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Against Balance: Thoughts on teaching Israel/Palestine

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I gave this talk last month to a group of teachers and administrators at the Riverdale Country School, an independent school in the Bronx, N.Y., where I have long taught history, including a course on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The talk was delivered during the school’s Professional Development Day. It was a response to those, both in the culture at large and in my school in particular, who call (often I think disingenuously) for teaching that is politically “neutral.” It was also an effort on my part to reflect more-or-less systematically on my own teaching philosophy and practice.

History curricula are controversial. Because “history” (by which I mean what historians write and teach) is an important element in national invention and integration, national narratives (the ways in which nations come to understand themselves and seek to be understood by others) are frequently battlefields where contemporary political issues are fought out. In these often vitriolic debates  far more is usually at stake than simple questions about “what actually happened” in the past.

The more recent the events contained in historians’ national narratives, the more controversial such narratives become. For this reason, it is sometimes argued that relatively recent history should not be taught in the classroom, at least not in the high-school classroom.  The ostensible reason for such a prohibition is that teachers of history lack the “distance” or “objectivity” to consider such events in the putatively  “detached” manner they consider occurrences in the more distant past. The more determinative reason is that the teaching of such subjects involves injecting “politics” into the classroom and is therefore considered “divisive.”

When recent or contemporary history is, in fact, taught teachers are cautioned, sometimes explicitly but usually by implication, to remain “balanced” in their presentations.  According to a widely-held view, a “fair and balanced” curriculum, is one which scrupulously presents “all sides;”  and a “fair and balanced” teacher is one who keeps her own “views” out of the classrooms and acts as a “devil’s advocate” or a neutral mediator of disparate points of view, especially “controversial” ones. As David Bromwich has put it, there exists

a broad public concern in American public culture, especially among people who trust the schools to do almost all the educating of children . . .  that a proper way to bring the criteria of public judgment to bear on academic conduct is the monitoring and enforcement of a ‘balance of opinions.’  (1)

But, what, in fact, does; and what in fact can; “balance in the classroom” actually mean?

To begin with one should ask: Is “balance” a relevant purpose of education?  A satisfying answer, resoundingly in the negative, has been provided by the philosopher Akeel Belgrami:

[T]he point of pedagogy is to try and present the truth we have found by presenting evidence and argument for it. . . . [I]f balance has any role to play in all this, its role is entirely nested within this primary goal, not something independent of this goal. . . .[W]e need feel no unnecessary urge to display balance in the classroom if we have shown balance and scruple in our survey of the evidence on which our convictions are based, the only place where balance is relevant in the first place. (2)

Or as the former dean of studies at Columbia University, Jonathan Cole, has put it: “. . . [T]he proper goal of higher education is enlightenment – not some abstract ideal of ‘balance’ . . . ” (3)

Indeed, one should go on to ask: what is scholarly “balance” anyway? What could it possibly mean to teach “all sides” of a subject? For every important and contentious historical question there are obviously more than two “sides.” Must one teach every point of view, no matter how fatuous or implausible?

And then, even if “balance” was acknowledged to be both a desirable and a comprehendible classroom objective, is it an achievable, one?

The answer, again, is no. Every curriculum and every class is an elaborate act of interpretation. The creation of a syllabus; the choice of texts; the decision to focus on some subjects rather than others, to introduce some questions for discussion and not others; indeed, the very choice of a subject in the first place (why Israel/Palestine? why not Israel and the wider Arab world? why bother teaching about Israel at all when there are so many other important subjects?); all these decisions presuppose the instructor’s prior assessment of significance, coherence, and meaningfulness. They all, that is, presuppose the teacher’s prior interpretations, interpretations, moreover. in which the teacher’s ethical values are inevitably embedded.

As the historian Joan Wallach Scott has rightly observed:

[The critic] Stanley Fish has cautioned academics to ‘save the world on your own time,’ urging us to teach the facts or the texts in our chosen fields without taking a position on them. . . . [But] taking positions – on the quality of evidence used to support interpretations, on the reliability of certain methods of investigation, on the premises of the writers of texts and textbooks, on the ethical issues – is part of the scholar’s job, part of what makes her a compelling and inspiring teacher., Moreover, those positions are not neutrally arrived at by, say, balancing all sides until an objective emerges; rather they are the result of some kind of deeply held political or ethical commitment on the part of the professor. . . . (4)

And so: Should a teacher strive to be a blank slate? The answer, of course, is no, both because it is impossible (for the reasons already given) and because, since it is impossible, the pretense of neutrality is an act of dishonesty.

