Why GDS Should Teach About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most pervasive yet glossed over subject matters at GDS. Of course, given the vexed nature of the issue, the school’s behavior is understandable; even the name of the conflict is contentious, as it recognizes two nations whose very existences are debated. However, the lack of education about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at GDS is an incredible disservice to the school, as it breeds negative effects in our own community and sends students out to college and beyond unprepared.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the oldest and most salient political and historical conflicts in the world. It seeps into countless other issues, whether or not they appear to be connected or even overtly political—whether or not to support movements like Black Lives Matter or the Women’s March, for instance, or even whether or not to invest in a SodaStream.

Still, the most unmistakable place that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will manifest, at least in the lives of most GDS students, is on college campuses. Two incidents at the University of Michigan earlier this year entailed instructors refusing to write recommendation letters for students who wished to study abroad in Israel as a boycott of Israeli universities. Students on both sides of the issue have experienced verbal and physical harassment, whether walking out of class or of a place of worship. And while many college campuses are rife with protests spanning the entire political spectrum, protests about Israel and Palestine are often more polarizing, more prominent, and more passionately argued by both sides—a trope also apparent in our own GDS community.

In depriving its students of a comprehensive education on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, GDS is sending its students out into college unprepared. When students arrive on college campuses, unless they choose to take a class on the conflict, the primary source of information offered to them will be colored by the biases of whichever group is providing it, be it the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement or the Zionist group Realize Israel. GDS graduates who don’t have a baseline education on the conflict will not have the tools to evaluate the arguments about this intensely complex issue for themselves.

Yet the lack of the school’s education about the conflict is harmful to our community long before GDS graduates head off the college. When we don’t proactively tackle an issue, it seeps into our classrooms, our conversations, and our culture regardless, but we don’t have the tools to properly address it. We make uneducated comments, assumptions, and jokes. We perpetuate racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and other harmful stereotypes and prejudices without confronting or deconstructing them—whether we recognize the damage and chose to ignore it, or don’t see it at all. For a school that prides itself on being progressive with regard to diversity, equity and inclusion education, we must do better.

Now, of course, the reasons that GDS should not educate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are impossible to ignore. The greatest challenge in educating about the conflict is that there is no agreement on the facts, whether on present-day or historical matters. There are seemingly infinite variations on the story but, in general, they can be boiled down to two main contrasting narratives: the Israeli and the Palestinian. Because the facts are so contested, it follows that there is almost no such thing as a neutral educator on the topic. Additionally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an immensely personal issue for many; numerous members of the GDS community feel that their identities are wrapped up in this issue, and many students have loved ones who are personally implicated in the conflict. As such, within the first few minutes of talking, even the most neutral educator that GDS brought in would most likely not only offend a member of our community, but actually make them feel like their identity was being invalidated by even mentioning the discussion that questions the existence or the legitimacy of Israel or Palestine. And if the school brought in multiple speakers with varying positions on the issue that were not intended to be neutral, these personal affronts would be taken to the next level. One speaker might call the Palestinian authority a terrorist group or modern-day Nazis, and another might stick that same label on the Israeli Defense Forces. Comments like these would not only hurt and enrage many GDS students, but also cause some members of the community to fully disregard any point that the speaker made thereafter, rendering the educational experience unproductive.

The key to having informed discussions and learning experiences about any difficult subject is a common baseline of knowledge. This baseline is especially important when studying a subject as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about which some members of the student body are highly informed while most have little to no understanding. However, we are stuck in an unfortunate cycle; without an agreed upon foundation of facts, and without accounting for the personal implications of the issue, it seems like a nearly impossible feat to provide GDS students with this baseline education that they so desperately need. And if we can’t get to this baseline, how can we ever get beyond it and delve into deeper, more interesting conversations?

I am not arguing that educating about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wouldn’t be difficult or even painful, or that the problems raised above are either unimportant or easy to solve. It is despite these obstacles that GDS must work to educate its students on the issue, or else continue to severely wrong its students and a practice a disregard and negligence for its own values.

Ultimately, the real challenge is how to go about teaching about such a polarizing topic. While the most comprehensive education might come from an in-depth course, such a class would be an elective, and thus by nature an opt-in opportunity. In fact, GDS does currently have a Middle East elective course that discusses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict taught by Nooman Kacem. However, this class is only available to a handful of students every year, and primarily caters to the students who are most interested in the topic. Another commonly discussed solution among student leaders is to have affinity groups or affinity group leaders educate about the conflict. However, though no affinity groups have taken positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nearly any education lead by affinity groups or their leaders would be perceived as being tainted by the opinion the that the group or its leaders are presumed to hold.

The best idea, though still flawed, is a panel or a series of panels featuring experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from all degrees on the political spectrum, coupled with plans for a continued conversation. While this path would inevitably invoke many of the tensions discussed earlier, we must recognize that no solution is perfect. It is our responsibility as a community to work to minimize all potential problems that come from discussing the conflict and address ones that arise as we go along, but at the same time not let these complications hinder the education that GDS students so desperately need. If GDS doesn’t begin the process of educating its students about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the school will be failing to meet a fundamental obligation to its mission, its students and the community at large.

By: Shira Minsk ’19