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New Texts Out Now: Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman, The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans

[Cover of Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman, [Cover of Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman, "The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans"]

Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman, The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans: Addressing Pedagogical Strategies. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011.

Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?

Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman: The book started off as something quite different than what I intended. I began my research in the summer of 2005 with the intention of examining how Palestinian and Israeli youth produce cultural and political change together as "equal" partners for "peace." Obviously, at the time I held a typically liberal, soft Zionist, and rather naive understanding of the situation. I was teaching at Al Quds University in Abu Dies and working with the International Solidarity Movement while conducting research at Seeds of Peace. The combination of these activities raised a number of questions for me. It did not take long for me to realize that Seeds of Peace and other coexistence organizations were tools used by Israelis to further entrench colonial policies by normalizing relationships that were anything but normal under the guise of working for peace. The unequal power dynamics I observed and the structural inequalities within the organization made me alter both my political point of view and my book project after a relatively short period of time.

The questions that lingered for me, however, remained. I still felt there was something related to children and youth, especially Jewish youth in the United States, who were educated in a way that taught and reinforced the normalcy of inequality between Israelis and Palestinians, even when teachers appropriated the language of "peace." I decided to see how that happens in the United States and researched American Hebrew school curricula to see what Jewish Americans learn about Zionism, and how that has changed over time and trickled into mainstream American schools. Given how dependent Israel is on financial and political support from the United States, I thought it would be important to trace this history while also suggesting methods of intervening in it. The first half of my book focuses on the problems of education and coexistence models, while the second half offers specific ideas about how to teach Americans about Palestine in American schools as a way of disrupting Zionism.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

MJK-N: The book has three major components. It starts with a history of how American Jews have been indoctrinated with Zionism, particularly since 1967. I explore the way that American Hebrew schools slowly replaced subjects like the Bible and Hebrew with a Zionist curriculum and how various changes in the political landscape emboldened their curriculum. The second chapter covers coexistence, otherwise known as normalization. Many former Zionists, myself included, often look to Palestinian and Israeli coexistence as a paradigm that seems deceptively logical as a way to achieve "peace," whether used in an educational or activist context. I explore both coexistence programs like Seeds of Peace, as well as literary and cinematic texts that portray normalization; these are often texts that get adopted for classroom use because their politics are palatable even to liberal Zionists. The final two chapters are the heart and soul of the book. It shifts from these negative models of Zionism or soft Zionism into illustrating how one should teach Americans about Palestine. I use a framework, inspired by educators like Paolo Freire and Howard Zinn, to provide teachers with both texts they can use in the classroom to teach American students about Palestine as well as a method they can adopt in order to do so in a way that is respectful of Palestinian voices and rights.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

MJK-N: My last book was about quite a different subject, breast cancer. However, the idea undergirding both books is similar. My research interest focuses on the way in which culture can be used to create political change. With breast cancer, I wrote about how women's writing about the disease was used to intervene in repressive medical practices and public policies. In that context, it was not hard to prove that these cultural texts played a role in facilitating significant changes. With this new book, the idea is that the cultural texts I hope teachers will incorporate into their classes could ultimately have that same effect. In the United States, there is a long history of literature and film moving people to act—whether we're talking about the abolitionist movement or the civil rights movement. I argue that these texts about Palestine can have the same kind of effect on American students, although, of course, it also matters how teachers use these texts in the classroom. 

[Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman. Photo by Tamara Qiblawi.]

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MJK-N: I wrote this book primarily for teachers in the United States, although certainly activists who do work in churches or community centers or on college campuses can benefit from it. The examples I use in the book are subjects already found in a typical US social studies or English curriculum that can easily be connected to Palestinian historical and cultural texts. My hope is that teachers wanting to incorporate Palestine into the classroom can select from the various music, film, literature, art, and historical texts I analyze and find a way to integrate them into teaching they are already doing.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MJK-N: The research for this book pushed me to think about teaching in the United States, but because I have been teaching in the Arab world I also spent quite a bit of time thinking about teaching here. One of the issues I've come up against repeatedly is the way in which the United States pushes an educational and cultural agenda in countries like Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon in a neocolonial manner, often through USAID. I want to spend time investigating this context, as well as the actual textbooks that teachers in English-language programs use, to see what kind of messages students glean from these sources and what kind of impact it has on Arab youth. Given the way that the media—both news media and Hollywood films—saturate the region and occupy the minds of many youth, I think it is important to consider how textbooks are reinforcing those images. When youth internalize negative images about themselves and the part of the world they come from and that gets reiterated in a classroom, the long-term effects can be quite damaging.

