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Uncomfortable Conversations at a Distance: Lessons from Teaching the Israel-Palestine Conflict

January 10, 2021

Daniel J. Levine is Aaron Aronov Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Alabama, where he divides his time between the Departments of Political Science and Religious Studies.  Information on his research can be found here

Last fall, I taught – as I have done every year since coming to the University of Alabama (UA) – an upper-division lecture-seminar on the Israel-Palestine Conflict.  The topic is never an easy one, with both the transition to remote teaching, and the acutely partisan political climate of the US elections, adding to the difficulty.  In this post, I describe these challenges, and a set of assignments which I developed in order to address some of them.  I then briefly assess their successes and limitations.  Comments and suggestions regarding the latter would be most appreciated!

Outlining the Challenges

The Israel-Palestine conflict poses particular teaching challenges even in the best of times.   First, the territories and peoples most directly implicated in it are mediated through tangled webs of overlappingutopianand mutually-exclusive mythic imaginaries.  So viewed, Palestinians and Israelis lose much of their humanity and autonomy; they become players in set-piece dramas of the students’ own, often unconscious, imaginings.   

A second challenge relates to student expectations.  UA undergraduates receive a version of political science that emphasizes practicaldispassionate problem-solving.  For many reasons – not least because that traditionis itself implicated in the conflict in a variety of ways – this course is ‘pitched’ somewhat differently.  

The subsequent discussion – following readings that connected the emergence of Zionism to that of 19thCentury anti-Semitism – may illustrate how these problems surface in class.  “If Zionism is a response to anti-Semitism,” one student asked, “then where is the boundary between legitimate criticisms of Israel, and those which are anti-Semitic?”  

A vigorous discussion ensued.  Several students held that the question of anti-Semitism was an invented controversy, a ‘false flag.’  To what end, I asked, and by whom?  

To distract Americans from more difficult historical reckonings of their own, said some.  To cultivate sympathy for Israel, said others.  A smaller number argued for the existence of a well-coordinated, highly influential group of ethnic-religious elites, with hidden ties to media and finance.  One student went so far as to state that I – the university’s only professor of Jewish studies – was myself part of that elite; further, that the design of the course reflected my support for its agenda.

However fraught, this discussion reveals a number of certain shared understandings. First, it acknowledges – if only in the breech – anti-Semitism’s historical-conceptual trajectory.  Second, that the memory of thattrajectory shapecontemporary political normsdiscoursesand policies.  Third, the linkages between critical reflection on that trajectory and claims of bad faith.

The Problem of Political Judgement

Consider the student who is deeply dissatisfied with the terms of contemporary political discourse.  Said student suspects that certain historical facts have been tendentiously assembled, but feels uncertainty – or fear – in raising the matter.  Their fear curdles into resentment.  

In what forums will they seek out to work out those intuitions?  Should one be surprised if some of them are drawn into conversations that are marginal, and anonymous – all the more so in a period of enforced isolation?  Should one then be surprised if some number of them show up for class with lightly-reworked conspiracy theories?  There are, after all, any number of well-conceived scholarly and journalistic discussionsalong the lines summarized above.  That said, the line separating ‘good’ arguments from ‘bad’ ones is no more self-evident here than in my student’s original question.    

This is because such lines cannot be drawn merely with reference to the facts upon which they are predicated.  Some critical or reflexive faculty must be brought to bear on them – political or ethical judgement.  But judgement is both contingent and fallible.  Its exercise has, moreover, become increasingly fraught. The student who asked me ‘where the line was’ intuitively understood this; they sought to substitute my judgement for their own.  

Hannah Arendt has noted that judgement relies on a shared consensus: first, as to what facts are, and second, to those public-discursive frameworks by which they acquire meaning: debates, elections, trials, literary-historical canons, etc.  Each of these has come under increasing pressure.  In the present context, consider recent attempts to formulate or institutionalize detailed definitions of anti-Semitism.  When married to enforcement of Title VI anti-discrimination legislation, these definitions seem intended to police the scope of  ‘acceptable’ scholarly and political discourse in the era of BDS, rather than to focus or direct intellectual argument.    

Fostering Student Solidarities

In the face of these challenges, I have historically relied on approaches that foster trust, openness, and mutual respect in the classroom.  Such trust emerges gradually, and by degree. To feel safe, students must be able to ‘take the measure’ of one another in ways that do not carry over Zoom.  What I needed was some alternative way to foster horizontal solidarities between and among a group of students could not meet in person.

To that end, I developed three inter-connected group assignments for the opening weeks of the course.  Students were placed randomly into groups.  Each was given two short preparatory assignments, and a longer project.  A brief summary of these follows (full details here):

First, each group received a list of web-based informational resources related to the conflict: websites, blogs, and reference materials maintained by leading think tanks, policy shops, NGOs, ministries, etc.  Students were asked to survey the range and depth of the information on offer, and to assess its credibility along different lines.  A second assignment asked them to track how these sites and resources were used, and by whom.    

The third assignment turned them from critics into curators. Each group was asked to arrive at a relevant topic of shared interest, and then to develop their own web-based finding aids.  These would be posted on a shared WordPress site.  Time was set aside in class for groups to meet in breakout rooms. Each group received its own ‘Blackboard’ workspace, with dedicated email, online storage, and a virtual meeting platform.   

Yes, But Did It Work?  

The best of these produced innovative takes on topics as diverse as arms sales, the UNRWA, satellite surveillance, and Israeli collective memory.  Less successful were those that reproduced the reified categories and ‘imagined dramas’ discussed above.  That said, pointing out that reproduction became a way to demonstrate and challenge the hold they exercise over students’ imaginations. My hope is to refine this challenge in future.

Hoping to foster the kind of small-group solidarity that would carry over into general discussion, groups were sized at 4-5.  As hoped, some bonded strongly, collaborating on subsequent projects together and participating interactively in open discussion.  Others suffered from ‘free ridership,’ or failed to arrive at consensus.  Thoughts on how to incentivize the former and address the latter would be welcome.       

It was also evident that this assignment only scratched the surface of the questions from which it arose.  How do we equip students to identify and critique the effects of knowledge networks – a space bounded by partisan politics, the sociology of knowledge, critical media studies, and ‘groupthink’?   Given the flood of information to which students are subjected, how useful is fine-grained analysis as a mode of cultivating judgement?  What becomes of a civic ideal predicated on unhurried, dispassionate reflection and unfettered argument, when the conditions of possibility for such practices, and public faith in them, were either never present or no longer exist?  

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