Getting the Discussion Started: Teaching the Palestinian Narrative in Diaspora Jewish Schools

by: Francis Nataf

Rabbi Francis Nataf is the Educational Director of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem. He is the author of Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Genesis as well as numerous articles concerning Jewish education and Jewish thought. Rabbi Nataf was ordained at Yeshiva University and also holds degrees in Jewish history and international affairs.

On matters of ideology, schools of any culture will naturally promote the values of that culture – and Jewish schools are no different in this regard. Among the dearest values of most Jewish communities is identification with Israel in its conflict with its enemies. This is as it should be.

The question at stake is not whether Jewish educators should be supportive of Israel. Rather, the issue is how to most effectively prepare Jewish students to strongly identify with Israel while living in sophisticated multicultural societies. Simply stated, our children will be exposed to more and more ideological and political diversity, making “the marketplace of ideas” more of a reality than ever before. Not only will this put them in a position to convince others of the truth of their beliefs, it will also put them in a position in which they can be convinced by others who don’t share their views. Moreover, the general tilt away from automatic support for Israel will create an increasingly difficult marketplace of ideas as time goes on. That being the case, how we teach the Israeli-Arab conflict may need reexamination.

On some level, this is not a new discussion. It is one that has been taking place in Israeli school systems for several decades (Podeh 2001). As early as 1969, Israeli teachers and academicians have seriously addressed the issue of whether or not to teach the Arab side of the conflict. To this day, it remains a controversial topic and the results of teaching the Palestinian narrative in Israeli schools, to the extent that it has been taught, are far from clear.

In the present article, we will focus the discussion on Diaspora Jewish day schools. These schools, with few exceptions, still do not see a need to teach the Arab perspective of the conflict in any sustained and non-polemical fashion. While some lessons can be applied from the Israeli experience, others may not. The very fact that most Diaspora Jewish day schools are under Orthodox auspices already represents a very important difference in how teachers and students are likely to approach ideological questions and pluralistic notions of historical truth. But religious orientation is not the only issue that makes these schools different than the primarily secular Israeli schools. Culture, daily experience and learning styles, to name only a few variables, all pose additional impediments to a direct comparison of Israeli schools and their Diaspora counterparts.

Historical Facts and Historical Narratives

One does not have to be a postmodernist to appreciate the notion that different groups will understand history differently. This is true even in the unusual situation wherein all the historical facts are known and agreed upon. Indeed, the study of history is often the attempt to identify the most significant facts and then to analyze these facts in such a way as to provide a patterned sequence of events. In studying early American history, for example, we turn our eyes to enlightenment political thought, which served as a major influence on the unfolding of the new liberal political order leading up to and following American independence. Many of the major events of this period can subsequently be understood as giving greater impetus to liberalism throughout the Western world. While this understanding is one rooted in facts, it remains a theoretical explanation of the pattern that emerges from these facts. Though highly convincing, it does not bear the stamp of objective truth. A Marxist would give a different theoretical construct to make sense of the same facts. This is not to say that one theory is just as good as another. What it is saying, however, is that historical facts do allow for different interpretations. I may disagree with a competing interpretation of the facts and can convincingly argue that it is incorrect – I may not argue that the facts automatically spell out a pattern for all to see and that anyone who does not see such a pattern is either stupid or malevolent.

One’s perspective will also help determine what data will be accepted uncritically and what will not be accepted without compelling evidence. In other words, when one encounters unverified information that can easily be integrated into a preexisting framework, we can expect a less critical attitude than with information that cannot be so easily integrated. In that sense, established theories have a way of reinforcing themselves.

Too often, when we look at the Arab position, we only look at the facts presented by the other side. What such an approach misses is that opposition to Israel is not really rooted in specific facts. Neither is support of Israel. Granted, the plausibility of a historical theory will be compromised to the extent that it is based on inaccuracies. Still, we must recognize that even if we agreed on all the facts, the Arabs would continue to view the conflict in different terms than we do.