Indeed, even if it was NOT both impossible and dishonest to maintain a pretense of disinterestedness and/or agnosticism, it would still be undesirable to do so. For as the first “Declaration of Principles of the American Association of University Professors” (AAUP) in 1915 pointed out:

It is clear . . . that [the student’s] confidence [in the intellectual integrity of the teacher] will be impaired if there is suspicion on the part of the student that the teacher is not expressing himself fully or frankly, or that college and university teachers in general are a repressed and intimidated class who dare not speak with that candor and courage which youth always demands in those whom it is to esteem. . . . There must be in the mind of the teacher no mental reservations. He must give the student the best of what he has and what he is. (5)

Or, as one author recently put it:  ”The teacher who takes pride in never revealing his or her ‘opinions’ to students models for them moral apathy. . .”  (6)

Going further, I would insist that such a teacher is both manipulative and cynical.

So, O.K. If it is agreed that teachers must, willy-nilly, provide interpretations; and that they ought not perform a pretense of ‘neutrality;’ should they still avoid teaching “controversial” subjects, when such subjects are likely to make some of their students ‘uncomfortable?’

‘Controversial’ is a slippery and relative term. Do we mean by ‘controversial’ subjects those which are unsettled in the culture at large- or merely in the “culture” of the school in which they are taught?

Indeed, when and why does a subject become “controversial” and when and why does it cease being so? Do we consider a subject “controversial” when there are strong differences of opinion about it amongst the population at large or only amongst professional academics? Is, for example,  Darwinian evolution “controversial?” Global warming?  Transgender rights?

Because there is currently a “consensus” about the virtue of the prolonged struggle to abolish South African apartheid has this subject ceased being “controversial” and become incontrovertible? Should a teacher have refrained from professing admiration or “solidarity” with Nelson Mandela’s banned African National Congress in 1982 (when the Reagan administration was busy pursuing ‘constructive engagement’ with the apartheid regime and was actively supporting white South African forces in Angola, Mozambique and Namibia) but she may freely do so now, in the “enlightened” climate of 2016?

And, by the way, is making students “uncomfortable” necessarily a bad thing? “Great teachers,” writes Jonathan Cole,

challenge their students’ and colleagues’ biases and presuppositions. . . . In this process, students and professors may sometimes feel intimidated, overwhelmed and confused. But it is by working through this process that they learn to think better and more clearly for themselves. . . . For one student, a professor’s ideas may represent repugnant stereotypes or efforts at intimidation; for another, the same ideas may represent profound challenges to ostensibly settled issues. . . . (7)

By now some of you are wondering (perhaps with irritation):  If historical “objectivity” is a chimera and interpretation inevitable; if “balance” is meaningless and teacherly “neutrality” impossible, undesirable and unethical; what the heck ARE the academic responsibilities of teachers? Do they have any? Or may they just freely spout their prejudices and blithely seek to brainwash their students?

The answer is: Teachers do indeed have professional and ethical responsibilities. They are relatively simple and straightforward.

Here is my list of them:

(i) In making the interpretations that subsequently inform their syllabi history teachers are obliged to remain faithful to the evidence (such that it is) and strenuously resist the temptation to belittle or otherwise ignore evidence or arguments that contradict their own hypotheses and interpretations.

(ii) In orchestrating their classroom discussions teachers must never knowingly withhold evidence from students which might seriously undermine the teacher’s interpretations.

(iii) To quote David Bromwich:  “It is . . . an abuse of academic freedom for a teacher to mark down or rule out arguments that are well reasoned and supported by good evidence but that the teacher dislikes. To use the authority of the classroom in this way is to exercise a kind of censorship that weakens education. . . . “ (8)

(iv) Teachers are obliged to give a reasonably respectful hearing to their students’ interpretations and opinions (no matter how erroneous or objectionable they might be). This is, simply, to say that teachers should exercise the same degree of courtesy, sensitivity and empathy towards their students that they exhibit towards all those other people with whom they have entered into relationships of care and trust.

