mar­ket in Nablus and told a stall holder I was British, he wagged his finger and said: ‘What about Balfour?’”