London, The Arab Weekly – Michael Davies is a history teacher and he’s just been publically labelled a “Zionist propagandist” and simultaneously a “deligitimiser of Israel”.
His headmaster has been on the telephone to ask why the school has been getting complaints. Davies recently put his head above the parapet to make the point in an article in the Guardian that many teachers are put off teaching the history of the Middle East because it arouses such passion. The criticism, and the more than 270 comments attached to his article, confirm his point.
The reason Davies has been on the receiving end of all this flak is that he wants to introduce a new way of teaching the Middle East based on a new type of history book called Side by Side. Produced by Palestinian and Israeli academics, it features competing historical narratives, side by side, in their own languages.
While this project ground to a halt in the Palestinian territories and Israel, Davies is seeking to import the idea into Britain’s education curriculum because he says it would make it easier for teachers to teach and would attract Muslim students who, according to Davies, are on average only half as likely to study history as non-Muslims.
Davies, a teacher at the Lancaster Royal Grammar School, in northern England, recently took a group of students on a school trip to the Palestinian territories, Israel and Jordan as part of the Winston Churchill Memorial Fund. It was over the course of the trip that he stumbled upon Side by Side, which was written by Palestinian and Israel historians in 2000 as part of the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME) with US State Department funding.
Billing itself as a “breakthrough book that will spark a new public discussion about the bridge to peace in the Middle East,” Side by Side sought to provide an interesting dual narrative to the conflict. However, it was quickly rejected by both Palestinian and Israeli educational authorities.
“[Although] this has been impossible to use in schools in the area but could form the base of a new approach in the UK,” Davies said.
While the book in translation is taught in some 20 colleges in the United States, Davies wants to do more than just secure its inclusion in the British curriculum. He wants to expand on the philosophy behind the book and is looking for sponsors for a new interactive teaching resource.
“What I want to do is create an interactive web-based teaching resource which encourages students to learn the history of the area through exploring parallel and competing narratives to understand the historical origins of contemporary conflict,” he said.
“I’m hoping to create an engaging, authentic and wide-ranging website experience by using a variety of media and sources (film footage, oral histories, diaries, letters, opinion polls, music, poetry, popular culture,) covering many different voices (religious leaders, fighters, politicians, children) from both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as ‘outside actors’, e.g. USA, UK, [Russia], UN and neighbouring countries,” Davies added.
Teaching the intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict is no easy task. Any educational resource that helps teachers do that, in an interesting and dynamic way, is needed.
“[Teaching the Palestinian-Israeli conflict] is quite a difficult thing to do because it’s such a politically sensitive subject.
It arouses strong emotions among both Muslim and Jewish students and their parents and, as a result, teachers tend to shy away from it for fear of being accused of coming down on one side or the other or being caught in the firing line of conflicting claims and opinions,” said Davies.
“The problem in teaching this is that the history of the conflict is so fiercely contested. Put simply, the Jewish people tell it one way and the Arab people tell it another. What’s happened in the UK is that history text books which do cover the conflict tend to take cover in the middle position between the two narrative extremes and have, therefore, produced a watered-down account of the history, which neither does justice to the truth nor captures the fervour, rigidity and exclusivity of each side’s historical claims,” he added.
Side by Side and the accompanying website aim to change that, particularly as Davies will seek to find the few areas and topics where the Palestinians and Israelis do agree. “I want to create a bank of source documents [on the website] which are uncontested, i.e. both sides agree that the document is valid, and encourage students to test the narratives against these historical source documents,” he said.
As for his own view of the conflict, Davies is more reticent. “It’s impossible not to have a view but I want to keep it to myself.
Once one side or the other perceives ‘bias’ they stop listening and, since I’m a teacher, that’s the last thing I want,” he said.
This article was originally published here.