Teaching the Conflict

Three publications show different approaches to teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict on campus.

The line separating anti-Zionism and antisemitism is a murky one. Off the top of my head, I can recall a handful of incidents that test the boundaries of acceptable discourse. A PhD student in my seminar opined that American Jews exploit the Holocaust for political capital. The class carried on as normal. A Syrian graduate student condemned Israeli conduct in Gaza but dismissed allegations of the Assad regime perpetrating war crimes. The group of students overhearing the conversation thought nothing of it. Another graduate student boasted over drinks that his views on the conflict most closely aligned with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a designated terrorist organization whose modus operandi relied on the targeting of Israeli and Jewish civilians. A professor sent an email to me, alleging that I was an Israeli government agent sent to sow discord and misinformation on campus. Administrators shrugged.

Academic research by Professors Edward Kaplan and Charles Small demonstrated nearly twenty years ago a consistent pattern when examining the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’s impact upon European public opinion. Even after controlling for other variables, Kaplan and Small concluded, “anti-Israel sentiment consistently predicts the probability that an individual is anti-Semitic.” Although critiques of Israel are not inherently antisemitic, anti-Zionism seemingly is never far removed from virulent bashing of the Jewish state.

My experience is not unique, unfortunately. If you are a college student in North America, particularly if studying at an elite academic institution, odds are that you will have similar encounters. After nearly a decade in Canadian higher education, few aspect of campus life have been spared anti-Zionism’s unrelenting encroachment. The progressive blending and blurring of lines of acceptable debate have created a space in which Israel, and Jewish people more generally, are exposed to rhetoric intolerable to any other historically marginalized group. Harsh criticism of Israel is fine – valuable barometer of viewpoint diversity on campus; however, the wholesale dismissal of outright acts of antisemitism reveal a deeper truth of campus life today. See, for example, the cases of Hatem Bazian or Professor Shahid Alam. From the lowly undergraduate to the highest echelons of the academic community, the establishment is riddled with such convictions.

The preponderance of such sentiment on campus undermines academia’s purpose as a space designed to expose individuals to a diversity of views. Administrators’ failure to address such problems signals a broader disinterest – perhaps even an outright unwillingness – to confront the glaring disparity of intellectual breadth within their midst. Such an imbalance has a corrosive effect on education. Although the modern university has made great advances in addressing racial, gender, and sexual inequalities, one lingering realm of intellectual pluralism remains stunted. The Heterodox Academy, a non-partisan organization which tracks intellectual diversity on campuses, has documented academia’s increasingly homogenous nature. For every conservative-leaning professor, there are approximately five liberals. Reinforcing a singular political point of view leaves students woefully unprepared for a world comprised of others.

This also applies to teaching the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The concern, here, is not that the above viewpoints exist, but that students, professors, and administrators are cowed from presenting alternatives. Would a person needing graduate school recommendations strongly diverge from the professor’s views? Would an academic seeking tenure object to mainstream thought at the university? Statistics suggest otherwise. If colleges truly wish to return to their core ethos of promoting free thinking individuals, something must change.

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, campus instruction is all too often measured in gradations of distaste for Israel. One vivid illustration of this point was my first conversation of graduate school with a tenured Israeli history professor renowned in her field. Meeting to discuss a forthcoming introductory course on the Middle East, for which I was to serve as a teaching assistant, I introduced myself in Hebrew. Immediately, I was firmly instructed never to do so again. Rather, as an Israeli, she confided, her position within the department and the academic field felt precarious. Rumblings within the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), one of the leading academic bodies for which she was a member, was bubbling with support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The professor wished to downplay and diminish her nationality at all costs. That an Israeli academic with tenure — and thus sheltered from the vicissitudes of everyday academic life — felt it necessary to obscure her identity for the sake of employment and social acceptance is telling. One can only image the pressure and intimidation those lower down the academic hierarchy must feel. This is a direct consequence of failing to address the festering anti-Zionism within academia. In my case, had I been an African-American, Indigenous, or LBGTQ student, and a professor had hurled vicious conspiracies at me, they would have been severely reprimanded at the very least. Once my story went public across Canadian news outlets, not a single professor supported me, though several privately confided their sympathies.

The principal reason for this is abundantly clear: across North American universities, Zionism and Israel have become dirty words. For progressives on campus, Zionism has joined the ranks of fascism and racism, morally indefensible ideologies consigned to the wastebin of history.

