Grasping the nettle – Teaching Israel and Palestine

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Talking about Israel and Palestine is like walking into a battlefield where the missiles are tweets or lawyers’ letters thrown by armchair belligerents who seem more intransigently hostile than the real-life combatants, and woe betide anyone who isn’t clearly on one side or another.

The demands that political activists make on teachers are simply unrealistic as well as unreasonable. Both sides want Israel and Palestine taught in the classroom but, and the but is a huge obstacle here, only if the subject is taught in the way they want it to be taught. The result is that only the bravest teachers with strong support from school leadership will teach it – most teachers shy away from teaching it for fear of saying the wrong thing and exposing themselves to criticism of bias.

However, as the demonstrations in schools last week have shown, students remain very interested in Israel and Palestine and in the absence of teaching in school have been educating themselves online. When they have come into school bringing their passion and energy for human rights or one-sided and prejudiced hostility to Israel (depending on your point of view) their teachers have struggled to find the right response. In one school in London the school chose to fly a LGBTQ flag but refused to fly a Palestinian flag. The students’ response was that the school was promoting one kind of human rights which in their community they didn’t care about, over another kind of human rights which they did. Headteachers have described themselves as ‘feeling exposed’.

But there is a huge opportunity here for teachers and schools. This topic in schools is like the proverbial nettle -it needs to be grasped firmly. If you edge around it, you’ll get stung. But if the school is proactive and choses to teach it as part of the curriculum rather than a bolt on assembly as part of a damage limitation exercise, the educational benefits are huge.  In our view the best way to do this is to teach each historical narrative separately and then challenge the students to examine the arguments and evidence to come to their own view. This is teaching students how to think, not what to think, and it takes the teacher out of the firing line because they are not having to be the ‘umpire of the truth’.

There are now over 200 schools using this method and there are some brilliant examples of teachers like Meredith who teaches history in a school which is 99% Bangladeshi Muslim heritage. For her the experience of teaching Israel and Palestine has been hugely rewarding. She asked her students to reflect on the process and she blogged about it too. With their permission I’ve included some extracts below.

This is what the students said:

‘It’s a much more complex situation than I understood before, and the media has failed to portray this. I hope more people become enlightened, as the least we can do is be educated on the matter before making a judgement.’

‘Our lessons with Parallel Histories taught us about the complexity of the Israel/Palestinian conflict dating back since before World War One – shedding light on the different catalysts of friction between the two countries over the course of a century’

‘The complicated nature of the Israel/Palestinian conflict is extremely significant because it emphasises how disputes can never be black and white and how they become vulnerable to biased viewpoints – especially through the media – twisting and misreporting the reality of the war to portray either side as in the wrong’

‘While Palestinians have had a centuries-long possession of the land, we learnt that the Hebrew Bible essentially stated that this belonged to the Jews – it showed us how catalysts for the conflict extend beyond political reasons’

‘I believe for the region; it is important that a sense of calm is seen where innocent lives are not sacrificed for political/religious motives. For Palestinians, it is important to understand the historical angle of the Jewish who were promised this land through the Hebrew Bible and similarly for the Israel to not sacrifice human lives for territorial gain’

‘Students should definitely approach studying a conflict like this with an open and calculated mind in order to avoid any misguided conclusions and emotive beliefs. Although each individual is entitled to their own belief on the situation, studying conflict should be approached with a mind-set that wills to understand all types of angles and takes’

‘When studying a conflict, students should acknowledge the fact that there are always two sides to an affair, even if they maintain a biased view. As history students, they should always approach conflict from both perspectives, understanding each sides’ reasons for the conflict and how these reasons lead to such friction’

 And their praiseworthy teacher:

‘The national curriculum and exam boards in the UK have narrowed our curriculums, and the issues like this, which actually ignite passion for learning, are omitted over fears of controversy or uncomfortable discussion.

‘The schemes of work developed with Parallel Histories taught me to present conflicting narratives with confidence, and ensure pupils were able to see beyond the scope of their ‘bubble’

‘I must admit, the first time I delivered the module, I was nervous. Would there be parental backlash? Would students willingly listen to a narrative that challenged their perceptions?’

 ‘Pupils were able to empathise with both perspectives, despite their initial stance. In fact, their most frequent comments have reflected upon why there is need to blame, and that in fact the focus of those with the power to act should be on reconciliation’

‘I no longer feel nervous when I start educating on the conflict; the support given by Parallel Histories mean that as a teacher I understand how conflict should be taught, and as a person I understand the importance of this for helping the next generation prepare for the wider world.’

Michael Davies is the Editor and Founder of Parallel Histories