The Israel / Palestine conflict arouses strong emotions in many people. I touched on this at Francis Holland School in London when I gave my talk "Thinking about the Israel / Palestine dispute."
This conflict arouses so many passions because it involves two separate fault lines:
Accordingly, teachers are often reluctant to cover it in school because it risks creating or aggravating conflicts between pupils.
While I can understand such concerns, in my view they are mistaken. In particular, using the methods developed by Michael Davies of Parallel Histories, it is possible to teach bitterly contested histories in a way that helps pupils to understand that "the other side" really does have a case.
That is important both because pupils need to learn the general point about contested histories, and also because pupils will better understand the Israel / Palestince conflict itself.
I gave a short presentation on this point in June 2018 when I spoke at the first Parallel Histories conference at the House of Lords hosted by Lord Turnberg. You can read it below, lightly edited as it is now written rather than spoken, along with extracts from the text I referred to.
In the twentieth century, the Israel / Palestine conflict poisoned relations between Muslims and Jews worldwide.
In the Middle East, it led to the uprooting of long established Jewish communities in countries like Iraq; a community that had been there since the days of Babylon. In the UK, it is the main cause of the antisemitism that, sadly, you find all too often amongst British Muslims.
Let me tell you a bit more about myself. As a retiree, I now wear many hats. The hat I am wearing today is Chairman of Curriculum for Cohesion, a small research charity. If you forget our URL, Googling our name should find us.
Our academic director, Dr Matthew Wilkinson, is a fascinating person. Great-grandson of the Lord Jellicoe of the Battle of Jutland. Former head boy at Eton. He converted to Islam while at Trinity College Cambridge about 25 years ago. His PhD research was into the education of Muslim boys. One of his findings was that Muslim boys’ perception regarding injustice towards Palestinians was a key driver for antisemitic attitudes.
In 2012, when the National Curriculum for History was under review, we made a submission to the Department for Education. You can find it on our website. The title is: “A Broader, Truer History for All.”
In that submission, we stressed the importance of teaching the Israel/Palestine conflict. See the extract below:
2.2.6 Key Stage 4
The accent at GCSE ought, we believe, to fall squarely on critical history without abandoning both the antiquarian and heroic modes of the previous Key Stages entirely. Again, the totalising and international dynamics and the idea of history of the present for their future will be crucially important for attracting Muslim pupils to History at Key Stage 4 (if it remains optional).
Although we fully recognise and accept the complexities and tensions that surround the Arab-Israeli Conflict for teachers, pupils and parents, we believe that the removal of the Arab-Israeli Conflict as a topic of study at KS4 in 2008 was a mistake. This belief is shared by the prominent Jewish scholar on our team, Dr. Edward Kessler, Founding Director of the Woolf Institute, Cambridge.
The Arab-Israeli Conflict is a thorn in the flesh of many young Muslims and one-sided narrations of it undoubtedly fuel Islamist radicalisation (Wilkinson, 2011a). Schools provide the only controlled environment for them to discuss and debate their views in a responsible, relatively impartial and informed way.
Our study showed that Muslim children tend to be both passionate and, according to one teacher, ‘remarkably well-informed’ about the Israel-Palestine question. But their passion and views need to be set in deep historical perspective and the History classroom gives them the opportunity to scrutinise the issue in depth and from different points of view.
We would recommend the optional re-instatement of a unit of study entitled:
The Arab-Israeli Conflict (1896-2012): do the roots of the conflict provide a clue to the solution?
We would also recommend that such a module be designed in consultation with a variety of different Jewish, Muslim and Christian groups to incorporate a variety of different perspectives and sources. Such a module might, if properly designed, perform a critical historical function and suggest the transformative socio-political possibilities of the study of the past which as we have seen as a feature of History that is vitally important to Muslim children.
There are many good educational reasons for teaching the conflict.
Firstly, the conflict matters to many people. It particularly matters to Muslims.
Not just because the Palestinians are Muslims. There are many oppressed Muslims around the world in places like Chechnya or western China who get far less attention from British Muslims.
Palestine matters because it contains Jerusalem. Islam’s third holiest city. The place from which the Prophet Muhammad made his ascent into heaven during the night journey.
Because of they care so much, Muslim pupils will be engaged in the subject. They will not be bored or switched off.
Secondly, precisely because the conflict is so contentious, it forces pupils to confront alternative interpretations of the facts, and the way that the protagonists emphasise some facts while ignoring others.
Schools are often reluctant to teach this subject. Many worry that it will cause conflict between their pupils, especially if they have both Jewish and Muslim pupils. I do not know why the Department for Education rejected our recommendation to include the conflict in the National Curriculum, but that may be the reason.
The problem is that if you do not teach the conflict, that does not mean that Muslim pupils ignore it. What it means is that young Muslims will learn about the conflict from other sources. Out of school religious establishments known as madrassas. Internet websites and chat rooms.
I can guarantee that they will not learn objective history from those sources. Instead, they will be taught a completely biased, one-sided view of history, consisting entirely of evil European Jews dispossessing innocent Muslim Palestinians aided and abetted by America and Britain.
The Israel / Palestine conflict is one of the major recruiting tools for organisations like Al Qaeda and ISIS, who want to establish this false binary about a permanent conflict between Islam and the West.
The big picture is very straightforward. Teaching the Israel / Palestine conflict presents many challenges in the classroom. However, not teaching the conflict is downright dangerous because it leaves Muslim pupils vulnerable to radicalisation.