"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:


  1. Thank you for an excellent article Maggie.

    I also believe that Americans need to understand that basic freedom of speech and freedom of expression is not exclusive to them. That Palestinians are human too and that seeking this freedom through peaceful protests such as the ones held in B'ilin every friday, they are confronted with aggressive and brutal forces by the Occupied Israel army, where dozens get hurt and multiple cases of death occur.

    What also must be understood, that Israel went to war on Gaza for ONE prisoner and killed 1400 mostly civilians, while there are nearly 11,000 prisoners many of which are women and children.

    Serious questions for those who value human rights in its basic fundamentals.

  2. Maggie this is fantastic. What level of education was the workshop aimed at?

  3. It was for educators ranging from elementary school to high school, and also included community organizers too. At one point we broke into groups based on what we taught, so that all of the elementary school teachers were together, all of the alternative educators were together, etc, so that we could make specific suggestions and craft very pointed strategies. It was really, really cool.

  4. What is amiss? Why is it not possible that Americans do not believe that Palestinians are less blameworthy for the failure of peace with the Israelis than are the Israelis?

  5. fuster, following from mondoweiss hm?

    what is amiss with your assertion? in a phrase, victim-blaming.