Transcending the Binary: Courageous Conversations on Israel-Palestine in Schools

Me and Luna. Among the lessons she’s taught me are the possibilities for holding trauma and transforming harm.

This isn’t my first time navigating courageous conversations.

My name is Javier Davila and I have been an educator for 16 years. On some evenings, a dear friend and I facilitate a group that centres the stories and wisdom of 2SLGBTQ+ youth. As part of a small, bold project that aims to create radically loving alternatives to shame, punishment, and disposability, I work alongside Black, Indigenous, Latinx, racialized men and non-binary guys in supporting each other to practice vulnerability, collective care, and move towards loving accountability. In the midst of a graduate degree in Critical Studies, I am writing my thesis on possibilities for transformative justice with racialized men: an approach to harm that recognizes we all harm and have all been harmed, centres the survivor, does not reproduce harm, and aims to change the conditions that contributed to the harm. Sometimes naming those conditions is the hardest part.

My primary job is as Student Equity Program Advisor with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). My role is quite expansive, and involves supporting programming, resources and training for educators and students in anti-oppression, anti-racism, anti-colonialism as well as in sexual and gender-based violence prevention. One exciting thing I’m doing at the moment is facilitating a group on dismantling white supremacy in education with some dedicated anti-racist educators. I’m also helping facilitate a youth research project that aims to support trans, non-binary and gender expansive students to rewrite policies that affect them at the school board.

My job is hard — especially as a conditionally white-passing queer Latine guy with CPTSD who openly challenges the status quo. I think it’s in my bones — resistance, healing, and a dedication to justice passed on to me by my grandmother and Indigenous mixed-race ancestors from Ecuador and Latin America. This sometimes gets me into trouble. But, good trouble. The kind we need to shift perspectives, challenge discourse, and transform harm. My praxis is centred in love, interdependence, and the recognition that no one is disposable.

The GBVP Mailout addresses many critical issues

For about 12 years, I’ve been curating resources for educators and interested community members through an opt-in email list. The Gender Based Violence Prevention (GBVP) mailout has three stated aims:

  1. Supporting educators to use a critical anti-racist, intersectional, and decolonial framework that calls out antisemitism and Islamophobia;
  2. Supporting educators to use a power analysis, critical thinking, and action on transforming conditions that enable harm in order to support learners in creating ones that promote healing, care, dignity and liberation;
  3. Supporting 2SLGBTQ+ youth with multiple intersecting identities and who belong to BLACK, INDIGENOUS, RACIALIZED and DISABLED communities. The mailout explicitly supports Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous self-determination and LAND BACK movements. (Those words are also capitalized in the heading of the mailout.)

In 12 years, I haven’t received a single negative email about the GBVP mailout. On the contrary, I’ve received hundreds of emails from educators, administrators, superintendents, and even directors of other school boards who have on occasion asked for permission to use the resources to send out to their boards.

This school year, there have been 27 GBVP mailouts (each includes about 10 resources), including the two on Israel and Palestine (issues 26 and 27). Here is a sampling of some of the topics covered this year: “An Abolitionist’s Educator’s Guide”; “Draw the Line Against Transphobic Violence”; “Transformative Maculinities”; “Tools & Lesson Plans For Teaching About the Holocaust”; “Resources for Gender Justice Advocates to Challenge Anti-Black Racism”; “Missing and Murdered Indigenous WomenStudent and Youth Engagement Guide for Educators”; “Supporting (K-12) Black Youth and Non-Black Youth in Conversations Around Recent Events, Including White Supremacy, Colonialism and Police Violence”; “A Rally and Teach-In to Abolish the Police”; “Dreaming Accountability”; “Why Misogyny Needs to be Tackled in Education From Primary School”; “The Struggle Against Anti-Blackness in Canada”; “Reckoning with White Supremacy”; “Defunding the Police — A Discussion on Reprioritizing City Investments As We Build A Just Toronto”; “Decriminalize sex work now”; “Black Trans Women Have Always Been Integral in the Fight for Women’s Rights”; “Queering Black History Month Resources”; “Response to the Murder of Asian Sex Workers in Atlanta;” and “What Does Land Back Mean?”