(v) History teachers are obliged to contextualize their subjects and to make sense of why people might have acted as they did and how such people justified their actions to themselves and to others. It is, thus, crucial that teachers help students see why people became Nazis; or how slavery and racist institutions were (and are) justified and/or tolerated in the United States; and why some Americans might be attracted to the candidacies of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

(vi) Teachers are obligated to clearly indicate which of their own interpretations have been, or still are, vigorously challenged by other reputable history teachers or scholars and to suggest reasons why such differences of opinion may have existed or may still exist.

But note: the point here is not to introduce other views simply for the sake or presenting them, or to provide ‘balance-for-balance’s sake. Rather, the reason is to enrich understanding by indicating what has been or still is “in serious dispute” (“seriousness” being a judgment made by the teacher) and to hazard interpretations about what these disputes have been or still are  “about,” especially since they are almost never about the “facts” themselves.  For as Keith Jenkins remarks, it is rarely

a matter of the facts per se, but the weight, position, combination and significance they carry vis-a-vis each each other in the construction of explanations that is at issue. . . . [A]ll facts to be meaningful need embedding in interpretive readings that obviously contain them but which do not simply somehow arise from them . . . . (9)

Lastly: (vii) The teacher of history has an obligation to respect complexity and eschew crude moralizing. History is not a collection of Aesop’s fables and it is not a comic book. Though I infinitely prefer left-wing comic books to right-wing ones, a comic book is still a comic book, and it is both intellectually and ethically irresponsible to reduce the past to a narrative of noble victims and cruel victimizers, of glorious heroes and snarling villains. While it thus may be emotionally satisfying for the teacher to replace George Washington with Crispus Attucks, Teddy Roosevelt with Geronimo, and Franklin Roosevelt with Rosie the Riveter on a newly-chiseled People’s Mount Rushmore, he or she should forego such satisfaction. Simple-minded history is bad history. Bad for students and, I believe, bad for the cause of human rights and social justice.

And so, finally:  How does all this apply to the way I teach Israel-Palestine at the Riverdale Country School?

To begin with some background.

Though my understandings have changed over the years with regard to particular aspects of this subject my overall orientation has remained more-or-less consistent: I am profoundly critical of the mainstream Israeli account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, indeed, of the Zionist project in Palestine as a whole. My thinking about the conflict has been shaped by the Jewish-Israeli school of so-called “New Historians” which emerged during the late 1980s and whose disciples are still going strong; by the small but courageous band of Israeli journalists who have fearlessly reported on the deceit and the brutality of the ongoing occupation and the steady drift to the right of the Jewish Israeli populace; by the writings of those brilliant and penetrating Palestinians who have eloquently and insightfully chronicled both their own lives and the experiences of the Palestinian people, in exile and under occupation; and by my own brief, but extraordinarily edifying, visits to East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

As for the way I teach my course:

From day one, I am completely up-front with the students about the fact that my treatment of the subject will be a relentlessly questioning and critical one; and that the way the subject will be formulated, the interpretations on offer, and the selection of readings and discussion topics will reflect my own considered understandings about relevance and significance. I additionally point out that my procedures in this regard are no different than in my other history courses.

I also make clear to my students, both at the beginning of the course and later on, that though I hold strong, even passionate,  views about some our subjects, I will make every effort to indicate what those views are, why I hold them and why, if they are “controversial,” other people do not.

I likewise make clear to my students that not only are they free to disagree or challenge my interpretations (or the conclusions reached by the various assigned authors), but that they are encouraged to do so, both because these challenges oblige me to re-consider my own conclusions and because their critical skepticism and scrutiny will more firmly ground their own ultimate conclusions.

I also, however, make clear to students on day one that if they are so invested in the dominant narrative of the State of Israel (a narrative often uncritically accepted by their parents, relatives and rabbis) that they cannot bear to hear this narrative interrogated and (sometimes harshly) critiqued, that they should consider dropping the course (which is, after all, an elective one).

In constructing the course syllabus I am guided, with as much self-awareness and self-criticism as I can muster, by a desire to provide accounts which are accurate, fair, persuasively argued and non-polemical. Which, of course, is not to say that they must be “moderate,” “centrist” or ethically vacuous.

