Taboo of truth-telling about Palestine in US classrooms tackled by new book

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.

Steven Salaita is an author of several books, most recently Israel’s Dead Soul. Follow him on Twitter: @stevesalaita.

Image of The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans: Addressing Pedagogical Strategies

The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans: Addressing Pedagogical Strategies

Manufacturer
Palgrave Macmillan
Release date
2011-12-06
Price
$115.00

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Comments

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Anyone interested in buying the book, but waiting for it to come out in paperback please do post messages about the price as the publisher wants to hear that people want this book in an affordable format before they move forward with the paperback version.

All money that this book earns goes directly to the Middle East Children's Alliance.

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I checked this book out at my library and found it extremely useful as a teacher and human and will buy the book. But I am hoping that it will come out in paperback so that I can buy it for my teacher friends as well.

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I admire Marcy, and the book sounds interesting, but I have to wonder: how many people are going to spend $85 on a book like this? Surely not many teachers! No wonder the publishing industry is in trouble...

For that matter, _should_ anyone spend that much on a book like this?? If you can afford it, consider ordering Steven Salaita's "The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism And the Quest for Canaan" ($16.95 on Amazon) and donating the difference to the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee or ISM or MECA or some other group directly involved in the struggle. Or to EI...

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I appreciate Henry Norr's concern, but his ensuing suggestion that people not buy Marcy Newman's new book and instead read Steven Salaita's less costly book (on a different topic) and contribute the difference to direct action groups marks a problematic separation of intellectual and practical labor. It also serves hypocritically to marginalize substantive discussion about what appears a groundbreaking text in the area of Palestine/Israel studies. Unfortunately, most academic publishing companies are reluctant--and many refuse entirely--to negotiate the market price of their products. Books of a perceived controversial nature, moreover, are often overpriced to limit common accessibility. In exchange for a contract with such companies, though, authors are ensured excellent marketing of their works to libraries and similar, publicly accessible institutions worldwide, increasingly in both bound and electronic formats. (One can borrow books, including Steven Salaita's, from public libraries for free.) A more constructive suggestion regarding Marcy Newman's new book, therefore, is that one recommend it for purchase to one's local public and university libraries, read it for free via those venues, and ALSO make financial donations not only to organizations of the sort mentioned by Henry Norr but to smaller, independent publishing companies that are struggling to stay in business and remain visible while keeping book prices low.

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Academic journals such as those published by Elsevier's are bankrupting universities and books such as this one, also produced by an academic publisher, may yet bankrupt libraries (which are funded by tax-payers, by the way, so are by no means not "free of charge").
The UK Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, has taken a stand against academic journals today. Look it up in The Guardian if you're interested.
So yes, Marcy Newman could have found a better way to disseminate her research and moving personal experience. At the latest count 11,958 researchers have signed a boycott against Elsevier's. There are better ways of reaching the public. To quote from Minister Willetts: "when publishers randomly make articles open access on journal websites, readership increases by up to 250%".
This having been said, to be practical in an imperfect world, and if you belong to the book's target group, Americans, then by all means go ahead and try to get your local library to buy it.

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One should certainly support the Elsevier boycott, but let's not forget that while public (including state university) libraries are funded by tax-payers, they are also being defunded by neoliberal governments bent on re-allocating monies toward private rather than public interests that extend far beyond the world of academic publishing. Ostensibly in an effort to survive, many such libraries are selling off their book and journal collections after scanning those materials into digital formats that will be accessible only to readers who cannot afford or readily access the computer equipment necessary to read them. In place of book stacks, these libraries are opening up "lounges" and computer terminals and setting up food concessions leased to private vendors (all of which may at least be as expensive as buying new books). As against such tactics, which forge a vicious dialectic implicating libraries themselves in the very problem, concerned citizens with critical foresight need collectively to pressure their governments to legislate against the digital privatization of knowledge and education, against the defunding of public libraries and learning institutions, and against the private corruption of media (including the Internet). Telling people not to read Marcy Newman's important new book (which is in fact slated for paperback re-issue), on the other hand, is misdirected and solves nothing.