The invitation was warm and welcoming and came via twitter, this being the twenty-first century. A teacher at a prestigious private school in New England asked me to present as part of a speakers’ program in an informal coffee house setting that usually attracts 20 to 30 students and adults in the community. He said he tries to offer educational experiences “outside the ‘bubble,’” beyond the world of the classroom, and cited as previous invitees a Vietnamese author and a Peace Corp volunteer. He stated that he was particularly interested in my work on Israel/Palestine and refugees and assured me it would “be a great experience” for the students.
This seemed like an excellent opportunity to open young minds and I set to work updating a presentation I had recently given at a college in Washington where I explored the dominant narrative on Israel: the thriving democracy, haven for the oppressed, center for culture, arts, universities, high-tech, gorgeous beaches; the remarkable success story in a dangerous neighborhood Israel. I suggested that this framing is the narrative of the victor and that much important history has been lost or deliberately expunged. Inspired by the words of James Baldwin, I noted, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” and then I plunged deeply into the contradictions, institutional racism, and violations of international law that are screaming for attention when it comes to the realities of the 1948 and 1967 wars and their consequences.
My main thesis is that the current occupation is actually a continuation of more than 69 years of colonization of Palestine, of treating Jews as more deserving, more human, than Palestinians, and of Palestinians periodically (like many indigenous peoples) fighting back. I analyzed the inherent inconsistencies in the idea that Israel can be a democracy and at the same time be grounded in Jewish privilege. I included the new McCarthyism that has seized college campuses and the odd post-Trumpian development of the alt-right that is both anti-Semitic (white supremacists who want to make Amerika white, Christian, and male again) and “pro-Israel.” These folks blindly support the policies of the Israeli government both because encouraging Jews to leave the US for the “homeland” solves the “Jewish problem” and because Israel is a shining example of a very successful, militarily powerful country whose goal is ethnic purity. Plus of course everyone hates the Muslims.
Arrangements seemed to be going along swimmingly when the teacher wrote that while we were definitely “on for that night,” the administration wanted to view my PowerPoint first. That seemed suspicious to me and I voiced my concerns around the question of censorship. I have had too many experiences where local Jewish groups or rabbis or alumni have pressured institutions to cancel my talks because I do not approach Israeli policy as something that needs to be supported right or wrong and I do not blindly support Jewish exceptionalism. I also explained that my message about understanding the dominant paradigm and exploring how historical events are framed is a useful political lesson when learning about any historical event. I was reassured not to worry and reluctantly sent off the potentially inflammatory material.
Almost on cue, the apologetic email arrived. The presentation had been shared with more administrators and “it seems that they do not believe our students are educated enough on this topic/situation to be able to truly understand your position on this issue (as they do not have the story from the other side at all really). [As if there is not a multiple billion dollar Israeli messaging industry that permeates the media, cultural events, politics, and the very air we breath.] They wanted to postpone the talk, “to arrange for a more in-depth speaker series that may involve activists that approach this situation from both sides. They see this as a polarizing issue and want to ensure that we educate our students fully/from all sides so they can be knowledgeable and form their own opinions.” Is there any other historical moment where all that dancing around is considered necessary?
Why am I not surprised at these developments? I responded to the chastened teacher that there are some lessons to be learned here, that the current tendency is to shut down any discourse that is outside the mainstream. I wondered if there were Jewish donors who might have been offended or a threatened faculty person who stands with Israel, right or wrong.
And then I went on to explain:
The tragedy for me is that first there is this framing that there are “two sides” when there are actually many sides, this being a complicated historical time, and that anyone who says, let’s step back and look at the forces of colonialism, ethnic cleansing, explore the narrative of Palestinians, question the framing and dominant paradigms of the Israeli government, AIPAC, Christian Zionism, this person (who is often me) is immediately perceived as causing conflict or needing to be balanced by the “other side”. I suspect that if you had invited someone from the Israeli consulate who was going to present on the glorious history and accomplishments of Israel, no administrator would have said, “But what about the Palestinians, the devastating siege of Gaza, the growing Jewish settlements in the West Bank and their support by the Israeli government, we need to educate the students more generally so that they can make thoughtful, intelligent decisions.” There is always a double standard when it comes to this conversation.
The other tragedy for me, is that my power point was designed to be an object lesson for studying any historical moment, the importance of exploring primary sources, the narrative of the folks who lost the war, the way the media frames the issues. I was hoping to help the students learn to think independently about events, to ask how we understand what has happened, to look at our biases in the context of mainstream messaging.
