“A Multiperspective Understanding of the Past: The Elephant in the Room of Diverse Societies?”

On 14 July 2017, EUROCLIO, along with the IHJR and the Anna Lindh Foundation, hosted a symposium entitled, “A Multiperspective Understanding of the Past: The Elephant in the Room of Diverse Societies?” at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Over the course of the day, symposium participants grappled with challenging questions presented from multiple perspectives, which encouraged discussion and reflection on how we, both as members of society and as individuals, deal with difficult historical legacies. The day’s events included opening remarks by representatives of the Erasmus University and EUROCLIO Director, Jonathan Even-Zohar; a panel discussion on sensitive issues in the Netherlands featuring IHJR Director Timothy Ryback; presentations by EUROCLIO’s Dealing with the Past project team members, who travelled across the globe to experience different ways of grappling with the difficult past; parallel workshops, during which time the IHJR’s Social Cohesion Project was presented by Stanley Iwema and Melik Keskin; and conclusions by Pavel Tychtl of the European Commission. Participants came away from the symposium having learned a great deal about the modern struggles stemming from complex historical legacies, and having directly addressed the elephant in the room.


In 2015, the IHJR organized a series of lectures for its Netherlands-based pilot project aimed at addressing societal tensions that are caused by historical conflicts such as the events in Turkey and Armenia in 1915 or the relationship between Israel and Palestine. Building on its track record in historical reconciliation, the central goal of this project was to create greater understanding and contact between members of diverse communities. To achieve this ambitious objective, the IHJR held five informal dialogue meetings and public events on the historical conflicts between Armenia and Turkey, and Israel and Palestine.


The IHJR’s approach of ‘shared narratives’ intends to counter historical myths in communities that are divided by competing historical narratives, in order to foster mutual understanding and respect. The IHJR’s approach is relevant in nurturing social cohesion in places where existing conflicts have been ‘imported’. Increasingly, conflicts like Israel-Palestine, and Armenia-Turkey, directly affect on political dialogue in Dutch society and other European societies, whereby young people are often prone to identity-based misconceptions of the ‘Other’. The IHJR’s approach on the conflicts between Israel and Palestine, and Armenia and Turkey, serve as a methodology to start up challenging conversations between younger generations from antagonistic communities in Dutch society. The ultimate goal is to raise awareness of historical research by providing greater access to ongoing historical debates and facts within these communities and offer opportunities for dialogue and joint projects between them.

On the 28th of October, 2015 in Rotterdam, the IHJR organized the final event of the first phase of the pilot project at Galerie Kralingen on perspectives on 1915. Ara Halici, known for the acclaimed documentary ‘Bloedbroeders’, provided his personal experiences on making the documentary. Dr. Erol Emre and Dr. Tsolin Nalbantian, both scholars from Leiden University, provided lectures on their personal and academic experiences on memorialization and the Armenian Genocide. Subjects that they have engaged in both inside and outside the lecture room.

In their lectures, Dr. Erol and Dr. Nalbantian examined questions of why it is difficult to speak about the Armenian Genocide. Young people from the Armenian and Turkish diasporas in the Netherlands often have difficulty when the subject is discussed. The lecturers advised that  in dealing with a complex past, it is necessary to step outside of a state-oriented way of thinking, and identify multiple layers of identity, thus placing individuals at the center of discussion.

Other subject matters that were discussed concerned how young people can examine issues which are generally considered taboo. This relates to engaging difficult memories and how in doing so, one can gain empathy and understanding. By sharing some personal insights from their research and a recent study trip, the scholars showed how engaging with a taboo can lead to meaningful encounters.

In the subsequent Q&A and roundtable discussions, many fundamental issues related to media, education, young people and current obstacles surrounding Turkish-Armenian dialogue were explored. The outcomes of these dialogues shall be used in the design of future projects.

On the 9th of December, the IHJR organized ‘Depolarizing the Past: Narratives of the 1948 War and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’ at Galerie Kralingen in Rotterdam. Dr. Alanna O’Malley gave a lecture on the role of the United Nations in 1948 of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dr. O’Malley is Assistant Professor in International Studies at Leiden University. Dr. Timothy Ryback provided a lecture on the multiperspectivity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dr. Ryback is co-founder of the IHJR.

These events on historically sensitive issues serve to connect young people from antagonistic communities with each other, as well as with young professionals and academics, in order to provide an opportunity for constructive dialogue, narrowing the gap between academia and society.

The IHJR wishes to thank its strategic partner, the Faculty of Humanities of Leiden University, and in particular Dr. Emre Erol, Dr. Tsolin Nalbantian and Dr. Alanna O’Malley for their involvement in ‘Depolarizing the Past’. Special thanks also goes out to Dr. Timothy Ryback, for sharing his insights into the IHJR’s groundbreaking work on a shared narrative in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We at the IHJR are grateful for the contribution of Ara Halici and Sinan Can. We also thank Francisco van Jole for facilitating the discussions at our public events. The IHJR also thanks Galerie Kralingen and the Advokatenkollektief Rotterdam (AKR). ‘Depolarizing the Past’ was made possible by the generous contributions of among others, the Van den Berch van Heemstede Stichting (vanberchvanheemstede.nl), Stichting Janivo, and the KNR Comissie PIN. The staff of the IHJR also recognizes the dedication, passion and efforts of many volunteers in making ‘Depolarizing the Past’ possible.

For more information on this project, please contact Dr. Timothy Ryback at ryback@ihjr.org