The Arab/Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Source of Inspiration?
In the past, Israel provided a kind of simple, unmitigated inspiration; now, that kind of simple presentation of Israel often leads students to rebel and question their connection to Israel when they discover a more complicated and fraught picture of the country. Israel can still be inspiring, but schools need to engage students in the history and arguments of the conflict to inspire them.
Israel as a Source of Inspiration
Israel has been inspiring American Jewish students since its inception. There are abundant existing programs that connect students to Medinat Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael. Educators regularly draw from historic and religious texts, liturgy, Hebrew language, culture, arts, school twinnings, mifgashim and shlichim to strengthen Jewish identity and affiliation to Israel. Beyond that, the “Israel Experience” (youth travel from Diaspora countries to Israel) has become the standard method of tying students to the land and people. Even with the hypervisibility of Israel in the media, and its frequent portrayal in a negative light, schools have found means to demonstrate the country’s richness, diversity and example of democratic self-determination. This is the work of inspiration, but it is only the beginning.
The Challenges to Inspiration
Inspiring students about Israel requires more than just instilling positive emotions. As the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict persists, schools can no longer avoid the difficult choices of when and how to teach about controversial issues surrounding Israel. Ongoing wars, and the work of pro-Palestinian activists on campus and in the media, have raised the awareness of the Palestinian struggle to the level where it can no longer be ignored in American Jewish classrooms. Jewish students are wrestling with their impressions of Israel. This turmoil is internalized by students, and will persist, whether Jewish day schools choose to address it or not.
In recent years, there have been countless recommendations from researchers and thought leaders on ways to re-engage with Israel in a more nuanced and complex manner. According to Peter Beinart, in his 2010 book entitled The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, embracing an “uncomfortable Zionism” is considered by American liberal Zionists a more “ethical use of Jewish power.” This need for reevaluation stems from a few factors. Some researchers suggest that young American Jews have become less attached to Israel than prior generations. Students are facing anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses that is morphing into anti-Semitism, and they are wrestling with societal pressures to espouse the characteristics of the millennial generation, which strongly favors the universal over the particularistic. Self-determining nation-states, especially Israel, are viewed as oppressive by their very nature. The consensus seems to be that if there is hope to be had, it will come through what they view as more benevolent (and consensual) international oversight.
So how do schools justify the goals of the State of Israel? Should Israel be portrayed as a victim or culprit in this conflict?
How Schools are Responding
In the past decade, Jewish schools have responded in a number of ways to this dilemma. There are some that maintain Israel education as originally designed and have not recognized that something must change. Other schools have reached a critical level of awareness, knowing their program is not working well, but unclear as to what is needed. Others are in the exploration phase, trying new approaches, generally in low-risk situations (e.g., purchasing advocacy curriculum, fitting an Israel course in senior year, inviting guest speakers). Some schools, with the support of various stakeholders, have transitioned to a new system and are actively taking risks (examples include using “side-by-side” curriculum to examine competing narratives, and implementing policy reforms). By contrast, select schools have created a new infrastructure, and can describe their Israel education approach in detail. They now have the tools in place to continually evolve their programs.
Schools may be in different stages of transition, but it is safe to say (unfortunately) that we still have not reached a point where a nuanced Israel education approach is embedded in most schools in a well-thought-out and deliberate manner. Systemic change can be daunting and ideological change centered around controversial issues is even more intractable. How can schools be motivated to see the benefits of embracing the conflict? Is there a possibility, upon closer examination, to have this contentious topic become the source of inspiration, or a catalyst for revamping and updating Israel education?
Breadcrumbs from the Classroom
While researchers Alex Pomson and Howard Deitcher show that 60% of elementary and secondary day schools devote a required course to teaching about Israel and 80% develop their own curricula, very few studies have documented the dynamics of Israel education classrooms to date. I felt it was imperative to examine how students and teachers, representing the full spectrum of American Jewish life, confront controversial issues related to Israel. In my doctoral research, I had the privilege of observing the teaching and learning of controversial issues related to the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict in three different American Jewish day high schools (Modern Orthodox, Conservative and Community).
