Media Analysis

Teaching students the conflict is ‘incredibly complicated’ is guiding them into an epistemological and moral void

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“Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict”

Edited by Rachel S. Harris

434 pp. Wayne State University Press, $39.99

Having for many years taught an elective history course dealing with the Zionist-Palestinian encounter to high-school seniors in a  New York City private school, I was naturally eager to read “Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict”, edited by Rachel S. Harris, associate professor of Israeli Literature and Culture at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

A hefty collection containing 40 essays, the volume describes undergraduate courses taught at institutions ranging from Northwestern, UMass-Amherst and Stanford to less familiar (to me, anyway) schools like the historically black North Carolina Central University, the University of Central Oklahoma, Eastern Michigan University and Istanbul Technical University. About half of the essays are written by professors of history, political science or international relations, and most of the rest by members of Jewish Studies, Israel Studies and literature departments. Relatively few of the courses described are historical surveys; quite a few approach the subject through fictional narratives, poems, films, and graphic novels.

Yet despite the intrinsic fascination of discovering how teachers are introducing students to the subject of Israel/Palestine, reading the essays in this volume is – with some notable exceptions – a decidedly unedifying experience.

If there’s a foundational assumption shared by almost all the authors in the collection it’s that the Zionist-Palestinian conflict is altogether exceptional in its complexity and that introducing students to the subject requires extraordinary sensitivity and caution. Rather than argue this questionable thesis, author after author simply takes it as self-evident, presenting their courses as virtuous specimens of balanced and politically neutral pedagogy.

“Teaching the Arab Israeli Conflict.” Edited by Rachel Harris.

An indispensable part of a teacher’s job is certainly to promote critical and independent thinking; to respect complexity and eschew crude moralizing; and to help students understand how historical actors have behaved and have justified their behaviors to themselves and to others. By adhering to these ethical and scholarly protocols teachers do justice to their own particular subjects and help students develop the competencies with which to intelligently and humanely approach a wide range of other subjects.

But the purpose of teaching a course about Israel-Palestine  is not, simply or even primarily, to promote and instill general intellectual virtues. It is to help students make coherent sense of a specific and unique sociopolitical process. To accomplish this, teachers must interpret and explicate social processes to the best of their abilities.

This is not, however, the primary message of “Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” Rather, the volume’s recurring catechism is: The history of Israel-Palestine is incredibly complicated. Rather than bring interpretive coherence to this complexity the teacher’s job is, first and foremost, to help students acknowledge it. Once an appreciation of complexity has been achieved, empathy and compassion will hopefully follow. And the teacher’s task will have been accomplished.

Reading “Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict” frequently feels like being trapped in a Hallmark compendium of liberal homilies. To wit:

  • “[M]y aim is to get students to wrestle with complexity through strategic juxtaposition…keeping competing, sometimes incommensurable narratives simultaneously present.” – Janice W. Fernheimer, director of Jewish Studies, University of Kentucky
  • “[The aim is to help students] to be able to have the courage to navigate the complexities and ambiguities of the conflict. … I am not interested in changing their beliefs or views on the conflict.” – Ashley Passmore, professor of German & International Studies at Texas A&M
  • “I help [the students] to appreciate the intricacies of multiple, competing narratives.” – Shayna Weiss, visiting scholar in Israel Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy, and associate director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, Brandeis University
  • “The program’s success is predicated on its commitment to a dual narrative approach and its steadfast refusal to engage in any type of advocacy, focusing instead on giving students the tools to critically analyze their perceptions of the conflict.” – Oren Kroll-Zeldin, assistant director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice, department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of San Francisco
  • “Can the lessons in the classroom facilitate an awareness of the region’s complexity…? Can we use education to help us build bridges and work toward compassion in an effort to tear down prejudice and aim for the higher ideals of empathy and tolerance?” – Rachel S. Harris, editor of the volume.
  • “At the start of my teaching career, my department received a number of complaints about my Israel-related courses. As one of the students put it, ‘Professor is not sufficiently pro-Israel.’…’What am I to do?’ I asked … my department chair… Teach them about competing narratives,’ he said. [He] was a good mentor. … . [T]hese words became my teaching mantra.” – Olga Gershenson, professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
  • “The final essay question I pose to my students is a seemingly simple one: ‘What have you learned about the conflict this semester?’ … I get a variety of answers, of course, but my favorites are those that recognize the ambiguity inherent in the conflict.” – Caitlin Carenen, professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University
  • [A] student asked me just as the class was breaking up, ‘So who’s right?’ I said to myself; ‘My work here is done.’ – Peter C. Herman, professor of English literature at San Diego State (emphasis added)