Excerpt from The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans: Addressing Pedagogical Strategies

Those who grow up Zionist, because of family or Hebrew school, have a lot of unlearning to do. When I first embarked on this journey, I considered the point of view of Israelis and Palestinians equally, imagining that a just solution would begin by "both sides" creating change together. When I  began to witness what coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis looked like, and pondered what it meant for Palestinians, I discovered inconsistencies in my thinking. Having studied and taught African American literature, I analogized the contexts: in my classes I didn’t teach writings by slaveholders alongside Frederick Douglass. Nor did I teach writings of the Ku Klux Klan with Gwendolyn Brooks's poems about lynching. Certainly, I included contextual documents such as advertisements for runaway slaves or relevant laws; but those documents were used to explain the history of state-sanctioned oppression. Why was my instinct now to place the oppressed and oppressor on equal footing? While it is not a perfect parallel, it gives an indication of how my ideas evolved.

Most [coexistence] films are produced by Americans and illustrate how Zionist colonization of Palestine, even when trying to establish “balance,” is always viewed through an Israeli prism. But the struggle is not equal in this colonizer-colonized dichotomy. When the language and historical context, or lack thereof, is analyzed it becomes clear that the objectives are always threefold: first, to make sure Israelis feel secure; second, that Palestinian expulsion and their right of return is obscured by presenting historical roots in 1967 rather than 1948; third, Israelis are always represented more extensively, and their suffering rendered visible through newsreels. Palestinians call coexistence normalization because it normalizes a relationship that is anything but normal. It exposes some of the deep structural inequalities that exist for Palestinians. It also illustrates the problems that arise when one considers "both sides" of the story.

A number of American-produced films grew out of the Oslo Accords that highlight coexistence. These films present a pretence of two "equal" sides sharing their stories. While each offers a cursory glimpse of history, the language used and the emphasis on the West Bank and/or Gaza as occupied Palestinian territories reinformces American perceptions that only these spaces belong to Palestinians and that the struggle began in 1967 rather than 1948. When Palestinian refugees are represented, Israeli colonists counter their story. The fears that Israelis in these films convey—always punctuated by images of suicide bombings—trump the daily violence Palestinians experience from home demolitions to soldiers killing and imprisoning Palestinians, which are not accompanied by news footage. As a result, like the Oslo Accords, these films render Palestine and its history in a post-1967 context. What is pernicious about these films is the fact that they focus on Palestinian and Israeli "peace makers," who are working towards peace through coexistence. This premise for what constitutes "peace," one that also undergirds Oslo, is problematic because the films undermine facts about the colonization of Palestine and in so doing Palestinians' right of return is undermined by Israeli perspectives about their “right” to colonize.

Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha's Encounter Point tries to argue that Palestinians and Israelis are equals. It does so by featuring eight peacemakers whose lives are dedicated to various kinds of coexistence. The film opens with Sami al-Jundi, a Palestinian from Jerusalem, and Shlomo Zagman, an Israeli settler from the West Bank colony of Allon Shevut (on the land of the Palestinian village Bayt Sakariyya, which the film never identifies. Both are at a checkpoint in the West Bank and viewers witness their unequal treatment. On the screen we see several slides of text with limited background information telling us, "Palestinians struggle to end Israeli military occupation and create an independent state.”[1] A second slide tells us, "Israelis act to secure themselves against attacks by Palestinains, nearby states, and militant groups.” Between the principal image of the occupation—the checkpoint—and the narrative on the screen, viewers are led to believe that the root of the problem began when Israel colonized the West Bank in 1967. They present Palestinian goals as being in sync with Oslo, something that is at odds with most Palestinians who fight for their right of return. The Israeli narrative  immortalizes them as the ultimate victims: they are surrounded by people who attack them; they rationalize their actions in the name of “security” unrelated to their impact on Palestinians. The final slide asserts that the situation for Palestinians and Israelis is fundamentally equal, "People from both sides search for non-violent solutions."

