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Home haq alawda Nakba Education on the Path of Return (Autumn 2009) Hearing Obama: How to Introduce an Authentic History of Contemporary Palestine Into the American High School

Hearing Obama: How to Introduce an Authentic History of Contemporary Palestine Into the American High School

Written by  Dan Walsh
Mark Rudin (Jehad Mansour), Poster from the First Intifada published by the Palestinian Popular Women's Committees, 1990 Mark Rudin (Jehad Mansour), Poster from the First Intifada published by the Palestinian Popular Women's Committees, 1990

"...I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts..."
- U.S. President Barak Obama in Cairo, June 4, 2009

 
Palestine is not just an Arabic and Islamic question: it is important to many different and contradictory worlds that intersect one another. Working for Palestine means being necessarily aware of such open dimensions… As Mandela kept saying during his own struggle, we must be aware of the fact that Palestine is one of the foremost moral issues of our time.”
- Edward Said, 2002
This essay focuses on a little-understood aspect of the process of “teaching Palestine” in American schools: Palestine’s unwarranted status as part of the “null curriculum.” In his book The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programs (1994), Elliot Eisner outlines four categories of modern curricula: formal, informal, hidden, and null. Briefly, the formal curriculum is that which is “officially approved” by some institutional authority. For high schools in the U.S., this is the state government. The informal curriculum is that which is actually taught in the classroom; in other words, it is what the teacher does with the formal curriculum. The hidden curriculum is any subsidiary or unplanned teaching and learning that takes place as a result of delivering the official curriculum but which is not “officially” part of it. The null curriculum, the category that I am focusing on here, is content that is specifically not taught.
 
An example of a null curriculum controversy that gets a great deal of attention in the U.S. is the one related to scientific “creationism.” Proponents of this religiously-based interpretation of the origins of life are waging a very public and organized national effort to leverage its idiosyncratic ideology out of its null status. The goal of the creationist movement is to insinuate its textbooks, lesson plans, and curriculum into the formal curricula in the hope of replacing evolution, a theory based on scientific methods and empirical evidence. They have been spectacularly unsuccessful to date. Much of the credit for this goes to the science educators who organized to challenge creationism in the classroom, in the state house, and in the media.
 
Over the course of the past sixty years innumerable resources (books, curricula, films, teachers’ guides, extra-curricular activities, extra-credit options, visiting lecturers programs, maps, websites and more) related to the contemporary Middle East have been designed and introduced into the American high school classroom. Yet the majority of American high school students, and teachers, remain practically illiterate regarding the region’s core conflict, the one between Palestinians and Zionists. What explains this? As a follow-up question I ask, is any area studies history more important for Americans to be studying in light of the events of September 11?
 
In my opinion, much of what passes for curriculum on Palestine is in fact, mis-education and a disservice to teachers, students, and the wider community. Moreover I consider it functionally impossible to teach the authentic history of the contemporary Palestinian-Zionist conflict in U.S. high schools using the currently available “formal” resources. Educators relying solely on those resources are doomed to fail because the formal curriculum does not teach to the standard established by the National Council for the Social Studies. Specifically, no formal curricula on Palestine that I have seen or read about teaches for "civic competence" which is the ability of students to take the lessons learned in school and apply them to their adult lives. Civic competence, in essence, is a blueprint for participatory citizenship. Instead, most formal curricula teach a form of history trivia on Palestine; for example, dates of obscure historical documents such as the White Paper (1939) and the Sykes–Picot Agreement (1916). The formal curriculum on Palestine is a clear example of what Paolo Freire called the “banking” system of education: schools deposit trifles via the curriculum and then withdraw them via tests. Nowhere are the students’ critical faculties engaged or strengthened.
 
Background
Between 2007 and 2009, as part of the research for my graduate thesis at Georgetown University, I surveyed the official textbooks used in the Montgomery County, Maryland school system to teach the history of the Palestinian-Zionist conflict. During this same period I also field-tested my thesis, what I call the New Curriculum Project, at several locations: two undergraduate history classes offered by the Modern Hebrew department of the University of Maryland, in College Park; an International Baccalaureate teachers seminar in Fairfax County, Virginia; two Middle East history classes at Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Montgomery Blair high schools; and at the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, in Washington, DC.
 