Pushing back against the authors’ high-minded bromides feels positively sacrilegious. After all, who can have a problem with combating prejudice and aiming “for the higher ideals of empathy and tolerance?” Who can find fault with the desire to demonstrate “complexity?” How can any honest scholar object to teaching “dueling narratives?”

Well…not so fast.

Rachel Harris. From the University of Illinois.

Let’s start with a question: Is it, in fact, the case that the subject of Palestine-Israel is more “complex” than other historical subjects? How come? Does understanding this subject entail digesting more information than is required by other subjects? Are the issues in dispute more esoteric or obscure? Does an exploration of events in Palestine/Israel over the past 150 years generate more ambiguity or complexity than studying the history of, say, France or Mexico or the U.S. during this period?

Maybe so, though I can’t for the life of me see why. But there’s certainly nothing self-evident about these propositions. They require demonstration, not mere assertion.

When the (overwhelmingly “liberal”) authors of “Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict” talk about the “complexity” of their subject, however, they’re not putting all their cards on the table. What they’re actually asserting is not that the history is especially complicated or ambiguous, but, rather, that, in their view, the ethical issues posed by the Zionist project in Palestine are especially knotty. Why? Because most of them understand and frame the conflict as one in which two, equally deserving “peoples,” each possessing a legitimate historical claim to the land and an equivalent right to national self-determination, have been unable (because of a failure of empathy?) to compromise their differences.

Again, such a way of understanding the subject is hardly self-evident. It’s an interpretation, a point of view. It’s neither politically nor ethically neutral, and it’s certainly not axiomatic. It’s a position which presumes that the “dueling Palestinian and Zionist narratives” (how many should count? only two? why not more?) are more-or-less equivalently compelling and more-or-less equivalently righteous. This is the way many liberal Zionists interpret the conflict. It’s not the way I interpret it. Nor, for that matter, is it the way many Jews and most Palestinians interpret it.

For all their talk of “complexity” and “ambiguity,” the contributors to “Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict” are in fact as politically and morally engaged as those putative classroom brainwashers and ideologues who serve as their whipping-boys. Instead of being more scrupulous and balanced in their pedagogy, these authors simply have a particular historical and ethical “take” on the subject. (This is assuming they have any sort of “take” at all: some of the contributors may have no coherent view and some may be preoccupied with being seen as fair-minded, unpartisan and “objective” in order to stay out of trouble).

Consider this thought experiment: How might the professors who foreground the so-called complexity and dueling narratives of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict go about teaching, say, the history of race in America, or the rise and evolution of the settler-colonial regime in Algeria, or the origins and triumph of Nazism in Germany, or the advent and “meaning” of Trumpism?

Are each of these subjects “complicated”? You bet. Have historians narrated them in various ways? Certainly. Have each of them generated heated controversies? Of course. But would the professors who present themselves in the classroom as opaque when the subject is Israel/Palestine likewise foreground complexity, ambiguity and neutrality in their teaching of these other subjects? Unlikely.

Sure, they’d work to eschew oversimplification and facile moralizing. They’d indicate where interpretive controversies exist. They’d express agnosticism about one or another contentious scholarly “problem” and, in certain instances, leave it to students to adjudicate among plausible narratives. Some might make a sustained effort to have  students understand the white American mindset (including that of the slave owner and the practitioner of Jim Crow), see things through the eyes of Algerian pieds-noirs, and help them get inside the heads of German kleine leute (the little people) and avid MAGA supporters.

But would they be satisfied if their students left their courses confused about “who’s right?” and focused on the “ambiguity inherent” in their various subjects? Doubtful.

