"This is how I understand the struggle...To stand steadily like spears, and never give up." Naji Al-Ali

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Educating Our Children About Palestine

According to a recent Gallup Poll, only 17% of Americans sympathize with Palestinians over Israelis, whereas 63% favor Israelis. What’s more, the percentage of neutral individuals is shrinking in favor of Israel. Taking into account the events of the past three years, Operation Cast Lead and subsequent findings of war crimes/crimes against humanity, the attack on the Freedom Flotilla, and the refusal to halt illegal settlement activity even when bribed, how could it be that the number of Americans sympathizing with Israel is at its highest since the beginning of the fruitless peace process 20 years ago? Clearly something is amiss.

Knowing what I know about Palestine, it is hard to understand how anyone could ignore the damage of occupation, siege and dispossession, choosing instead to sympathize with the perpetrators of violence. Even more disturbing are the consequences of these sympathies on Palestinians’ everyday lives. Every year the United States gives Israel nearly three billion dollars in aid, which Israel then uses to continue the systematic abridgment of Palestinian rights. Without losing my faith in humanity, the only conclusion I can draw from Gallup’s findings is that most Americans are simply mis/uninformed. Otherwise, how can it be so difficult to comprehend Palestinian plight? Why can't we understand that apartheid is just as wrong in South Africa as it is in the occupied West Bank? Why do we implicitly recognize the injustice of racism against African Americans but excuse Israel when it characterizes its Arab minority as a demographic threat? Why do we champion our 2nd amendment right to defend ourselves but castigate Palestinian children for throwing stones at the soldiers who come to take their land? I can only hope that the answer to these questions is simply that no one ever thought of things this way. Something must be done to change mainstream attitudes, not so that we care for Palestinians and not Israelis, but rather so that sympathizing with Israel does not come at the expense of Palestinian life.

Within this context, I attended a workshop last weekend aimed at educators and organizers interested in learning effective methods for raising the issue of Palestine with their students and community. Spearheaded by the Middle East Children’s Alliance, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and Rethinking Schools, the half-day workshop focused on techniques to incorporate Palestine into curriculums in a constructive and educational way that also facilitates the development of critical thinking skills.

Due to the highly controversial nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict among other factors, many school districts avoid the subject entirely. This leaves American students without a lens to interpret key historical developments within the Middle East, including our own military involvement. At the same time they are also exceptionally susceptible to Israeli propaganda and mainstream media bias, all of which contribute to the perpetuation of Palestinian suffering. However, the workshop does not aim to equip teachers with the tools to simply indoctrinate students for Palestine or against Israel. Instead, they are instructed on how to create an environment that values justice, equality and factual accuracy where resistance struggles of all types can be understood and identified with.

Naturally, part of the discussion centered on fears of possible backlash from students’ parents.  Two techniques were offered to mitigate these fears. The first was making sure that any lesson that mentions Palestine is perfectly relevant to the unit at hand, so that it can be defended on the grounds that it is an integral component of reaching an educational standard. The second was to implement the paradigm of “dual perspectives.” Various perspectives on a given event are presented, after which they are examined for legitimacy and their conformity to fact. In this way conflicting viewpoints are offered so students do not see a one-sided picture of things, thereby undercutting accusations of bias. At the same time, an emphasis on factual accuracy dictates that the side which best conforms to reality prevails. When developed within a framework that values social justice and equality, this method of appraisal results in a deeper understanding of Palestinian plight. Most importantly, this understanding manifests organically.

For example, Israel offers the perspective that the Separation Wall is necessary for the security of the State whereas Palestinians find it to be an unjust imposition. These positions seem irreconcilable. However, upon further scrutiny one sees that the route of the wall attests more to a land-grab than to improve Israeli security, thus delegitimizing the former point of view.

Instructors were encouraged to draw parallels between the concepts familiar to students and Palestinian history. These included:

  • Manifest Destiny and Eretz Israel
  • The ethnic cleansing of native Americans and the Nakba
  • South African Apartheid and the different legal systems for Israeli settlers vs. Palestinians in the West Bank
  • The Civil Rights struggle and the situation for Israeli Arabs
  • Water conservation and Israel’s unfair allocation of resources
  • Racial profiling and Israel’s system of checkpoints

Teachers also discussed including Palestinian artists, writers and poets in their humanities units to familiarize students with Palestinian culture. Some even suggested putting their students in contact with Palestinian youth by partnering classrooms together and facilitating pen pal programs.