There is not sufficient space here to delve into all the shortcomings I discovered in the formal Montgomery County curriculum. Instead, I will pose three questions, each of which addresses a serious defect in the formal curriculum that I seek to rectify through the New Curriculum:
 
1) Where does the authentic historical arc of the Palestinian-Zionist conflict begin?
2) How can we overcome the debilitating effects on education of the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism?
3) What role can the poster art of the Palestinian-Zionist conflict play in creating and maintaining a positive learning environment?
 
Each of these questions is addressed below.
 
Begin At the Beginning
Where does the authentic historical arc of the Palestinian-Zionist conflict begin?
 
In every history book, syllabus, curriculum, and lesson plan that I reviewed in the course of my research, the origins of the Palestinian-Zionist conflict (variably called the “Arab-Israeli conflict,” the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict” or "the Middle East conflict") begin on May 14, 1948. This is the day that, as one textbook explains, “Israel declared its independence and the Arab countries invaded.”
 
Those committed to “teaching Palestine” must address a major historical flaw in existing classroom resources, one so obvious it is somewhat amazing that it has persisted to this day: the failure to integrate the critical period of Zionist colonial activity that took place in Palestine between 1897 and 1948. May 14, 1948, was indeed an important date. But the actual starting point for the discussion of the Palestinian-Zionist conflict is August 31, 1897. On this date, the First Zionist Conference in Basel, Switzerland approved the Basel Program, a detailed strategy for the colonization of Palestine. Its text declares that: “Zionism aims at establishing for Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.” Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, said of this day: "In Basel, I founded the Jewish state." This is the date that introduces American students to the processes and psychology of Zionism, not merely its main product, Israel. Study must begin in 1897 because that is the date which launches both Palestinian and Zionist curricula. By teaching from this authentic historical point American students can finally begin the study of the conflict on the same footing as students in Israel, Palestine and the rest of the world.
 
Creating a Comfort Zone
 

How can we overcome the debilitating effects on education of the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism?

New Anti-Semitism is the concept that a new form of anti-Semitism has developed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, emanating simultaneously from the left, the right, and fundamentalist Islam, and tending to manifest itself as opposition to Zionism and the state of Israel…Proponents of the concept argue that anti-Zionism, anti-Americanism, anti-globalization, third-worldism, and demonization of Israel, or double standards applied to its conduct, may be linked to anti-Semitism, or constitute disguised anti-Semitism. Critics of the concept argue that it conflates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, defines legitimate criticism of Israel too narrowly and demonization too broadly, trivializes the meaning of anti-Semitism, and exploits anti-Semitism in order to silence debate.

This definition, the Wikipedia entry for "New Anti-Semitism,” illustrates the circular, empty rhetoric that surrounds the term “anti-Semitism.” Many Americans keep at arm’s length from engagement with this topic because they fear being branded as “anti-Semitic” even though the meaning of the “anti-Semitism” label has become so confusing. According to the U.S. Department of State there is no “universally accepted” definition of the term. Moreover, new complex, multi-leveled and seemingly incomprehensible definitions appear, unannounced, on a regular basis. Given this state of affairs, how reasonable is it to ask a history educator to “teach Palestine” and risk running afoul of the projections of "New Antisemitism" (and by extension run the risk of ending up on the Campus Watch list or being the subject of a "hasbara" attack)?