To take one example, can the question of who is to blame in the Six-Day War really be determined by facts? After all, the Six-Day War is only one chapter of a story that started earlier. If Israel’s actions in 1948 were justified, then the Arabs had no right to threaten the Jewish nation in 1967. If Israel’s earlier actions were not justified, then the Arabs were simply using force of arms to achieve a legitimate aim that they had been unable to accomplish in 1948. In turn, justification of Israeli actions in 1948 cannot be “proven” by citing the UN partition or the Balfour Declaration. After all, the Arab narrative would deny the right of Britain and the UN to determine ownership of, what they see as, Arab land. To further claim that the UN’s establishment of the State of Israel is recognized by international law doesn’t get us much further, since it is the very legitimacy of international law that is being questioned. These arguments have their place and it is important to know them, but none of them get to the root issues of the conflict that ultimately lie in meta-understandings of history and not in facts.

We now are in a better position to ask ourselves of what need is it for Jewish students to understand the Arab side of the conflict, beyond understanding any other important foreign perspective. Is this just part of the general questions of intellectual honesty and multiculturalism in our schools (no small issues in their own right) or is there a more immediate and pressing concern that makes it specifically relevant to our students?

Da mah shetashiv

Being Jewish has always meant being surrounded and greatly outnumbered by ideological competition. As a result, Jews have long been aware of the importance of being prepared to contend with that competition. Whether it was in the face of paganism, Christianity or Islam, the rabbis (Avot 2:14) spoke about the imperative of “da mah shetashiv…” (know what to respond …). It goes without saying that “knowing what to respond” meant doing so effectively. It wasn’t enough to have answers that impressed the in-group. The responses minimally had to also hold the opposition at bay.

According to Maimonides, this principle requires knowledge of that which one is arguing against. In this context, R. Aharon Lichtenstein quotes T. S. Eliot’s quip that “paganism (is best defeated) in the classical way, by understanding it.” Without such understanding, it would be extremely difficult to know how to debate effectively. It would follow that the more sophisticated one’s likely opponent, the more background into the opponent’s views would be needed in order to rebuff his arguments.

The often high level of contemporary public debate today does not allow credible and convincing responses to be grounded in a superficial and polemical approach to competing ideologies. Rather, such responses require a serious understanding of the competition. In turn, transmitting such an understanding is predicated on showing our students these ideologies’ coherence and appeal. Focusing primarily on the ideology’s flaws would likely lead to its distortion and not to the type of understanding that would allow one to successfully rebut competing arguments. At best, it leads to positions that will only convince those already convinced, but will not carry much weight with others.

Of course, it is most probable that the directive of da mah shetashiv was originally meant for the rabbis themselves, since they were the ones likely to encounter ideological challenges. Accordingly, the Talmud contains many episodes of gentiles presenting these challenges to various rabbis. Anyone who was not likely to meet such ideological challenges had no immediate need to be prepared. In the present era of mass education and instant communications, the situation is quite different – we are all susceptible to ideological challenges. Thus, even if the directive did not have mass application when it was originally formulated, it may well have mass application today.

In short then, the rabbinic principle of da mah shetashiv would suggest that all modern Diaspora Jews take the requisite steps to understand the views of our ideological opponents, in whatever realm they may present themselves. I also believe it has applications to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

What Should Be Taught?

Harkabi’s (1972) treatment of the topic, although dated, remains possibly the best comprehensive work available, and it is not in the scope of this article to spell out the Palestinian narrative. Rather, we will describe, in broad strokes, how such a narrative should be given over to Diaspora Jewish students.

It should be obvious to most educators that multiple perspectives are not easily integrated in the early years of education. Such leads to confusion and would not be age-appropriate (Reich 2002). Rather, we envision such a narrative to have a place in the high school and post-high school Israel studies curriculum.

Even for more mature students, the sophistication of the project under discussion requires the teacher to tread carefully. The study of alternative historical narratives needs to be explained and even justified to our students. They must understand that it is possible to look at the same facts and understand them differently. They must also understand the educational goals of this particular endeavor. It may well be necessary to explicitly state that appreciating the Arab narrative will actually help to better serve our common pro-Israel convictions. At the same time, it must be emphasized that appreciation of the Arab narrative will require coming to the issue in a fresh way and, as much as is possible, without any axes to grind. In this vein, it is extremely unhelpful to take a “myths and facts” approach of stopping after every minor discussion to show the weaknesses in the Arab perspective. Any narrative taught in such a way, including our own, would fail to engage students. Similarly, students should be encouraged to withhold judgmental evaluations and colored language, referring to such a perspective as “warped” or “jaded.”

