Why has the war in Gaza so attracted the attention of university students?

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Young people are passionate and incensed about the conflict in Gaza. I hope that comes as no surprise to anybody reading this; the wave of campus protests that began in the United States has also reached many UK universities. Lots of students are still currently in encampments demanding an immediate end to hostilities. Personally, I’ve heard these sentiments echoed by friends in every area of my life. Some are more expected; for example, I’ve seen fellow university graduates posting about the conflict daily. I’ve also seen fellow spoken-word poets speaking out frequently, from organising events dedicated to calling for a ceasefire to simply reading works that they were moved to write due to the current conflict. Perhaps hearing from these two groups isn’t anything unusual, as they are some of the more politically active people I know. What has really surprised me, though, is that even old secondary school friends have talked with me about this. We don’t tend to talk too much about politics while we hop on call and play videogames together. But for months now, on each of our weekly calls where we catch up and play Minecraft, the subject keeps coming up. Even those who aren’t actively attending the protests or otherwise politically engaged are affected deeply. They can’t help but discuss current events and what might bring an end to the conflict with their friends.

An important reason why I think this has struck my generation so deeply is the lack of coverage on this area (or indeed other contested, complicated and conflicting histories) throughout our history educations. While there are certainly other reasons and explanations, I think this one is particularly significant in part because I haven’t seen it discussed as much. History was a mandatory subject in school up to and including Key Stage 3, and I also chose to study it further at both GCSE and A-Level. Wherever possible, I chose to focus on modern history, particularly that of the 20th century as it felt the most relevant for learning why the world is in the state it currently is. Despite this, the topic of Israel and Palestine only ever came up once: when I was 18, during the second year of my A-Levels, Israel and Palestine were covered briefly as part of a unit on the British Empire from 1857 to 1967. We spent maybe two or three hour-long lessons covering the British Mandate in Palestine, focussing primarily on it as an example of British colonial policy in the wake of the First World War. Nothing prior to the Balfour declaration or after Britain gave up its Mandate over Palestine to the U.N. was given coverage. Those handful of hours, coming at the very tail-end of my history education, were far from comprehensive. Most notably, they were not centred directly on the perspectives of the people living in the region, but rather on British perspectives rather than those of Arabs or Jews. What’s more, this all came as part of an optional module at a level of study where history as a subject had been optional for years. This means that the limited coverage I received was still more than the vast majority of people in my age bracket ever received on the subject.

I understand that no education in history can be completely comprehensive, because the field is so huge. However, I have distinct memories of covering some periods of history multiple times over: World War 2 was covered in Key Stages 2 and 3, plus again at both GCSE and A-Level. Likewise, coverage of the Tudors came up throughout Primary and Secondary schools as well as again at college. These are undoubtably interesting and important areas of history to cover, don’t get me wrong. I’m very glad I got to learn about these things, and I’m not trying to argue against them being taught. However, when the same areas of history are repeated and reinforced throughout a child’s education, while leaving blind spots in areas where contested histories and perspectives still cause conflict to this day, this can give the impression that we are expected not to care about those areas. It’s not that they are being actively hidden or suppressed, but rather that they are deemed ‘unimportant’ by their lack of coverage or selection. In addition, by focussing solely on these more ‘uncontroversial’ areas of history, we don’t adequately prepare students to grapple with contested and conflicting histories. I think that’s a big reason as to why there has been such a swell of emotion in younger generations on Israel and Palestine; our generation sees a history being written actively- a terror attack that claimed over 1000 lives and months of conflict afterwards claiming over 35,000 more- and feels as though by lack of any coverage beforehand that we were expected not to care.

I worry that part of why areas of history such as that of Israel/Palestine are not covered is due to a sense (be it an active decision or unconscious bias) that such conflicts and regions are ‘too far away’ for young British people to care about. Even putting aside the fact that many British students have family connections to the region (which we absolutely shouldn’t do- their perspectives matter!), this is just simply wrong. In an increasingly globalised social media age, these ‘far away’ places are closer to us than ever before. Updates come in every minute directly to our phones, sometimes even live as they are happening. Images of what is occurring every day aren’t just on the evening news- they reach our pockets and hands every minute. We now live in an information age where thousands of miles can be crossed in seconds; there is no such thing as a place that is ‘too far away’ to care about.

Exclusively teaching the history of student’s home nation, including repeating less controversial areas or centring national perspectives over those of others, leaves those students unmoored in navigating conflicts outside of their homes, which are now more visible in their lives than ever before. The goal of education is and always should be preparing future generations to address the problems of the world that we cannot, to create smarter and more thoughtful people. We simply can’t do that in such a globalised world without teaching them about global conflicts, including those that might seem contested or controversial. It’s impossible to stop people from seeing and caring about these faraway places; it is vital for teachers to address them directly and help their students to understand how we’ve reached the current day in order to learn what solutions are viable and may help us move towards a more peaceful, better world.

Charlie Ridey, an editorial intern at Parallel Histories, reflects on his experience studying the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict at school. Charlie is a graduate of the University of Birmingham with a BA in English Literature and a MA in Creative Writing (Distinction). His work with Parallel Histories included editorial and publishing work and database management.

Picture credit: Derek Williams, Edinburgh University Old College Quad. This was taken during the Gaza protest, 11 May 2024, accessed via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence