Teaching Conflict: Israel, Palestine, and the Classroom

Jennifer D. Klein
“I have found that the land is fragile, and the sea, light; I have learned that language and metaphor are not enough to restore place to a place…. Not having been able to find my place on earth, I have attempted to find it in History, and History cannot be reduced to a compensation for lost geography.”

–Mahmoud Darwish

Part of me always hoped I’d never have to share these strategies again, even if it was unrealistic to hope that this part of the world, which I’ve loved so deeply from all sides of the million meandering apartheid walls, would ever find sustainable peace.  For over a decade, I worked with the Research Journalism Initiative, helping teachers bring Palestinian voices into their curriculum and classrooms.  It was the hardest work I’ve ever done, but nothing compared to the suffering of those who live under oppression every day.  With the help of exceptional partners around the world, we learned together how to help students build more complete understandings of the world by teaching them to hear--and seek out--marginalized voices.

When things are “calm” in the region, they’re never really calm, and I live with nagging, continual guilt that I’m able to ignore the conflict.  I turned away from the work with the exhaustion of an activist who just couldn’t argue with another Zionist, who just couldn’t take being called a “self-hating Jew” another time, fully aware that I have friends, genetic family really, who can never turn away.  I've continued to live by the rules of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDSM), but quietly more than publicly. Today, listening to Jen Psaki aggressively attack questions about Palestinian rights and assert Israel’s right to defend themselves (with US-paid missiles against homemade rockets), and to stories of intra-community violence in Israeli cities that are home to both Jews and Palestinians, I can’t stay silent.

This post isn’t to explain my thinking or opinions on the matter, however.  I’ve done plenty of writing on my own views and experiences before, and yeah, someday I’ll write my memoir and tell the whole story.  This post offers strategies for teachers, who I know hesitate to address Palestinian perspectives when they feel unequipped—or teach the conflict from textbooks and media sources that offer only a tiny part of the broader narrative and history.  I simply pray that these strategies and resources are useful, and that teachers across the world will ensure their students have access to the “other side” of the story as well.  What I know for certain is that young people exposed to marginalized voices become adults who act to defend the rights of the vulnerable, something I've seen again and again with my own former students.


Know Your History

Educational textbooks—and the media—misrepresent the complexities of history far too often; that is, they are written from the perspective of those in power, not those under oppression, generating a climate in which “alternative sources” are deemed dangerous.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far from the only example of this. I don’t need to go into a whole tangent about why and how our textbook and media companies benefit from the narrative that Israel is the victim, but I do recommend that teachers look at alternative sources.  Take a look at the work of Anna Baltzer, an American Jew who captured the bigger picture of the First and Second Intifadas, from the Palestinian perspective, with heart and thought. Unpack claims that this conflict is about religion or security, that it’s a war thousands of years old that begins with an old testament story.  It’s not.  It doesn't begin with Abraham or the choice between Isaac and Ishmael; it begins with the partition of lands in 1948, which is why Palestinians often refer to Israel as "the 48."

Get kids looking beyond what their textbooks tell them, teaching them to ask better and better questions through techniques such as the Question Formulation Technique, which helps ensure their questions are truly open ended.  Get them asking questions about the timeline of events, even crafting a more complete timeline or curriculum that includes more perspectives.  It is not anti-Semitic to explore history from a variety of perspectives; it’s what good historians do.


Know Your Geography

When studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, maps from a wide variety of periods are key.  I have yet to find a good three-dimensional map that shows the current layering of Israeli-controlled, Palestinian-controlled, and “shared” control regions, but plenty of organizations are trying to get close.  It’s particularly important that students look at maps which help them see how and why land ownership and control has changed over time.  Aljazeera has put together a particularly good collection of links to maps called “Mapping Annexation,” though you may need to combine their resources with the BBC’s to avoid being accused of leaning too much toward Arab perspectives.  

Google Earth won’t be much help because of agreements they maintain with Israel; all walls and partitions are blurred out completely.  Finding an actual, legitimate map of the walls around the West Bank and Gaza, many portions of which cut Palestinian neighborhoods and communities in half, is very difficult, though you can easily find articles about the powerful protest art posted on many sections.  I also like this video map of Imperial History in the Middle East, and this other on the Spread of Religions, for helping students understand, more generally, how different cultures and ideologies have moved—which of course invites them to ask why and investigate more deeply.

Read more on word choices and corrected headlines here.

Teach Students to Read for Bias and to Question the Headlines

It’s important for students to understand that bias is as natural as anything about us as humans; our experiences shape ideas and assumptions we carry our whole lives unless we take the time to unpack, understand and deconstruct them.  Doing so is essential across the curriculum, and reading news about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is all about the art of teaching kids to unpack and understand bias through deep critical thinking activities on perspectives in the news.