They maintain this false premise is by augmenting the narratives of at least one Palestinian in the film. Sami, who opens the film, is interviewed with his mother whose story begins in 1967 when their home in the Magharbeh quarter of Jerusalem's Old City was destroyed. Jonathan Cook explains this annexation days after the June War: "Soon the bulldozers would wreck the Mughrabi Quarter, demolishing the first home with the family inside and terrorizing a further 1,000 Muslim residents into flight.”[2] When Sami's mother narrates her story in this context, she says would rather die than to become a refugee in Jordan. The story quickly turns to Sami's narrative about his involvement in resistance, imprisonment, and then his work with Seeds of Peace. Sami's transformation becomes the focus, and his mother’s story—that she was made a refugee for a second time in 1967is silenced, although it was filmed. Consider how Sami relates this episode in a film about Palestinian refugees:

Then all at once, they said, "the Jews are attacking." People were saying that, "the Jews are attacking, the Jews are attacking." And the shooting started....My father and the elders started to say, "Where should we go?" Because the tanks were shelling. They were shelling the Old City with heavy artillery. The sound of gunfire—we heard it from the house and the air raids were deafening. Where should we go? They said we will take you to—and see here the bad coincidence—they said we will take you to a shelter. And where was the shelter? Also a bakery!...But what happened is that they bulldozed the houses in the area we were living in, near the Wailing Wall. Right, dad? They bulldozed it all, and again they brought new people there, built them new houses and another nakba happened to us once from Dayr Yasin and the second from the Al-Sharif quarter.[3]

His father, originally from Dayr Yasin, and his mother, originally from Zakariyya, were expelled from their homes during the nakba. The exclusion of this aspect of the story distorts the history of Palestine in order to make it appear that the problem began in 1967. Instead, we hear Sami declare that war "only causes more victims on each side.”

Indeed, the film decontextualizes Palestinian history and the root of the struggle to liberate Palestine by failing to address its origins. The film, which is used in American classrooms, sanitizes the history to make it palatable to American audiences and students. Their website uses this method by providing just one Palestinian link among several Zionist ones on their resource page. Likewise the teacher’s guide for discussing the film provides no historical context or discussion questions related to anything before 1967, althoughin the biographies of two Palestinians profiled in the film we learn they are refugees.[4] It is difficult to comprehend how that information can be understood without knowing how or why they became refugees. Other resources for teachers and students include an interactive timeline on which one can click on links to read people’s stories related to a particular year. This is the only place on their website where the word the nakba is mentioned, although it is mitigated by the fact that they allow Palestinians and Israelis to tell their version of how Palestine was ethnically cleansed in 1948.

It is not just a matter of violating the cultural boycott, but rather the larger issue of misrepresenting Palestinians and Israelis as equal subjects. In the United States when teachers present material about the civil rights movement, like King's "Letter from a Birmingham City Jail," we don’t teach writings by racist white southerners in the Jim Crow South alongside it. When American apartheid is taught, oppressor and oppressed are not presented as equals because they aren’t. Yet this remains a problem when broaching the subject of Palestine in the United States.

[1] Encounter Point, DVD, directed by Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha (New York: Just Vision, 2006).
[2] Jonathan Cook, Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair. (London: Zed Books, 2008), 52.
[3] Chronicles of a Refugee, DVD, directed by Perla Issa, Aseel Mansour, and Adam Shapiro (Pflugerville, TX: Palestine Online Store, 2007).
[4] See the classroom guides for high school and university.

[Excerpted from Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman, The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans: Addressing Pedagogical Strategies, @ 2011 Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman. Reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan. For more information, or to purchase the book, click here. All proceeds from this book go directly to the Middle East Children's Alliance (MECA).]

1 comment for "New Texts Out Now: Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman, The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans"


I find this explaination by Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman to be valuable in its attempt to look beyond 1967 at the sources of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. However, it does not discount the efforts of the Seeds of Peace organization, or the Encounter Point film to bring Palestinians and Israelis together to begin a dialogue that neither begins nor ends with the events of 1967, but with individuals with individual histories looking squarely at each other, speaking to each other, sharing information and developing new relationships based on mutual respect and a willingness by all parties to engage in a dialogue that addresses oppression and terror and the many other issues separating two peoples from each other and a peace that brings freedom and security to all.

Larry Snider wrote on December 27, 2011 at 09:53 AM

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