About a decade ago, the Jewish comedian Jon Stewart read one of his classic “news” stories on “The Daily Show.” This one was about the Middle East. Before he could finish saying the word “Israel,” four “correspondents” leapt onstage and started yelling at him, including calling him a “self-hating Jew.”
Flustered, he stopped. And, then, he tried again. There was more yelling. More opinions. He tried once more, this time noting that it was possible to have two thoughts at once—you can be against certain Israeli policies, but that doesn’t mean you’re pro-Hamas.
The staged bit culminates with the four calling him a “Zionist pig” and against “murdered children.” He offers an expletive, balls up the script, and says, “Why don’t we just talk about something lighter, like Ukraine.” A prophetic moment, indeed.
Like all great comedy, the bit exaggerated for humorous effect, but it also tapped into the truth. Talking about the Israel-Hamas war can feel impossible. This feels even closer to home now than in 2014 when that episode of “The Daily Show” aired. As every American educator knows, the Israel-Hamas war has students—and adults—at loggerheads in K–12 classrooms and on college campuses, and many educators are struggling with how to discuss it constructively.
It may be best to begin by reminding students that discussion in general is tough right now. The United States is increasingly polarized, and Americans are less likely to speak, or even to cross paths, with anyone who differs significantly from them in political outlook.
The reasons for this can be traced back for decades, but we do know that social media is actively making it worse. Half of American adults say that they get their news from social media at least some of the time, and as many as 3 out of 4 overestimate their ability to identify “fake news.” The worse they are at identifying it, the more likely they are to share it, too.
Technology’s growing sophistication will deepen these issues still further. Generative AI has already been used to create “deepfake” news videos, for example. Meanwhile, major social media platforms (think: X, formerly known as Twitter, and TikTok) don’t deter misinformation or disinformation, presumably because they generate clicks.
This toxic situation leads to all sorts of issues being greatly oversimplified, as if they could be decided with a single click, for or against. Democrat or Republican? Black Lives or Blue Lives? Team Gomez or Team Bieber? Under such circumstances, discussions about something as complex as the Israel-Hamas war are practically doomed before they begin.
So what should educators do?
Simply making students aware of this challenge is a crucial first step. It should convince young people of the need to speak carefully, whatever their individual opinions may be. With that foundation in place, educators can equip them with the facts that they need for a constructive discussion by teaching them about the history of Israelis and Palestinians.
Ideally, this will involve topics stretching back thousands of years, including the formation of the first kingdoms of Israel; the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire; the establishment of the Al-Aqsa Mosque around the 7th century; the 1834 popular revolt against Egyptian rule in Palestine; the Balfour Declaration of 1917; the British White Paper of 1939; the 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel; the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, known in Arabic as the Nakba (“catastrophe”); the wars in 1967, 1973, and now in 2023. In other words, it’s no small task.
By itself, the sheer breadth of these topics will show students that the Israel-Hamas war is unfolding in an ancient cradle of civilization. The land is home to cultures that are tens of thousands of years old, each of them with its own fascinating history and towering list of achievements in art, literature, math, philosophy, and science.
Any classroom discussion should start from a place of respect for these ancient cultures, whether students identify with them personally or not. We can draw on their histories, interweaving and celebrating them. Depth and perspective are gained by giving space to as many voices from as many cultures as possible.
We need to go beyond history, too. Students must learn to lean into complexity and to sit with the discomfort of conflicting but equally valid narratives. The Israel-Hamas war should be challenging to discuss.
Last, before discussion begins, teachers must set clear ground rules. For example, no one in the classroom should ask anyone else to speak for their identity group. Judaism and Islam both incorporate a multitude of beliefs, histories, and practices. The same is true for other religious and ethno-religious groups with holy sites in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
It’s exhausting and alienating for anyone to face questions that begin with “What do Jews think about …” or “What do Muslims think about …” Instead, space should be made for students who feel comfortable doing so to share their personal experiences.
Another important ground rule is to remember that even something as complex as the Israel-Hamas war has opportunities for agreement. Everyone should straightforwardly be able to condemn the horrific killing of children and other civilians as a moral obscenity. And everyone should be able to recognize that someone having a personal connection with one side of the Israel-Hamas war doesn’t mean that they hate the other.
We can grieve for the Israeli civilians kidnapped or massacred by Hamas without being Islamophobic or anti-Palestinian. Likewise, we can grieve for the Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli airstrikes without being antisemitic or anti-Israeli. Respecting each other’s right to experience grief will help students to find their shared humanity. This, beyond a consensus or even a solid conclusion, is what our classroom discussions about the Israel-Hamas war should aim for.
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as Discussing the Israel-Hamas War With Students Isn’t Easy. It Shouldn’t Be