On those (not infrequent) occasions when I am myself undecided as between differing understandings of significant events, I present a range of interpretations and encourage students to come to their own conclusions. The most obvious – and most important – such subject involves what the Palestinians refer to as the Nakba of 1948 (the “catastrophe”), when roughly 750,000 Palestinians left what was to become the State of Israel, took refuge in the adjacent states of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and an enlarged Jordan, and became refugees, a status they retain today, almost 68 years later. While the debate over why these people left their homes has, in recent years, mercifully entered a somewhat less vitriolic and contentious phase, there still exist important disagreements about whether the exodus (which in most instances involved moving only a few kilometers) was a consequence of a Zionist ‘master plan’ of ethnic cleansing or was a more complicated phenomenon. temporally, geographically, sociologically and psychologically.

On this subject I am content to provide students with a nuanced and multi-dimensional interpretation, though I am insistent on pointing out that whatever the various reasons for the Palestinians’ flight, the Israeli decision (already taken during 1948) to prohibit their return, in spite of UN urging and instruction, was the decisive turning point. I consequently require them to consider whether this decision was ethically justifiable and, relatedly, to consider whether the events and the outcomes of 1948 were arguably inherent in the logic of the mainstream Zionist project from the very beginning.

Among the many other subjects about which students are encouraged to sort out conflicting interpretations I might mention the following: (a) Does it make sense to call Israel a “colonial-settler state?”; (b) What were the British motives in issuing the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and in assuming the Mandate for Palestine in 1922?; (c) Was it reasonable to assume that the Palestinians would accept the partition of the British mandate in 1938 (as recommended by the Peel Commission) or in 1947 (as recommended by the United Nations General Assembly)? (d) What was (and is) the reason for the continual growth of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank? (e) Why did the Rabin government and the PLO leadership each accept the Oslo Accords of 1993?; (e) What happened at Camp David in 2000?; (f) How sensible, strategic and ethical has the Palestinian leadership been since 1967 – and what “responsibility,” if any, should it bear for the failure to secure a just resolution of the conflict?

And so on.

The experience of teaching the subject of Israel-Palestine at Riverdale is, in certain crucial respects, altogether different than the experience of teaching any other subject. This is not, I hasten to say, because the subject is any more complicated, or difficult to research, or more ethically elusive than other subjects.

It is, rather, because there exists at Riverdale, and in the culture at large, assertive, influential and highly emotional supporters of Israel and of pretty much everything it does and has done, who are hell-bent on stifling precisely the sort of academic investigation that is commonplace and unexceptional in pretty much every other academic-intellectual realm.

Examples of the heavy-handed (not to also say, thuggish) attempts by these people to create a special academic “exception” for Israel are legion. Many or most of these efforts are accompanied by accusations of anti-Semitism directed at the “unauthorized” critics of Israel (or, in the case of alleged Jewish malefactors, accusations of ‘self-hatred’). As the international relations scholar John Mearsheimer has noted with respect to universities:

Smearing outspoken professors is not merely designed to silence or marginalize them. It also has a powerful deterrent effect. Specifically, it sends a clear message to other scholars who might be inclined to criticize Israel of American policy toward Israel that if they speak out, the lobby will make a concerted effort to damage their reputations and marginalize them within and outside the academy.  (10)

My own experience at Riverdale has not been without incident.  When, some years ago, several particularly obnoxious parents (whose children, by the way, weren’t even in my class) harassed the school administration about my teaching, they received a mixed response. On the one hand, the then-headmaster did nothing to interfere with my teaching of the course; yet at the same time he leaned over backward to appease the malcontents by urging me to allow speakers – of their choosing – into my classroom.

The problem, of course, is that, as Mearsheimer suggests, the constant specter of harassment or public smearing does, in fact, have a ‘chilling effect’ on teaching. What teacher, after all, wants to take on the Israel Lobby and its local minions?In particular, what non-Jewish Riverdale teacher would want to wade into this hornet’s nest, knowing that unless he teaches the Zionist party line about Israel they may very well be accused of anti-Semitism?

Switching gears, I want to pose one final question before concluding. It is: How should a teacher reconcile out-of-school activism with classroom professionalism? How ought she ethically navigate the borders between these two separate spheres?