Questions about how to talk about Israel and Palestine

In continuing to address current events, on May 16 and May 19, 2021, I curated two sets of resources for educators that were specific to Israel and Palestine.

I understand this is a contentious issue, where trauma and existential fears are central to each narrative and each body. There is incommensurable intergenerational trauma and legitimate concern for the safety of Palestinians, Israeli Jews, and the Jewish diaspora.

How can educators begin to discuss this loaded issue in their classrooms? What conditions are needed to support safety and compassion, as well as to hold space for discomfort, learning and healing, especially when intergenerational trauma is present? The relationship between both sides has often been constructed as a binary one (including the term “both sides” itself), where Israeli Jews and Palestinians each perceive themselves to be the subject of existential threat by the other. There are legitimate reasons for this. But, can this binary relationship be transcended? What would it take?

I don’t pretend to believe that two curated sets of resources will move anyone closer to achieving this. I’m neither Palestinian nor Israeli, neither Jewish nor Muslim, and it is not for me to decide what self-determination and liberation look like for someone else. But as an anti-oppressive educator, it’s critical for me to listen to the perspectives and voices that are not part of the dominant discourse, and to centre voices that have been erased, devalued, and marginalized. In addition, both antisemitism and Islamophobia need greater attention in these discussions. That means we need to know which voices are not heard, and what antisemitism and Islamophobia mean in this context.

Why does the Israel Palestine resource mailout begin with addressing antisemitism?

The first resource in the May 16 curation on Israel and Palestine begins by directly addressing antisemitism, chosen because it explicitly engages its intersection with Israel and Zionism. Authors of this document include Tema Smith, coordinator of Canada’s National Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research; Matt Nosanchuk, the liaison to the Jewish community for the Obama White House; Dov Waxman, a professor of Israel studies at UCLA; David Schraub, a lecturer at the Berkeley Law School and senior research fellow at the California Constitution Center; and Jonathan Jacoby, the director of the Nexus Task Force.

Antisemitism has a long history that precedes the horrors of the Holocaust, is real, ongoing, and needs to be named and rooted out. The resource provides a nuanced and well-researched definition of antisemitism, noting that as “the embodiment/realization of collective Jewish organization and action, Israel is a magnet for and a target of antisemitic behavior. Thus, it is important for Jews and their allies to understand what is and what is not antisemitic in relation to Israel.”

This document describes ways in which anti-Israel bias can manifest as antisemitism: “It is anti-Semitic to treat Israel in a negative manner based off of a claim that Jews alone should be denied the right to define themselves as a people and to exercise any form of self-determination.”

An initial point of this first resource is to increase understanding about the history of antisemitism and how antisemitism may manifest in discussions of Israel and Zionism. The resource differentiates types of Zionism, and supports educators to not make assumptions about a person’s political beliefs based on adherence to Zionism alone. This perspective promotes a conscientious discourse, that holds space for the multiplicity of beliefs held by Jews and ensures that educators also call out discourses that present Jews in negative tropes and stereotypes, or assume a monolithic culture or political beliefs.

Canada as a settler colonial state and its support of Israel

Right from the start, the resources make connections to Canada as a model of settler colonialism, and point to the example of apartheid in the Indian Act. It’s important for educators to understand these similarities and differences, as we grapple with the realities of colonialism and genocidal residential “schools” here in Canada. Another article directs attention to Canada’s documented political support for Israel as well as its support in millions of dollars of yearly arms and weapons trade. Understanding settler colonialism here and abroad and the ways in which Canada is complicit in the conflict, are critical points of understanding for educators. Many educators have Palestinian students in their classrooms, whose voices and identities have often been ignored, punished or erased.

What else is in the resources?

Both resources include often erased Palestinian voices. Anti-oppressive education demands these voices be centred. These include: Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and associate professor at Rutgers University, as well as author of “Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine,” and Mariam Barghouti, a Palestinian writer and researcher based in Ramallah.

Articles from major newspapers such as The Star and Washington Post provide insights into the abuses occurring in Sheikh Jarrah and Gaza and don’t shy away from using the terms, “forced evictions,” “illegal occupation,” “ethnic cleansing,” “apartheid,” and “colonial project.” These are strong terms that are used in reference to Israel by many human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, Israel’s own information centre for human rights, the United Nations, as well as hundreds of Palestinian and Israeli scholars, academics and legal experts. These terms have specific legal, historical, and cultural meanings and there is importance in knowing how the strategies and policies used by Israel are discussed in a number of different settings and the impact they have on Palestinians. Further, the ability to name specific types of harm and persecution is a step towards justice.

