Teaching Palestine to Americans

Reviewed by Jim Miles

(The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans – Addressing Pedagogical Strategies.  Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman.  Palgrave/MacMillan, 2011.)

When I first read this title it struck me as being ‘intriguing’ but also perhaps very limited in its audience.  As a lifetime teacher, the latter phrase in particular “Addressing Pedagogical Strategies” would be enough to turn away the general public, but also a number of teachers tired of always reading more and more on pedagogy (the ‘science’ of teaching), teachers in particular who are looking for hands on material to work with. 

However, I was quite amazed at this work, and found it an excellent read on its own right as well as a wonderful source and resource book on Palestine and questions related to Palestine. It is a user friendly composite of history, humanitarian philosophy, personal perspectives, book, video, and cultural materials all that can be combined to present information about the situation in Palestine.  It is a text that can be useful well beyond the classroom, for anyone looking for materials and arguments to support the cause of the Palestinians. It is in essence for all of us, as we are all teachers as long as we speak truth to power – we are all teachers. 


“The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans” necessarily looks for common themes in U.S. history and current U.S. cultural phenomenon, and from there, relates these themes to a global perspective. One of the obvious themes is racism, as the Israeli government’s legislation is definitely racist in the limitations it places on Palestinians both the West Bank and Gaza, as well in the ‘occupied’ territories. This occupation is similar to that of the U.S. ‘occupying’ indigenous lands in North America, where the whole of the country is truly occupied land. That leads into the theme of the colonial-settler legacy, a legacy that has deprived the indigenous people of the U.S. of most of their land, and is now turning most of Palestinian land into broken cantonments which fit the internationally legal description of ‘apartheid’ which brings the themes back to racism and cultural dominance of a corporate-colonial outlook. 

Another prevalent theme is that of the ongoing nakba, a wording reiterated through the text. The original occupation began at the beginning of the Twentieth century and has been validated through the Israeli narrative of the Balfour Agreement, the UN Partition Plan, and the War of Independence of 1948. During the 1948 war, Plan Dalet was put into action and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were evicted from some five hundred villages, those villages in many cases completely destroyed and planted over with trees as supplied by the Jewish National Fund. 

The ongoing nakba is not a specious argument, but one well founded in the prevalent mode of Israeli control over the Palestinians. House destructions, farm destruction, personal attacks by settlers, control over water resources, control over all aspects of life, all creating an environment giving the Israelis the power of appropriation and annexation of all Palestinian land, both inside Israel and in the occupied territories.

People’s History

For those who are directly instructing through history courses, Ms Knopf-Newman supports the approach of Howard Zinn, arguably one of the best historians of the Twentieth Century. His approach is not to look at the usual tired history of dates and numbers, and political manoeuvring among the elite powers, but to take history from the viewpoint of the people, more specifically those people who were and are generally repressed by the elites and used simply to further their own goals – or in these two cases of U.S. and Israeli colonial-settler policies, to eliminate them altogether. 

Zinn’s words emphasize this, as cited by the text:

“…I also wanted to bring into the light the hidden resistance of the people against the power of the establishment:  the refusal of Native Americans to simply die and disappear; the rebellion of black people in the anti-slavery movement and in the more recent movement against racial segregation; the strikes carried out by working people to improve their lives….I wanted the voices of struggle, mostly absent in our history books, to be given the place they deserve.”

The author regrets that “we do not have something like A People’s History of Palestine, a book which Americans could read and understand the history from the point of view of Palestinians resisting colonialism and apartheid.” While I believe we do, she makes a different presentation equally as valid, and perhaps much more current:

“…we do have songs, films, memoirs, novels, poetry, oral history, and art that are widely accessible and appropriate for young readers.  Using culture is one of the best methods of educating youth, because unlike history books, which are often dry and distant in the narration, literature has the potential to make people empathize with the narrator.”

Ms Knopf-Kaufman begins with descriptions and analysis of material that she herself was exposed to as she grew up. As with many authors on Palestinian rights today, she if Jewish herself and obviously recognizes the distortions and errors in the Israeli narrative concerning the Palestinians and the Jewish place in the world. There are increasingly more people of Jewish descent who are speaking out against the atrocities perpetrated in their name by the government of Israel. As with other Jewish people she recognizes her own “unlearning” of the Jewish myth, in which “The victor’s teaching of history must inevitably rely on a pedagogy of big lies that gives rise to historical amnesia.”

Her educational experience amounted to the “normalization” of Israel with the U.S. educational system, including “normalizing” the Palestinian people, in the sense that the Palestinians are now better off under Israeli rule with its supposed democracy and modern civil technology. As with other Jewish people, the author went through a stage of “coexistence,” a narrative of the Israeli side, realizing through it all that “Palestinians call coexistence normalization because it normalizes a relationship that is anything but normal.” Understanding this part of her own changing views “exposes some of the deep structural inequalities that exist for Palestinians. It also illustrates the problems that arise when one considers ‘both sides’ of the story.” Her conclusion is that Israel dominates the “narrative” and their main recourse is to reference the holocaust as the ultimate in victim hood.

Global Visibility

Following this is her presentation on the nakba, drawing on various resources from the histories of Ilan Pappe and various films, cartoons and other stories. She emphasizes the youth perspective, with the “right of return” being one of the “keys” – metaphorically and literally – to understanding the emotional involvement of the youth and the ongoing crimes of the nakba. The Palestinian narrative is linked to the struggle of African Americans and the indigenous people of the Americas and the world – apartheid South Africa, civil protest globally, imprisonment of minorities, and other racially oriented crimes. 

Her final section brings in the most current cultural elements with “Hip-Hop Education and Palestinian Solidarity.” Using this vast cultural reference and drawing similarities to U.S. hip hop language, the story of the Palestinian youth becomes relevant to youth in the U.S. Her argument is that “one must understand resistance to oppression in the United States to make sense of in the Arab world….that history of colonialism is tarnished by the genocide of indigenous people and slavery, two legacies for which there have been no reparations.” One of her examples is the “Trail of Tears” experienced by the Cherokees in 1838. Another film recommended (which I subsequently watched and would recommend to anyone) is “The Fourth World War that links global struggles, including those of the indigenous around the world.” Comparisons – analogies – are made with the Warsaw ghetto and Gaza – “…as state that inflicts terror, and does so with a force and brutality far exceeding anything available to the most violent of terrorist organizations” – and with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – how the media manipulates visibility and invisibility for its own purposes to “signify their truths” and “to conceal their secrets.”

This is a powerfully written work, valuable in its own right as a source book, and within that offering many ideas and resources for those wishing to provide more information with more impact concerning the plight of the indigenous Palestinians. It should be on everyone’s shelf who has an interest in promoting humanitarian causes by  arguing against the atrocities of the colonial-settler states – in Palestine, in Africa, in the Americas, around the world.  We are all educators in our own way, we are all responsible in our own way to speak truth to power. 

– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle.  Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.

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