If teaching peace requires us at times to confront conflict, Joseph Rosen asks how we can do this without recreating battlefields in our classroom. In his essay, he examines how we can foster real dialogue on a deeply divisive issue, while emphasizing that, “as teachers, we are in a unique position to encourage peace by expanding the horizon of who is ‘understandable’”, thereby expanding our “spheres of compassion”.
Many of us hesitate to even talk about Israel and Palestine in public — never mind teach in our classrooms. We keep our voices low — or make sure that we discuss it only with people who already agree with us. The state of the public conversation is hostile, divisive, and deeply polarizing. People of all positions — left, right, pro-Palestinian, pro-Israeli, pro-democracy, anti-colonial, pro-Zionist, pro-human rights, you name it — can explode at a moment’s notice. This hostile climate is often dominated by those with adamant, militant, or extremist positions. Those with open minds, those who are genuinely prepared to have real conversations, can feel too intimidated to participate. The result of this hostile climate is silence and stasis: a sad result for anyone invested in change — from any political perspective.
So how do people learn? How are we exposed to new ideas and different positions? How do we teach Israel and Palestine without our classrooms exploding?
The first thing is be aware of what goes wrong in conversations.
People are often pressured to take a side: to choose who they are ‘for’ or ‘against.’ Narratives of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ frame the conversation so as to reinforce oppositional militant mindsets. So you’re only allowed to care about one side (Palestinian versus Israeli), when in fact most people are compassionate towards a variety of positions on both sides. This polarizing debate thus reflects the very logic of territorial war: a zero-sum game where one side’s gain is the either side’s loss, making it impossible to think creatively about what might be in both sides’ interests.
Antagonistic discourse divides people into oppositional camps. People push others into prefabricated conceptual boxes, make presumptions about motivations, and take uncertainty to be a sign of weakness. People deal with disagreement by demonizing, excommunicating, or delegitimizing others. Personal attacks, accusations, and judgments put people on the defensive. And given the cliché that “the best defense is a good offense,” defensiveness can take the form of pre-emptive attack.
Our conversations are often derailed by explosions of anger—it can happen in any classroom, online, or waiting at the photocopier. After watching this happen over the years, in many different contexts, I realized something which changed the way I approach discussion of the conflict: when anger erupts in our living rooms, cafes, media, and classrooms, we witness a manifestation of the conflict itself. It’s worth remembering that people are dying on a weekly basis. Many people, in different ways, are connected to this violence. We get emotional. And if we get angry, we can reproduce this violence. When we explode, we succumb to the effects of violence and the logic of war.
So why do people explode in conversations about Israel and Palestine? There is no single answer—different people have different reasons. But an understanding of trauma can help us negotiate these explosions. In traumatic experience, historical violence ‘reappears’ or ‘repeats’ in the present. This means a few things. Past suffering — whether personally experienced, passed on through cultural memory, or narrated by one’s family — is re-experienced as a present threat. Trauma thus blurs past and present: those who are raised with traumatic narratives are sometimes unable to determine the reality of danger at the present. Fear, vulnerability, and a desire to protect oneself against the threat of repeated historical put one on the defensive — and for many, the best defense is a pre-emptive offence. And this is how violence becomes cyclical: traumatized subjects go on the attack in order to defend against past violence—but in doing so, they create new violences, and new traumatic subjects.
Tragedy and the Cycle of Violence
The tragedy of a cycle of violence is that this non-intentional repetition of historical violence seems to happen to us, in a way that we do not choose and cannot escape. At times I wonder whether there is ever ‘originary’ violence — or whether all violence is a form of repetition. This framework for thinking about violence replaces a frame of good and evil and moral blame. A new way of framing the problem is: either we repeat historical violence or we interrupt it.
And this is our task as educators who want to ‘wage peace’: we teach war in order to stop the repetition of historical violence — and perhaps even to interrupt ongoing cycles of violence. So how do we do this? How do we ‘wage peace’ when discussing Israel and Palestine?
There is no simple answer. But here are some suggestions, based on my experiences in different dialogue situations.
How we can frame the conversation
- Thematize the way that violent eruptions can divide people against one another. Remind students that when anger explodes, and the room divides—that’s exactly the moment that the war erupts: right here in the middle of the classroom! So it is our responsibility to interrupt this violence—not to passively reproduce this conflict. By helping the class to remain aware of this dynamic, students can remain more in control of their responses.
- Acknowledge that some of us have personal histories directly related to this topic. Some of us have been directly affected by the conflict, some of us have deep attachments to people involved in the conflict, some of us might have wounds from previous discussions. These histories will emerge as potentially strong emotions as we talk. Remind students to remain sensitive to other people’s histories.
- If strong emotions emerge, encourage people to thematize and discuss what they are feeling. Encourage them to focus on being honest with their own feelings rather than laying responsibility on other people.
- Remind the class that you want a ‘Safe Space’ for the discussion. This does not mean a space free of disagreement. It does mean a space in which each person feels they voice their opinion without fear of being personally attacked, judged or labeled. We don’t need to agree — it’s more important to find ways to is explore difficult questions without dividing ourselves as a community. So we can insist on keeping a respectful, non-accusative, and inclusive atmosphere.
What to avoid:
- Polarization. Avoid the logic of war which divides people into “good” vs. “evil”. This is harder than it sounds! We want to point out injustice where we see it, and maybe even structures of oppression and inequality — but we have to avoid the kinds of demonization that reinforce the all-too-common logic of the ‘enemy’.
- Divisive speech. Avoid grandiose proclamations of blame, guilt, and demonization. Rephrase moral accusations in terms of hopes and desires. No blanket statements about ‘Israelis’ or ‘Palestinians’—these are both very diverse groups, and neither should be confused with Jews or Muslims.
- Delegitimization. No one’s experience is invalid. Everyone is welcome to participate in the conversation—as long as they remain respectful and inclusive of other experiences.
What often works:
- Find ways to frame the discussion in terms that are advantageous for ‘both’ sides. Skip the zero-sum game and look for approaches that are compassionate towards a multiplicity of different people, positions, and perspectives. There’s enough compassion to go around.
- Avoid over-generalization, and try to keep discussions grounded in personal experiences. Instead of presenting “two-sides” to the conflict, work on bringing to light multiple experiences: widen the sense of who is actually involved. Everyone can profit from a deeper understanding of others’ experiences.
- Testimony: open windows onto different, lesser known experiences. Witnessing others’ specific stories and testimonies is a great way to learn about new perspectives. One of the most successful ways to develop and deepen our understanding is to be exposed to first person experiences of suffering. Some stories are already well established: add new voices so as to create new understandings.
If we really want to ‘teach peace’, we want to avoid the logic of war — in which we re-create the lines that divide enemies. For the logic of war also requires a war on understanding: we cannot continue to view someone as an enemy if we understand the sociological conditions of their action. We can’t demonize when we understand someone’s fears, desires and motivations. As teachers, then, we can wage peace by encouraging a form of sociological imagination that opens a window onto understanding other experiences. As teachers, we are in a unique position to encourage peace in a very specific way: by expanding the horizon of who is ‘understandable’, and thus widening the sphere of compassion. We may risk a couple of explosions en route—but encountering and interrupting a cycle of violence might be required to truly wage peace.
Humanities, Dawson College
To read more from Joseph Rosen on the difficulty of talking about Israel and Palestine in Canada, he has published an article, “The Israel Taboo” in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of The Walrus or listen to his interview on CBC Q by clicking here.