“It is not a territorial problem; it is a narrative problem.” That is how Dr. Motti Golani of the Dept. of Land of Israel Studies explains the seemingly intractable nature of Jewish-Arab conflict over Jerusalem.
The “narrative problem” refers to how books, especially high school texts, teach Jerusalem. What do Palestinian textbooks tell about the history, religion, and culture of the city and its residents? What story do Israeli texts narrate?
Which story is more correct? Who has the true story? Each side asserts its own version and denies the claims of the other side, producing a mental barrier even when the literal wall has come down.
The University’s Jewish-Arab Center, adopting Golani’s definition of the problem, wants both sides to try to understand each other’s story. To this end, it has initiated an Israeli-Palestinian study group, made up largely of teachers, that is tackling the question, “Jerusalem for two peoples?” Golani is project director.
The first stage, he explained is to learn how each other’s textbooks approach the subject. Rather than jumping headfirst into the deep water of Jerusalem, the group first began speaking about Haifa, a city that prides itself on having a mixed community living in coexistence.
The vital nature of this and other such Arab-Israeli discussion groups was reflected in a statement made by Dr. Ibrahim Geries, outgoing head of the Jewish-Arab Center, who had been briefed on the workshops held up to then. “I hope the atmosphere you have in your meetings,” he told the participants at a dinner at the University held in their honor, “will be the atmosphere of the [political] leaders.”
The approach taken by the project received a nod of affirmation from Dr. Yair Hirschfeld, the University of Haifa lecturer who was an architect of the Oslo talks. Hirschfeld, a guest speaker at the dinner, stated: “Doubtlessly one of the most important guidelines at Oslo was not to deal with history. If you want to turn your back on 100 years of conflict, then you must look to the present and the future. It is not easy to agree on the past.” According to some commentators, he said, it was a decisive guideline.