Independence or Catastrophe?
Teaching Palestine through multiple narratives
By Samia Shoman
This article first appeared in Rethinking Schools magazine, summer 2014.
Long before I was born in 1975, the course of my life had been drastically altered by history. When David Ben-Gurion declared the creation and independence of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, my identity as a Palestinian was shaped, along with the history of this region. Throughout my life, I have borne witness to and experienced the ways this day in history changed not only my life, but also the lives of millions of Palestinians and Jews all over the world.
My most recent trip to the region was in July 2013. As always, I felt saddened and overwhelmed as I reflected on what the events of 1948 had caused: an institutionalized system of oppression and apartheid in what some believe is historic Palestine and others see as Israel. This difference in perspective and personal truth is among the many factors that have kept the conflict ongoing into its 66th year.
In my teaching, I use an approach that exposes students to the idea that Palestinians and Israelis have different narratives about the same historical events. The approach encourages critical thinking and allows students the space and opportunity to decide what they think for themselves. At least in my district, it is an approach that has enabled me to build support among a broad range of parents, students, and Middle East scholars—even when I have been challenged by community groups questioning my intentions and curriculum because I am a Palestinian American who teaches the conflict in my contemporary world studies class.
Teaching the conflict takes courage. I write this article in hopes of encouraging teachers who are committed to social justice to take on the challenge. In this context, social justice means exposing students to Palestinian narratives alongside the Zionist narratives that often dominate textbooks. I use the term Zionism and teach it explicitly to my students. Zionism is the support of an exclusively Jewish state in Israel, along with the land that it claims should be part of Greater Israel. An important distinction to make is that not all Jews or Israelis are Zionists, and there are non-Jewish Zionists.
A Framework for Critical Thinking
Before delving into the history of the conflict and the experiences of the people involved, I spend time developing a theoretical framework built on four concepts: Fact, Perspective, Narrative, and Your Truth:
FACT: Information that can be independently verified; data that is generally accepted as reliable.
PERSPECTIVE: A particular attitude toward or way of thinking about something; point of view.
NARRATIVE: The stories we tell and/or believe to explain how a set of facts or events are connected to each other. Our perspective underlies the narratives we tell.
YOUR TRUTH: In this unit, we will use “your truth” as something every person creates for oneself—an interpretation of facts based on one’s own perspective.
I teach the students that facts and perspectives inform people’s narratives, which all lead to individual truths. Facts are pieces of information, data that are independently verifiable or agreed to by all parties. To take an example from world history, it’s a fact that the African continent was almost wholly colonized by European powers during the period from the 1800s through World War I. The dominant European perspective was that their contact with African indigenous populations brought the blessings of civilization and exposure to God to the “dark continent.” Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” is a narrative based on that perspective. The dominant perspective among African peoples viewed the Europeans as invaders bent on stealing their resources and destroying their cultures. Oral histories passed down about the spiritual and military leadership of Nehanda Nyakasikana in Zimbabwe, for example, are narratives based on that perspective.
I make the point that people come to their own “truths” based on their interpretations and memories of historical events. This helps build a space for students to feel safe reflecting on what they have been taught or exposed to in the past, and to be open to new ideas and information. It gives students a framework from which to understand the conflict, instead of one in which they need to choose sides.
This teaching framework is my attempt to address the histories of the groups involved. There are many people who do not see this conflict as having two equal sides, but exploring it in this way helps students make meaning of the history and current reality.
Before applying the fact, perspective, narrative, and my truth framework to Palestine/Israel, I have students practice with other historical examples, often based on a recently completed unit.
War of Independence or Catastrophe?
I anchor my Palestine/Israel unit in the events of 1948, although the historical background starts long before this, with the First Zionist Congress of 1897 and the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Later we backtrack to cover this history; it is important that students understand that Zionist organizations had plans to turn Palestine into a Jewish state long before World War II.
I present the 1948 events as both the Israeli War of Independence and the Palestinian Nakba (nakba is Arabic for catastrophe). It is through the events of 1948 that students get their most intimate understanding of how different narratives determine what people see as the truth. For example, my students learn that a Palestinian student in the West Bank or Gaza and an Israeli student in Israel will learn different stories about what happened in 1948. What those students learn shapes their beliefs about the legitimacy of the state of Israel. It is through this lesson that my students begin to grasp the idea of multiple and competing narratives as they read, watch, critique, and analyze text and video footage of things that happened in 1948 from different perspectives. As students work their way through the history, they begin to develop their own truth about what happened.