In other words, I wanted the students to be educated, thoughtful citizens. By contrast, several years ago I tried to show my documentary film, “Voices Across the Divide,” at a New England public school but administrators were also nervous and there was talk of the need for “balance” and probably concern for the fragile psyches of the Jewish students who had grown up on Israeli hasbara. But sometimes things change. So it was with excitement and a bit of trepidation that I accepted the invitation to show the first 20 minutes of my documentary film which highlights Palestinians talking about their lives before the 1948 war, (this was not a land without a people by any stretch of the imagination) and their dispossession and losses in the years that followed. An independently minded history teacher lined up six freshmen and sophomore classes and the following day I repeated the presentation in four more classes.
The very good news is that the sky did not fall, no administrator came by, no parent called to protest, and a very diverse group of students engaged in thoughtful, civil conversation about challenging issues. There were kids with families from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Spain (one branch were Muslims and one branch were Jews and they all converted to Catholicism probably around 1492). There were Asians from a variety of places, some probably adopted from China into Jewish families, some from all varieties of mixed marriages, as well as African Americans,
Hispanics, and white kids. In other words they looked like America. I talked about dominant paradigms and the framing of history, the importance of language (War of Liberation versus al-Nakba, the Catastrophe, Israel as refuge and homeland versus settler-colonial state). I asked, what happened to the tens of thousands of Palestinians who stayed in Israel and what happened to the 750,000 who fled? I talked about the critical importance of developing a “usable past,” a term promoted by Howard Zinn that avoids a past steeped in glory and patriotism and searches for a past that is truer, more honest and attuned to the dynamics of the powerful and the voices of the weak. I argued that it is this kind of history telling that allows us to truly understand social movements and events and also provides us with the tools to address present day issues. We cannot understand the Black Lives Matter movement if we are not thoroughly grounded in the facts of slavery and institutional racism in the United States.
The questions and discussions reflected a wide range of knowledge and sophistication ranging from the young student who said, “I’m Jewish but you mean there were people living there and we came and took their land away, that doesn’t seem fair,” to students who had lived in Israel and were able to spout the usual “talking points” but often lacked the depth to reflect on questions like indigenous and refugee rights, state terrorism and brutality, democracy and Zionism. “Arab towns in Israel like Abu Ghosh are flourishing because they didn’t fight against the Jews in 1948,” i.e., peaceful villages were rewarded with economic investment. “So are you suggesting that the indigenous population should not have resisted losing their land? Do you think people who are oppressed by a colonial power have the right to resist?” One student literally almost fell out of his chair when I mentioned I had been in Gaza in January and when I asked why, he explained that you can only get in through the tunnels from Egypt and another noted that Hamas were terrorists, so what is there to talk about. One student was shocked to learn that our taxes are used to fund foreign military aid and wondered if you had to pay your taxes. We discussed nonviolent resistance, tax revolts, and the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement. Another who was very happy with the class said that when he asked his parents about Israel “when I was young, I mean eleven,” they showed him a video. He described the messaging as: “If the Jews disarm there will be a bloodbath and if the Arabs disarm there will be peace.” Even at that age, he knew that could not be the whole story.
Many felt that history really came alive when they heard personal stories and watched BBC and UN footage from the war and saw the photos of large Palestinian families who were abruptly displaced from their lives and looked eerily like the photos of great-great-grandparents from Eastern Europe. Some students were energized and very positive about the class, a few (being teenagers) dozed through the film. We talked about anti-Semitism, the Armenian genocide, and the reality that the high school was built on Algonquin Native American land. We explored Zionism and the global military-industrial complex. We reflected on Jewish trauma and victimization and the pattern where traumatized people inflict trauma on others. We talked about Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, and Sephardic Jews and their very different histories and the impact of racism within Israeli society. In other words, we talked about everything and the students and teachers listened and argued and grappled with a history that begs to be understood in all of its complexity. And that was fine, and in fact, that is how education should be.
It was very heartening for me to know that it is possible to have an open conversation about Israel/Palestine, that educators and school administrators with courage and patience can facilitate challenging and complex conversations. I found that students did not necessarily agree with each other, but they were mostly curious and thoughtful and able to tolerate confrontations with their world views and questions about Israeli hasbara. My hope is that we can reach a place where it is possible to study Israel/Palestine like we study other countries and areas of conflict, without fear of censorship or false ideas of “balance,” that together we can create a usable past that helps us think about the present. This is a source of hopefulness and inspiration to me and a sign of the changing times.