My findings offer an understanding of the teaching and learning dynamic of the Israel classroom. I believe that in order for schools to see the benefit of teaching the conflict, it is important for them to understand the various permutations of Israel classrooms that already exist, and the consequences of each approach. Through multiple interviews with teachers and students throughout a semester, I uncovered areas for improvement, which may inspire further review to determine what is necessary to develop a robust and comprehensive Israel education system within a school.
Awareness of Curricular Frameworks
The three different teachers I observed each had contrasting curricula and conceptions of Israel. Nevertheless, all three confronted common features in the teaching of the conflict. The dimensions that teachers should take into consideration are 1) the ways that educators tend to present the “other”; 2) how history is presented; 3) the presentation of time (e.g., the effects of a chronological or thematic approach); and 4) the choice of pedagogy when presenting conflicting narratives.
For example, two of the teachers I examined espoused contrasting foci between the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. Along a continuum of the presentation of the “other,” one teacher was situated closest to Israel’s perspectives on the origins and perpetuation of the conflict, as demonstrated by the extensive time he spent on religious Zionism. The second teacher used a dual-narrative textbook on Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, guided by the selective choices of the textbook’s narrators. One approach is not inherently better than the other, but can assist educators in identifying if the curriculum maintains strong ties to a culture of conflict (and common collective memory experiences) or whether it advances towards a different reality, a culture of peace (reconciliation and reforms in political, societal, educational realms). Essentially, teachers need help in becoming aware of the influence of their personal, political, religious ideology on their curricular choices. Conducting assessments on how educators view the conflict personally, and how this view informs their teaching, can go a long way toward uncovering bias in their overall approach and delivery of the conflict. It can also be useful for schools that may want to ensure that teachers are following any promulgated Israel mandates.
Engaging with the four features above can help reveal strengths and weaknesses in, for example, a multiple perspectives approach, and inform what curricular choices need to be made to offset any political, ideological and pedagogical imbalances. For example, a teacher should be trained to ask herself: Why am I choosing these multiple perspectives? Are they diversified? And if so, do they present traditional or revisionist perspectives? Are the voices authoritative, or do they present the victims of conflict? According to what criteria am I making these decisions? When do I teach multiple perspectives in a factual manner, and when is it more nuanced? When do I rely on the chronological approach over the thematic approach, and why?
Managing the Conflict in the Classroom and Beyond
Teaching controversial issues is stressful for teachers. Fear, unfortunately, informs curricular choices and pedagogical approaches. In studies that examined teacher bias, many teachers preferred not to disclose their personal views. Teachers instead preferred to align themselves with ideal values such as tolerance, justice and equality. In having to maintain the persona of impartiality, teachers employ predictable teaching strategies to manage the discourse of the conflict. I found that all three teachers used specific controversial terms to teach controversial issues and show films and literature to present difficult situations. These strategies aided or constrained classroom discussions. For example, the use of videos and documentaries presented difficult situations that were easier to view than to talk about. These were classroom moments where emotions were most palpable, but prompted minimal engagement and discussion. These films set the stage for rich conversations, but teachers were too afraid (unprepared) to allow the discussions to take place. Pivotal moments were lost.
In the three case studies, student emotions are controlled through the curricular choices of each teacher. Each school community has certain beliefs about Israel. Often, if something other than love for Israel gets triggered, the teacher becomes the one who creates the denial of space for the emotional experiences of the students. With the films example, I saw students whose faces were animated and whose words were caught in their throats, but fear of discussions getting out of hand forced the teachers to keep a tight lid on potentially very rich learning moments. Each student remained siloed, frustrated with these new emotions, not knowing how to process these new feelings. I recommend that teachers receive training in conflict management (facilitation, mediation) before engaging in this work. The strategies they can learn will offer schools and teachers an opportunity to examine communal and individual power relations and how they inform emotional discourses around Israel. This awareness will aid educators in (re)designing their curriculum to use their materials to encourage difficult conversations, not eschew them.
