History Education for Justice and Empowerment in Palestine

Palestinians have relied on education to maintain their culture, sovereignty, and dignity. In this article, we present the perspectives of two groups of 11th-grade Palestinian students on how and why historical discourse in school is critical for justice and freedom. One group argued that they should learn about how other nations lived, fought, stayed safe, and emancipated themselves from oppression. The other group argued that understanding national history is key to preserving history and culture.
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2022-20125
Language: English

Step into one of the most controversial realms where – in Palestine and Israel – history, religious entitlement and human rights collide. Listen to what a group of eleventh graders have to say about how history education can serve their missions for justice, freedom and rising out of apartheid.

Occupation, Apartheid, Oppression et al.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has a long history. Following World War II, politics led to the creation of Israel on a large portion of the Palestinian territory that had previously been ruled by the British Mandate. The 1948 Arab-Israeli war led to the Palestinian Nakba, which means “catastrophe”. Around 750,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes. This is the world’s longest-running refugee problem.[1] Following the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and occupied the West Bank (then under Jordanian administration) and Gaza (then under Egyptian control). Together, these areas are called the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).[2]

Palestinians have relied on education as their main way of survival through 75 years of dispossession and over fifty-five years of occupation, both as people and as a nation. Many Palestinians who live in exile want to use their education to help their home country regain its independence. Education is also an opportunity for children to learn to manage their emotions, be responsible and keep things in order. Education in Palestine gives children a sense of what they want to do in the future, confidence and pride.[3] Alzaroo and Hunt[4] maintain that Palestinians use education to deal with the military occupation. It is a way to gain self-determination for the individual, the community, and the future Palestinian state.[5]

Palestinians have a few places in the public sphere to talk freely about history; most public spaces are kept under surveillance by the Israeli government. There are very few spaces where children, adults, and the elderly talk deeply about politics, history, and justice. “It’s part of everyday life,” says one author of this article. The national curriculum of Palestine, including narratives about the past, is screened by Israeli authorities who also accuse Palestinian textbooks of promoting hatred towards Israelis.[6] Moreover, the way history is taught in schools and other educational settings is one place where Israel’s political oppression of Palestine is fought out. In Palestinian schools, conversations in the classroom sometimes go beyond what is on the national curriculum. Teachers and researchers in education are brave enough to start conversations and debates about justice and history.

In this article, we look at two arguments that a group of grade 11 students in Palestine made about how and what kind of talk about history can help bring about justice. In the eleventh grade Palestinian Historical Studies book, there are chapters about national liberation movements in India, Vietnam, Cuba, Africa, China, the homeland, and the Arab world. The purpose of these chapters is to describe what liberation movements are – except for Palestine, where people are still fighting for freedom and independence, building their own independent state, putting what they have learned to use, and getting better at being able to balance, explore, analyze, and interpret.

Comparative History for Liberation and Protection

One group of young Palestinians in the eleventh grade argued that learning about how people in other nation-states lived, fought, stayed safe, and freed themselves from oppressors should be a priority. This group of students illustrated their position by talking about three important periods in history: the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s leadership of the Cuban Revolution. For example, they explained that they could learn about ways to stay safe from the stories of how the Vietnamese hid in the forests and fought the enemy during their war against the French in 1954. They also talked about ways to protect themselves using the natural resources or environment they live in.

When the students talked about what they could learn from South Africa, they stressed the significance of bravery when fighting for independence and the heroes and martyrs who fought for freedom and equality. They said that the wall was similar to South Africa’s apartheid. The wall split up families and land. In a political analysis of the wall that the Israeli government build, Ibheis and Ayed[7] argue that the separation wall reinforces the oppression and occupation in four ways:

  1. Security, so that guerillas from Palestine cannot access the lands of 1948
  2. Political control, because the Palestinian state cannot be created out of scattered pieces of land, which makes it easier for the Israeli government to annex them
  3. Economic, to stop Palestinians from going to their farms and force them to leave
  4. Social control, which makes it hard for Palestinian towns and villages to talk to each other.

When reflecting on the Cuban revolution, some students referred to Che Guevara as an example of a great leader they had studied. They called him “an inspiration” for freedom.

These eleventh graders believed they should also learn about the similarities and differences between the apartheid in Palestine and struggles of oppression from other nations. By examining the diverse relations among various contexts of occupation, the students believed they would gain emotional support by knowing that “we’re not alone” and a sense of universality and “hope for liberation.” These students also said that they talked about the peaceful and not-so-peaceful ways that national liberation movements in other countries fought for their freedom. They then compare these ways to how Palestinians fought for their freedom against Zionist occupation during the Popular Uprising in 1987 and the Al-Aqsa Uprising in 2000. Some of the students explained how examining similarities and differences makes them feel they can live and interact with communities from different cultures, even if they speak a different language, are a different race, or believe in a different God. Indeed, comparative history is one curricular approach to fostering an empowering or enlightening citizenship.[8]

