Unit 3: Gentlemen, History is Histories. One place – three narratives

In this unit, we’ll study the events which occurred during 1948 in the village of Ayn Ghazal, on Mt. Carmel.  We’ll examine them from three points of view: of Israelis, of Palestinians and of UN representatives.  We’ll ask what happens to us when we hear “the other’s” narrative, and whether it’s possible to write a history which is different from the one we’re familiar with.

Keywords: Place, Histories, Education


  • To become familiar with basic historiographical concepts:  “narrative,” “multiple interpretations” and “multiple histories.”
  • To learn what happened in the village of Ayn Ghazal during 1948, using documents and various interpretations of the events, and confront the complexity of the different historical narratives of the 1948 war.
  • To encourage students to take a stand and form an opinion regarding the event they’re studying.

1.  Introduction:  Recent plowing in the Zichron Ya’akov area uncovered three boxes containing various documents.  The first document removed was a letter of complaint from the Foreign Minister of Jordan which had been sent to UN headquarters in Israel in 1948, and forwarded to the government of Israel.

-  Read the letter aloud to the class (cf. Supplementary material 1)

-  The person who found the boxes realized they contained documents with evidence about what occurred in the Palestinian village of Ayn Ghazal during the 1948 war. Your job is to decipher the contents of each box and describe what occurred. You’ll be divided into three groups of researchers. Each group will describe the event using the documents it possesses.

To the teacher:  Don’t take the information in this introduction at face value.  Its purpose is to present the topic in a lively manner.

2. Group activity:  Students will be divided into three groups. Each group will play a different role – the Palestinian researchers, the Israeli researchers and the UN observers – and will be given materials, sources and documents appropriate to its role. (cf. Supplementary material 2).

To the teacher:  If the class is large it could be divided into six small groups so that two groups are assigned each role. In the upper grades, three groups could play their roles (Palestinians, Israelis and UN observers) as if it the events were occurring in 1948, and the three other groups could address the meaning of those events today for those whose roles they’re playing. After presenting the groups’ findings, they could compare their positions in the past with those they hold today, see whether the views on the event change over time, and in what way. 

Each group will read, understand and analyze the documents in its possession. Using them, it will describe what happened in Ayn Ghazal during the war, in particular during the three days – 24-26 July 1948 -  when the three villages of the “little triangle” (Ayn Ghazal, Jaba', Ijzim) were under attack. The students could be instructed to diagram or illustrate what they learned based on the documents.

3. Presenting the incident in a “public hearing” method:  The teacher will announce that a department of history in a university wants to publish an account of what happened in the village of Ayn Ghazal in 1948, and will ask a representative of each group to present its conclusions to those present.

To the teacher: A map of the area should be displayed in the classroom (Cf. Supplementary material 3)

Stage 1:  Arrange the front of the classroom as if it were a stage.  Each group should choose one or two representatives to describe the events to the class, according to the role it is playing, on the basis of what they learned in the small groups. At this stage, they must convince the other students that the events had actually occurred as the documents described. The other students will remain in their groups and serve as the audience. They can assist their representatives if necessary, adding arguments and examples, and they will, of course, listen to the other representatives.

Stage 2:  Everyone may question the representatives and challenge their accounts. They should all continue to adhere to the positions their groups represent, and base their questions and comments on these positions.

4. Class discussion:
A.  Working through the activity

-  How was it for you to learn the Israeli/Palestinian/UN narrative? How did it make you feel?
-  What did you think of your role?  Were you in agreement/disagreement/ambivalent? What were you comfortable/uncomfortable with?
-  What happens when we listen to accounts which we haven’t heard before, which don’t agree with what we know?
-  Were there any additional voices/accounts that were missing? Which? What would they have said? (For example: a refugee’s wife; the son of one of the soldiers who attacked the village; etc.)

B.  On history and histories
The teacher will read aloud the excerpt about history and historiography from “The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years.” The researcher, Hawkeye, says to Yedigei, the hero:

In life, anything can be an historical event in a sense. What we are concerned with here is not what happened and how it happened. What matters is that when we describe the past, when we speak of it - and even more so when we write about it – we should do so in the way that is needed now, as it appropriate now, for us. Things that are of no use to us at the present time must not be mentioned. And if you do mention them, it means that you are acting in a hostile and antisocial fashion.

(from The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years )

After reading the excerpt the teacher should ask:

-  What is “history” according to the speaker?

-  What is the purpose of writing history?

-  In recent years, the academic world has become suspicious of the concept of “history.” It has been criticized as being one-sided, unable to present the whole picture, reflecting, in essence, only the hegemonic social forces which preserved particular accounts in order to support their own world view. History is presented as a meta-narrative, as the sole possible account, while in fact additional narratives (stories) and voices which have usually been silenced exist alongside “History” – like those which we heard today. What do you think a “narrative” (a story) is? What do you think is the meaning of the fact that other narratives exist, in addition to the narrative we already know?

-  The activity leads to a conversation among the different narratives. Did they influence each another? Did they influence you?

