Our Right to Know: What Students Aren't Taught about Israel and Palestine
Tigerlily Theo Hopson
February 24th, 2019
As students, it is our right to know. It is our teachers’ responsibility to expose us to every single part of an issue in order for us, as students, to form opinions and make informed decisions as upstanders, citizens, and human beings.
Last year, in ninth grade, I walked into my history class knowing nothing about the battle between Israel and Palestine. I had heard a couple of murmurs from my mom about Israeli violence, but all I had learned in school was that Jewish people had suffered as victims in the Holocaust, and afterwards found the much-deserved safe haven of Israel, and that was that. So, when I started to learn about 1948, and the details of the Israel-Palestine conflict, I was shocked and enraged about what our American, pro-Israeli-government society does not tell us.
For two thousand years, Jews faced brutal manifestations of anti-Semitism during the Jewish diaspora, eventually leading to the Zionist movement, in which Jews aimed to escape hate and prejudice by returning to their religious and historic homeland, Israel. Meanwhile, another group of people, the Palestinians, had settled in this land and called it home. After the Holocaust, the United Nations partitioned the land between Palestine and Israel, giving the vast majority of the land to Israel. As soon as the partition was established, many Jewish Zionist individuals and groups used violence and other tactics to force Palestinian people out of their homes, which were on territory soon to become the state of Israel. Zionists feared the demographic threat of a Palestinian majority, or even a near-majority, in a Jewish state.
A year after the partition, in 1948, there was a war between Israel and the surrounding Arab nations, who claimed to be fighting for the Palestinians. By the end of the war, Israelis had taken over more land for themselves, and the surrounding Arab countries contradicted their claimed alliance, taking over the majority of Palestinian land. This left thousands of Palestinians as refugees; it marked the end of the Jewish diaspora, and the beginning of the Palestinian diaspora. In 1967, Israel gained control of historic Palestine, and Israeli military occupation started in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where Palestinians mostly lived.
My ninth grade teacher, Lucie, who lived in Israeli-occupied land with a Christian Palestinian family during her freshman year of college at Princeton, explained her experience in the refugee camps to me: “You now have four, five, generations of families who are essentially relegated to this one space, built up, but none of this was meant to be permanent and so the conditions can be incredibly dehumanizing in terms of exposed wire, cramped housing, unreliable electricity, lack of adequate infrastructure or services like roads, sewers, and trash collection.” Outside of the camps, the Israeli government set up physical barriers such as checkpoints and the West Bank Wall, which were built for “security” by Israel, but used as tools of isolation and segregation toward Palestinians. Often, homes were torn down, and vast, beautiful olive groves, which made up many Palestinians’ livelihoods, were ripped apart. Every morning, Palestinian children must jump over multiple hurdles just to get to school. They have to wake up at the crack of dawn to wait in checkpoint lines, often for hours, and regularly face physical and verbal abuse from Israeli settlers as they walk to school. At school, they continue to be harassed; Israeli soldiers have even been found throwing tear gas into classrooms.
In ongoing clashes between Israelis and Palestinians since 2005, ninety-six percent of the casualties have been Palestinian, and only four percent of those killed have been Israeli. What has been described as a “conflict” is in reality an attack on the Palestinian people; it is not an equal fight. Palestinians have not just lost the lives of their families, friends, and children, but they are constantly affected by having their homes, freedom of movement, education, basic necessities, jobs, and respect being ripped away from them. Yet, Israel has America’s full support. In fact, in 2016, America pledged to give Israel $38 billion dollars over ten years, which equals more than 10 million dollars per day in military aid to the Israeli government. The US government had, up until last year, supported humanitarian aid to Palestine (through the UN organization UNRWA), but now offers no funding to help the countless Palestinians who are suffering.
The Israel and Palestine topic is taboo, and hardly ever touched upon in U.S. schools. I was lucky enough to learn this curriculum in ninth grade. In January, I was a speaker for a workshop my history teacher led about this topic at a city-wide consortium school conference. When talking to the teachers and administrators, I was left with the impression that many wanted to teach this topic, but fear held them back: fear of being disrespectful, of being anti-Semitic, or of creating conflict in their classroom. When I spoke to my teacher, Lucie, she said some of the educators at the conference had been told by their administration blatantly that they should not teach this subject. Our pro-Israeli society may make this unit seem terrifying to introduce, but it is the teacher’s responsibility to educate students about this key part of history. As students, we should be outraged if we are only taught one narrative that fails to include the experience of Palestinians. It is each student’s right to learn history from every perspective so that we can form our own opinions about the world. I have learned about the Holocaust three times in three years, for which I am grateful; it goes without saying that this topic is critical. But, it is as essential to look at the truth of the aftermath of World War II, and at Palestine’s place in that history.
I discussed this issue with a friend, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium High School. Almost all of her friends are Jewish, and she has learned about the Holocaust every year, but she has never been taught about Palestine in school. She expressed to me how frustrated she feels about being afraid to bring up this important human rights topic because she suspects she will be shunned and called anti-Semitic for her questioning. Despite her one-sided education in school, she has learned about this issue through her Nani and Nanaji (Hindi words for grandma and grandpa), who are passionate about this topic because of their Arab and Muslim family friends. She feels that she is biased because of their opinions, and feels conflicted between her pro-Israeli Jewish friends and the truth of what her Nani and Nanaji are saying. “I think that if I had gotten a balanced education about the topic in school, I would be able to see the issue in a less biased light,” she told me. When I talked to another friend who lives in New Jersey, she said that she had never heard about the Israel and Palestine issue, inside or outside of school. She asked her friends at school as well, and reported back to me that none of them had ever heard of the matter either. She had learned about the Holocaust, but never about its aftermath in Israel. A friend in California told me his only introduction to this issue was when, following a unit on the Holocaust, his teacher mentioned that Israel and Palestine have been fighting for a long time, and there’s nothing anyone can really do about it.
It seemed clear that the story of Palestine is not being told in America, so I decided to ask a friend I met at summer camp, a high school junior living in Spain, if her experience was similar. Shockingly, she also has never learned about this issue in school, but has learned about the Holocaust. She has done some research on her own, but she feels like she would still, “need different points of view to clearly defend one statement.” She has tried to talk to her other friends about it, but most are not aware of the issue or are not properly informed about what is really going on. Hearing from these friends, it is apparent that students want to be informed, hear all the sides of this issue, and have access to a safe space where they can express their questions and opinions without being penalized.
This is exactly what Lucie, my teacher, gave to me. She let me struggle with the reality of the situation, and then come to my own conclusion. In fact, she told me that, “The last thing I would want is to spoon-feed my students my perspective because I do not think that is fair. That doesn’t do this history justice or them justice. I think people should be able to be exposed to everything and sit with it and wrestle with it themselves.” She learned about this topic in her senior year of high school, but throughout the unit, her teacher implicitly hinted that there was an equal power dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians. In college, she was able to explore Palestine, but when she got back to Princeton, she was called anti-Semitic for critiquing the policies of the Israeli government.
By talking about this issue, one is not being anti-Semitic, because this is not subject matter against the Jewish people: it is against an oppressive government. This has nothing to do with Israelis’ faith or ethnicity, and has everything to do with the Israeli government's policies and actions. This topic must be taught in schools. It is imperative so that, as Lucie said, we as students can be “equipped to not only be thoughtful consumers of news and policy, but participants in the discussion and active citizens.” As students, it is our right to know.