Why teach about Palestine?

There are many reasons why teachers don’t teach about Palestine.

Here are reasons why you should reconsider:

You may have students in your class who are Palestinian or are connected somehow to Palestine. Teachers can’t know our students’ identities and interests just by looking at them.

We actually don’t know for sure how many Palestinians there are in the United States or where they live. Because census data is insufficient and problematic, we don’t know much about many groups, and data is insufficiently nuanced to reflect the diversity that exists. For example, most (but not all) Palestinians are Arab and most (but not all) Palestinians are Muslim, and many who identify as Palestinian were born into mixed families. So, while counting Palestinians is difficult, including Palestine is important for all the reasons that diverse representation is important – students deserve to see their experience and interests reflected in school. Even students with no previous personal connection to Palestinians must get accurate and humanizing information about Palestine and Palestinians in order to counter the anti-Arab and Islamophobic stereotypes that permeate popular culture in the United States.

Also, Israeli-Palestinian relationships play such a big role in US foreign and domestic politics. The United States gives $3.8b of taxpayer money to Israel annually and has given over $80b to Egypt since 1978 and over $7.6b to the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s. Students need sufficient background knowledge with the topic in order to express informed opinions as responsible citizens and taxpayers.

Excluding Palestinians from schools is a form of erasure that harms Palestinians and non-Palestinians, distorting our understanding of human diversity and beauty. Palestinians, like all people, are creators of art. They are scientists and policymakers and engineers and doctors and musicians. Yet these images of Palestinians will remain hard to find in the US media and schools unless we intentionally include them.

Teachers are asked, and expected, to teach outside their area of expertise all the time—I’ve seen you do it! 

Certainly, investing time and effort to learn about the Middle East in general and Palestinians in specific will pay off. There is a range of excellent resources for teachers to learn from in the spreadsheet linked below.

One of the richest sources of information are the National Resource Centers (NRC), which are hubs funded by the US Department of Education to advance teaching about specific world regions. NRCs provide materials and professional development for teachers on a wide range of Middle East topics, and some have expertise in Palestine. One of the worst sources of information is the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Although the ADL has long had deep involvement in schools, social justice activists started the #DropTheADL campaign to show that it is neither an antiracist nor civil rights organization. 

Of course, all materials are grounded in a point of view so you should read widely when educating yourself. And teachers can never know everything. Experts encourage teachers to learn as much as they can, but also to be honest with students about what they don’t know. What is most important is to model the process of learning with students, including asking critical questions like those in this critical literacy guide.

On the Other recommended teaching resources page, you’ll find a spreadsheet with portals to teaching materials, lesson plans, tools and other support for teachers. If there’s something you want that you don’t find on the list, please let me know and I’ll try to find it for you or help you to develop it.

If you want to open the sheet in a new tab, click here.

I am working with a team of Palestinian teachers to develop a framework for evaluating books involving Palestine. If this is of interest to you, please sign up for my newsletter (you can find the newsletter signup at the end of every page on this site) or write to me at nora@noralestermurad.com and I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

Meanwhile, there are a number of general tools to help teachers evaluate books. Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards: Anti-Bias Framework is one such resource. The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools offers Culturally-Responsive Curriculum Scorecards. Social Justice Books’ Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books is dated and generic but still a useful resource. Hijabi Librarians have an updated toolkit called Evaluating Muslims in KidLit: A Guide for Librarians, Educators, and Reviewers

A “two-sides” approach to teaching any topic, especially Palestine, is reductive. It reduces Palestinians to a party in a dispute with Israel and erases everything else about them – their long history that predates Israel, their contributions to society in countries around the world, and the diversity of their human facets. Just like we can’t teach Black history as the history of slavery, Palestinians are much more than their relationship with Israel.

The two sides approach is reductive because it collapses all the differences among Palestinians into one and all differences among Israelis into one (and often wrongly lumps Jews into the Israeli “side”). These over-simplified and non-nuanced “sides” are inaccurate because people’s political views are not determined by much more than their biology or identity. Only by exploring many sides and many perspectives can students understand what’s really going on and figure out their own views.

Another very important reason why the two sides approach is problematic is that it sets up a win-lose scenario. Any gains by Palestinians are seen as a loss for Israelis/Jews and vice versa. For students (or any of us) to see the liberatory potential in Israel–Palestine, we need to completely rethink what we mean by “sides” in the first place. For example, maybe there is a side that believes in sharing the land, with Israelis and Palestinians on that side, and another side with both Israelis and Palestinians that believes in dividing the land. In all cases, a historical, fact-based, problem-solving approach that begins with the presumption of the possibility of a solution that benefits everyone is the only one that offers hope.

This is a problem for many topics, and one that teachers need to face head on. Talking Across the Aisle in Harvard Law Today makes the case that discussing contentious issues in schools is important, not only for teaching Palestine, but for a range of current issues facing the United States (e.g., guns, abortion, white supremacy). The Choices Program at Brown University is one of many resources for teachers to think about and develop skills to teach about controversial issues (see their Teaching with the News), and they offer a resource guide that explores best practices.

These are really hard times for anyone teaching social justice issues. The banning of books and push back against what is erroneously called “Critical Race Theory” has put teachers in many parts of the country at risk. Efforts to silence Palestinians and keep Palestinian topics out of schools are part-and-parcel of this right-wing effort. Some excellent sources of support are the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, and PEN AmericaPalestine Legal is a group of lawyers that help activists and teachers resist threats, harassment or legal bullying, and while they don’t focus on K-12 education, they are familiar with trends and cases across the country and stand ready to help.

There are many teachers around the country dedicated to teaching about Palestine with the same high standards they strive for in other subjects. No one can stand up to the push back alone—we must stand together for the sake of our students’ right to learn and be included.

If you have any other questions about the book or Palestine, you can also look to the FAQ page.