 
Anti-Semitism, as defined in the first sense by Merriam-Webster’s New Third International Dictionary (unabridged), is, of course, real. However, the hysterical discourse surrounding the “New Anti-Semitism” is merely a diversion, a distraction from what is actually important: challenging the central idea of Zionism, that “combating anti-Semitism is futile” a concept derived from Theodor Herzl’s personal, subjective beliefs. Few Americans will accept the idea that racism or any other form of inequality cannot, and therefore should not, be fought. Such defeatism is not in keeping with American civic values or the principles of the Constitution. One has only to consider how the U.S. has changed over the past fifty years in terms of civil rights, women’s rights, Native American rights, gay rights, voting rights, labor rights, environmental rights, and even animal rights to get a sense of how Americans feel about the ability, indeed the moral obligation, of their society to face down its inner demons. Yet this is exactly what Zionism teaches its adherents about anti-Semitism – that it is everywhere, will never go away, and there is nothing one can do to eradicate it. Zionism does nothing to “combat” or abolish anti-Semitism: instead it seeks to exploit it politically. Zionism’s core principle is functionally anathema to the American experience yet, unfortunately, too few Americans have challenged Zionism’s misreading of American culture. Those who have, such as Norman Finkelstein, to name but one prominent educator who has written and spoken publicly on this issue, have paid an enormous personal and professional price for their courage.
 
Is there a way out of this morass? I believe there is by taking a page from the creationism drama. According to many science educators, the best way to confront the preposterous claims at the center of creationism is to have scientists challenge the purported “scientific evidence” that creationists put forward. Science educators have been very successful at poking holes in creationist attempts to justify their ideology as a scientific theory worthy of being taught. These educators engage the proponents of creationism according to the norms of American language usage and the laws of empiricism. I am suggesting here that "teaching Palestine" advocates adopt the exact same approach towards Zionism.
 
In the New Curriculum, an initial activity has students endorse an existing definition of Zionism and anti-Semitism or craft one of their own. They are invited to read their definitions aloud and defend them. This activity is central to breaking the false, reflexive conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. It promotes civic competence because it puts control over language into the hands of those who actually own the language: the students and teachers. By asserting their language rights, in this case by clearly stating the definitions that will be considered acceptable in class, the atmosphere in the classroom is improved immediately. Removing any doubts, early on, as to appropriate, agreed-upon terms demonstrates sensitivity to all views and establishes an open and supportive comfort zone for both students and teachers. This exercise primes the class for a teachable moment on Palestine.
 
“Anti-Semitism 1: hostility toward Jews as a religious or racial minority group often accompanied by social, political or economic discrimination. 2: opposition to Zionism. 3: sympathy with the opponents of the state of Israel.”- Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (unabridged), 
2002
 
Dictionary definitions are, in essence, social contracts; people voluntarily accept them because they make sense and reflect actual usage. The conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, for example as found in Merriam-Webster’s New Third International Dictionary (unabridged) is a prescriptive term; it does not reflect actual usage. Ordinary, mainstream Americans do not normally conflate the two terms. Only Zionists do that. In democracies, people are free to accept or reject prescribed terms. They can push back by crafting their own definitions. When students are given the opportunity to make an informed choice for their definition, they learn how to reflect upon and question a spectrum of political ideas they may have about Palestine and Israel.
 
Anti-Semitism, which has traditionally been defined as lies told in private about Judaism, now includes truths told in public about Zionism. Repudiating this contrived equivalence is key to creating an environment within which American teachers and students can embrace Obama’s call to "say openly the things we hold in our hearts."
 
The school as art space
What role can the poster art of the Palestinian-Zionist conflict play in creating and maintaining a positive learning environment?
 
A common feature of the discourse around the Palestinian-Zionist conflict is that it tends toward polarization. There is little, if any, neutral ground for rational, dispassionate conversation. Zionists project their assumption of an eternally hostile and universally anti-Semitic world onto all outside its boundaries. Palestinians, not surprisingly, dismiss this world view with contempt. The elevated degrees of passion that define the discourse are off-putting to disengaged, uninitiated Americans such as high school students. Furthermore, the bewildering mix of languages, histories, religions, political parties, geographies, symbols, and other layers of facts in this complicated story tends to intimidate most mainstream Americans. At a time when U.S. interests in the Middle East have never been more complex, such a self-defeating response needs to be addressed.
 