I ask the students to analyze a series of documents about 1948, including primary source accounts, secondary texts, maps, and photos (see Resources). I set it up as a jigsaw activity: Students work in small groups on one set of documents at a time, then trade them in for another set. The document sets cover the following:
A. Jewish and Palestinian narratives about what happened in 1948 (War of Independence and Al-Nakba)
B. The Deir Yassin Massacre
C. Israeli Declaration of Independence
D. Palestinian Refugees
E. Jewish Immigration to Israel
The first document contains two narratives of 1948, one from an Israeli perspective and one from a Palestinian perspective (“Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative: Palestinian and Israeli” from the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East). The narratives explain that clashes between Palestinians and Jews began quickly after U.N. Resolution 181 to partition Palestine was passed, and continued until an official war broke out on May 15, 1948, after Arab armies entered the newly declared state of Israel.
The Israeli narrative includes the following excerpts:
The war that began on Nov. 29, 1947, is known as the War of Independence because it resulted in the land of Israel, in spite of the fact that at the beginning local Arabs and then armies from Arab countries tried to prevent it. Local Arab troops and volunteers attacked isolated Jewish communities, Jews in cities with mixed populations, and the roads. They also employed terror tactics—all Jewish people, settlements, and property were considered legitimate targets. . . .
During the first stages of the war, Arab residents began leaving their communities in the land of Israel. The first were those who were well-off economically. The result was a significant weakening of the entire Arab community. . . . Most of the Jewish military and civilian leaders in the land welcomed the flight of the Arabs for political reasons (so that the future Jewish state would include as small an Arab minority as possible) and for military reasons (to distance a hostile population from the field of battle). Hagana [Zionist defense] forces began to deport Arabs. However, not all Arabs were deported and there were no high-level political orders to do so, although military commanders were given freedom to act as they saw fit. Thus the flight was due to deporting and frightening Arabs and because of their own fears without regard to Israeli actions. During the course of the war about 370 Arab villages were destroyed.
The Palestinian narrative included the following excerpts:
On Nov. 29, 1947, the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 181, which called for the partition of Palestine into two states, Arab and Jewish. This was the start of the countdown for the establishment of the state of Israel on May 15, 1948, and the 1948 Catastrophe, which uprooted and dispersed the Palestinian people. The Catastrophe was: 1. the defeat of the Arab armies in the 1948 Palestine war; 2. their acceptance of the truce; 3. the displacement of most of the Palestinian people from their cities and villages; and 4. the emergence of the refugee problem and the Palestinian diaspora. . . .
The destruction of 418 Palestinian villages inside the green line [pre-1967 Israeli border], concealing the landmarks of Palestinian life, and the massacres against the Palestinian people are the best evidence for the brutality to which the Palestinians were exposed. They were dispersed throughout the world.
Concerning the exodus, the Palestinians did not have the least doubt that it would be for a few days, after which they would return to their houses: “We thought that we would return after one or two weeks. We locked the house and we kept the key, waiting to return.”
Some 1,400,000 people inhabited Palestine in 1948. After the Catastrophe, about 750,000 Palestinians wandered with nowhere to go. Families were separated, the elderly died, children carried younger children, nursing children died of thirst. Suddenly Palestinians found themselves exiled from their homes, in an alien world that regarded them as a different kind of frightening human being—refugees! The international community did not focus on learning the reasons for the refugee problem and finding a remedy. Rather than investigating the reasons for the forced migration and displacement, all they did was to provide them with humanitarian assistance.
I have students answer a series of questions, including:
- What are the main differences between the historical narratives recounted by each side? Give two examples.
- List five established facts referred to in both narratives.
- How can the same historical event be known as a War of Independence and a Catastrophe?
“What are some differences between the two narratives?” I asked one group.
“The Israeli narrative says that lots of Palestinians left on their own, but the Palestinian story says they were forced out.”
