Approaches to Teaching Israel–Palestine
The AHA’s History Behind the Headlines Webinar
On December 7, an AHA webinar, History Behind the Headlines: Approaches to Teaching Israel–Palestine, brought together historians to address how teachers in both K–12 and higher education classrooms can help students engage with this very sensitive topic. As AHA executive director James Grossman stated in his introductory remarks, “our goal for this conversation is to generate light, not heat.”
AHA Council member Katharina Matro (Walter Johnson High School) led off the discussion, saying that she is “one of those teachers reaching out to the AHA, telling them ‘Help me!’” At a time when local communities feel like they have a stake in what happens in the social studies classroom, Matro said, many teachers feel safer avoiding any discussion of the current conflict in the Middle East. Yet “we find ourselves in this circumstance in which students are actually genuinely interested,” and they’re turning to their history teachers with questions. “For the first time, they are interested in being in my classroom!” she said. But teachers fear getting it wrong and being reprimanded for it. She asked, “How can we help teachers help students learn how we got here in a way that incorporates many different angles of vision, but without having to worry or fear inadvertently favoring just one narrative or one side?” A second context for high school teachers is the time constraints. Many teachers will only get one 45-minute class session to discuss this topic and are finding themselves unsure where to even begin. “How can a teacher teach this conflict with sufficient nuance in a short amount of time” she asked, “to students who probably don’t even know how to place Egypt or Israel on a map?”
For Michelle Campos (Penn State Univ.), there is a wrong way to teach this history, similar to the wrong ways to teach any history—ahistorically, privileging one perspective or side, or to “exceptionalize it.” Events in Israel–Palestine are often presented in the US media, popular culture, and even textbooks as an exceptional narrative that occurs “outside of history.” So first it is important for teachers to treat it as they do other historical conflicts. She recommends using the history discipline core, which resulted from the AHA’s Tuning project, and the 5 Cs of historical thinking—change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity. Applying the same framework is “a way of normalizing this history” and can show that we treat this topic like any other rather than as a one-of-a-kind narrative. “Current events are not just facts that can be debated because of people’s predisposed ideological positions,” she said, but we can focus on historical evidence, sources, and historians’ interpretations and arguments to de-exceptionalize the conflict and connect it to the skills students are learning. This strategy allows students to make connections with what they know from other places and times—such as the emergence, mobilization, and contestation of nationalist movements; migration patterns; colonialism; or other topics already covered in your course. She also encourages teachers to acknowledge what they don’t know to their students. You can help them to learn about how to evaluate expertise and to read critically (especially what they see online) even without being a content expert. Time constraints affect all teachers. “There’s never going to be a 45-minute or even 15-week answer,” she said, but you can instill students with the foundational tools to think historically and better understand what they see in the media.
Omer Bartov (Brown Univ.) proposed avoiding use of the phrase “teaching the conflict.” “Much of the history is not a history of conflict,” he explained. “There is conflict there. But people live daily lives, they have cultures, memories, and histories. And not all of them are part of the conflict.” He continued, “If you focus on just the conflict, you have, in a sense, predetermined what you’re going to teach.”
How can a teacher teach this conflict with sufficient nuance in a short amount of time to students who probably don’t even know how to place Egypt or Israel on a map?
It is essential, Bartov explained, to provide a historical framework of facts, geographies, and chronologies, of which most students lack knowledge. He recommends using personal histories, whether through memoirs, diaries, or fiction to help. This history is “something that is experienced by people, not just by opinions and ideologies and interpretations.” Using primary sources, Bartov suggested, enables students to enter “very close to the event itself.” It gives “an immediacy of the moment at which something was written that echoes through decades.” It also helps students to see differences in interpretation between what their textbooks tell them and what they can discern through their own understandings of the primary sources.
Ussama Makdesi (Univ. of California, Berkeley) then turned to the imperative of context. Historians are accustomed to teaching about times of struggle, in places like apartheid-era South Africa or the Jim Crow South. Yet we don’t only talk about those eras as a “conflict,” but as a problem, an issue. Thinking about how you teach contexts like apartheid can provide a model for how you approach Israel–Palestine. Like Bartov, he emphasized how personal narratives alongside other primary source documents can help to humanize all sides in this history, as there aren’t only two sides. Students can debate and discuss based on their readings and primary source documents, but the teacher should always bring it back to those documents and the history. Historicizing this place will humanize it.
Moderator James Ryan (Foreign Policy Research Inst.) asked the panelists to share specific approaches, questions, or primary sources that they have found effective in stimulating empathetic classroom discussions. Campos encourages the use of documentaries (or clips from them) as a way to help students become more familiar with the region. “The picture they have of what the region looks like, what the people look like or even sound like, is quite distorted,” she said, so film can be helpful to “familiarize students with the visuals and sonics of the place.” In terms of documents, Campos suggested providing sources from perspectives that students new to this history might find surprising, given their other media engagement. These might include pre–World War I Jewish criticisms of Zionism; secular Palestinian voices from the mandatory period, which can illustrate Palestine’s modernity; and the history of Mizrahi Jews (who are descended from Jewish communities from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa).
In one course, Bartov suggests connections between histories that are usually taught separately. “You can study a history of Eastern Europe, or a history of the Holocaust, or a history of World War II,” he said. “Or you can study a history of the Middle East, a history of Zionism, a history of Palestinian nationalism. But they don’t meet. In fact,” Bartov continued, “they do meet. And there aren’t just connections between them, people moved from one historiography to another.” His course discusses the Holocaust and the Nakba as events that can be identified historically and seen through time. The course “speaks about two historical traumas, the connections between them, displacement of people from one place to another, from that place to yet another.” For readings, he recommends fiction, including Ghassan Kanafani’s Return to Haifa (which can also be viewed as a theatrical adaptation) and A. B. Yehoshua’s Facing the Forests, and clips from the film Waltz with Bashir.
Provide sources from perspectives that students new to the history of the topic might find surprising.
In approach, Makdisi reminds us that “objectivity is not neutrality.” He stressed the need to get students thinking about fundamental issues like objectivity, periodization, and evidence-based historical argument. “Their job is not to agree or disagree with me, based on anything,” Makdisi said, “but actually to grapple with the sources and to formulate a historical argument based on historical evidence.” To Kanafani’s Return to Haifa, he added a recommendation for the author’s Men in the Sunand Other Palestinian Stories. He is “acutely aware” as a Palestinian himself “that if Palestinians say something, they’re not going to be believed.” So he recommends Tantura, a recent documentary about a 1948 massacre that includes the perspectives of Israeli soldiers, as well as a Palestinian production such as the 2021 feature film Farha, to emphasize Palestinians’ writing and thinking not just as primary sources but as people interpreting this history themselves. The “essence of what we do as historians” is historicizing and humanizing.
Grossman closed the webinar with a reminder that historians “wrestle all the time” with concepts such as “neutrality,” “objectivity,” and “evidence-based.” The AHA Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct reflects on the “tensions, questions, and skepticism” discussed by the panelists. The issue of censorship was also raised during the conversation, and it’s important to be aware of the recent increase in pressures on teachers coming from a variety of directions. The AHA supports the rights of all teachers to teach history with integrity, including about difficult topics like the modern Middle East.
Laura Ansley is senior managing editor at the AHA.
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