It would be appropriate to start by giving our students some background into Modern Arab history, culture and religion. Educators will then need to look at many of the same facts that our students will already have studied from an Israeli perspective and show them how the Arabs interpret many of the same facts but come to a dramatically different understanding of the conflict. In this context, events that are not given so much importance by Israelis but are seen as highly significant by Palestinians should also be studied. For example, the battle of Karameh, a costly Israeli raid which pitted Israeli soldiers against Fatah and Jordan in March 1968, is generally seen as a minor event in Israeli history and not really worthy of mention. Palestinians, however, see it as their equivalent to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and therefore a seminal event. The coherence of the narrative will be best appreciated if our students are aware of all of its major components.

Some have claimed that teaching the Palestinian narrative in our schools is superfluous, since our students will regardless encounter this narrative in the general media or at university. It is true that the media will sometimes sympathize with Arab claims. Occasional and unsystematic exposure to such sympathy, however, is not the same as a deep understanding of how the Arabs understand the conflict. Neither does the fact that one can pick this up in universities assure that the necessary electives will be chosen by a large percentage of our students. Moreover, even if the claim were correct, it still would not mitigate the need to teach the Arab perspective in our own schools. Even graduates of Jewish schools that do attend such university courses may find themselves overwhelmed if they are not properly prepared within the context of their earlier Jewish education. In fact, it could be precisely such students that would most benefit from the teaching of the Arab narrative in Jewish high school and post-high school programs.

The Problem of Engendering Relativism

Will the teaching of the Palestinian narrative dilute loyalty of Jewish students to their own cause? A smart-alecky student of mine once wanted to drive home this point in her own inimitable way by responding to my statement of, “You now see that the issues are not so clear,” by jokingly responding, “The issues are very clear – now I see that the Arabs are totally right.”

Indeed, this issue is part of a much larger question facing multiculturalist educators who seek to open students up to the values of other cultures without simultaneously undermining identification with their own culture. Though Jewish education need not be beholden to multiculturalism, our earlier discussion of da mah shetashiv leads us to the same impasse, albeit from different starting assumptions. Teachers who undertake to teach the Palestinian narrative may benefit from looking into some attempts to deal with this problem in the general literature. Though helpful, a perusal of the literature will also show that a full-proof solution to this problem has not yet been found.

At the same time, I’m not sure that the challenge of diluting Jewish students support for Israel should cause us to shelve it. Is blind zealotry really what we want from our students? If our students’ zeal may be tempered by newly found nuance, will this truly compromise their core identification with the Jewish people, its defense and survival? The answer to this question may be found in the rest of the curriculum. That is to say, if teaching the Palestinian narrative will really shake our students’ commitment to Israel, the real problem may not lie in whether or not we teach the Arab perspective but how we teach our own.

On some level, providing alternative explanations of the Arab-Israeli conflict ups the ante of what is at stake in how we teach our Judaic studies and specifically our Israel/Zionism classes. They will need to be taught with even greater passion and sophistication, so that they reinforce a Jewish student’s natural identification with the values and heritage of our people as manifested in the State of Israel.

In this context, it may be helpful to note Maimonides’ understanding of the context of da mah shetashiv in Avot – the mishna continues to say that one should be aware of Whom one is working in front of. Maimonides explains that precisely when one is involved in the necessary study of competing ideologies, one need be mindful of one’s primary allegiance. This means that the study of competing ideas should be done in such a way as to prevent these ideas from entering one’s heart (shelo yikanes belibkha). In other words, these ideas should not be pursued with the same holistic and emotional overtones with which we should study our own tradition. Thus, not only will teaching the Palestinian narrative help us better equip our students to defend Israel, it will force us to become better teachers of the Israeli narrative as well.


Harkabi, Y., Arab Attitudes to Israel (Jerusalem: Keter 1972).

Podeh, E., How Israeli Textbooks Portray the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: Bergin and Garvey, 2001).

Reich, R., Bridging Liberalism and Multiculturalism in American Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), pp.197-8.