“How would you describe the perspective behind the Israeli narrative?” I asked.
“They believe the land is rightfully theirs for taking.”
“They are coming to create Israel because the land was given to them by God.”
“They deserve the land because of what survivors of the Holocaust went through.”
“What about the perspective behind the Palestinian narrative?” I asked.
“The Jews came in and took their land.”
“They were already living there. The Holocaust wasn’t the Palestinians’ fault, so they shouldn’t have their land taken from them.”
I moved on to a group that was struggling to understand the two narratives. “Let’s start with established facts,” I suggested. “What are some facts that both sides agree on?”
“Four hundred and eighteen Palestinian villages got destroyed,” read Jorge.
“Do both narratives agree on that?” I asked.
“The Israeli side says 370,” Alex pointed out.
“So how could you express that as a fact more likely to be accepted by both sides?” I asked.
“How about: At least 370 Palestinian villages were destroyed,” suggested Elizabeth.
The group agreed that would work and moved on to find other facts.
The documents on Palestinian refugees include photographs and this excerpt:
A man from the Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon recalls what happened to his small daughter: I had a daughter—she was 3½ years old, and was separated from her mother during the fighting. Some people told me they had seen her going toward the Druze village of Yarka, so I went to look for her. I searched until morning but could not find her. In the morning I went up to Yarka. Some children played in the courtyard. I saw my daughter standing in front of a boy who was eating a piece of bread. She was hungry and asked the boy: ‘Give me a piece.’ The boy did not pay any attention to her. I came up behind her, hugged and cradled her in my arms. I couldn’t utter a word because of my tears. In just 12 hours our condition changed from honor to humiliation (Sayigh, p. 105).
Students worked in groups to respond to the questions attached to each document set. As I walked around the room, I heard a range of student comments:
“This whole situation is messed up.”
“How come people can’t just live peacefully together?”
“It’s so sad. What happened to the Palestinians who left their homes?”
“I don’t know if this can ever be overcome.”
The students had a hard time reconciling the experiences of Jewish people during the Holocaust—and the horror and sadness they had shared as we studied it during our World War II unit—with what they were learning about the Nakba. One of the most common questions students asked throughout the entire unit, often out loud to the entire class, was “How could Jews treat Palestinians without dignity or humanity after what they had experienced?”
When students raised this, I let them engage in discussion with one another and facilitated rather than answered, because I have no answer and do not think there is a single answer. It was an opportunity for students to dig deep on an emotional, academic, and critical thinking level to synthesize historical knowledge with their own perspectives on human behavior.
Students were actively engaged in text analysis and looking at pictures and maps, calling me over for clarification and discussion. They asked me if my family had to flee in 1948 or if I know anyone who did. I explained that my parents were from a village near Jerusalem, were young children in 1948, and were relatively safe; but that my husband’s parents were forced to flee to Jordan, where my husband was born.
Students stayed after class, came in at lunch, and hung out after school because they wanted to discuss the situation. My students always have a heightened interest in this unit because it is current, because I have witnessed it firsthand and can share stories, and most of all because it is wrought with human emotion, differing realities, and seems never-ending. This past year the level of engagement was exceptionally high. Perhaps that was because I had Palestinian, Arab, and Jewish students in class together.
To wrap up the document analysis, I asked the students to predict some of the results of 1948 for Palestinians and for Jews in Israel. What might happen next? How might different people have felt? The result was a T-chart. Students wrote:
- Palestinians would be unhappy their homeland was taken away.
- Palestinians would demand changes and want more land, continue to retaliate, and be scared because of the massacres and violence.
- Jews would be happy that their historical homeland became theirs officially.
- Jews would be happy about no more discrimination.
- Jews would justify their actions with their spiritual connections to the land.
After the document analysis, I asked students to apply the framework and their historical understanding to designing a fact, perspective, narrative, and your truth poster for 1948. I had students number off by twos and assigned them to either the War of Independence or the Nakba. As with all student work, there were differing depths of understanding reflected in what students turned in. A high-performing student’s work on Israel’s Independence included the following excerpts:
Fact: The Jewish and Arab people fought a war against each other after tension arose between the two. In 1948, Israel was formed and gained its independence. After the creation of Israel, the Jewish immigration rate increased.