Unfortunately, the toxicity of such campus debates surrounding the conflict often deters many from exploring the wonderfully complex, tortured, and contested history that is the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. However, three recent publications, have sought to allay students and educators’ fears, and introduce a new audience to the world’s most intractable conflict.

Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, Dov Waxman’s 2019 book, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know, is a well-organized and balanced introduction to the topic. Whereas many publications struggle to apportion blame equally, or at the very least, to reference the point-of-view of both sides, Waxman succeeds in offering Israeli and Palestinian perspectives throughout the century. Moreover, Waxman incorporates both the overarching Israeli and Palestinian narratives on core topics. For instance, Waxman’s section “What is Zionism?” is paired a few pages later with, “Was Zionism a form of colonialism?” Waxman helpfully deconstructs the conflict’s history thematically under headings such as “The Basics,” “The Beginning of the Conflict,” and “The Peace Process.” Sprinkled across these sections are concise prompts, including “What is Zionism?”, “Is a two-state solution still possible?” and “Why did many Palestinians become refugees in 1948?” On the latter point, for example, Waxman summarizes Benny Morris’ research conveying the prevailing historical orthodoxy.

As is probably the case with any text engaging with this topic, elements of Waxman’s account would have benefited from closer scrutiny. One particularly valuable point for a newcomer to the topic, but largely overlooked by Waxman, is the religious dimension of the conflict—particularly the prevalence of antisemitism within Palestinian society. The strand connecting the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a leading Palestinian political figure during the British Mandate (infamous for his eventual alliance with Hitler) and Islamic fundamentalists such as Hamas (whose charter continues to call for the eradication of the Jewish people) remains unbroken to this day. Extricating this reality from the confines of turn-of-the-century European antisemitism—Waxman’s approach—is an oversight in a book deeply engaged with matters of religious symbolism.

The book equally confronts maximalist religious settlers and its potentially violent undercurrents embodied in the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre. Although Waxman legitimately emphasizes the existence of religious fundamentalists on both sides, a weakness of the publication is Waxman’s implicit equating of Hamas and Islamic Jihad with “radical Israeli settlers motivated by messianic religious Zionism.” Such outfits have undoubtedly obstructed peace prospects. Nonetheless, no such groups adequately compare with the organized militant aspects of Palestinian political society which – still to this day – openly espouse wholesale genocide. Finally, for a text intended to guide novice scholars into the intricacies of the decades-long conflict, the absence of footnotes or a reading list is rather unhelpful.

University of Victoria History Professor Martin Bunton’s earlier and conciser publication, The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Very Short Introduction (part of Oxford University Press’s A Very Short Introduction to… series), adopts a more critical stance in relation to Israeli conduct. The unexplained reversal of the traditional “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” in the book’s title is rather odd for a book marketed with the intent of easing a novice’s understanding of the conflict. One of Bunton’s more remarkable assertions is that the Arab League’s infamous “Three No’s” declaration—no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel—in response to Israel’s offer of land in exchange for peace and recognition (following the Six Day War and Israel’s unanticipated conquest of the West Bank, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula) did not wholly preclude the possibility of peaceful overtures. “The defiance expressed by the Arab summit [Khartoum] certainly complicated the process of building the framework put forth by Resolution 242,” Bunton writes. “But the stance taken at Khartoum did leave open the prospect of a peaceful settlement, if not a peace treaty, if the superpowers would undertake to act as third-party moderators.” This is a very generous interpretation, to put it mildly.

Bunton’s taxonomy of the conflict is illustrative of the overall tilt of the book. The chapter “Occupation 1967 – 1987” follows “Atzmaut (Hebrew: independence) and Nakba (Arabic: catastrophe) 1947 – 1967.” This categorization is telling, given that Jordan and Egypt occupied territory supposedly earmarked for a future Palestinian state, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip respectively, for nearly two decades following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Occupation, in Bunton’s view, is restricted to Israel: but the grand narrative is messier than this black-and-white rendering of the conflict, once one acknowledges that co-religionists and professed allies habitually subordinated one another and exploited the Palestinian cause for political gain.