-  In the history department at the university, they’re wondering whether it’s possible to create one overall narrative, or whether they’ll have to publish three parallel narratives. What do you think?

5.  Summary:  Although this activity presented only one narrative for each side, in reality each side has many narratives, many voices. The next activity tries to see whether it is possible to write history that presents these multiple voices.

Suggestions for additional activities:

  1. A writing exercise:  We dealt in class with primary sources (testimonies and documents from the period) and examined how the event was narrated from three different perspectives.  You are journalists covering the event. Write an account of it that takes into consideration the fact that every historical event has many aspects, and many ways of being told.
  2.  “It takes a village” by Ehud Ein-Gil is an article that appeared in Ha’aretz on 01.09.2006 (cf. Supplementary material 4), it's based on the same primary sources we read, and addresses the same event we learned about. Read his article and answer the following questions:

-  How did the author approach these stories, which are so different from each other and sometimes contradictory? Did he write a “meta-narrative” as if there was only one “history”?  “Multiple histories”?  Something else?

-  What do you think about what he wrote about the event? Would you have written differently? How?

Supplementary materials Index
Supplementary material 1:  A document from the archive

A telegram from the Foreign Minister of Jordan containing a complaint regarding Ayn Ghazal, as transmitted to the government of Israel, dated 31.07.1948.

Supplementary material 2:  Material for discussion in small groups

1. The Israeli narrative

- Excerpt from Milhemet Hakomemiut [The War of Independence], 1959, IDF Publishers, History Branch in General Staff. Pp. 98-99, 102-103, 252-254.

- A document from the archive:   Proposal from the General Staff for the Foreign Ministry’s response to the UN complaint regarding three villages: Jaba', Ayn Ghazal and Ijzim, dated 17.09.1948.

2. The Palestinian narrative
- “Remembering Ayn Ghazal”: the testimony of a refugee from the village.  
- “Ayn Ghazal”, from Walid Khalidi, All That Remains , pp. 147-148. 

3. The UN narrative
- Document from the archive:  Report of the UN representative, W.A. Riley, dated 8.9.1948.
- Document from the archive:  Letter from Count Bernadotte to Moshe Shertok (Sharett), the Israeli Foreign Minister, dated 9.9.1948

Supplementary material 3:  Map
A map of the “little triangle”:  Ayn Ghazal, Jaba' and Ijzim

From a 1942 map issued by the Mandatory Government, updated by Israel in 1959.

Supplementary material 4:  Article
“It takes a village” Ehud Ein-Gil, “Haaretz” supplement, 01.09.2006 

Theoretical background
The development of “history” as a modern field of inquiry began in the eighteenth century, and like other fields of scientific inquiry was positivistic in character – an approach which aspired to objectivity and the search for truth as the necessary foundation of all scientific research. The task of the historian was to show what actually had occurred, based on written documents (primary sources), unaffected by judgments about the past or by contemporary influences.
This approach was almost universally accepted in the academic world until the end of the nineteenth century, although critics of the positivistic approach had already begun to be heard in the preceding decades. They argued that all scientific activity was carried out in a specific cultural and social context, and that every researcher operates in a particular concrete reality.  This approach accepted the idea of historiographical truth, but viewed it as always provisional, depending on culture and context.  These critics also pointed to the limitations of the historian coming from “outside” to study the “other” who is located “within”:  writers like Schleiermacher and Collingwood argued that the historian must understand history through the eyes of those experiencing it, think the same way as the “historical other,” as if he himself had been in their place in the past. Critical sociologists and anthropologists, on the other hand, argued the impossibility of objectively studying and understanding “the other”, since identification with him is always based on the researcher’s subjective experience.

In the twentieth century, critical thinkers in the humanities and social sciences undermined the assumption that “historical truth” exists, arguing that there is no single history, that history is composed of a collection of many narratives (stories), and that history presented as a single narrative is the consequence of power relations in society. Foucault claimed that power relations among the various narratives created the illusion of objectivity and of the single historical narrative, the “meta-narrative”. The narrative we’re familiar with usually comprises a description of historical or other events from a particular perspective, which is actually only one of many possible points of view. This historical account is written by history’s “victors”. In other words, by the group which triumphed in the social struggle - by the hegemons.

An historical narrative is not only a description of historical events from a particular perspective; it serves to structure and maintain collective identity and affects how we interpret the present – and thereby also how we see the future we seek for our society. Examination of the various narratives, those included in the meta-narrative and those missing from it, can lead us to look critically at the historical meta-narrative and think about creating an historical narrative which includes different aspects of the events. Moreover, this critical move can assist us as a society to examine our present and our future.

Gadamer, a critic of the positivistic approach, proposed that dialogue could be a way of studying and structuring history. He believes in creating a complex dialogue among the past, present and future, between the interpreter and her reality, on the one hand, and the text and its reality - the objects of interpretation - on the other hand – while the languages common to both are at the same time present and in the process of being created. Gadamer argued that our understanding of the past is always a dynamic, joint activity, stemming from our world and fashioning our attitude toward what we are trying to understand and toward ourselves. Its primary goal is not to control reality, as the positivists intended, but to become part of it. History involves understanding based on the bilateral relations between the text and its reader: the text challenges its interpreter, and the interpreter challenges the text. According to Gadamer, a new interpretation is created whenever such a dialogue exists.

