How to respond to students’ questions about Israel and Palestine

Anjum Peerbacos offers some short- and longer-term ideas to ensure all teachers are able to reassure students about a highly complex and sensitive subject

Anjum Peerbacos offers some short- and longer-term ideas to ensure all teachers are able to reassure students about a highly complex and sensitive subject

17 Oct 2023, 5:00

The world has witnessed shocking events unfold since last Saturday. Escalating violence in the Middle East is once again dominating the news.

As educators, we cannot work, live and learn in a silo, pretending our students are not affected or at least curious about such events. The classroom is precisely where they should be able to ask questions with the expectation of informed and knowledgeable answers. But how many of us can honestly say we feel confident and comfortable with this complex topic?

History is worth repeating

First, there is the question of the historical context of these attacks. This needs to be explained incredibly clearly and in sufficient detail. It isn’t just a matter of exercising great sensitivity, but also a great deal of knowledge of the region’s history. Indeed, one might argue that greater sensitivity can only come from being knowledge-rich.

Unfortunately, our young people are not always given the opportunity to learn about this region in our history curriculums. For all the diversity of periods of history we can teach in primary and secondary, there is no compulsion or statutory requirement to teach any other than the Holocaust.

Students can study the Ancient Egyptians, the Aztecs, the Tudors, the Stewarts and the Sioux tribe. However, their understanding of the British Empire is still inconsistent at best and largely absent in the worst-case scenarios.

Yet its consequences have largely shaped the world as we know it today. Without this fundamental understanding of its legacy, it is incredibly challenging to comprehend why we are where we are today, as a nation and globally.

As a result of its optionality as a topic, there are gaping holes in our historical understanding across the nation. And as any historian knows, you cannot understand the present (or gaze into the future) without an awareness of the past.

How to respond now

Brushing up every teacher’s knowledge of the Middle East in time to field the burning questions in our classrooms over the coming weeks is an unlikely ask (though it is undoubtedly a worthwhile CPD endeavour given the regularity with which conflict in the region flares up).

In the meantime, history teachers will be best placed to teach this important knowledge in the informed, impartial, balanced and age-appropriate way legally required of us all. Perhaps it’s their time to shine in assembly this week.

‘Fine, Anjum,’ I hear you say. ‘But I’m tutor/English teacher/pastoral lead. What should I say now?’

There are some handy quick guides out there that might be worth brushing up on. But honestly, if you don’t know, tell the students you don’t know. Please do not try and make up a version of the answers that they need. The situation is too sensitive.

One clear teachable moment here – for us and our students – is about news gathering. A lack of knowledge makes us susceptible to misinformation and disinformation, which always grow amid the fog of war – and especially so in our social media age. This makes it all the harder to exercise the necessary criticality about the content we are exposed to. This includes teaching resources.

As teachers, it should be easy at least to remind students that knowledge is power (which includes knowing what we don’t know). Inform yourselves together if you can, and in doing so model best practice. Access information from a variety of sources, ensuring each one is reputable and robustly fact-checked.

The same approach is crucial too in combating antisemitism and Islamophobia, which also heighten with every new Middle East conflict. Knowing what they are and how they manifest can protect us all from falling into that trap.

In the end, the big takeaways should always be that violence and war are never the solution. Everything should, can, and ultimately will be resolved with diplomacy. Peace is always the ultimate outcome.

And the best way to model that is to allow students to discuss these issues in an open manner as you learn collectively. We may not all know the history of Israel and Palestine, but we do all know when a conversation is uncivil or uniformed.

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One comment

  1. Julie Chase

    It is impossible to teach about the history of Palestine and Israel without breaking the law. This is how democratically oppressed we are and why it’s no coincidence that children receive no rigorous education about the history of the British Empire.