Bunton’s brief study concludes with an outline of potential scenarios for Israel if it fails to secure peace. “In the absence of a two-state solution, Israel will face two options,” Bunton opines. “One scenario posits a shared homeland: a binational state with equal rights for the two national communities that evolved from it.” Bunton continues: “This scenario would cost Israel its dream of a Jewish state. The alternative costs Israel its democracy.” Bunton concludes this thought experiment by quoting former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s infamous proclamation, “If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state.” Bunton’s pointed ending could not be more different to Waxman’s exploration of the feasible alternative courses of action. Waxman, unlike Bunton, does not place the burden of responsibility on one side and one side alone. However, Bunton’s study does succeed in one key respect where Waxman’s failed in offering readers a detailed, robust, and legitimate outline for deeper investigation.

Waxman and Bunton’s divergent approaches and conclusions say much about the bitterly contested nature of the subject itself—and, to be candid, this reviewer’s own difficulty in distancing himself from bias. One assumes that Bunton’s work would have been received quite well by pro-Palestinian audiences, clamoring for an impartiality they often deride American media and business for lacking. Too often, observers and commentators—myself included—hew towards the well-worn Manicheanism of the conflict, either pro-this or anti-that. Defender, ally, enemy, and foe, all are terms too often lobbed without regard for their impact on healthy discourse and mutual understanding. As such, few books will ever sufficiently appease readers exclusively sympathetic to either the Israeli or Palestinian perspective. However, the false dichotomy rampant throughout such renderings of the conflict reveal a deeper truth: that narratives will remain contested, despite the persuasiveness of argumentation.

And yet, this is not all bad. Historical interpretation need not interlock like a jigsaw puzzle to make a lasting scholarly impact. So long as an academic threshold is maintained, it is natural and normal for interpretation to lead to differences of opinion. History is inherently messy, and the notion that it can ever be tamed is perhaps its most intractable mythos. American historiography has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, reflecting the mores of its times. From George Bancroft’s hagiographic “Great Man” approach to Howard Zinn’s Bottom Up historical emphasis, no single paradigm can satisfy all. Likewise, within Israeli historiography, the 1990s shift from traditional to revisionist ideas paved the way to greater understanding, expanding the sphere of acceptable debate.

The way forward, in fact, can be found in Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict, a volume edited by Rachel S. Harris, Associate Professor of Comparative and World Literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in which teachers and instructors share novel approaches to refreshing an all-to-often unapproachable subject. Made up of contributions from academics and activists engaged in this sphere, Harris’ publication affords readers firsthand experience from the educational frontlines of best practices for negotiating the conflict in an academic setting. Contributors from all shades of political opinion are represented in the volume, offering abundant suggestions to readers interested in both Israeli and Palestinian narratives and perspectives.

Perhaps the most unexpected—yet surprisingly encouraging—aspect of Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict is the book’s emphasis on fiction and other literary forms in encouraging diversity. Several of the contributors described using literary luminaries such as A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, Mahmoud Darwish, and even the cartoonist-cum-activist Joe Sacco, to illuminate intimate truths about the lives, motivations, and values of Israelis and Palestinians. Additionally, documentary and feature films offer future instructors valuable alternatives to the overly structured and static narrative that defines the traditional literature on the topic.

The common thread tying these three distinct publications together is the desire to introduce less acquainted readers to the topic, and offer new approaches and perspectives for understanding the conflict’s complexity. Despite their pros and cons, in totality the three books offer a solid basis for the curious beginner. If one had to choose a single book for a relatively fair rendering of Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, I would go for Dov Waxman’s book. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict successfully captures both perspectives of pivotal events and exposes its readership to a wide gamut of views and interpretations. By comparison, the value of Martin Bunton’s book lies in revealing a relatively moderate aspect of pro-Palestinian attitudes within academia today. Although Bunton’s ability to condense the conflict’s history in under one-hundred-and-fifty pages (maps and indexes included) is impressive, few will leave his study with a contextual understanding of the Zionist point of view.

Harris’ publication is perhaps the most delightfully surprising read of the lot. Whilst not explicitly aimed at expanding the reader’s historical scope with archival evidence or the prevailing historiography of pro-Israel/pro-Palestinian viewpoints, Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict offers something far more useful to the reader: an intellectual space of diversity ever diminishing on North American campuses. Harris thus succeeds in uniting a broad swath of academics, demonstrating that talking past one another is unequivocally detrimental to education and civic discourse—a rare feat in the academic context of Israel-Palestine.

*Martin Bunton, The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, pp. 144.

*Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict, ed. Rachel S. Harris, Wayne State University Press, pp. 434.

*Dov Waxman, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know, Oxford University Press, pp. 288. 

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