We are halfway through the semester of my course, East Africa in a Globalizing World. After nearly two months talking about geography and tribal customs, the history of East Africa from 1500 and the emergence of political parties, after watching movies about the imposition of colonialism and white settlement, this week we reached the period of the emergence of the three independent East African states. In relief, one of the students said, ‘It’s about time.’ She wants to know about contemporary matters, what Africa is like today and doesn’t find history, geography and culture very interesting.
I understand her impatience. Enough about the past. What’s gone is gone. Let’s just get on with things.
But I am of the mind that you can’t really understand the present without knowing the important facts about the past. This is why I like the image of two-faced Janus for January, ushering in the New Year by simultaneously looking backwards, so we can see where we came from, and forward, so we can see where we are going.
I don’t think you can make sense of the unfolding drama in Kenya regarding the charges in the International Criminal Court, for example, without understanding the underlying tribal affiliations that were formed during the colonial period.
And I don’t think the continuing tragedies in the Middle East can be made sense of without understanding the formation of the state of Israel. Without such knowledge, the bombing of civilian buses in Jerusalem this week can be dismissed as acts of savages and the razing of houses in Palestine by Israeli forces can be viewed as another expression of Western imperialism.
There is some truth in both these interpretation of events, but they are superficial responses. Context needs to be provided. And this is what the United Nations is proposing to do in Gaza schools in the fall by introducing a case study on the Holocaust. After all, how is it possible for Palestinian children to understand the fierce determination of Jews to keep Israel as an independent state without knowing about what happened to the Jewish people during the Nazi era? The UN lesson plan would be the first time that Palestinian children will learn about the Jewish genocide.
However, there is great opposition to the program. Mohammed Asquol, the Hamas Education Minister said that Hamas would block this case study “regardless of the price.”
The UN presently operates schools in Gaza for 200,000 children. Hamas, which has several leaders who deny to that the Holocaust ever happened and sees the UN as the main challenger to its authority, believe that exposing Palestinian children to the Holocaust will increase sympathy for Israel and thereby undermine their own claims to the Jewish territory.
Hamas is not alone in reacting negatively to the UN plan. “Teaching the Holocaust to Palestinian students in U.N. schools is unacceptable,” said Zakaria al-Agha, a member of the PLO’s executive committee.
It is teaching about the Holocaust that is a vital step in finding a solution to the Middle East conflict. While acknowledging the Holocaust doesn’t necessarily diminish the claims of Palestinians, it does humanize Jews in Israel and therefore makes conversation and dialogue a possibility.
The real history of the region isn’t on-sided, though. Palestinians aren’t the only deniers of history. In fact, Jews did steal land from thousands of Palestinians and push them out of Israel when it was established. The estimate is that 700,000 Palestinians either fled or were expelled from their ancestral homes. Palestinians refer to these events as Nakba. This needs to be part of Israeli history books.
Sadly, the Israeli Knesset yesterday passed a law that would require the state to fine local authorities and other state-funded bodies for holding events marking Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) Day on Israel’s Independence Day.
The tragedy of the Middle East is that two people have legitimate claims to the land and both Palestinians and Jews have acted badly towards one another. It will require the courage of leaders from both sides to ask forgiveness from the other. Palestinians have to admit the fact and the scope of the Holocaust; then they can understand why Jews tenaciously cling to their homeland. Jews need to acknowledge the historic and continued theft of land from Palestinians, put a stop of building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and acknowledge the West Bank as part of an independent Palestinian state.