Palestinian refugees being trucked out of their village, circa 1948.
Perspective: The Jewish people believed they had a “natural and historic” right to Palestinian land due to their religious history. Once they gained control of Israel, any Palestinian resistance was seen as a threat that must be dealt with because Arabs were trying to interrupt the land that rightfully belonged to the Jews.
Narrative: Jews were tortured and unaccepted in Europe during the time of the Holocaust. After the Holocaust, Jews were displaced and not united with one another. They saw hope in a land that was full of their history. Families of all ages packed up their belongings and began the journey to Palestine in hopes of settling into new homes.
My truth: Even though the Jews needed a stable home after the devastation they had been put through in Europe, I believe that they didn’t have the right to completely take over land that belonged to another group of people. The Jews should have made a civil compromise with the Arabs before heading to war and pushing them out of their own homes.
In contrast, a hardworking and engaged student with low literacy skills wrote the following about the Nakba:
Fact: Palestinian villages were erased, although the exact number is disputed. After Israel was created, Arab armies invaded. Palestinians ran away from their homes and had to go to refugee camps.
Perspective: The Israeli “independence” is nothing but a catastrophe for us.
Narrative: The Jews made us go to refugee camps and we attacked their villages. Also, more than 300 of our villages were taken over. They came and took our land, killed, and violated rights. We are stuck living in poorly set up camps while they are sleeping in our homes.
My truth: I know that Jews needed a place to stay and the only place they wanted to go was Palestine because it was their birthplace but it was kind of mean of them to go to Palestine and just kick out the Palestinian people because what the Jews went through before was now happening to Palestinians—they had nowhere to go and were living in tents and it was a bad situation for them.
I am fortunate to have six weeks for this unit in a two-year world history cycle, so we continued on to study key historical events and issues. I included the First Zionist Congress, the Balfour Declaration, the 1967 and 1973 wars; the first and second Intifadas and other Palestinian resistance efforts; the Oslo Accords and Camp David negotiations; Israel’s security apparatus; the building of the separation wall/security barrier; the effects of the occupation on Palestinians and the effects of the conflict on Israelis; 2008–09 events in the Gaza Strip; and recent political, economic, and social developments (e.g., the current Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strikes).
The final assessment for the students was participating in a highly structured U.N. conference on solving the conflict based on current facts and the situation on the ground. Never have I seen my students work so hard, become so frustrated by humanity, but be so proud that they were trying to resolve something so difficult and necessary.
To give students a chance to share their personal reactions to our study, after the U.N. conference I asked them to use any medium of their choice (art, poetry, video, collage) to represent what they felt or believed about what they learned during the unit. It could be focused on one particular piece of content, such as the wall/security barrier, or on the entire conflict. The work students turned in was diverse and creative.
Teaching Palestine Is Possible
The impact of May 14, 1948, stretches far beyond those directly affected or tied to the region by ancestry and/or religion. The events of that year set off one of the longest conflicts between two peoples in modern world history, making it an educational obligation to those of us teaching contemporary world studies and modern world history. Yet this responsibility has largely been unfilled. It’s true that the typhoon of controversy that swirls around this issue can draw the attention of parents and community members to your curriculum and teaching practices, although what you teach the rest of the year is ignored. The possibility of scrutiny and criticism has dissuaded educators from teaching the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for years, or led them to teach a watered-down version that does not reflect all experiences and voices.
But teaching Palestine is both possible and ultimately rewarding. I have seen my students flourish as they think, question, and engage. I feel validated that I have helped instill a sense of urgency and humanity in them. That student engagement, strengthening their ability to draw their own conclusions about arguably the most urgent situation in the world, inspires and motivates me to keep teaching about Palestine. I hope that I never lose my courage.
Shoman, Samia. “Teaching Palestine/Israel: A Multiple Narratives Approach” (includes unit plan and all teaching materials).
Adwan, Sami, Dan Bar-On, and Eyal Naveh. 2012. Peace Research Institute in the Middle East. Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel/Palestine. The New Press.
Sayigh, Rosemary. 2007. Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries. Zed Books.
Samia Shoman has taught high school social studies in the San Francisco Bay Area for almost 20 years.