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A second line of thought that came out of my reading of Huw Lemmey’s “Devastation in Meatspace” was: How would I teach undergrads about this? This is the kind of thing I’ve been considering a lot lately, perhaps because I’m not teaching this semester for the first time since I started teaching in earnest, and I’m unable to exercise my educational creativity muscles.

But then, part of it is being struck by feeling like it’s impossible to have conversations about social inequality with anyone who hasn’t had the years of training in thinking structurally that I have—and students in my classes are the most common example of that in my life, living as I do in an academic cocoon.

Third, there’s the particular challenge of this case, because support for Israel is such a knee-jerk, unquestionable thing for so many Americans. Certainly, as demonstrated by the hubbub over the 2012 Democratic Party Platform not including Jerusalem in its original iteration and the subsequent revision to add in a statement that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, it’s basically impossible not to support the Israeli state in mainstream American politics.

I’m not really sure why that is, historically. A historian friend of mine speculated that it had to do with the US’s role in establishing Israel in the first place and also suggested that the linkage between the two nations intensified as a result of the Six-Day War, as the idea of Israel as a nation under attack fit nicely with late-60s white anxieties about the US as under attack and helped produce the special bond that’s come to exist. Now, the historian in question would make no claim to certainty on this explanation—since, though he’s a well-read and geopolitically-aware human, he doesn’t study any of those places and times in particular—but it’s a compelling supposition.

Regardless, though obligatory mainstream support for the Israeli state was well established by the time 9/11 happened, it clearly intensified after that terrorist attack, as Muslims and Arabs were moved into a category of assumed-automatic-enemies for many Americans—a position they already occupied for the Israeli state and some portion of its citizenry (though clearly not all, and maybe not even most).

So, this is the lay of the land: in the American mainstream, Israel is always right. Indeed, questioning Israeli state policy in many circles is automatically equated to anti-Semitism. (Even though Arabs are also Semites, which I have never understood. I asked Judith Butler about this once—because I was 20 and we were reading Holocaust literature and Palestinian poetry in her class on loss, memory, and mourning, and it seemed like a good idea at the time—and she couldn’t explain it either, sigh.)

Though obviously my formative years were in a different, pre-9/11 era when the Middle East was much less central to the American imaginary, I certainly never remember having any awareness of Palestinian refugees and their conditions until college. I was, like many of my students are, a well-meaning white liberal teenager with a savior complex very concerned about all kinds of injustices, but the Palestinian situation was not on my radar until probably Ananya Roy’s Women’s Studies 14 class in Spring 2001.

I can’t assume my students will share the level of un-awareness I had when I was their age, of course, but given the lay of the political land on this issue, it seems fairly likely that my students will come into any discussion believing that Israel = good, Palestinians = terrorists.

And indeed, I already teach the topic of terrorism in my upper division Gender in the Media course, using Jasbir K. Puar and Amit S. Rai’s Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots, trying to get my students to pull back from their beliefs about the 9/11 attacks, whatever they are,  enough to see the weirdness of the particular gendered and sexualized forms the reaction took.

This went pretty well the first time I taught the course, but on the second go-around I remember vividly having a student exclaim something like “but they killed all those people!” or “but they attacked us!” Her comments about sports teams in online discussion had already revealed she was from New York, and so there’s a fair chance that she had only a few degrees of separation to someone who died in the towers.

(It was also at this point that I realized I had been assuming that the South Asians in the room [of which she was one] a) were aware of the racist backlash and b) would be less knee-jerk in favor of post-9/11 jingoism, but that’s my failing as a white person and a teacher.)

So then I had to slow down and go back and come down from my big structural discussion back to the grounding in “Some people did something awful, that we don’t condone, but the response to it doesn’t make any sense in the absence of a history of imagining the East as a site of gender and sexual deviance.”

And I guess that’s the way forward to teach Palestine as well: We never condone violence. That includes acts undertaken by Palestinians, but it also includes the violences of the Israeli state. So, we can hold that in place and think about broader structures in how those particular violences arise and what forms they take.

Because the fact is that I do parse these kinds of complexities for my students, and expect them to, about other issues. Though I suppose the ones who are actively racist, sexist, or homophobic, rather than having a passive, culturally-received sense that whiteness or maleness or straightness is superior, probably quickly realize that mine is not the class for them to air those beliefs.

I think it’s possible to condemn terrorist tactics but also understand the backed-into-a-corner-ness that makes them seem like a/the viable option. I think it’s possible to get across that there are real, legitimate concerns being expressed in illegitimate ways.

I think it’s possible to get students to disarticulate the actions of the Israeli state, which even not all Israelis agree with, from Jews writ large. I think it’s possible to help students see how individuals within structures benefit from the violence done on their behalf and thus share some responsibility even as they do not directly or completely control the system that produces the violence.

I think it’s possible to push back on the culturally “obvious” without alienating your students. The trick lies in keeping the large, structural factors and the concrete, tangible loss of life both in view at once.

I’m taking the next 2 weeks off, since there’s no point in posting on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve when no one will read it, but I’ll see you back here in January!

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  1. By » Homosexuality is a Choice Mel Stanfill on 07 Jan 2013 at 9:29 am

    […] to teach with–uncomplicated being good for undergrads and then I can complicate in lecture. (Inability to exercise my educational creativity muscles strikes […]

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