Some teachers choose the articles for students, while others let students investigate for themselves, but the basic design of inquiry is the same regardless: choose any current event, such as Israel’s refusal to follow a ceasefire on May 13th, 2021, and look at it with kids through half a dozen media sources, from the most Israeli-leaning to the most Palestinian-leaning.  Many years ago, I developed an adaptable chart that students can use to chart and understand the differences between how these various sources depict the event—who is at fault, what the headline suggests, how Palestinians or Israelis are depicted. The goal isn’t to decide what really happened, but to understand how bias makes its way into our news and know how to notice and deconstruct it.  This strategy works for basically any topic or region with divided views, from the attack on the US capitol to the news out of Cuba, and employing it regularly will help normalize its use with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Complement the Headlines with Primary Sources and the Arts

Just as we need to make sure students hear the voices of Holocaust survivors, of Japanese immigrants interned in the US, and of the survivors of any cataclysmic moment in history, we need to bring Palestinian voices into our classrooms.  There are Palestinians in exile across the globe, and the great majority would love to share their stories with your students, particularly in moments like now, when understanding and solidarity are all the more important. Of course, this won’t actually be easy in many educational communities, but it’s important to contextualize the inclusion of diverse voices as a very normal and appropriate practice when it comes to any topic in any school.

Literature is often an easier entry point, and educator Betsey Coleman offers myriad resources for teaching about the Middle East through literature. A collection of short Middle Eastern stories put together by Harvard remains among my favorites as well. And while we no longer keep online the storehouse of presentations, video poems, interviews, art and photographs that used to be housed by the Research Journalism Initiative, I still have all of those resources—just drop me an email and I’m glad to support your work.  Over the years, we learned that using poetry and art, particularly if it was an act of co-creation among students from the US and Palestine, was one of the best ways to circumvent political tensions and get to the real human experience in a meaningful way.  


Create Space for Individual Reflection

This is not an easy topic for many students, particularly Jewish ones.  It’s not easy for teachers, either.  It triggers deep pains and allegiances on all sides. Coming into my own understanding of the conflict at 17 remains the greatest, oldest grief I carry in my heart. My pro-Palestinian rights work has cost me friends, colleagues, even family. We don’t need to assure students reach a specific opinion, either, or make them decide and declare their personal perspectives in our presence. But we definitely need to build space into our curriculum for students to journal, to wonder, to question and to struggle. Some of them will stick doggedly to the ideas they were raised with, and that’s ok. Some of them may be a little broken by seeing what humans are capable of doing to each other, and we need to be ready to support them. And we need to be prepared for them to want some of their reactions to stay private.

I always had my students keep a journal, filled with a combination of literary analysis and personal reflections.  My students knew they always had the right to fold a page or pages over if they got into something more personal than they wanted to share.  I reminded them of this right every time the journal topic was particularly likely to bring out an emotional or challenging reaction.  The kids who didn’t trust me yet would staple their pages together, which made me laugh, but I never broke confidence with my students.  And, not surprisingly, more and more pages were left unfolded as time progressed, a sign that certain students really did want to talk about whatever they were writing about.  

The same will be true with journaling on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Hold space for every sort of response, and let students keep it to themselves as they need or want to.  But also keep your eyes open for those who want—and maybe even need—to have a conversation with you.  How you respond to their pain will help define what they do with it, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

Find Creative Avenues for Action

Some students will get angry and want to find avenues for action to support Palestinians.  However, I don't necessarily recommend you build a pro-Palestinian action component into your curriculum, particularly in the US, if you sense you have even one student feels differently.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict mirrors many conflicts folks don’t get quite as worked up about; I know some very savvy teachers who have developed action components around solidarity with any given community under attack, with multiple interpretations of “attack,” at the end of a unit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This approach holds space for some students to act in solidarity with Palestinians if they want to, and for others to choose communities that matter to them. For the same reason, I wouldn’t encourage group actions, unless students are affinity mapped in a non-threatening way that ensures you don’t receive a dozen parent phone calls asking why their child has been forced to act for Palestinian rights.


Make it about People More than Politics

Above all, it’s important that any exploration of what’s happening in Israel-Palestine be grounded in humanizing everyone involved, and positioning it in the broader context of peace and conflict around the world.  Over the years, I found that the more directly political the conversation was, the less effectively teachers could manage the way students, parents and even their bosses responded.  The more we made it about humans, about connecting with real people who wanted to share their real experiences, the more easily including Palestinians became. The more we encouraged teachers to do the same explorations across other nations in conflict, the less the conversation was about balance, though we never escaped that accusation (which I still find absurd, given how unbalanced the conversation is already).  We grounded a lot of our work in Nelson Mandela, in Martin Luther King, in Desmond Tutu, in international law, in the UN Charter and in leaders who had to choose between violence and peace on their march toward sovereignty.  The more we could focus on really listening to diverse voices, honoring them authentically, and teaching kids to look for the deeper experience when any set of voices were being silenced, the easier the work became, and the more rewarding.

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