A truce in the Israel-Palestine curriculum wars

Adherence to four key curricular principles will restore the intellectual integrity lacking from most courses about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

July 26, 2015 22:06
4 minute read.
Palestinians supporting Hamas chant slogans during a rally celebrating Hamas student supporters

Palestinians supporting Hamas chant slogans during a rally celebrating Hamas student supporters winning the student council election at Birzeit University in Ramallah. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Last spring, an investigation revealed that the Boston University-affiliated organization Axis of Hope was running role-playing exercises which singled out Jewish students to act as Hamas members during mock negotiations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

According to the Axis of Hope founder, whose program has been taught to thousands of students around the world, Hamas officials “have chosen to support change in the Gaza Strip... and parts of the West Bank by more peaceful means than intifada.” This is a curious description of a terrorist organization hellbent on Israel’s destruction.

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Educators and parents should denounce this workshop, and the many others like them, whose partisan agendas stifle open discourse about Israel and Palestine. But critics too often become quality control managers who insert themselves only when educational malpractice occurs. As a history educator who has witnessed the increasingly politicized nature of education in America, I believe that adherence to four key curricular principles will restore the intellectual integrity lacking from most courses about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Firstly, a balanced curriculum should open up space for students to wrestle with claims about moral equivalence between the actions of the Israelis and the Palestinians. When teachers discourage these conversations, they send the disturbing message that assigning blame or fault in the conflict is a sign of an unsophisticated intellect. Boston University president Robert Brown, a supporter of Axis of Hope, admits that the program is based upon the premise that “all parties to a conflict (nation-state or territorial entities) are morally equivalent,” a foolish assumption that delegitimizes the views of students who do not accept this worldview.

Students should never be required to check their moral compass at the door.

Placing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within an accurate historical context is the second way that educators can complicate the reductive sound bites that inundate students. Instructors are quick to reprimand Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem following the 1967 War, but neglect to mention the Jordanian attacks that precipitated the Israeli response. Teachers bombard students with statistics about the number of checkpoints in the West Bank, but shy away from acknowledging the barbarous violence initiated by the PLO during the intifadas. By downplaying certain events and overemphasizing others, educators present an oversimplified version of events that does not reflect the multifaceted roots of the conflict.

Thirdly, the scope of current events discussions in a curriculum should extend beyond the present obsession with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud Party politics. Of course, students should scrutinize Netanyahu’s recent comments about the present viability of a two-state solution, but they should also discuss Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s praise of a Palestinian terrorist as a “martyr defending the rights of our people and its holy places.” When students listen to an interview of a Palestinian child who lost a parent during the war in Gaza last summer, they should read the account of a parent whose son was killed while attempting to destroy Hamas tunnels.

Teachers who reference articles in class must also keep in mind that The New York Times is not the only newspaper of record – a point that might be obvious to some but deserves repeating...

and repeating. Unless teachers integrate sources with disparate frames of reference, class discussions will mimic the echo chamber of America’s media outlets.

The fourth characteristic of an effective curriculum does not relate to the subject matter conveyed to students, but to the degree of transparency provided to parents and other community members. Early in the school year, teachers should speak with any interested parents who want a preview of the content that will be taught. It is regrettable that conversations between parents, teachers and administrators usually take place only after a disagreement occurs about the information presented in class. As in any discipline, teachers will always have the final say over their instruction, but parents deserve the right to ask questions or express concerns about a curriculum that very well may exclude legitimate viewpoints.

Creating a credible curriculum about Israel and Palestine is a daunting task, as the many educators revising lectures and lesson plans over the summer know. To be sure, students would be disserved by lectures informed only by IDF talking points. Yet today it is the demonization of Israel that prevents many young American students from grasping the complexity of the conflict. The intellectually dishonest nature of current courses undermine students’ ability to reach a goal that even the most vehement critics of Israel should share – charting a viable path to peace.

The author is a history teacher at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Massachusetts. He is a former Netivot Fellow in Jewish Leadership at Harvard College and and a Pforzheimer Fellow in School Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education..

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