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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 23, Number 4, Jan./Feb. 2011  

Getting it right on Israel and Palestine 

By Glenn Bullard  

In the Nov./Dec. issue of Teacher, Bob Rosen accuses Israel of apartheid policies and ethnic cleansing, supports efforts to break Israel’s weapons blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza, supports campaigns to boycott Israel and all things Israeli, recommends dissolution of the state of Israel, and peremptorily dismisses concerns that his statements should offend the Jewish people: “Conflating criticisms of the actions of the state of Israel with attacks on Jewish people in general is utterly false.” (“Is it Anti-Semitic to criticize Israel?”)

As justification for this diatribe, he claims that “the BCTF Representative Assembly called for the development of a curriculum unit that allows a fair and comprehensive all-sided discussion of the Israel/Palestine issue. Teachers need to understand what’s going on in that region and discuss it with their students.” Presumably, his one-sided harangue reflects his notion of an appropriate curriculum unit.

However, as we shall see, he has reworded an RA resolution, and obscured its plain sense meaning. Here is the actual resolution:

That the BCTF support the development of learning resources for Social Justice 12 that will provide teachers with a balanced approach to teaching about peace and justice in the relationship between Israel and Palestine. (Decisions of 2010 Spring RA, May 28–29, 2010).

What did this resolution accomplish? What are its implications for teaching?

The BCTF, of course, has no authority to tell teachers how to achieve the intended learning outcomes for Social Justice 12 or any other course. This is a good thing, since we could hardly object to employers infringing on our professional autonomy if our union was too! Also, the Social Justice 12 curriculum never even mentions Israel and Palestine, so SJ 12 teachers are not required to discuss this conflict with their students.

However, because previous BCTF debates over anti-Israel resolutions have been so fractious, divisive, and embarrassing, it is appropriate that the RA offer guidance on the matter, without taking sides. To that end, what the RA accomplished in May 2010 was to set a standard that teachers can use to judge the merit of learning resources, and guide them in the development of their own. Let’s see how the resolution sets this standard.

First, the resolution addresses “the relationship between Israel and Palestine,” that is, between two sovereign states. This approach is firmly rooted in previous attempts to find peace between Arabs and Jews in the region, going back to the Peel Commission of 1936–37 and the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, which envisioned an Arab state and a Jewish state living side-by-side in peace. There is no hint here of a so-called “one-state solution,” which means nothing more than the dissolution of the state of Israel.

Second, the resolution promotes “peace and justice” for both parties, not boycotts or rocket and mortar attacks.

Social Justice 12 defines a culture of peace as “a set of values, attitudes, modes of behaviour, and ways of life that reject violence and prevent conflicts by tackling their root causes to solve problems through dialogue and negotiation.” It is too late to prevent the Arab-Israeli conflict, and problematic to identify its root causes, but we can certainly agree to reject violence in favour of dialogue and negotiation.

Peace and justice for Israel and Palestine will not be attained through boycotts and blockade-breaking. Boycott is the opposite of dialogue and negotiation, and ending Israel’s blockade of Gaza today would simply mean more weapons for Hamas to use against Israel. To imagine what this would look like, search “Gaza rockets mortars 2010” on the Internet.

In contrast, instead of boycotting or attacking each other, the Palestinian Authority and Israel have been co-operating for the past year to suppress terrorism in the West Bank, with the result that the Palestinian economy is growing rapidly. For illustration, see “From intifada hub to model Palestinian city: How Jenin turned around” by Joshua Mitnick (August 5, 2010).

When Palestinians and Israelis themselves get it right, we should celebrate their success, and promote it as the path to peace.

Third, the resolution insists on a “balanced approach,” not a one-sided criticism of one party or the other. This is rooted in the Social Justice 12 prescribed learning outcome for effective research skills, which insists that students access a range of viewpoints.

Students who have fully met the Prescribed Learning Outcome are able to access a range of information sources on selected topics, including sources… representing a range of perspectives … [and are able to] explain the importance of accessing and considering a range of information sources (e.g., to acknowledge and challenge [their] own beliefs and biases, to represent a range of viewpoints)" (A2).

Partisans of any political cause usually prefer one-sided presentations of events that reflect their own deeply entrenched views. In fact, partisans will typically interpret balanced and neutral news coverage of events as hostile to their own side in a conflict. This “hostile media effect” was first described by researchers (Vallone, Ross, & Lepper, 1985) looking at Israeli and Palestinian perceptions of television news coverage.

We teachers, being human and living in the real world, may develop our own strongly held views on controversial topics, but our job is to teach students not what to think, but how to think, which includes the ability “to acknowledge and challenge [one’s] own beliefs and biases.” That is why we must avoid forcing our own political views on our students. If we cannot model a balanced approach to conflict resolution, how will our students ever learn it for themselves?

To sum up, the Representative Assembly set a clear and reasonable standard for learning resources, which is completely at odds with Rosen’s interpretation: Learning resources concerning Israel and Palestine should provide a balanced approach, promote peace and justice for both parties, and honour the legitimate national aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Teachers will find it difficult to find up-to-date, ready-made resources that meet this high standard. Most Internet websites are too one-sided to serve as starting points for discussion, although they may serve as objects for critical media studies by well-informed students. A few websites try to provide a single, ostensibly neutral and inoffensive narrative, but the hostile media effect guarantees that they will offend one side or the other. This is why, incidentally, it is problematic for teachers (or the BCTF) to attempt creating their own narrative of events.

There is, however, one website that fits the bill precisely, by aiming for balance, not neutrality. Since November 2001, Bitter Lemons: Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire has produced a weekly edition of thoughtful, challenging, fact-based articles from both sides of the conflict, “…to contribute to mutual understanding through the open exchange of ideas.” Bitterlemons.org also offers an e-mail subscription service for teachers and students to stay up-to-date with intelligent views on current events.

The RA got it right in May 2010, when they set the ethical standard for teachers to meet when choosing learning resources on Israel and Palestine for Social Justice 12. Now let’s move on, and leave it to teachers to demonstrate that balanced approach.

 

Glenn Bullard is social justice representative for the New Westminster Teachers’ Union.