Non-educators found that the most effective way to garner strength for Palestine solidarity was by illustrating common needs and concerns within their communities and those in Palestine. By drawing connections between all social struggles, whether for immigrant rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, indigenous rights, etc, we can see that the injustice suffered by Palestinians is not something too complex, foreign or removed to understand. Once that barrier is broken, a desire to end the occupation naturally springs forth.

With every day that passes, the occupation of Palestine and the perpetuation of the diaspora cause untold suffering. The United States is complicit in this crime. It is imperative that we do all we can to change the situation. By educating our children and our communities on the values of critical examination, justice, equality, and compassion we move one step forward. We owe it to them to raise this issue, confident in the knowledge that we are on the right side of history.

If you are interested in learning more about how you can incorporate Palestine into your curriculum, the following resources are extremely helpful:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Highlights From San Francisco Protest In Solidarity with Libya

On Saturday, February 26th, hundreds of East Bay and San Francisco residents rallied in solidarity with Middle East and North African protesters. Organizers scheduled the event at UN Plaza, the same location as previous marches for Egypt and Tunisia. Sponsored by more than 20 different organizations, the protest focused primarily on Libya, though attention was given to uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Iran, as well as all nations currently fighting for freedom. Many attendees wore keffiyehs. Activists were also joined by marchers from a nearby rally held at City Hall in support of Wisconsin workers fighting to retain their right to unionize.

Turn-out was low in comparison to the rally for Egypt, due in part to the absence of the ANSWER coalition (usually a permanent fixture at such events) which pulled out due to a disagreement "with some of the wording in the protest organizers' press release" and the demonstration lacked the momentum of previous gatherings. One could perhaps attribute the change in tone to the gravity of the events currently unfolding as Gadhafi continues to massacre his own people. Indeed, the protest's largest banner read, "STOP GENOCIDE IN LIBYA" and one speaker began his address with a protracted moment of silence to honor the ever-growing number of martyrs. While most speeches were both hopeful and defiant, a sense of tension pervaded the day, as if we were all holding our collective breath in the hope that the violence will end soon.

Interestingly, there was a lack of consensus among the organizers and the crowd about what should be done to induce Gadhafi's ouster. One Tunisian speaker called on the United Nations to act, warning, "Don't let this be another Rwanda," while another suggested American military intervention. Others felt that that the brave Libyan people should be allowed to claim their own revolution, asking for help only to facilitating the passage of refugees fleeing for their safety.

The crowd was extremely diverse, with many families attending. At one point I stood with a hijabi woman and her three children to my left, a latino socialist passing out copies of The Militant to my right, and a queer Jewish activist (with whom I had just come from a workshop on Palestine education) directly behind me.

The most popular refrain of the entire event was the message that the fear barrier has been broken. Person after person took the microphone to shout that the Arab world will no longer be intimidated by dictators, the military, fears of instability, Islamists, Americans or anyone else as the protesters roared in agreement.

I noticed many faces from previous demonstrations, including one woman in particular. She was carrying a sign that contained a large crescent along with a star of David, a cross and a capital "A" (meant to represent atheism). "I wanted to be inclusive, to show that this is about all people coming together against tyranny," she told me. As the crowd chanted "the people united will never be divided" I looked over to her once more to see her waving her arms emphatically. I couldn't help but smile.

What I find most beautiful about these events is the sense of unity and togetherness they induce. Most people agree that the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa are powerful. But why so? They are powerful precisely because they have broken down borders and shown the intersection of struggles between peoples. At same time they have "humanized the other" for many Westerners whose only conception of "Arab" is backward and violent.

To some, standing arm in arm with a crowd full of strangers, shouting at the top of your lungs for the freedom of a group of people whom you have never met in a place you may never go is absolutely foolish. But these events have confirmed, for me and for others I am sure, the belief in a common humanity. Some ask why we protest. They ask why we show up time after time, considering it "changes nothing". I think they're wrong. We're sending messages when we assemble -messages to our representatives and our president, messages to our fellow citizens, but most importantly messages to our Arab brothers and sisters. For me that message is best expressed by a line from the film V for Vendetta. If I could, I would say this to every person struggling for freedom the world over:

"I hope that whoever you are, you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better. But what I hope most of all is that you understand what I mean when I tell you that even though I do not know you, and even though I may never meet you, laugh with you, cry with you, or kiss you. I love you. With all my heart, I love you."