It is obvious to me that I should never require students to join me in an out-of-school political demonstration (e.g., on a picket line). It is likewise obvious that I should never require students to attend out of school meetings, lectures or performances where only one emphatic point of view is on offer, though I have not thought it inappropriate to suggest they attend (as I did last year when several students joined me at Columbia University to listen to the Israeli-Palestinian firebrand MK Haneen Zoabi, or when a number of them accompanied me to an off-off Broadway production of the play, My Name is Rachel Corrie). When, however,  a range of viewpoints, albeit most falling on the ostensibly ‘liberal‘ side of the Israeli political spectrum, was on offer, as it was in December at the all-day conference sponsored by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, I felt confident about “strongly urging” my students to attend (as they did). And when an individual student expressed interest in participating in a partisan out-of-school activity, I privately invited her to attend a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions meeting, sponsored by the Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization I enthusiastically support.

Parsing the distinctions between these various activities is a manifestly difficult matter and so, therefore, is reconciling the relationship between the teacher-in-the-classroom and the teacher-as-social activist.. Whenever I ponder this subject, however, I am reminded that, long-long ago, my own first political actions – picketing a Woolworth store to protest the company’s policy of segregation in the South and committing civil disobedience by refusing to take shelter during a compulsory city-wide air-raid alert in order to protest the government-promoted idea that nuclear war was survivable-  were encouraged and actively supported by certain of my high school teachers. Decades later, I continue vividly to recall those occasions and those teachers. I am proud to have known them and am grateful to my high school for permitting them to “cross the line” between the classroom and the wider world. The actions they sanctioned and the principles they embodied were an important, indeed an indispensable, part of my education. They helped put me on a path I still seek to follow.

Notes

  1. David Bromwich, “Academic Freedom and Its Opponents,” in Akeel Bilgrami & Jonathan R. Cole, eds., Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom? New York: Columbia University Press, 2015, p.30.
  2. Akeel Bilgrami, “Truth, Balance, and Freedom,” in ibid., pp.16, 23.
  3. Jonathan Cole, “Academic Freedom Under Fire,” in ibid., p.53.
  4. Joan W. Scott, “Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom,” in ibid., p.78.
  5. Quoted in ibid., p.63.
  6. M. Knopf-Newman, The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans: Addressing Pedagogical Strategies. London: Palgrave Macmillan; 2011 edition, p. 10.
  7. Cole, op. cit., pp. 50, 54.
  8. Bromwich, op. cit., p.29.
  9. Keith Jenkins, Re-Thinking History.  London: Routledge, 1991, p.33.
  10. John Mearsheimer, “Israel and Academic Freedom,” in Bilgrami & Cole, op. cit., p.320.
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Compliments to Joel Doerfler -and to Mondoweiss- for one of the most thoughtful essays I’ve ever read here. As a high school History teacher, in Israel, there’s a lot I can relate to and agree with, particularly in regard to teaching the conflict and other topics in which I have my own strong opinions. I’ve found that it’s best to be honest with the students whenever I see fit to express my personal opinion. I’ll… Read more »

A thoughtful and inspiring guidebook and meditation. I suggest a benchmark for responsible teaching in a highly contentious area of inquiry: Will a student opposed to the teacher’s viewpoint be a more effective advocate for his/her opinion as a result of taking the course?

Israel, Palestine and the Teaching of History by David Moshman – Professor of Educational Psychology During a 1996 visit to Rwanda, two years after the 1994 genocide, Columbia University Professor Mahmood Mamdani asked to be taken to a school so he could speak with a history teacher. He was told that Rwandan schools no longer taught history due to unresolvable disputes over the curriculum. “History in Rwanda,” Mamdani found, “comes in two versions: Hutu and… Read more »

What a refreshing and thoughtful essay; thank you. As a high school English teacher, I am up against many of the same things you mention. It’s a bit different being in a public school in Illinois where there is no budget, and so much classroom time is spent satisfying the demands of the state. This makes it hard to teach what is right and true, when we are all doing a dance to meet the… Read more »

A wonderful essay, full of precious insights – but the argument possibly needs to be widened out. I was also trained in the discipline of history, and whilst the lessons are invaluable, especially the absolute respect given to texts and other forms of evidence, and their appropriate textual and contextual interpretation, historians often fail to draw meaningful conclusions if they are not also well-versed in related disciplines such as politics, anthropology, archaeology, sociology and economics.… Read more »