Comprehending the Conflict: How students from around Chicago learn about Israel and Palestine

EVANSTON — As a tenth-grade student at Glenbrook North High School, Ryan Harris knew very little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I probably would’ve thought it was the Israeli-Pakistani conflict,” he said.

That changed when he applied for Hands of Peace, a nonprofit founded in 2003, which runs during the summer in Chicago and San Diego. It seeks to inspire change by encouraging face-to-face conversations between Israeli, Palestinian and American teenagers, even if they are thousands of miles away from Jerusalem.

Harris spent the summers after his sophomore and junior years having comprehensive discussions with peers from Israel and Palestine, along with other students from the United States.

If his Middle Eastern conflict education was lacking in public school, Harris said Hands of Peace more than made up for it.

“It sort of catapulted me into situating myself in a global conflict,” Harris said. “It’s mind blowing as a high schooler to engage with these issues.”

Most students at public Illinois schools don’t broach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the classroom. Civics is a graduation requirement for high schools in the state, but current events classes don’t always exist. Jewish or Muslim students are the most likely to learn about the tension if they attend religious schools.

According to the Prizmah Center for Jewish Day Schools and the Jewish United Fund, there are 15 Jewish day schools in Chicago and 11 Jewish high schools. Muslim Community Center (MCC) Academy Superintendent Habeeb Quadri said there are 13 local Islamic schools.

According to Harris, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was never mentioned at Glenbrook North, even in his tenth grade “world religions” class.

Harris is not the only student whose Israeli-Palestinian pedagogy began outside of school.

For Northwestern first-year Ellie Eimer, religious school provided a foundation for her knowledge about Israel. She began Hebrew School in third grade, and continued to study with Temple Jeremiah in Northfield until her senior year of high school.

Before high school, Eimer said lessons about Israel were primarily about culture and cuisine. However, as a teenager, conversations shifted subtly towards the conflict. Guest speakers, mostly from pro-Israel organizations, were not uncommon.

“I wouldn’t say we talked about it that much with our teachers, just cause it’s such a confusing and complicated topic,” Eimer said. “I don’t know if they felt fully confident in explaining it to us.”

Eimer says she was left wanting more, and has taken classes about the conflict at Northwestern in hopes exploring perspectives that differ from her own. The problem with only learning about this conflict in religious school, she said, is being surrounded by people with one-sided beliefs.

According to Eimer, learning about the conflict in high school either deliberately focused on the past, or prepared the teens to defend Israel in the future.

“We had a teacher come to talk about how to defend yourself on a college campus when someone’s attacking Israel,” Eimer said.

Many lessons, she said, leaned in a pro-Israel direction, although she said the temple typically allowed students to form their own conclusions about the conflict.

Sadiya Barkat has taught social studies at MCC Academy – a Muslim school with a campus in Skokie and another in Morton Grove – for about 15 years. She said there is a day or two in which Palestine comes up in her eighth grade American History class, when she talks about the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Barkat said students are sometimes surprised to learn that the British played a role in partitioning the territory, as they assume it was Jews. She talked about the conflict more when she taught Islamic History.

“Even within current events, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been going on for the better part of 60 years,” she said. “If you want to discuss something, you’re probably going to discuss something more recent, like the Rohingya situation.”

Barkat said Palestinians do not make up a “sizeable” portion of each class at MCC Academy.

Rick Rosenfeld, the executive director of Hands of Peace, said his program offers something different. The goal is not to “teach,” but to encourage dialogue amongst the teenage students, and he said having American students there is beneficial to everyone involved. However, learning about the history of the territory makes up a notable portion of the 19-day programming.

According to Rosenfeld, working specifically with a teenage population has its advantages. Their opinions, he said, are still malleable.

“A middle schooler or a pre-teen doesn’t have the maturity or the education or the experience yet to be able to engage in dialogue,” Rosenfeld said. “Similarly, if you look at people who are in their 40s and 50s, they’re already set in their ideas. Teenagers are at a position where they’re most open to hearing different perspectives.”

Dr. Denise Tsioles from Child Therapy Chicago says there is no ideal age to introduce such a complex, and often violent, issue as the conflict to children.

“Clearly high school aged students and, perhaps, middle school age students would be able to grasp and discuss the topic in more depth… but it doesn’t mean younger kids can’t understand some of the broader issues if they are presented at an age-appropriate level,” Tsioles said.

Harris spent two summers with Hands of Peace, which holds its programs in Chicago and San Diego. As a student at Oberlin College, Harris spent a year in Israel and the Palestinian territories, studying in both Hebrew and Arabic. After graduating in May 2018, he accepted a job on staff with Hands of Peace.

“If we’re talking about American teenagers, it’s super important because we don’t have to necessarily be entrenched in the narrative,” Harris said. “We’re in a position of privilege where we can see the whole picture.”

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Joey spent a week in the Middle East in March 2019, reporting from Israel and the West Bank.