What do my colleagues and I teach about the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict? Do we even teach it at all? Shouldn’t we cover it in great detail?
I began to ask such questions in March , 2017, when 43 senators — 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats (in a rare example of bipartisanship) — signed on to Senate Bill 720, which would make it a felony for any American to support the international boycott against Israel. The penalties would be severe: a minimum civil penalty of $250,000, and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison. (The Democrats, however, are now making their support contingent on Trump ending the government shutdown.)
A lover of the Bill of Rights, I winced to see even more elected officials in the United States endorse such a blatant violation of the First Amendment. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, for example, signed an executive order ending his state’s dealings with companies and organizations that either supported the boycott or did business with one doing so. Former California Governor Jerry Brown signed a similar law.
Nonetheless, I had taught nothing in my US History class about the boycott or the backlash against it, and barely anything at all about the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict itself — the longest running, most divisive, most intractable, and perhaps most important on Earth. I was ashamed.
For advice, I turned to the new California Framework for US History (11th grade), but found only one mention of Israel: “American Cold War foreign policy also provided support for Israel and Turkey.”
“Provided support” is a gross understatement, of course, since the United States has always been Israel’s most stalwart ally, currently sending $3 billion a year in military aid — more than to any other nation — a fact that may have had much to do with the 9/11 attacks, which dramatically altered the course of United States and world history.
The California Framework for World History (10th grade) goes into a little more detail, focusing primarily on Israel’s creation after the Holocaust, culminating with, “Tensions between Israel and its neighbors remain high, especially over a future Palestinian state (typically referred to as the two-state solution) and Arab recognition of Israel.”
“Tensions” is another understatement, to say the least. But how will students understand it if we educators don’t go into depth about Israel’s nuclear arsenal and Iran’s attempt to match it? About Palestinian bombings and missiles, Israeli settlements and blockade? What about Jerusalem’s intense religious significance for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike? Which is not even to mention Syria and its refugees. And shouldn’t we address the ongoing “tension” in the United States regarding America’s special, apparently unconditional alliance with Israel, and the Senate’s current attempt to make challenging it or Israel illegal?
I now believe that high school educators have a pressing responsibility to teach Mideast history, especially the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and America’s deep involvement in it — while we still can. This will be controversial, and require careful planning to enable our students to grapple with and discuss all sides of the complicated issues.
But, honestly, what historical topic could be more important today for soon-to-be-voting citizens? Or, for that matter, more interesting?
David Ellison, author of Bloodletting: Why Education Reform is Killing America’s Schools, teaches history in Union City, California.