Ironically, the public discourses inside Israel and Palestine appear much more inclusive and democratic than the one that takes place, when it takes place, in the U.S. Perhaps this is because the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism (addressed in the question above) is a non-issue for Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis. In the U.S. an ostensibly outspoken exchange of opinions can be heard on cable TV, in Congress, at public demonstrations and over the Internet, but rarely in ordinary conversation. Many of these public exchanges are between ideological opponents and the language used often comes across as code or worse, as “weaponized.” The classroom, however, is not a battle zone: different values apply there and we do a disservice to education when we either forget or overlook this ideal.
 
The classroom should be a place for students to explore ideas without the fear of humiliation or denunciation. It is a place designed to lay the groundwork for deeper, adult-like thinking. Ideally, a classroom is a place free of ridicule – where one is never wrong so long as one is making an effort to learn.
 
Art has been an aid to learning for as long as there have been schools, yet no U.S. curriculum that I am aware of has ever taken systematic advantage of the art produced by the parties to the Palestinian-Zionist conflict. This is mystifying, given the sheer amount, and quality, of art that is created on and around the conflict. The recounting of the two historical narratives, that of Palestinian nationalism and political Zionism, is perhaps nowhere more eloquently told then in their respective poster art traditions – traditions that have no equal in any other historical genre. One has only to skim through the posters featured at the Palestine Poster Project Archives website to get a sense of the phenomenal creativity, nuance, and historical breadth that is locked into this unique and uniquely pedagogical genre. It is because of the Palestine poster's storytelling potential that I have designed the New Curriculum around it.
 
There are many reasons educators might want to consider using Palestine poster art in the classroom, but I will elaborate on just two key benefits:
 
1) The interpretation of art is a value-free activity. No reading of a poster is "right" or "wrong." Students can differ in their readings of the symbols, colors, language, texts, imagery, meaning, message and history of the posters without taking sides. Every opinion is legitimate. Students-as-viewers do not have to agree with each other and in not agreeing they do not have to become antagonists. In all the times I have presented the New Curriculum, the projection of a Palestine poster image on the screen followed by the question “what do you see in this poster?” has led to a rich and insightful exchange. Teachers have reported that the posters were the most successful technique they had observed for engaging their students in the study of the conflict.
 
2) When analyzing the Palestine posters in the New Curriculum, students do the speaking. This is a seminal change in the way the history of Palestine is taught in the U.S. Via the New Curriculum, the students get to say what their definition of anti-Semitism is. They get to compare definitions of Zionism and determine their own. They get to say whether or not they agree with the U.S. government's Middle East policy. They get to say whether or not the imagery in the Palestine posters is militant, beautiful, poetic, incomprehensible, disagreeable, or unforgettable. Through this vocalization, the students take their first step towards civic competence: they get to hear themselves say out loud what they think, feel, see, want, fear, and hope for relative to the contemporary Palestinian-Zionist conflict.
 
When the poster art of Palestine is used in the classroom, students assert their language rights, add their voices to the discourse, and reform the educational process. In effect, they forge a new democratic arena within which to register their positions relative to, in Said’s words, "one of the foremost moral issues of our time."
 
Conclusion
When American students articulate their opinions regarding Palestine posters, they set the stage for articulating their opinions as adults in society regarding Palestine itself thereby advancing civic competence. When the authentic arc of modern Palestine history is taught it is liberated from the null curriculum and becomes a candidate for inclusion in the formal curriculum, where it belongs. By asserting their language rights students practice public speaking, strike a meaningful blow against real anti-Semitism, and move the national discourse closer to a rational perspective on Palestine.

 

 

 

Dan Walsh

Dan Walsh

Dan Walsh is a graduate student at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. The New Curriculum Project is his master’s thesis which includes a searchable website currently featuring more that eleven hundred Palestine posters, from hundreds of sources. Several thousand additional Palestine posters are in the process of being added. The New Curriculum and the site are designed specifically for the use of American educators interested in incorporating the poster art of Palestine into their lessons. Access the New Curriculum or view the posters at: http://www.palestineposterproject.org