The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans: Addressing Pedagogical Strategies

By Dittmar, Linda | Radical Teacher, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans: Addressing Pedagogical Strategies


Dittmar, Linda, Radical Teacher


The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans: Addressing Pedagogical Strategies.

By Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

Given the bruising controversies that crop up whenever teaching about Palestine is an option, Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman's new book, The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans, strides into this minefield with determination and well-earned confidence. Here is a passionate and committed argument that accomplishes two important goals and, while at it, a few secondary ones as well. Most importantly, this book makes a strong case for taking on this topic in the first place, and it discusses an array of written and other media that can be used in developing new curricula for a range of learners, from high school through college and beyond.

In so doing, Knopf-Newman does not assume she has an informed or willing audience, and wisely so given the discomfort this topic is likely to provoke and the ignorance that needs to be redressed. It is telling that the book's title includes to Americans, a measure of how fraught her subject is where the questions of what to teach and how give way to a concern about teaching to whom? Without doubt it takes both courage and commitment to self education to overcome these obstacles, and much of the first half of the book leads readers through that process. Woven through the substantive preface, introduction, and first two chapters of Teaching About Palestine to Americans are both an autobiographical narrative of Knopf-Newman's own evolution toward the praxis of teaching Palestine, and helpful information, quite detailed and anchored in extensive and well-documented research, regarding the history, politics, ideology, and ethics entangled in this undertaking.

The job of the first one hundred pages or so is, then, to argue that such teaching merits the personal and intellectual effort it would take--an argument not unlike those made during the tectonic curricular shift our schools and colleges experienced regarding the subject of multiculturalism. (Not coincidentally, Knopf-Newman's early work focused on the Harlem Renaissance.) If there is something slightly defensive about this detailed preparatory discussion, the unspoken uneasiness it reflects is entirely justified. It speaks to possible resistance her position may well meet. At the same time, these first chapters do not simply spin their wheels: they are packed with background information useful to anyone planning to teach this subject. In this way the book turns the challenge of championing the teaching of Palestine into strength. Its early chapters are neither an introductory digest nor an apologia. Rather, they do the important work of building supports for the subsequent discussion of hands-on teaching and empowering teachers to step forward.

To this end the task of the early discussion is to provide teachers with informative tools that will help them contextualize and clarify their teaching, while weaving into this discussion reflective attention to Knopf-Newman's own political coming-of-age to illustrate aspects of the political journey facing at least some of them. Arguably, her account of that personal journey can be condensed, but its overall trajectory is informative and especially encouraging to readers who, like her, are parting ways with a tight-knit Zionist Jewish community. Written in clear, accessible, and what I think of as "egalitarian" English (i.e. sharing with readers, as companions, both her struggles and her knowledge), the discussion is thoughtful, well paced, probing, and self-questioning. The focus on Knopf-Newman's own journey can be shortened, as it guides readers through her thinking as she grapples with the concept of victim-hood and the effects of trauma; the meaning of "Zionism" and responses to criticism of Israel; the pivotal role and consequences of the "Nakba" (Arabic: the Palestinian "catastrophe" of 1948); the meaning of "truth," moral reasoning, and the notion of "balance"; and more current issues concerning the occupation: the concept of "apartheid," the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the ever elusive notion of peace, and activism. …

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