Scholars of Palestine have long discussed the hazardous act of bringing up Israeli colonization in American classrooms (secondary and post-secondary). This act of informing students about a monumental conflict in which a colonial aggressor visits various forms of oppression on an indigenous population is perceived as hazardous for good reason. In the vast majority of secondary schools, mentioning Palestine in a favorable light is strictly taboo. The same, unfortunately, is true of university instruction, despite academia’s self-image as a place where free ideas can be exchanged.
In the past decade, dozens of university instructors have battled for their jobs amid pressure from fanatical Zionist groups seeking to have them fired, sometimes succeeding. Within university structures themselves, too much advocacy on behalf of Palestine (or too little subservience to Israel) has also led to controversy for academics — and in some cases their dismissal.
The reality is rarely stated in formal policies or in review committees, but it is clear, known to anybody even remotely interested in the “Israel-Palestine conflict”: anti-Zionism, of the vocal or furtive variety, is a career killer. Teaching Palestine, then, entails material consequences.
Remarkably, nobody has written a book specifically about these phenomena until now. Enter Marcy Knopf Newman’s The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans.
Critical approach to education
Newman analyzes why the humanization of Palestinians is so acrimonious in American educational communities and explores the moral failings of Zionism vis-à-vis its advocates’ insistence that some commitment to Israel is a hallmark of the civilized modern. For this reason, Newman discards the glorification of modernity inherent in American education and argues instead for a critical approach to education that should be engaged with various world conflicts — even if those conflicts do not cast a positive light on the United States and Israel.
The issue central to the book, of course, is that of Israeli colonization. In all discussions of it, Newman discards the flowery and diplomatic language of most writers and produces a searing — but fair and factually-supported — condemnation of Zionist practices dating to the nineteenth century. Newman is unmoved by even the humanistic discourses of Zionism, describing the movement in curt, albeit accurate, language as “foreigners invading and stealing other people’s land” (5). Newman devotes considerable energy to validating this observation with surveys of historiography, analysis of major Zionist mythologies, and discussion of Palestinian claims to repatriation. She also offers compelling personal stories about her transformation from youthful Zionist to adult decolonization activist.
The analysis and personal narratives provide context for the book’s million-dollar question: how does one teach Palestine? (Implied in the question are the prepositional clauses “without getting fired” and “to audiences long inculcated into the glories of Israel.”)
Newman provides various answers, all of them valuable despite what different readers will find as varying levels of usability.
The absurdity of “balance”
A technique of particular interest is to compare the oppression of Palestinians to that of other communities: here, Newman highlights First Nation peoples and African Americans in the US. Having written an entire book comparing the discourses of colonization in North America and Palestine, I am in no position to caution against such inter-ethnic comparison, but I would caution against sloppy or attenuated comparison. To be clear, Newman’s inter-ethnic comparisons generally work well, but she might have said more about the difficulties of juxtaposing distinct peoples into narrow methodologies. The majority of such juxtapositions offered by Palestinian activists are more annoying than enlightening — a pratfall that Newman, to her credit, avoids.
Newman invokes other oppressed communities to illuminate the absurdity of demands made of those who endeavor to teach Palestine. In relation to the frequent Zionist demand for balance and equal billing, Newman observes, “when I teach First Nation or African American literature I am not subjected to questions about where white writers fit into my syllabus” (13). This is an important point. The demand of “balance” is nowhere more pervasive than in instances in which somebody speaks favorably of Palestinians. It has become a rhetorical trope, one Newman eviscerates with great precision.
Need for courage
Another technique Newman suggests is simple personal courage. She couches this suggestion in the context of secondary education, where there is more pressure on teachers to avoid controversial subjects and to instruct students to succeed on standardized tests. She explains, “It may seem as if I am asking a lot of teachers to take on the burden of teaching Palestine to students, a topic not on state exams. But if we take a step back and examine American and Arab protests that have the potential to reshape our world, we will find that there are larger issues at stake” (193).
For Newman, Palestine should not be studied in a vacuum, but in relation to global issues of justice. Others have made a similar point before, but Newman’s emphasis on curricula as sites of engagement adds interesting dimensions to the globalization of Palestinian nationalism.
This is the greatest strength of The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans. Other strengths include a cogent analysis, clear writing, fearlessness and moral rigor.
Faith in education
I wouldn’t use the terms “weaknesses” or “flaws” to describe any of the book’s content. I can say only that Newman exhibits more faith than I in the power of education. This fact shouldn’t be surprising, as Newman has been a teacher in both colleges and secondary schools in various locations in the United States and in Arab countries. Years of teaching in college (though never in secondary schools) have numbed me a bit to the possibility that we can extricate the training of students from the interests of state power. Of course, I am precisely the sort of reader who needs to be reinvigorated by the power of Newman’s book.
Otherwise, I would suggest that the mixing of university and secondary education creates too broad a framework for one book. It would be easy to write a few books dealing with each educational site; those books could even be separated by region or types of school. Given that Newman is the first to undertake the analysis of Palestine in American schools and colleges, she bears little fault for the topic’s extensive possibilities. She has done an excellent job of synthesizing wide-ranging and complex issues into a singular analysis.
I hope that the focus of the book doesn’t turn away potential readers. The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans is worth reading, even if you aren’t a teacher, for the task of educating others about Palestinian decolonization needn’t happen only in the classroom. Indeed, what happens in classrooms largely reflects the political sensibilities of those who don’t often spend time in them.