"We are here to address the problem that the history of the Middle East has almost disappeared from the UK school curriculum. Of the 250,000 students taking GCSE history exams this summer, only 1% will have studied Israel and Palestine."
"Why did we give permission for a school trip to Israel and the West Bank? The deepest question is: do we understand that the children we teach really will take on the world? It is a precious thing to be given responsibility for young people in our schools… because those young people will be entrusted with the future of the world."
"It is essential I think, that British schools do not avoid sensitive or difficult topics… Educating about the Middle East and about Israel in particular will ensure that young people have the knowledge and tools to see things as they are and to tackle misunderstanding and bias."
“It falls to us, teachers, to practice with professionalism and integrity; setting aside the bias that all humans possess and teaching with equivalence. We have an obligation to pursue truth and to provide our students with a balanced approach to history.”
Ben De Jong, JCoSS
"Anger stirred up by the left about injustice and fear propagated by the right about security filters down to young people: one student told our Israeli speaker that their hero is Hitler and another Student stated that the majority religion of Palestine is terrorism."
"The potential expansion of Parallel Histories into classrooms in different areas of the developing world suggests unprecedented possibilities for inclusion, giving voice to local stories distinct from the broader globalization dynamic – the stories of the silenced and the excluded."
"…it is impossible not to be biased but nevertheless we should be able to listen to the other side, and that’s what Parallel Histories is encouraging us to do from as neutral position as possible. And we need more teachers who are able to tackle these sorts of contentious topics in the classroom, so I hope that Parallel Histories achieves everything it has set out to do."
- Lord Turnberg, closing remarks.
After the talks were concluded, the audience were invited to ask questions. Below is a transcript of the conversation which followed:
Lord Turnberg: Only a very small number of schools teach the Middle East history and it’s hard for exam boards to introduce new subjects. How are we going to encourage more schools to adopt this as a topic and where are we going to find the teachers?
Dr David Lundie, Liverpool Hope University: Teacher education is in crisis, but at Liverpool Hope all our teacher trainees take a module called Wider Perspectives, although there is increasingly little space for this type of broader thinking in a narrowing curriculum.
Mohammed Amin, Curriculum for Cohesion: There is a natural market for the Parallel Histories product at schools with a predominantly Muslim intake. Those schools should be aware that their pupils care passionately about Palestine and that they have an obligation to teach it, and to teach it properly. The same could be said of predominantly Jewish schools.
Michael Davies, Parallel Histories: Although the government has promised to make no more changes, they could and should put Israel and Palestine back on the school curriculum.
Ian Black, LSE: I appreciate the need for approaches like Solutions Not Sides and Parallel Histories but what’s been missing from this discussion so far is an acknowledgement of the enormous imbalance between the two sides today, which has become a part of the problem, and within that context I noted that the JCoSS school trip had just visited Israeli and Jewish sites, and while the LRGS School trip had visited Hebron and Nablus in the West Bank, neither trip visited Gaza where 2 million people live. Surely that is a problem?
Lord Turnberg: I agree about the need to include the voices from Gaza but on a practical basis it’s so hard to get in.
Sharon Booth, Solutions Not Sides: At SNS we ask all speakers who come on our programmes to acknowledge the power imbalance between the two sides and it is also dealt with in the content of the programme itself, but in a way which is meant to help understanding rather than score points.
Prof David Feldman, Birkbeck: The study of History is the pursuit of the truth about the past which is different from the pursuit of peace and reconciliation and although I applaud your initiative should you be worried about muddying the waters?
Michael Davies, Parallel Histories: We don’t see it that way. Showing school students two competing historical narratives which agree on the facts but not their interpretation allows them to see how History is constructed. This is something you do at university so we are simply taking a leaf out of your book.
Dr David Lundie Liverpool Hope University: I don’t believe that academic rigor and wanting to understand the strongly felt narratives of competing groups or faiths is mutually exclusive at all.
Imogen Resnick UCL: My question is for Spencer Lewis and Ben De Jong. As Jewish faith schools, how can you begin to attempt to teach this topic without a pro Israeli bias?
Ben De Jong and Denis Antor, JCoSS: Our school trip did meet and hear from a number of Palestinian children and adults, and we do learn about the conflict in Y8. I recognise we are all biased in some way and the best we can do is be aware of our biases and work to be as balanced as possible in the classroom
Spencer Lewis, Headteacher Yavneh schools: Schools are really squeezed at the moment in terms of what they have been asked to do and the resources they have at their disposal; we can’t do everything so we have to consider what our remit is. In the case of faith schools our remit is to teach children about their own faith, culture, and history.
Sana Knaneh, LSE: Is all this just a study of the status quo, in which case should we be doing something more proactive to find a settlement?
Lord Turnberg: We won’t find a peace settlement here, all we are trying to do is improve understanding.
Lord Palmer: How far back do you go in your historical studies?
Michael Davies, Parallel Histories: It should be noted that the only GCSE course on offer runs 1945 to 1995 and given the constraints of the timetable, that’s where we have to focus. However, the course wouldn’t make any sense unless we gave the students a thorough historical background and that goes back millennia.
Nadine Sibai, UCL: Do you consider the roles that media and language play in the conflict?
Sharon Booth, Solutions Not Sides: All the students who participate on our courses get access on Twitter or Instagram to a newsfeed which collates news coverage over the previous week from a wide range of media outlets.
Dr Seth Anziska, UCL: I understand that faith schools may see it as their duty to strengthen ties of identity but when their students arrive at university they often times say they feel unprepared to think critically and objectively, but my question was, have you encountered difficulties at immigration in Ben Gurion with your school trips?
Michael Davies, Parallel Histories: Israel provides a list of the passport stamps which will cause a problem. Syria was on the list and we had a couple of students with Syrian stamps in the passports so we weren’t able to let them come on the trip.
Lord Turnberg: Thank you all for coming and contributing. This is a very difficult subject and very hard to get agreement on. Fortunately that’s not what we are trying to do, although it would be nice of course if it happened. The aim of Parallel Histories is to educate more people about a historical and current subject which often raises very strong opinions, sometimes based on incomplete knowledge. Of course it is impossible not to be biased but nevertheless we should be able to listen to the other side, and that’s what I think Parallel Histories is encouraging us to do from as neutral position as possible. And we need more teachers who are able to tackle these sorts of contentious topics in the classroom, so hope that Parallel Histories achieves everything it has set out to do.