Now, suppose these scholars believed, as I do, that at the end of the day the Zionist-Palestinian conflict is not so very morally or politically ambiguous? Suppose they concluded  – not reflexively or “prejudicially,” but reflectively and honestly, based on historical evidence and analysis, that a great injustice has been, and continues to be, perpetrated on the Palestinians? Suppose they believed that the Zionist and Palestinian “narratives” were not “equivalent?” Would they pat themselves on the back for guiding their students into an epistemological and moral void? Wouldn’t they, on the contrary, strive to have their students come away with an understanding of the injustice?

A few of the contributors to “Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict” do, in fact, consider such vital questions, albeit haltingly and incompletely. To my mind, the most compelling and honest essays are those of Mira Sucharov, associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, and Philip Metres, professor of English at John Carroll University.

Sucharov eloquently describes her own pedagogical evolution. When she first began teaching the subject of Israel-Palestine, she “attempted to shut out politics from the classroom altogether. . . We are not going to play the ‘blame game,’ [she told] students on the first day of the course. We are not going to discuss, in the context of analyzing Israeli and Palestinian actions, who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong.'”

With the passage of time, however, she came to repudiate her “fifteen years of teaching a strictly explanatory approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations” and to develop “a more rights-forward voice . . . that embraces discourses of human rights and justice” and which consistently “keep[s] in mind the fact that Israel is currently the occupying power.”  Though still a liberal Zionist, Sucharov concludes that “calling rights-forward discourse a ‘blame game’ was misguided from the start. Perhaps it revealed a lack of confidence in my own ability to guide students through those charged debates. Retreating to explanatory questions felt safer.”

In a similar vein, Metres writes that, “I found that I needed to foreground . . . the vast asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians.”  Though his course continues to offer “more questions than answers,” he makes clear to his students “that a historical wrong was perpetrated against Palestinians and continues in the form of occupation and dispossession.”

Unfortunately, there are few other teaching voices in “Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict” that go as far as Sucharov and Metres in questioning the mantra of moral neutrality and “balance.” And most disturbing, none of the volume’s authors focuses attention on the elephant in today’s classroom: the well-organized and lavishly-funded assault on teachers and students critical of Israel and Zionism waged by the Israeli government and its American fellow-travelers. Ironically, the book’s most full-throated and extensive discussion of the current campus wars comes not from a critic of this assault but from one of its most avid supporters, Stanford professor of Humanities, Russell Berman. Indeed, Berman appears barely able keep his mind on the putative subject of his essay (the undergraduate course he teaches on “Zionism and the Novel”) so determined is he to vent his loathing of B.D.S (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions); to express the view that, “[c]ontemporary anti-Zionism has increasingly taken on antisemitic overtones;” to reargue a 2014 dispute with non-Zionist Stanford colleagues; and to fan the flames of McCarthyite vitriol against those who, unlike sober and fair-minded liberals like himself, believe that teachers should “impose their political opinions on their students.”

Philip Metres, from a poetry site.

Only Philip Metres explicitly calls attention to the concerted effort to stifle criticism of Zionism and Israel, though even his brief account is dated and provides no sense of the current threat to academic freedom. When, Metres recalls, “a member of the local Jewish community” sent a letter in 2007 to his university demanding that his course be cancelled because it was “preaching antisemitism, teaching propaganda, and brainwashing [the] students,” he was “heartened” that his department chair and dean supported his course. “Colleagues who teach similar courses have not always been so fortunate,” he writes.

No. They have not.

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… If there’s a foundational assumption shared by almost all the authors in the collection it’s that the Zionist-Palestinian conflict is altogether exceptional in its complexity and that introducing students to the subject requires extraordinary sensitivity and caution. … The I-P conflict is “exceptional in its complexity” thanks to the highly-successful promotion of Zionist ideology and propaganda: The notion that the religion-based identity of Jewish grants to those who choose to embrace it the “right”… Read more »

I’m not surprised! “It’s complicated” is a well known hypocritical excuse for Zionist racism!

Zionism is both a rational response to a historical challenge faced by the Jews and a colonialist movement that uprooted the Palestinians. Thus it is complicated.

The “complexity” cover story is the only way people today can discuss the I/P conflict without losing their careers to the wrath of the Israelis.

I’ll bet that the word “nuanced” is used a lot in this book.