Teaching Palestine: The Causes and Consequences of Organized Forgetting

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair


This writing discusses the importance of teaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and attempts to explain the barriers and obstacles associated with teaching it. After providing 9/11 as a case study, I emphasize why school leaders and teachers hesitate to address, or outright ignore the conflict. Additionally, it is important to understand what can be avoided and emphasized in thinking about how to treat this subject matter. Ultimately, teaching Palestine is difficult because it is the one issue where the political essence and controversy of the topic is blatantly obvious and in plain view for all to see. We must not, however, avoid teaching Palestine as well as deny students the ability to voice their concerns. I argue that the politics of organized and collective forgetting is counterintuitive to the intellectual and educational process. Teachers and educators, especially at the primary and secondary levels, must find ways to navigate this sensitive topic and overcome the perceptions and taboo nature of covering it.

Teaching 9/11

Teaching 9/11 in secondary schools from the perspective of administrators, educators, support staff and parents wasn’t the easiest thing to do in the United States on September 12, 2001. Obviously, the devastating nature of the 9/11 attacks fostered deep levels of fear, confusion, anger, and resentment. It immediately posed, not only a broad range of psychologically sensitive issues, but it was also, and remains, a contested event in terms of its meaning socially, politically, and educationally. Since schools were not in a rush to talk about 9/11 in terms of its socio-political realities and impacts on the ground, it largely treated it as an opportunity to introduce important counseling and safety and security measures. Although important, many of these responses allowed institutions convenience in collectively forgetting the event and treated it as a way of facilitating, prioritizing, and focusing on its own organizational behavior. In many respects, it was understandable. 9/11 was an extraordinary event from the standpoint of America and the West. It marked the first time the U.S. was attacked on its mainland soil since the War of 1812. It was a time of fast-moving commentary, where the moving parts offered too many opportunities for the wrong thing to be said, with no time to reflect. It was an educational mess.

Even in cases where teachers knew what to say and how to teach their students at the varying grade levels, they feared the Telephone game effect or even zero tolerance for any mistake made. In retrospect, depending on the teacher and school, a lot of important work was done in addressing 9/11 successfully. But what constituted “success?” It seemed that lessons worked best when they were organic and integrated into a specific unit as a case study in following the themes of the grade level course. This could range from Fourth Grade geography that focused on identifying a political map of the Middle East with references to natural resources and U.S. military bases, to an English class analyzing and critiquing U.S. political and presidential rhetoric, to a Global Politics class that defined terminology and official policy in a post-Cold War world. In essence, the answer educationally was to carry on teaching in bite-sized chunks. It was not “anti-American,” to provide students with explanations for why 9/11 happened, as much as some in the National Endowment for the Humanities claimed. Citing imperialism to explain world events does not weaken American resolve. As historian Eric Foner pointed out in The Nation in 2005, “explanation is not a justification for murder, criticism is not equivalent to treason, and offering a historical analysis of evil is not the same as consorting with evil.”

Why are Certain Schools Hesitant to Discuss Palestine?

Schools demonstrate hesitancy or outright ignorance for the discussion of Palestine for reasons closely associated with the problems and politics of teaching 9/11. There’s a general fear of authorizing or sponsoring a problematic statement, a concern for causing a backlash, hurt feelings, or the creation of division. Further, school leaders do not want to appear biased, upset parents or create further alienation. Why would school administrators open themselves up to starting fires where none exist? In some cases, understandably, simply lacking expertise is enough for many professionals with authority to choose silence. Also, to allow for a potential criticism of Israel might be construed as enabling antisemitism and terrorism or denying the goals of self-determination, all the while serving as a way of attracting bad press. Even more pressing – donors, lawmakers, political forces and powerful elements and features of the United States government and the interests of the state could conflict with the position the school takes.

Lastly, school leadership might often side with the dominant narrative, and feel emboldened by ruling class mechanisms that reinforce their own legitimacy. It might be important for many schools and school leaders and teachers to talk about the conflict on the most basic level while situating it as something that developed solely because of Hamas and only after October 7th .

Controlling the language is also vital and contributes to the hesitancy. By simply referring to it as Israel’s “war with Hamas,” the school absolves itself from discussing Palestinian existence on October 6th and the role of American militarism in terms of longstanding support for a “maintaining deterrence” policy on behalf of the Holy State. Whatever the reasons however, all these factors combine for an illiberal and immoral approach unfortunately when navigating educational matters regarding the conflict.

Why are Teachers Reluctant?

Teachers may show reluctance for the discussion of Palestine related to the same challenges that administrators face. Again, there’s a general fear of saying the wrong thing, a concern for causing backlash, hurt feelings, or creating division without any time for reflection. Further, teachers do not want to appear to have a bias, upset parents or create further alienation in their classes. Like the management, why would teachers engage in controversy when they do not have to? And again, in some cases, simply lacking knowledge, understanding, and materials is enough for many teachers to choose silence.