Know your Students and Their Desires
Jewish day high school students have a longstanding and personal association with the conflict. Through my student interviews, I found that their backgrounds had an enduring impact on their perceptions of Israel, regardless of new information learned. While it is not clear exactly how or when student perspectives became cemented, it is important to work with the knowledge and desires that they bring with them. Mainly, the students have a strong need to understand Israeli and Palestinian perspectives and wish they had the tools to engage in dialogue with them. Opportunities for classroom discussions about the conflict, mediation role-plays, knowledge assessment, and debates offer students the opportunity to test their perspectives and those of others.
These skills aid in developing personal, social and political action. Teachers in my case studies engaged their students to greater or lesser degrees on the topic of future advocacy work, with two teachers employing empowerment dimensions in their curriculum, one along the lines of advocacy work and one in the area of peacemaking. Interestingly enough, pertaining to advocacy, student interviews across the board revealed that no student felt prepared for the work of advocacy, but all were motivated to advocate. This phenomenon existed regardless of whether their teacher emphasized the topic of advocacy or not. For many, a semester-long senior year course left them feeling underprepared for college. This was a clue to me that they are simply not given enough opportunities to practice these skills, whether they are desiring to be peacemakers, advocates or (ideally) a combination of the two.
Engaging with Ideology and Critical Thinking
It is time for schools to come to terms with the fact that Israel education means encountering ideology. I found that the three teachers’ conceptions of Israel and their personal experiences with the conflict guided their instruction. My finding conforms with existing research on teacher beliefs and instruction, which states that teachers tend to take elements from the proposed curriculum—particularly culturally valued texts—and put them into their own narrative contexts in a way that they find familiar and acceptable.
Ideology is not a bad thing, but its role and place needs to be recognized by schools. That schools are political spaces and that ideology tends to drive pedagogy in these cases can be instructive to those engaging with the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Schools that do have a clear Israel mandate have worked with a team of stakeholders to form it, including parents, students and teachers. If there is a mandate, there has already been buy-in. A well-formulated Israel program also partners with various departments (history, English, limmudei kodesh, Hebrew). This kind of transparent collaboration can assist schools in deciding when students engage with Israel’s controversial issues, where it is taught, who teaches it and the choice of instruction and assessment.
My research indicates that passing through the difficulties inherent in the discussion of controversial issues promotes active learning, principled thinking, and achievement for students. When teachers become aware of conflict education criteria and frameworks, the teaching and learning of Israel’s and other controversial issues becomes unmasked and less intimidating. Teaching and learning about conflict implements several learning dimensions. Students not only acquire and integrate knowledge, but they learn to extend and refine knowledge (eg, by making new distinctions, clearing up misconceptions, and reaching conclusions). It can help motivate students past a sense of hopelessness that comes with intractable situations and into an empowerment dimension in which they can become participants rather than merely observers. Through the study of this conflict, students can appreciate the role that power relations have in creating and perpetuating controversial issues.
Having students tap into their own ideologies and compare them to those of their families and schools can help them better appreciate where knowledge is gained, how perspectives are formed and what makes them obstinate. And along the way, they can discover what truly motivates them. Students who learn to view conflict narratives from a metacognitive plane, a more objective level, will be served well in the coming years, as they continue to “hug and wrestle” with the State of Israel and her Arab neighbors.
Finally, controversial issues and intractable conflicts present opportunities for conflict resolution and peace education. Students exposed to the notions of cultures of conflict and cultures of peace will understand that there are different ways of choosing to view and act within a conflict situation. Preparing for the complex social realities and difficulties of adult life is an inspiring reason to engage with conflict early and often.