The Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of a teacher

by Itzik Hoffman
SHFAIM, Israel - It’s hard to be an Israeli who believes in peace, and harder still to be a teacher who believes in peace. In the school where I teach, most of the students’ parents tend to vote centre to centre-left. Most of them are well-to-do and somewhat removed from the conflict. But even in this environment, the situation is not all too encouraging.
Critics tend to blame the curricula and the textbooks for emphasising Jewish nationalism, focusing on Zionist history and for presenting the Arabs in a negative light. But from my knowledge of the educational programmes and the history books, these are minor problems. Despite the emphasis on nationalism and a preoccupation with Jewish history, the study programme affords teachers the freedom to teach the conflict in a balanced and truthful manner. Also, teachers are at liberty to introduce the “other” side objectively and without prejudice. Indeed, the textbooks (as well as the official school curriculum) raise complex questions, touch on the pain of the other side and even try to understand it.
A good example is the subject of the refugees and the Nakba. Contrary to what most people tend to think, the history programme for schools mentions the “creation of the Palestinian refugee problem” and the textbooks present the latest research on the subject and discuss the effect of Israel’s War of Independence on the Palestinians, stating the fact that they define this war as the “Nakba”.
The problem stems from the fact that many people’s outlook is informed by a lack of knowledge and a simplified, dehumanised image of the other side. Thus, for example, an Israeli-Jewish secondary school student will seldom distinguish between Arabs citizens of Israel and Arabs who live in Gaza. This student is likely to perceive every Arab as an extremist and a suicide bomber. Even if an Arab student is sitting right next to him in class (and there were such cases in my classes) he will not make the connection to that same “Arab” whom he is attacking at that very moment. It is as if the student is seized by a sudden blindness. For example, during a discussion about the Arabs citizens of Israel last week a student of mine asked, “So why do they shoot missiles at us”? Under such conditions, teaching about the creation of the refugee problem is like trying to construct a building without foundations, without an understanding of the basic concepts.
The war we are embroiled in turns us blind and renders the youths’ already extreme points of view even more superficial. This is particularly acute among students who witness conflict first hand, such as residents of the south during the missile attacks from Gaza, or residents of the north during the second Lebanon war. They bear wounds of hate and anger which carry much more weight than any teacher, any study programme, any rational argument. It will take years for these wounds to heal, and even longer for the scars to disappear (if at all).
Another problem to contend with is the teachers’ fears. Many hesitate to bring up topics of a political nature in the classroom and are worried about making statements which could be construed as different from what is expected. In the reality in which we live, the response of parents can be extreme and very off-putting. It is enough for one parent to interpret a statement by a student in a certain way and report this to the media or the Ministry of Education, for a teacher to find him- or herself in a very problematic situation. The teachers must negotiate the boundaries carefully so as not to be excessively hurtful or annoying.
What can be done in such a complex reality? First we must try to understand the pain and fears of the students, otherwise all the wrangling will lead us nowhere.
Second, we must not be afraid to raise these topics in history lessons or homeroom classes. The team of teachers for which I am the coordinator has decided that when it comes to certain topics, we will take a break from the marathon preparations for the matriculation exams and tackle those particular subjects in depth (like the massacre in the village of Kafr Qassem in 1956, for example, in which Israeli soldiers killed over 40 Palestinians).
Third, we must meet and get to know each other. In the past, my school hosted meetings between Jewish and Arab students. At some point during the second Intifada these meetings were discontinued. The teachers were worried that parents would be afraid to send their children to the meetings and that commonalities would not outshine that which keeps them apart. The meetings were never resumed. But precisely because Arab and Jewish children are becoming more and more like each other on the social and cultural level, it is important and possible to accentuate this in joint encounters.
Fourth, don’t despair and don’t be afraid. The work of a teacher is never done but his influence is great. If he or she wants to make a contribution to peace, he/she must not fear conflict inside or outside the classroom.
Finally, it is crucial that the leaders on both sides understand that their extreme words and actions sew hatred in the hearts of youngsters that will take years to eradicate. And they must reach an agreement. We mustn’t waste any more time


* Itzik Hoffman teaches and coordinates history studies at a high school in Israel. This article is part of a special series on nationalism in the Israeli educational system and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 15 October 2009,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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Memories of a graduate of the Israeli mainstream school system
The Israeli education system and the question of shared citizenship
Toward an equal Arab-Palestinian education in Israel
Equality in education is essential for saving Israeli society
Educating for tolerant thinking within a conflict zone
An empty land?
Liberating the Palestinian and Zionist narratives in Israeli schools
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Other articles in this series

Memories of a graduate of the Israeli mainstream school system by Michal Haramati
The Israeli education system and the question of shared citizenship by Khaled Abu Asbah
Toward an equal Arab-Palestinian education in Israel by Yousef Jabareen
Equality in education is essential for saving Israeli society by Muli Peleg
Educating for tolerant thinking within a conflict zone by Catherine Rottenberg and Neve Gordon
An empty land? by Yonathan Mizrachi
Liberating the Palestinian and Zionist narratives in Israeli schools by Ayman Agbaria