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“Deepening the discussion is the only way out of radicalisation.” Interview with EUROCLIO’s Jonathan Even-Zohar

Jonathan Even-Zohar is director of EUROCLIO, the European Association of History Educators. EUROCLIO is composed of member associations from 50 countries, varying from very well-established institutes with thousands of history teacher members to more grassroots groups seeking to influence how history is taught in their countries. Ahead of the upcoming UNITED conference in Torino, where Jonathan is scheduled to speak, UNITED caught up with him to ask his opinion on the refugee crisis, and the role of historians and history teachers in challenging the prevalent narrative on migration.


UNITED: What do you think are the key historical points to consider when looking at the current situation of migrants and refugees in Europe?

Jonathan Even-Zohar: This is a big political point. You could talk about the fall-out of momentum for international cooperation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. You could also mention the longer legacy of imperial intervention in the Middle East – be it European, American or Russian. There are wars and geopolitics, all of it very upsetting. What is important from my point of view is that we in our societies in Europe need to be working more on the idea that human mobility is the most important factor in human history; if there is anything that unites us as a species, it is that we have moved across the planet. Humans are a migratory species. You could retell the entire human history and always find an element of migration that might be the most important element: you can talk about the Rennaissace as partially inspired by the fall of the Eastern Roman empire by pointing toward the important role of the highly educated refugees from present-day Turkey; the rise of the Dutch Republic can be seen as the result of the arrival of refugees. We need a paradigm shift in how we narrate our own past; we need to break with the tradition of focusing history education on the telling the stories of nations and states. The current crisis gives us an opportunity to put that in the spotlight. The whole idea of static, territorial groups of people who have nation states, and everything else that comes there being alien, is at odds with tens of thousands of years of history.

UNITED’s upcoming conference in Torino focuses on the narrative of migration in Europe. In recent years, this narrative has developed in quite a negative way; why do you think this is?

I think it has to do with elections: the current leaders in Europe are more interested in playing the fear card; people don’t have answers, don’t have a clear visit for the future. There is a saying that “if you cant offer people an interesting future, you can offer them the glory of the past.” This crisis is similar: if you can’t offer a decent vision, you can blame migrants. Even the perception of a possible threat to our culture, our civilisation, our norms – that perception itself legitimises a narrative that there is such a thing as superior culture or superior civilisation. People need history to legitimise that. Even to make the point that “we were here first” is an abuse of history. This has been going on for a longer time – back to the attacks of 9/11 and even before that – the question of whether Islamic culture is compatible with so-called European standards. This question has lingered and responses have become more polarised. There is not much positive to say about it. If we go to the root-cause, we need to confront ourselves with the weakness of our own superiority narrative. The people promoting these narratives, even centre-right conservatives, state that Europe is Judeo-Christian civilisation, it is continent of enlightenment – that is an extremely Eurocentric view of the world. That is a narrative that history teachers must challenge, but you must be nuanced: you can’t just change it to a narrative of the superiority of Islamic civilisation – it is not black and white.

Many commentators have drawn parallels between the current political rhetoric and public dialogue in Europe to that of the 1930s. Do you think this comparison is valid?

Yes and no. Yes, because we see similar public manipulation tactics that peaked in the ’30s. But these ideas developed much earlier. They have roots in the nationalisms of the 19th century – waves of innocent intellectuals wanting to engage the masses; Romantic ideas of a common past and common history – then popular education came in. But definitely the means and level of manipulation and creating an exclusive community that is fearful and hateful and surrounded by scapegoats, there are very strong parallels between today’s Europe and the Europe of the 1930s. So you can draw parallels, but that is not exactly what history is for. Very well-intentioned people argue this way: watch out for what is happening, because it might lead to this. As a civic wake-up call, that is fine, but if you want to do it in a real way, you have to take care of what questions you ask. It is a sensitive issue, because contemporary Europeans who vote for non-democratic movements are not necessarily doing it out of feelings of superiority. So many things are very radically different from ’30s: the world is so interconnected and people have all enjoyed mass education. It is interesting to draw parallels, but there has to be space to explore parallels in detail. There has to be space for nuance; you can’t go into it knowing what your conclusions will be. We need space to properly understand the complexities. Journalists and people who digest news for us really love making these historical parallels, but producing that kind of narrative is also populistic.

What is the role of EUROCLIO, and of history teachers and historians generally, in the antiracist movement? How can historians and history teachers help to counter the prevalent narrative on refugees and migrants in Europe?

At EUROCLIO we are promoting a type of history teaching that promotes peace and democracy. The way history teaching can do that is very complex, but it must take into consideration two things: firstly, we promote responsible history teaching. Teachers, parents and other stakeholders need to understand that the history curriculum has a profound influence on society and values. History is not the same as, for example, mathematics: the choice of which history is taught and how it is taught is extremely important. We seek to underline that. The second key point is about innovation: we have to see that the world is not a fixed place. Education is being pressed to solve the world’s issues, including globalisation and climate change, and from our point of view as a community of history educators, we need to have answers on what role history has to play in the future in being innovative.

We are involved in a whole bunch of projects and we see that from a policy point of view people see a role for history teachers to create a safe a space for real discussions to happen. E.g., what if a couple of kids in the classroom want to go to Syria to fight for ISIS: do you dismiss them, report them to the authorities, or can you talk about it openly? So policy-makers need to be aware that this space is extremely important. The role of history teachers in the antiracist movement, firstly is to join, and to be aware that there is this European activism happening – to get involved, to find good methodologies and approaches. But they should not stop there as individuals; getting together and advocating for this to be important in curricula – this is extremely important, but also extremely difficult.

What do you see as the main purpose of the upcoming UNITED conference in Torino? What do you hope that the conference, and your participation, will achieve?

People’s main complaint about this type of event is that they are preaching to the converted and you don’t reach the masses. But personally, I have been to UNITED conferences before, and UNITED conferences are good evidence that sometimes even the converted need preaching to. So that’s why I think it is great that this conference is taking place. I hope people can go back to their work and identify more areas where they can cooperate – and continue to do the grassroots work. We are connected to many large European organisations, and that has its value, but that is far away from what is happening on ground. I hope my session on history teaching and narratives of the past can make people aware that it is very easy to abuse history from the left and the right, and the power to do multi-perspective critical analysis brings narrative further and deepens discussions; in my opinion, deepening the discussion is the only way out of radicalisation.


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For more information on EUROCLIO, visit their website, or follow them on Twitter or Facebook.


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The next UNITED conference “Moving Stories: Narratives of Migration Crossing Europe”, will focus on the situation of migrants and refugees in Europe, and seek to challenge the prevalent media narrative on migration. Follow all the news on the conference on Twitter, Facebook and the UNITED website.