Sovereignty Through National History

The other group of eleventh graders thinks that school history should only focus on Islamic and Arab nationalism. These students believed that learning about this foundational part of their history and culture – or “our national history” – in school is critical to keeping their history and culture alive. The students stressed that learning about national history also helps develop an inner conscience that builds a love for the country, a feeling like “you belong to it” and pride of its civilization, achievements, and heroes. The student group argued that Palestinian history that shows “the culture of our people” presents the best evidence that Palestinians have lived in this country for centuries. They further stated that Israelis keep saying, “The old die and the young forget.” Therefore, education on the national heritage and religious identities is central to keeping the Palestinian culture alive and, during the occupation and oppression, legitimate. So, through education, Palestinian children will learn about the occupation and the battles that happened in Palestine, Egypt, and Syria.

The students also explained that learning national history “helps us figure out how to deal with them [the Israelis] in the future.” They mentioned many times how the Israelis’ war in 1967 was one of their favorite historical lessons they ever learned about. Even though the Arabs lost in the end, this “gives us hope that one day we will be able to get rid of the occupation.” The battle of Al-Karameh was another favorite lesson because it destroyed the idea of an “unstoppable army.” Learning about national history, as some argued, also teaches “not to give up, no matter how hard things get” and “makes a person more open-minded and knowledgeable about his country and history.”

They also said that national history education can encourage to follow in the footsteps of the heroes who came before them and have compassion for those who work hard, make sacrifices, and fight for their freedom and dignity. Since 1919, the Palestinian people have been living through revolutions, and hardly a year has passed without a major one. They noted that the most significant of these revolutions happened between 1936 and 1939. It was started by Izz al-Din al-Qassam, whom the Palestinian people consider to be a heroic figure and who died on November 1935. During this revolution, more than twelve thousand Palestinians died and more than five thousand homes were destroyed. Without a doubt, this legacy is based on the sacrifices made by the Palestinian people. Learning about this revolution, as this group of students argued, will give Palestinians the tools they need to serve their cause in Palestine in a deeper, more accurate, and more complete way.

Learning History for Freedom

Historical discourse in schools in Palestine is occupied and oppressed in the same way that the Israeli government has maintained a system of apartheid through the occupation of land that the UN considers illegal and surveillance of how people pray, work and harvest. Nevertheless, Palestinians continue to create spaces to pursue and maintain knowledge of their culture and sustain some form of sovereignty and dignity. Media channels document offensive attacks from Palestinian militias into Israeli territory and defensive retaliations when Israeli citizens and soldiers seize homes to expand the occupation or fire tear gas in the Al Aqsa mosque. Formal education, as this article illustrates, is one public space that the youth have found to also fight for freedom and transitional justice.

Discussing history in school is, apparently and potentially, one safe and critical space, despite whatever curriculum has been approved by the Israeli government. Although history education cannot change any historical events, children embrace historical discourse to learn from the past to change the present and plan the future.


Further Reading

  • Abu-Saad, Ismael, and Duane Champagne. “Introduction. A Historical Context of Palestinian Arab Education.” American Behavioral Scientist 49, no. 8 (2006): 1035–51, https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764205284717.
  • Alayan, Samira, and Naseema Al-Khalidi. “Gender and Agency in History, Civics, and National Education Textbooks of Jordan and Palestine.” Journal of Educational Media, Memory, and Society 2, no. 1 (2010): 78-96, https://doi.org/10.3167/jemms.2010.020105.
  • Masalha, Nur. Palestine Across Millennia. A History of Literacy, Learning and Educational Revolutions. Dublin: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022.

Web Resources


[1] BADIL, “On World Refugee Day. Palestinians Refugees Remain Deprived of International Protection,” BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, 2016, https://badil.org/press-releases/901.html (last accessed 23 June 2022).
[2] Lila Abu-Lughod, Remaking Women. Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).
[3] Ibrahim Awad Makkawi, Collective Identity Development and Related Social Psychological Factors Among Palestinian Student Activists in the Israeli Universities (Kent: Kent State University, 1999).
[4] Salah Alzaroo, and Gillian Lewando Hunt, “Education in the Context of Conflict and Instability. The Palestinian Case,” Social Policy & Administration 37, no. 2 (2003): 165-180.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Nadera Shalhoub‐Kevorkian, “The Gendered Nature of Education Under Siege. A Palestinian Feminist Perspective,” International Journal of Lifelong Education 27, no. 2 (2008): 179-200
[7] Hasan Ibheis, and Khaled Ayed, Am I not a Human (8): The Separation Wall in the West Bank (Beirut: Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 2013).
[8] Walter Parker, “Diversity, Globalization, and Democratic Education. Curriculum Possibilities,” in Diversity and Citizenship Education, ed. James A. Banks (San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 433-458.


Image Credits

Air Views of Palestine © 1936, Public Domain.

Recommended Citation

Barham, Kefah, Bassel Akar: History Education for Justice and Empowerment in Palestine. In: Public History Weekly 10 (2022) 5, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2022-20125.