Of course, some may have trauma responses to these terms. That is to be anticipated as there is collective trauma that has been suffered by both Israelis and Palestinians in a violent conflict that has been going on for over half a century. One has experienced the mass extermination of six million Jews in the Holocaust. The other has experienced the forced expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their homeleand, including the destruction of their villages and homes, in what is known as ‘al-Nakba.’ While these experiences are incommensurable, the personal and collective traumas are the shadows under which each group lives today, and unfortunately, this trauma has sometimes been politicized to further state agendas. Educators need to know this, and need to be resourced with not only the knowledge, but the skills to hold compassionate space for these discussions.

A Multiple Narratives Approach

On the subject of education in schools, the resource includes a section on teaching Palestinian-Israeli history from a multiple narratives approach. It suggests that this, “approach relies on students’ critical analysis of original sources representing many points of view.” The multiple narratives approach further encourages students to, “learn historical content, synthesize content, and develop critical analysis skills. Students are invited to come to their own conclusions given the content they have learned.” Of course, a critical analysis of power must always be present in these discussions.

“Embracing the complexity of their humanity”

The resource further examines the topics of “Truth and Neutrality” and “Checking Yourself for Bias in the Classroom.” The first of these, implores educators to recognize that reaching our students depends on, “unconditionally embracing the complexity of their humanity. And to do that, we need to recognize it.” It’s our responsibility to facilitate a careful examination of our history and our students’ humanity in the context of it, to hold space for the real trauma Israeli Jews, the Jewish diaspora, and Palestinians have experienced, while legitimizing their very real fears, their identities, and their rights to self-determination and safety.

The resource further quotes Paulo Freire, “No one can be authentically human while he prevents others from being so.”

The article on bias, ends by providing this valuable advice: “As educators, we make judgments and evaluations constantly throughout the day. It’s worth being more deliberate and slowing down the process to further peel back any layers of unconscious bias we have and, most importantly, to always keep the care and connection with our students at the forefront of our decision-making.”

Award-winning children’s books on Palestine

The resource also includes several award winning children’s books on Palestine. One of these books was criticized and called antisemitic for its portrayal of the Israeli Defense Forces. But, this is old news. There was an attempt by some to ban the book from the TDSB a decade ago, the argument for which didn’t hold ground.

There is so much more in the resources.

Educators deserve to access Palestinian voices often silenced in the dominant political narrative and to access a diversity of Jewish perspectives. And we need to have these conversations in ways that address antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian racism, hold space for the intergenerational trauma on both sides of the conflict, and use an intersectional analysis that examines power and settler colonialism, the complex histories, our interdependence, and an embodied recognition that no one is disposable.

Ultimately, there is no liberation for Israeli Jews without the liberation of Palestinians. And there is no liberation for Palestinians without the liberation of Israeli Jews.

A binary discourse that needs transcending

The discourse on Israel and Palestine has become binary and is not nuanced, in spite of a definitive power imbalance, documented skewed coverage, and the erasure of Palestinian voices.

We need an internal transformation that makes possible the recognition of the other’s trauma and identity. It is this recognition that will allow a path towards interdependence and a liberation that is mutual.

Educators need perspectives and voices that have been institutionally silenced. Naming specific injustices and harms is also critical. Using this language is hard and will evoke hard and uncomfortable responses.

Educators need resources and supports to hold these conversations in ways that acknowledge the genocide of Jewish people and the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians as incommensurable traumas that impact perspectives. Above all, we have a collective obligation to raise consciousness about human rights, dignity, and to promote an ethic of interdependence for liberation.

Free Palestine!

-Javier Davila

You are encouraged to review the resources yourselves:

Resource 1: May 16 : GBVP Mailout — Issue #26 Israel and Palestine

Resource 2: May 19: GBVP Mailout — Issue #27 Resources on Palestine

queer latine transformer + award winning educator CREATING RADICALLY LOVING ALTERNATIVES @XjusticeXpeace