Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

I Am Jewish and an Educator. Where Do I Stand With Equity Advocates Today?

Most educators don’t know how to address the Israel-Hamas war
By Joshua P. Starr — November 06, 2023 5 min read
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Since the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, and the even greater increase in antisemitism in America and the world, I feel like I’ve had many similar conversations with well-intended, truth-seeking colleagues in the education space. A few curious and honest people have first asked me with trepidation how I’m feeling, reference a social media post or an article they read, and then acknowledge their ignorance and desire to know more about Israel, my family, my Jewishness, and what they can do.

I and so many Jews today are struggling. Especially those of us who have been actively supporting progressive causes and have tried to be allies in the DEI community. We’re struggling with the deafening silence of so many leaders, colleagues, and friends. We’re struggling with the both-sided nature of the rhetoric. We’re struggling with the inability of so many people to clearly state that Jews were murdered in a terrorist attack and that antisemitism is again on the rise, without also saying that Israel had it coming. We’re struggling with the fear that our K-12 and college-age kids will be safe while trying not to freak them out too much.

I’m struggling to defend Israel’s right to exist at all costs while also acknowledging that the Israeli government policies have been horrific for way too long. I’m struggling as a human who hates to see anyone—especially children, including Israeli and Palestinian alike—suffer. But for me, as an educator, I’m struggling the most with how to place myself in this conflict. Not the physical one but the one that’s surrounding us in the news, on social media, in conversations, and in schools and institutions.

My identity as victim, or at least victim-adjacent, conflates with my role as an educator who has worked for 30 years to dismantle systems of oppression in public schools. And I’m struggling with that conflict. I’m struggling with the realization that I’ve just come to understand how infuriating and difficult it is to have to persuade people to see me and to understand my history. I’ve known that abstractly from Black, Asian, Latino, and other minoritized—as well as differently abled—colleagues and friends. But I have a new appreciation for how they have found themselves so often placed in the position of explainer and educator while also struggling with the realities of subtle and overt racism and othering that surround us in America. Now, I feel it, and I’m sorry it took me so long.

As an educator, I’m struggling the most with how to place myself in this conflict.

Those of us who have vocally and purposefully aligned ourselves with the struggle to improve lives for Black, brown, and financially insecure kids in the United States have also kept our own fears of growing antisemitism under wraps. It’s never about us, because we’re also typically white or at least we’re considered to be so and reap the benefits. We’ve made it in America. Or maybe I’m guided by the old joke about how many Jewish mothers it takes to change a lightbulb: “Don’t worry darling, I’ll sit in the dark.” In other words, we know to keep our suffering silent.

It’s virtually impossible for me to sit in the dark, however. So I find myself thinking about what I can do or maybe what I would do if I were still leading a school system. I know that I would embrace my identity. Jews have always sought to educate others. It’s a mitzvah (a special blessing) to invite a stranger to the Seder on Passover so they, too, can hear the story of how our people gained freedom from Pharoah. As a Jew, I’m also charged with Tikun Olam—to heal the world. That tenet guides us to be in the work. We don’t need to finish it, but we are obliged to be in it. What should that mean today? How can we create a conversation and invite people into it? Especially, today.

A few years ago, I got into a conversation with a colleague about Israel. She was deeply immersed in the DEI world, had written articles about her own experience as a Black immigrant living in America, was incredibly well read, and had trained others in how to embrace equity in public education. Our conversation was prompted by something in the news. She made a comment that raised a hackle for me as a Jew, and because we had a close working relationship, I didn’t hesitate to address it with her. I trusted that we could engage in an honest conversation where I could speak my truth. And I did. After about half an hour, she said to me, “You know, I realize that there’s so much about Israel and Palestine and the history of Jews that I just don’t know.” I was thankful for the realization and the acknowledgement. And then we went back to work.

The truth is that American equity warriors also don’t have the lexicon to know what to say.

So what should leaders do?

They should find allies with multiple perspectives who are willing and able to center humanity rather than their own position and pain. Then they need to create physical space to build community and invite people into a conversation with expert facilitation. Get people off Facebook and into spaces where they can listen, learn, and heal. Educators need to seek guidance from reputable organizations as issues arise. School and district leaders should seek internal and external experts to review study guides to determine how to educate all children about what’s happening and to place it in a factual historical context. Education leaders should review equity policies and related curriculum to determine how antisemitism and Islamophobia, and any other form of hate, should be incorporated. I’m sure the list could go on and I know others have also offered suggestions. But we need to start somewhere.

Americans are really bad at talking to each other. Our country, and seemingly the whole world, is endlessly divided. Educators, whether they’re DEI adherents or not, have an obligation to not take sides about who’s right and who’s wrong or which children deserve to be killed and which don’t.

It seems to me that we have more questions than answers right now. As an educator, and as a Jew, it’s my obligation to create spaces to wrestle with the questions. After all, it’s better than sitting in the dark.

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