Tsafrir Goldberg, a post-doctoral fellow at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, conducted an experiment in which he tested how different teaching techniques can influence students to think differently about the Palestinian refugee problem. His study, titled “Can’t Hold the Past From Both Ends: Jewish and Arab-Israeli Students Learning a Controversial Inter-Group Historical Issue,” documents how alternative and conventional teaching techniques can influence students with competing historical narratives on a very sensitive issue. The experiment is significant in that it shows just how critical a role national identity plays in affecting students’ learning and framing their perspectives.
Prior to the experiment, Tsafrir interviewed and administered a written test to the two adolescent groups. He asked the group three questions: (1) What were the causes of the 1948 war? (2) What caused hundreds of Palestinians to leave the area which became Israel? (3) Who is responsible to the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1948? The results of the test were not surprising: both sides exhibited two competing narratives that were fueled in part by bias and in part by ignorance. While Jews have celebrated the historical event as Yom Hatzma’ut, or “Independence Day,” Palestinians mournfully call it “Naqba,” or destruction. Yet the experiment showed that Arab students were more glorified by their national identity and overwhelmingly blame Israel. On the other hand, Israeli students seemed more open to complex narratives and did not completely reject responsibility. In fact, more than half, about 55%, accepted responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem.
Tsafrir believes these biases are reinforced by one-sided narratives during their formal education. He finds that Israeli textbooks do not incorporate the “other side,” the Palestinian perspective, nor the Palestinian textbooks the Israeli perspective. Besides ignoring Palestinian scholars and sources on the Palestinian refugee problem, a more subtle tactic utilized by the Israeli ministry of education is to prohibit the use of the word “narrative” in regard to the Israeli perspective. This is because “narrative” implies subjectivity. However, it does not prohibit the word from being used in regards to the Palestinian perspective. Therefore, the Israeli perspective is cloaked in certainty while the Palestinian perspective is subjected to scrutiny and critique.
The heart of Tsafrir’s experiment was employing three different teaching techniques and then recording their effect on the student’s perspective of the Palestinian refugee problem, specifically, the change in attribution of responsibility to Jews. The first method of teaching is the conventional “authoritative” approach, which is reading comprehension based and exam-oriented. This approach is the common method applied in Israel schools and promulgated by the Israeli ministry of education. In the experiment, this approach caused Jews to reduce their responsibility and Palestinian students to attribute more responsibility on the Jews. Tsarfrir explains that each group was responding to threatening information in the way that would best protect their national identity.
The second approach is the “empathetic” approach which is dual-narrative based and reconciliation-oriented. The approach is concerned more with feelings and values such as empathy, and is not so much truth-oriented. In the experiment, this approach caused both Jews and Arabs to reduce their responsibility on the Jews. In fact, Tsafrir observed that both sides referred less to responsibility in general than showing greater sensitivity to the other sides’ perspective.
The third approach is the “critical” approach which is practice-oriented, critical inquiry based, and incorporates multiple identified sources subject to evaluation. In the experiment, Arabs maintained their original high attribution of responsibility on Jews but surprisingly, Jews greatly increased responsibility. Tsafrir believes this method is significant in that it helped Jews overcome expected identity bias.
Tsafrir is highly opposed to the first approach, the “conventional” approach espoused by the Israeli Ministry of Education. Instead, Tsafrir advocates for a mix between the second and third approach in which a dual narrative is present and emphasis is placed on being sensitive to the other side. Tsafrir’s goal is to for students to be able to embrace and appreciate the “other side” on a charged historical issue. Also, students should be able to encounter unflattering historical evidence that portrays their nation in a negative light but still maintain a positive national identity. Not to mention that studying both sides is beneficial in that it allows students to become critical learners adept at conflict resolution: it encourages understanding and prevents ignorance.
Tsafrir is both a textbook author and editor and has been involved in Israeli education reform since 2009. One of his textbooks, which incorporated a dual narrative, has been censored by the Israeli Ministry of Education. He hopes that the result of his experiment, which showed that a teaching method based on dual narrative helps students overcome their identity biases, will influence policy makers to embrace the dual narrative method.