School Climate & Safety

For U.S. Students, Mideast Conflict Hits Home

By Michelle R. Davis — April 17, 2002 7 min read
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Almost two weeks into the latest and most intense round of military action between Israelis and Palestinians in years, and just a day after yet another suicide bomber killed eight Israelis, four Cheltenham High School students are talking about the Middle East.

Two are Jewish; two come from Muslim families. All four are articulate, intelligent students well-informed on the seemingly intractable conflict. They talk about how difficult it is to discuss the subject with their peers.

“I don’t get into it a lot with people unless they share my views. Otherwise, it’s a mess,” says Saudi Arabian-born Suzanne Shaheen, a junior.

But soon Ms. Shaheen and senior Daniel Roffman, who has family in Israel, are arguing about whether Israel’s military incursion into the mostly Palestinian West Bank is justified. Though both try hard to keep emotion out of their voices, it’s a losing struggle. Later, both tell each other they hope they haven’t offended with their views.

Students and teachers at this suburban Philadelphia high school, which numbers former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among its graduates, were walking the same impossibly fine line as others in the country last week when talking about the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians.

For some students, discussion of the violence not only brings into play religious and political leanings, but personal histories as well. Many American students have family members living amid the fighting, have visited the region, or have parents who grew up there. They hear passionate discussions at home, often with a much different take than classroom colloquies.

Teachers at schools with large Jewish or Arab-American populations, or both, say they’re working hard to be objective and avoid adding to the stress. Teachers say they often feel intense pressure from parents and students and find they must choose their words more carefully than ever.

“This is a very sensitive issue,” said George Reim, Cheltenham’s social studies department chair. “The teacher’s role is to help the students understand the situation as much as possible, but the emotionality issue is one we have to curtail.”

On the same day last week when Ms. Shaheen and Mr. Roffman dealt with the conflict, Mr. Netanyahu stood before the U.S. Senate delivering a defiant message on behalf of current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. President Bush, meanwhile, repeated calls for Israel to pull back its military, which moved into Palestinian-controlled territory in response to suicide bombings that have killed more than 100 Israelis. Mr. Bush also demanded that Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat use his clout to stop the bombings.

It’s the latest chapter in an ancient and angry feud over land and holy sites. And for the approximately 5 million American Jews and 3 million Arab-Americans, domestic fallout from the foreign conflict is perhaps inevitable.

Many students are emotional and on edge, said Sharkey Haddad, the cultural liaison for the West Bloomfield school district in Michigan. The Detroit area has the largest concentration of Middle Eastern people in the world, outside of the Middle East itself, Mr. Haddad said.

Both teachers and students are uncomfortable, he said. “Nobody wants to be accused of taking one side versus another. But people should be able to stand up and say ‘Here’s what I think’ and not be perceived as anti-Israel or anti-Palestine.”

Even in places with small populations of one group or the other, the strain can erupt into conflict. At Poolesville High School in Poolesville, Md., a student-penned opinion column on the Middle East conflict published in February in the school newspaper prompted accusations of anti-Semitism from some Jewish students and parents.

Feras Sleiman, a junior of Lebanese descent, said he wrote the column to spark discussion and counter what he considers imbalanced American news reports.

But Poolesville High junior Shaina Egly said the column, which accused American media of being “under the firm, iron grip of the Zionist machine” and criticized America’s support of Israel, offended her. Though the newspaper’s next edition wasn’t scheduled to come out until May, the school put out a special edition to tout recent sports successes—and allow rebuttals to Mr. Sleiman’s column.

Ms. Egly, who is Jewish, wrote a response. She said last week that the incident had changed what previously had been a polite though not close relationship with Mr. Sleiman.

“To know he feels this way about my ethnicity and my culture is hard,” she said.

Mr. Sleiman said that after a local Jewish newspaper wrote about the incident, he got a threatening, anonymous call. But he’s pleased he got students’ attention.

“Not many students in the school were very interested” in the Middle East, he said last week. “It’s frustrating.”

Teachable Moment

Cheltenham High School is nestled in a neighborhood of modest split-levels and imposing stone homes. Spring is just arriving in this part of Pennsylvania, with scattered daffodils showing their faces.

The budding cherry trees near the school’s entrance were planted in honor of Jonathan Netanyahu, the former prime minister’s older brother. He was killed in 1976 at age 30 while leading a raid in Entebbe, Uganda, to free Israeli hostages.

The brothers, who spent their early years in Israel, attended school here while their father taught at a now-defunct college in the Philadelphia area. Benjamin Netanyahu, who played soccer and chess at Cheltenham, missed his 1967 graduation ceremony because he returned to Israel to join the military.

In teacher Mark Woodcock’s 9th grade World Cultures honors class, students are just finishing a unit on the Middle East.

He gives the students two articles to read—one from the mainstream Jerusalem Post and another from the leftist newspaper Ha’aretz. The stories express diverging opinions on the offensive.

Some students are paying closer attention than others, like freshman Ephram Levin, whose older sister is living in Jerusalem for six months while studying there. Others, like freshman Brandon Loudon, have no personal stake in the conflict. But Mr. Loudon supports Palestinians and said he has no qualms about saying so among the school’s Jewish students.

“This is a pretty tolerant place,” he said.

Mr. Woodcock, a British subject, estimates that half his students are Jewish. He said he often feels the need to take up the Palestinian side for balance. At times, he asks students to take the position of “something they’re not.” Mr. Woodcock recently took a lengthy call from a Jewish parent upset that he was teaching that Mr. Arafat is “more than a terrorist.”

Mr. Woodcock, who has been at Cheltenham for four years, said some colleagues are apprehensive about lecturing on the conflict in a pro-Israel community. But he said he feels the students are perceptive and mature enough to handle the discussions.

Despite the anguish the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may cause his students, Mr. Woodcock says the situation provides an incredible opportunity for teachers.

“The best thing about the Middle East is, it’s going on now,” Mr. Woodcock said. “As an educational experience, it can’t be beat.”

Groups representing both sides say that schools can be an intellectual haven for students to work through their deeply held feelings about the situation.

“There should be a safe forum where students can express their feelings with intensely guided conversations so it doesn’t turn into a political argument,” said Marvin Wingfield, the director of education and outreach for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, based in Washington. “People may well need to vent, but a structured situation is more helpful.”

Avi West, the executive director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington, said students need to be clear where the boundaries lie in a classroom discussion. “Teachers need to talk about the rules of engagement, and how to discuss with a certain amount of decency and openness what is out of bounds in terms of tone and decibel level,” he said.

Cricket F. L. Kidwell, the state president of the California Council for the Social Studies, said a drawback of having specific state academic standards is that it leaves little wiggle room for current events. “When you have wonderful teaching opportunities, to have that fit into the curriculum is real difficult,” she said.

Back at Cheltenham High, the four Jewish and Muslim students, while unable to erase or ignore their differences, all rue their peers’ lack of knowledge on the conflict and what they see as the bias of American news media. Junior Alyson Miller, who is Jewish and spent two months studying in Israel, said it’s hard to get a conversation flowing. “No one knows anything,” she said.

Each also believes the news coverage is slanted—against Israelis or Palestinians, depending on the student’s perspective—and doesn’t provide the whole truth about what’s going on. All four said they turned to alternative sources—Arab television, Israeli newspapers—for information.

“They want to package it up before they serve it to the public,” Parviz Malakouti, a senior whose father is from Iran, said of the media. “They know that however they present it will sway [people] one way or another.”

On this at least, they have found common ground.

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as For U.S. Students, Mideast Conflict Hits Home


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