Some more conservative teachers might also prefer the dominant narrative internally, but shy away from exposing it in the face of a more liberal faculty who regret the absent narrative. Further, the more liberal teachers may choose silence after being directed to teach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at their own risk. Or just teachers in general, may want to help any way they can but are waiting for support and resources from on high.

Things to Avoid When Teaching Palestine

There are some pitfalls, in my view, to avoid while teaching Palestine. The first is to assume there’s a magical way to teach it without bias. Teachers do not have to go as far as the late great social historian Howard Zinn in stating both the impossibility and undesirable nature of teaching with objectivity. Zinn certainly knew that objective sets of facts and truth existed, but he made a basic point about how every assertion made historically is driven by perspective. Ultimately, history is made more interesting, inspiring, and liberating when forgotten perspectives are embraced. Zinn made it clear that everyone serves a master when describing the past and present, emphasizing “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Another great scholar, Carlo Ginzburg, talked about the impossibility of objectivity, even with an exercise as simple as taking inventory. Of course, teachers should aim in providing balanced perspectives, dispassionate scholarship and clearly written objectives and goals but it’s best to avoid “both-siderism.” As international scholar Richard Falk has indicated, “To blame ‘both sides’ in contexts of asymmetrical responsibility such as [it] exists between Jews and Palestinians is to consciously and unconsciously divert attention away from the essential hierarchical structure of oppression and subjugation, which is the core reality confronting Palestinians. This is especially true for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation since 1967 or in refugee camps, and to a somewhat lesser extent, characterizes the lives of Palestinians living as Israeli citizens within ‘the green line’ since 1948.”

A second thing to avoid is announcing or telegraphing a talk or lesson as blatantly activist or biased and getting caught up in conflating the importance of the topic with the potential power of the language in offsetting a pursuit of social justice. It’s not that classrooms cannot promote social justice. They should and they do. It’s rather that when attempts to address topics like Palestine get perceived as inflammatory and knee jerk, even when they are on point and delivered effectively, get scrutinized and evaluated within a small window in proportion to the general population’s time and ability to understand them. Teach about Palestine, and do it well, but teach systematically and emphatically while protecting the students and maintaining a semblance of order for the sake of self-preservation.

A third area for schools to avoid is the urge to frame Palestine around identity and identity politics. While affinity groups are at times quite helpful and worthwhile, focusing on identity becomes problematic when students are taught intellectually or counseled emotionally based on their background and origin. Identity based reactions and responses to students leads the school community to presuppose that there is an “us” and “them,” on the issue, and that both sides have nearly an identical claim in coping with the dispute. Further, it also presupposes that Jewish students are automatically pro-Israel and Muslim and Arab students are inherently pro-Palestine especially when we know the former is especially untrue.

A fourth thing to avoid is the failure to separate and define terms. “Israel,” “Zionism,”, “Apartheid,” “Jewish,” “Palestinian,” “Gaza,” “West Bank,” “Intifada,” and “Hamas,” are all individual terms, each with separate meanings and definitions. These terms, although obviously related to one another, cannot be combined, or used interchangeably within the context of the conflict without creating massive amounts of distortions while fostering an oversimplified paradigm of “good” and “evil.” Further, it’s damaging to treat the topic as if “everybody does it.” When this line of thinking is carried out, it helps in “creating a blank slate on which subsequently to etch a new nation’s imprint,” says Roger Heacock of Birzeit University.

Lastly, teachers should not assume that students don’t know anything on the topic and are unable and automatically confused when talking about it. Undoubtedly, young people will need great amounts of time preparing, studying, analyzing, and articulating a perspective on most complex topics, but it is the reason why they are in school in the first place, and we have all seen students exceed our initial expectations.

What Should Be Emphasized?

In my estimation, an essential and incredible component of any Middle East lecture and lesson is teaching the role of the United States and its special relationship with Israel. Since Israel is a key ally from a strategic and geopolitical standpoint, it’s helpful to discuss that Israel acts in accordance with U.S. funding, planning, direction, and permission in most cases. Reminding students this fact alone disarms the sensitive nature of singling out Israel, a suspicion that pro-Israeli people will almost rightly have, if the teacher does not specify the pivotal American role and culpability. The U.S. provides to Israel an annual military budget of roughly 3 billion dollars and sides with them unambiguously in world affairs. It is not fair to say that Columbia University students, for example, ignore human rights tragedies elsewhere at the expense of charting U.S./Israel crimes while ignoring, take say, the Chinese assimilation of Tibet. The reason that resistance and social movements are so prevalent around Israel, perhaps more so than other conflicts around the world is because of 1) young peoples’ knowledge of the cultural genocide of the American Indian gained in their formative years of schooling, 2) U.S. student understanding of the central event of the 20th century, The Holocaust and progressive Jews articulation of Never Again For Anyone, and 3) acknowledgment of United States foreign policy and its inextricable links to Israel and vital Middle East interests.