Pedagogical rationale
This unit exposes students to an event occurring during the 1948 war in the village of Ayn Ghazal. By seeing the various ways in which the parties to that event – the state of Israel, the Palestinians and the UN – portrayed it, the students will learn about the concepts of “multiple histories” and “narratives”, and will have the experience of learning history through a dialogue with the past.

This unit employs Gadamer’s view of the dialogue, in which he proposes experiencing and learning about history using critical tools. This experience will enable the students to become historians and interpreters engaged in a discussion with the historical materials, a discussion in which both the interpreter and the material interpreted question and reply – each from his own world.   The experience as an interpreter of history will deepen the students’ self-understanding, make them aware of the place from which they come and of the basic assumptions guiding their lives. The dialogue which we will undertake in this chapter won’t explain and recreate the historical account, but will challenge and expand it. The student plays a creative, thinking and interpretive role in the dialogue. He is granted the authority to challenge the accepted understanding of the present as well as a central role in the historical account, a role usually reserved for the historian – and, in the classroom, for the teacher.

The unit focuses on what occurred in the village of Ayn Ghazal, a Palestinian village on the eastern Carmel. We chose Ayn Ghazal as a test case because it exposes us to a fascinating incident through which we can see how each side recounts the same events. The village, which was located on the Haifa-Tel Aviv road, was attacked by the IDF during the first cease-fire, in July 1948, which claimed that it was conducting a civilian operation (“Operation Policeman”).  Following the attack, the Arabs complained to the UN about Israeli violation of the cease-fire and the brutal expulsion of the inhabitants. The UN investigated the incident and was involved in bringing it to international public attention. On the basis of documents from the UN investigation and published histories from the 1950’s, we can see how the Israeli side responded and analyzed the events. More recent testimonies and published histories show how the Palestinian side viewed what had occurred (cf. references in Supplementary material 1).

The first part of the unit familiarizes students with historical material, both primary and secondary sources. The students will take part in recounting an historical event through role playing. Each group of students will play a different role and present a different point of view, based on documents appropriate to their role: Palestinians, Israelis and UN observers. The various documents describe – each in its own manner – the context and the course of events; they demonstrate how each side views the landscape (geographical, emotional, military, historical, etc.), what it sees as salient and significant for understanding the events and what language it employs. It is important for the teacher to pay attention to, and emphasize for the various groups the themes which arise from the stories they present. For example, the military/tactical element predominates in the Israeli account, which devotes a great deal of attention to routes of advance and retreat, movement of forces and units, attacks, etc. The Palestinian account emphasizes the physical landscape of the village, daily life prior to the war, expulsion and uprooting during the war. We recommend asking the students to draw pictures based on the documents; the sketches will help them understand the events, and demonstrate the differences between the various accounts (for example, in their language or in their conception of space). We recommend analyzing the drawings in class, and discussing the differences among them.

In Stage Two, each group will present the incident as it appears in the documents which it received. We recommend presenting it via a “public hearing”. This method continues the role-playing and provides the students with a clearer framework for a dialogue among the different positions. Hearing the accounts will reveal the contradictions among them, but will also be the basis for creating a single historical narrative. The role-playing creates a complex dialogue and the need to confront the Palestinian narrative and its point of view. It will force the students to become familiar with more than one role – those presenting an account differing from the one on which they were raised, and the others as well – and encourage them to pay attention, and be sensitive, to different or unfamiliar views. The encounter with a range of historical materials will allow them to delve into and learn about the multiplicity of historical narratives about a particular location, as well as to identify and become familiar with material and identities which the students usually perceive as different and sometimes even threatening. 

The discussion following the role-playing serves to conceptualize what occurred in class when the students encountered the various narratives. It would be worthwhile to raise questions about ways of structuring a narrative - for example: which narrative is more fully reflected in our reality; which voices are we most likely to listen to; what seems believable to us, and why?  Encountering the stories and testimonies that aren’t part of the narrative with which we’re familiar isn’t easy for us – it creates difficulties and challenges. That’s why it’s also important to allow the class to deal with these difficulties emotionally.

In the additional suggested activities, the students will try writing the history of the event. In this way, they’ll integrate what they’ve learned regarding the tools of critical historiography into their experience, using them to write history combining the multiple points of view on a particular historical event.


1. Aitmatov, C. (1983), The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 188-189.

2. All documents are from the Israel State Archives in the Prime Minister’s Office

3. Khalidi, W. (ed.), (1992), All That Remains:  The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948.  Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies.

4. Naveh, A. and Yogev, E. (2002). Historiot: Likrat Dialog Im Ha’etmol [Histories: Toward a Dialogue with the Israeli Past], Tel Aviv:  Babel (in Hebrew). 

5. Naveh and Yogev, ibid.

6. Ibid.


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