Editorial Responsibility

Maria K. Georgiou

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Categories: 10 (2022) 5
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2022-20125

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  1. To all readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 22 languages. Just copy and paste.


    What is history, that we should be mindful of it?[1]

    “History education for justice and empowerment in Palestine” is an article that shares some of the findings of two groups of 11th grade Palestinian students’ perspectives “on how and why historical discourse in school is critical for justice and freedom.” Main points of the article can be summarised as follows: a) formal education under oppression/occupation is one of the few spaces for Palestinians where they can talk freely about history and justice, b) history teaching can be used as a way to talk about justice.

    The article gives a historical overview and shows how difficult is for Palestinians to talk about history at the moment because of the political situation. Despite the fact that the Israeli government controls textbooks and decides what subjects can be taught in classrooms, the article shows that “… conversations in the classroom sometimes go beyond what is on the national curriculum. Teachers and researchers in education are brave enough to start conversations and debates about justice and history.” In other words, contrary to the common view that formal education is in line with official ideologies and aims to teach students the “national interests,” when it comes to Palestinians who are living in Israel, this is not true. In a place where there is no settlement, Palestinians use formal education as a way to challenge the status quo. In other words, formal education here is seen as a crack on the wall and once the crack is there, there is always a possibility to manoeuvre. As Foucault [2] says, “Where there is power, there is resistance and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.”

    To address the relationship between history and justice, the article author draws on some of their findings. One group of Palestinian students find comparative history significant and useful because even though people have different languages and religion, at the end of the day, struggle for freedom is common and different people in different parts of the world had common issues. These issues not only let them think positive about their situation but also help them to realise that, as humanity, we have common ways to struggle.

    The other group, though, argues that “… school history should only focus on Islamic and Arab nationalism.” Most probably, because Palestinian students are living under Israeli domination, they have the feeling that focusing on “their national identity” is important. However, one should bear in mind that especially in that kind of situations teachers have the opportunity to let students know that official narratives could be problematic, because how come one can be sure that official narratives are telling the only absolute truth, when there is no such a thing? In other words, when it comes to teaching history, students need to learn skills like critical thinking, multi-perspectivity and how history education is prone to manipulation by the state and/or governments. Hence, and to this aim, when talking about history, one of the tasks of teachers is to teach students how to think critically and encourage them to see different sides of the coin.

    In brief, the article tries to point out that especially today, under circumstances, formal education, history education in particular, gives Palestinians an opportunity, a space where they can challenge Israeli dominance. As Volkan [3] uses holes of the Swiss cheese as a metaphor to find spaces and challenge the status quo, one can argue that formal education here is more like a strategy that is being used to challenge the Israeli dominance. While talking about border psychology and large-group identity, Volkan [4] says: “A psychologically informed political strategy should aim to make the psychological border eventually look like Swiss cheese, full of holes, but never completely obliterated.”

    A Foucauldian interpretation to this could be: any kind of hole in the system is a way for resistance. One can note the fact that using official education as a tool can be useful in the short term, and definitely, the article shows its significance with findings. However, in the long term, one needs to bear in mind that putting so much emphasis on official education as a tool that constructs justice could be problematic. As the author of the article claims, “Discussing history in school is, apparently and potentially, one safe and critical space, despite whatever curriculum has been approved by the Israeli government.” In other words, official education can be a critical space if teachers encourage students to think critically and not letting them to fall into the notion that official education is just one way for them, as the article indicates because of the circumstances.

    For example, in education, it is important to study teachers’ relative autonomy, their views, and the way they encourage discussions in classroom environment while teaching. Turkish Cypriot case between 1974 till 2004 is a good example for that. Although Turkish Cypriot official narrative was based on the notion that “two communities (Greek and Turkish Cypriots) cannot live together,” teachers’ relative autonomy made a very big change and teachers used classroom as a way to challenge the official discourse. This is one of the issues that the article could give as examples to support its claims. Consequently, although history is crucial to bring justice because it is through our knowledge about history we can build a just and better future, when it comes to education, teaching students skills to learn and question would be useful because by teaching critical skills, students will not take whatever they are being taught for granted. Because, as Bhabha [5] says, “Nations, like narratives, lose their origins in the myths of time and only fully realize their horizons in the mind’s eye. Such an image of the nation — or narration — might seem impossibly romantic and excessively metaphorical, but it is from those traditions of political thought and literary language that the nation emerges as a powerful historical idea…”

    [1] The title is taken from Ford, Joseph. “What is chaos, that we should be mindful of it?” In The New Physics, edited by Paul Davies, 348-372. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
    [2] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon, 1978: 95.
    [3] Volkan, Vamık D. (2003). “Large‐group Identity: Border Psychology and Related Societal Processes.” Mind and Human Interaction 13, (2003): 49–76.
    [4] Ibid.
    [5] Bhabha, Homi K. Nation and Narration. Routledge, 2013: 1.

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