Blog: Teaching conflict history

Published: 28 Nov 2019

Author: Joshua Hillis
Blog: Teaching conflict history

The history of conflicts in the Middle East has many lessons for school pupils

Recent conflicts in the Middle East are little understood by secondary school students. The subject is poorly taught and students rely instead on the internet for their knowledge. Their teachers are scared to teach such controversial historical topics, because they are vulnerable to criticism, and they have few resources and - more importantly - no clear methodology for doing so.

To remedy this problem, Parallel Histories, an educational charity, organised a pilot initiative in the autumn of 2018. Muslim and Jewish students debated contested historical narratives of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Arguing for the side they would ‘normally’ be less sympathetic to and then working together with students of other faiths energised the students; the workshop produced a frisson that broke down any initial distance between the students, while the development in the analysis of evidence and debating skills was conspicuous. The conflict seemed to be a ‘forbidden fruit’: a topic that the students described as more relevant to their lives than the focus of other interfaith work on worship, belief or holy texts; and yet they felt discouraged from talking about the conflict for fear of disrupting other interfaith work.

"Sensitivity does not just justify shying away- especially when the benefit is better educated and equipped future citizens."

As Assistant Editor for Parallel Histories, I applied for a Churchill Fellowship in order to test further the methodology of debating the contested histories of conflict. Travelling in Israel and the Palestinian territories offered an ideal opportunity to learn from similar projects in the countries most affected by this conflict.

My travels actually confirmed that the methodology of the pilot initiative is on the right track. Governmental and social pressures constrain discussing or debating the conflict in interfaith work and schools in both Israel and Palestine. Such constraints were a frequent source of frustration for Israeli and Palestinian teachers I spoke to. Failure to engage with these conflicts left participants in interfaith work without a framework for understanding how these conflicts relate to such work.

I am convinced that British interfaith organisations and schools should be learning from this frustration. These conflicts are relevant to members of religious communities. The effectiveness of encouraging relations between religious communities can only be enhanced by engaging with such conflicts. My Fellowship travels made apparent the need for such discussion of conflicts to be sensitive to the situations of participants: heavy-handed or naive demands to engage with ‘the other’ frequently caused the failure of projects. Yet sensitivity does not just justify shying away- especially when the benefit is better educated and equipped future citizens.

History may be the best means of doing so. I found that Israelis feature in Palestinian historical narratives as the villains, and so do Palestinians in Israeli narratives. The ‘other’ group is the constant force that has prevented one group reaching what they perceive to be the ideal situation in the present. History divides: how can you form a shared identity with those you believe to have produced the present conflict?

It is in this sense that history offers an ideal means for engaging with contemporary conflicts in schools. Study of history demonstrates to students that the past did not necessarily have to lead to our current present. Therefore history gives students a sense of the openness of the present. Furthermore contested history necessarily leads students to engage with a variety of views. It draws them from any opinion bubbles they may occupy on social media, with substantive knowledge of competing views on a conflict. The aim is not to change opinions but to widen students’ range of sympathy for those of different identities. Students learn how historical narratives are constructed, how evidence is manipulated in national stories. Contested history is an ideal methodology for teaching disciplinary knowledge: the understanding of how each discipline searches after knowledge.

Since my return to the UK, I have continued to examine the effectiveness of this methodology of teaching contested history. Parallel Histories has expanded the pilot initiative to include 20 schools, grouped in a Lancashire cluster and a London cluster. In addition to helping with this expansion, I have focused on applying the methodology to conflicts other than Israel-Palestine conflict. The first conflict has been the conflict between Hamas and Fatah (the two rival Palestinian political parties). By the time you read this, the next will be the conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Beyond that, I aim to look at the history of Jerusalem, according to Christian, Jewish and Muslim narratives of the city.

I hope that my fellowship will encourage schools, particularly faith schools, to study the Israel-Palestine conflict and other conflicts that divide communities in the UK. Such study has the very real potential to break down boundaries. It teaches students to evaluate arguments and evidence critically, how to debate contentious topics robustly and respectfully. Students will be better able to navigate social media bubbles and handle emotional, divisive topics.

Read Joshua's report

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