The best ways to teach about the conflict, in my estimation, mirror the effective ways of the teaching of American slavery. American slavery is best taught when teachers: 1) calibrate the lesson to fit their audience (you must know your audience), 2) privilege the voices of people directly involved in the tragedy with the utilization of primary source material, and 3) making sure the teaching is organic and fits into the rhythm and momentum of the normal flow of the school day and curriculum. For years now, teachers have successfully constructed and delivered controversial lessons on slavery, war, genocide, imperialism, and human rights abuses by following precise terminology and the definitions of terms found in references to the scholarly literature. They are not easily taught, but they have been successfully taught and there’s no reason to think that sensitive topics such as 9/11 or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be as well. Teachers could ask students to make a household budget for working class Israelis and Palestinians compared to more privileged sectors. Teachers could compare the construction and effectiveness of Israel’s superhighways that connect settlers to major cities within minutes while it takes Palestinians hours to move from place to place on unfinished roads while negotiating checkpoints. Teachers could have students compare educational facilities in the region or simply analyze charts that show Israel’s financial backing from its superpower patron, the U.S. As teachers, we must normalize the teaching of controversial subjects and embrace complexity as an investment in student learning. If we don’t provide students a steady diet of information as well as consistency and strategies to think critically, we cannot expect the “big lesson” mentality to deliver any reasonable or favorable outcome or impact learning positively.

The Consequences of the Violence of Organized Forgetting

Academic Henry Giroux has pointed out that, “education can be both the basis for critical thought and a site for repression.” He states that, “unfortunately, we live at a moment in which ignorance appears to be one of the defining features of American political and cultural life.” “Ignorance,” he states, “has become a form of weaponized refusal to acknowledge the violence of the past [and present], and revels in a culture of media spectacles in which public concerns are translated into private obsessions, consumerism and fatuous entertainment.”

Here, the schools are failing students miserably if they fail to listen to them or acknowledge the mainstream critiques of the U.S. and Israel related to proportionality as a guideline in war. Yes, young learners will want to discuss the important issues of the day and will make attempts to attend rallies, post signs, issue statements and have thoughts, opinions, and attitudes on monumental events. As educators, it is our role to support them in these events, not in terms of condoning, authorizing, and sponsoring them, but in terms of providing realistic spaces of expression and facilitation and providing them validation and respect for taking stands on issues that require higher ordered thinking and strong senses of citing injustice.

What are “Good” Sources for Studying Israel-Palestine and Which Ones are “Bad?”

First, all teachers interested in learning which information is most helpful for gathering content for students in middle school and high school should read Michael Scott-Baumann’s The Shortest History of Israel and Palestine: From Zionism to Intifadas and the Struggle for Peace. It is incredibly well written and concise and offers a clear chronology and glossary of key terms and key people with an extraordinary bibliography. Solid lesson plans could develop rather easily by using this outstanding source. Overall, I would hesitate to form judgments and opinions of sources and places for information regarding Palestine and its relationship with Israel in terms of good and bad. I’d rather look at information on a continuum that ranges in terms of format. In my view, it’s a good practice to use different types of source material ranging from primary, secondary, and tertiary data. From there, one should generally evaluate information in terms of its authorship, publication, profession, or political philosophy. Usually, not always, publications and pronouncements coming from academic press books and scholarly journals have fairly high levels of reliability. It does not mean they shouldn’t be scrutinized or deconstructed. Information from think tanks, policy analysts, and trade press books are also helpful but the need to pull them apart from their institutional or corporate obligations may be even greater. Lastly, the elite agenda setting media – print (i.e. Washington Post’s KidsPost, New York Times), digital and televised, perhaps needs the greatest amount of time to disentangle. None of these are wholly good or bad in any one instance, but most sources of information are ripe for deconstruction, which is a very valuable exercise.

A Very Short List of Some Suggested Authors and Sources of Information

Ahmad, Muhammad Idrees

Barghouti, Mariam

Barsamian, David

Bennis, Phyllis

Carey, Roane

Chomsky, Noam

Davidson, Lawrence

Falk, Richard

Kelley, Robin

Khalidi, Rashid

Kletter, Raz

Pappe, Ilan

Said, Edward

Scott-Baumann, Michael

Zunes, Stephen

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Daniel Falcone is a teacher, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He resides in New York City.