Monday, February 15, 2010

Donna Robinson Divine, How to Teach All Sides of the Arab-Israeli Conflict Without Taking Sides

It is a shame—no, it is tragic and disgraceful—that discourse about the Arab-Israeli conflict on college campuses has become so polarized and polarizing. Aside from the fact that much of the most partisan argument from all quarters is just that, the confrontational and agonistic tone that has moved from the quad into the classroom is an abysmal intellectual and social model: it oversimplifies what is complex, it rules out of bounds views that demand to be debated seriously, and it suggests that the conflict can be resolved by coercion rather than compromise.

There are of course exceptions, so even as we mark the farcical anniversary of a farcical (non-) event that made the Pioneer Valley the target of misplaced admiration and vituperation alike, it is a pleasure to call attention to the achievements of one of our colleagues in the consortium, Donna Robinson Divine, Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government at Smith College. Donna stands out in a number of ways, notably: (1) she is conversant with the relevant languages of the region (Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish), and (2) she takes with the utmost seriousness not just the duty to present multiple viewpoints, but the need to show students themselves how to put themselves in the minds and shoes of others.

The estimable History New Network (HNN), from George Mason University, recently profiled Donna and her approach:

The feelings stirred up by the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis are so volatile that it is difficult to examine it without taking sides even within the halls of the academy. But in the classroom, the terrible toll exacted by this hundred years’ war should command intellectual analysis, not political advocacy. Politicians posture and champion causes; teachers develop perspectives, generate critical and thoughtful scrutiny, open up conversation, and produce some understanding of the reasons for the persistence of this conflict. Properly practiced, the academic study of this conflict rights no wrongs, provides no political or social therapy and configures no single moral compass for what to do outside of the classroom. The classroom is no battleground and the lectern no soapbox. The responsibility of an engaged intellectual is to bring clarity and substance to the issues probed. For that reason, I routinely begin my course on this topic by asking students about the appropriateness of its title: The Arab-Israeli Conflict. I do so to invite criticism, to suggest that my perspective is not sovereign and to say, plainly, that the arguments I may put before them need not be taken for granted.

In designing my syllabus, my task as instructor is to help students develop their analytical and critical abilities as well as to make available to them the body of knowledge necessary for making their own informed judgments long after the final examination has been graded. Over the years, I have experimented with various approaches to achieve these aims—my syllabus never remains the same from year to year, and the changes I introduce invariably generate the need for even further change. The initial readings, including excerpts from books or articles by Edward Said, Fawaz Turki, Hillel Halkin, Amos Oz, and Aaron Soloveitchik (1), encourage students to confront the fact that this conflict is not only about a piece of real estate: it is also about different and competing conceptions of national identity. And on that topic, Zionists and Palestinians disagree as much within their own communities as across the national divide. (read the rest)

Instead of propaganda and partisanship, "activism" and acrimony, how about empathy for all sides, coupled with academic rigor? It just could be there is a market for that. Of course, it is the faculty who need to endorse and sell that product.

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