How should we be teaching the Palestine-Israel conflict?

Michael Davies, a former history teacher, has been leading a charge to return the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the UK's national syllabus.
Friday 30/11/2018
A general view of Jerusalem's old city shows the Dome of the Rock in the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, October 25, 2015. (Reuters)
A general view of Jerusalem's old city shows the Dome of the Rock in the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, October 25, 2015. (Reuters)

LONDON - Students from a Jewish school and an Islamic academy met to debate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, only this time Jewish students argued the pro-Palestinian point of view and Muslim students took the Israeli one.

Students from Abrar Academy, a private Muslim boys’ school in Preston in northern England, visited the Jewish Community Secondary School (JCoSS) in London as part of an initiative by Parallel Histories, an online resource that teaches children the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict from both viewpoints.

“It’s such a simple idea to ask one side to make the arguments for the ‘other’ but it’s really powerful,” said Parallel Histories founder Michael Davies. “I could feel the emotional response from the Jewish teachers in the room when the Muslim students talked about the need for a place of refuge for Jews after the Russian pogroms and it was the same when the Jewish students articulated the injustices served on the Palestinians.”

The aim of the debate was to promote respect and empathy among students, especially regarding topics that engender the most passionate debate, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“By learning the facts on the ground and studying sources… that is the greatest benefit [to students]. They can study the conflict from a historical perspective as opposed to taking one side or the other,” said Abrar Academy’s head of curriculum Hafiz Suhayl who organised the visit.

“It allows us to study both Palestinian and Israeli sources and it creates empathy because in the end we are dealing with real human people so when you look at the death count -- on each side -- of course it’s very effecting.”

Abrar Academy was set up in 2009 by Sheikh Maulana Fazlehaq Wadee, a Deobandi scholar, and has an enrolment of approximately 120 students between the ages of 11-18. JCoSS is a state-funded Jewish secondary school established in London in 2010.

Suhayl praised students from both schools on their participation in the debate and their open-mindedness.

“In the last debate, one of our boys delivered a very passionate but also factual speech from the pro-Israeli side, even though personally he was very pro-Palestinian. While one of the female students from JCoSS who was very pro-Zionist -- she even said she wanted to join the [Israeli Defence Forces] IDF in the future -- debated the pro-Palestine view very well and she engaged with it very passionately,” he said.

“Students on both sides debated everything very respectfully but also passionately and regardless of what side they were asked to be on or what their personal opinion was.”

The inter-school debate took place when teaching the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has almost disappeared from British education. Only 2,200 of the 550,000 students who took General Certificate of Secondary Education history exams last summer had studied the topic.

Davies, a former history teacher at Lancaster Royal Grammar School, has been leading a charge to pressure education authorities in the United Kingdom to return the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the national syllabus.

“We want to encourage the teaching of the history of the Israel and Palestine [conflict]. Many non-faith schools are often reluctant to teach it because it’s perceived as too controversial, so part of the purpose of running the debate between a Jewish and Islamic school was to say ‘look, if they can do it, and enjoy the experience, you should be able as well,” he said.

A meeting at the House of Lords this year involved educators and education groups, including Parallel Histories, urging a return to teaching the issue.

“There’s an opportunity here as well as the problem. The Middle East is a wonderful subject to teach. It’s got everything, religion, imperialism, socialism, nationalism, colourful characters and controversy. A discussion of the history of the Middle East always arouses passion. You don’t get that with the Tudors and that level of engagement is a great teaching opportunity,” Davies said.

Suhayl agreed, saying that it was a disservice to students to avoid teaching difficult topics.

“I think we’ve absolutely got to bring controversial subjects, which dominate the news and people’s lives, into the classroom to create a respectful debate, one that is driven by facts, not fiction or hearsay,” he said.

He named the Sunni-Shia schism, the conflict in Northern Ireland and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as topics that history students should study, not ignore.

“There are multiple conflicts that we tend to shy away from... but when you have a very structured programme like Parallel Histories, it makes it so much easier,” he said.

Suhayl said it was especially important to teach controversial subjects to students so that not only would they learn how to put across their own point of view in a respectful manner but also how to craft an argument based on information, not emotion.

“Why are young people much better at debating [in this way] than adults? It’s because students approach it with an open mind,” he said. “So when they are debating, they’re not trying to ‘win’ the debate, they’re just trying to learn. I think it’s a ground-breaking kind of initiative that more schools should embrace.”

“Our objective is not to teach people what to think but how to think and this debating exercise helps them critically evaluate evidence and construct arguments,” Davies said. “Those are all skills our future citizens need, especially in today’s chaotic and unstructured media environment.”

Suhayl said there were plans to teach the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in this manner at Abrar Academy.

“One of the objectives of the project is to involve more Islamic schools and we aim to roll out this project as an extra-curricular activity,” he said. “It will become almost a permanent feature of the curriculum at Abrar. It’s very important and I think more schools should take part in this.”