What Voldemort Can Teach Us About Jewish Education: The Missing Palestinian in Israel Education

Haidy Wasef (left) with a student in her Arabic class at Gann Academy in Waltham, Massachusetts, 2016; screenshot The Times of Israel.

By Hannah Tobin Cohen

Fear of a name increases fear of a thing itself.” —Albus Dumbledore

It seemed so obvious in Harry Potter. Didn’t the storybook characters realize that calling Voldemort “He Who Must Not Be Named,” and “You-Know-Who,” only served to exacerbate and proliferate their fear of this unknown, unnamed force? For a long time, only Dumbledore, the sage, moral compass of the series, insisted on referring to Voldemort as just that: Voldemort.

In Genesis 24, the name of Abraham’s loyal and capable right hand man also remains unspoken. Some have theorized that the reason for this is the character’s own view of himself simply as the “Servant of Abraham (Gen. 24:34),” a man unwaveringly dedicated to his role and his master. Yet the anonymity of such a pivotal character proves profoundly unsatisfying. Keen to ascribe an identity to this laudable figure, scholars have named him: Eliezer.

In both cases, addressing the individual by his name becomes the first step towards recognizing and humanizing him (whether for good or bad). It brings the character alive and helps those who speak his name to engage with him. Not naming both characters leads to disempowerment in converse ways: when Eliezer lacked a name, scholars felt unable to attribute him the honor he deserved; when Voldemort was not called by his true name, it disempowered everyone but him.

Despite the fact that the Bible and Harry Potter are two of the best selling books to date, their lessons about the danger of erasing names seem to have eluded many North American Jewish institutions, who persist in omitting the word Palestinian from their classrooms, their pulpits, their conversations.

At the Children’s Learning About Israel project, we have been studying Jewish elementary school students to trace their relationships with Israel and understand how they develop over time.  In the five years that we have been following a group of American Jewish children, not one child has comfortably talked about the Palestinians. Instead, children euphemize Palestinians through descriptions like the “bad guys” (Micah), “the people that Israel is fighting against” (David), and the “the other team that was fighting Israel” (Ari). Tzvi expanded that “Israel people were fighting with mean people because mean people wanted Israel to be their land”. Again and again, Jewish children bring up Israel’s enemies, but are unable to accurately name them.

The small minority of students (7 out of the 35 children we have been following) who did mention Palestinians, Arabs, Gaza or Hamas did not really know what the terms meant. They used the words, but when we asked what they meant, the children deflected through answers such as “well, I just know the name, nothing else,” (Avigail) or “uh, I do not know” (Hayim). Samantha’s confusion is evident in her uncertain tone: “there was a war going on with Israel. With the, I think it was the Ga-, wait, Gaza. Palestine, I don’t know… Either the Gaza people or the Palestine people?”.

Such perplexity is inevitable given the intense pressure felt by those responsible for our children’s education. A teacher colleague bemoaned the fact that even mention of the word Palestinian prompted furious emails from parents asking why it was brought up in a Jewish setting. A rabbi, imploring his confidants to guard his anonymity, lamented that he avoided bringing up the term altogether, for fear of retribution from an overzealous board. Repeatedly, Jewish educators and leaders admit they are at a loss as to how to teach or navigate discussions around such a fraught and sometimes even unfamiliar topic.

Whilst Palestinians might be an inconvenient part of Israel’s story, they are, undeniably, integral to it. If Israel has not yet discerned how to disentangle itself physically and figuratively from the Palestinians, we cannot disentangle Israel education from learning about Palestinian life and national aspirations. American Jewish children learn Israeli history, Israeli geography and Israeli culture, but Palestinians, who share in it, are deliberately, glaringly absent. In the past few decades, mifgash (planned meetings between Israeli and Diaspora Jews) has been increasingly emphasized as a fundamental part of “good” Israel education. Yet how many American Jews have met a Palestinian, or at the very least, sought out or been exposed to their narratives?

It might seem counterintuitive to argue that Israel educators ought to spend more time discussing and teaching about the Palestinians. Yet when we avoid avoid the topic, we do our children the greatest disservice, cumulatively fostering in them fear, uncertainty and ignorance. Our research demonstrates that children as young as kindergarten are searching for and struggling to find answers about the Palestinians, in a quest to better understand their beloved Israel. They want to comprehend more, but they do not have the vocabulary or tools to do so, and this leaves them confused and frustrated. As parents and educators, we can meet our children by shutting down the conversation, or by providing an open door for exploration and discussion in a safe, loving environment. The easiest place to start is by defining our terms in order to gain some clarity around our language: using the word Palestinian in Jewish educational settings, rather than avoiding it.

Eliezer, upon receiving a name, became a more rounded figure with whom we could better engage. Ceasing to address Voldemort as “You-Know-Who” empowered and emboldened Harry Potter and his friends. We need to start using the word Palestinian in Israel education; it is in our children’s best interests to do so.

 

Hannah Tobin Cohen balances her time between research and writing in the field of Israel education and serving as director of marketing at a private company. One of her current projects includes research at the Children’s Learning About Israel project, a longitudinal study tracking elementary school children’s thoughts and feelings about Israel. Hannah was a fellow of Newground: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, iCenter’s Master’s Concentration in Israel, and the American Jewish University’s Teaching Israel Fellowship. Originally from England, Hannah read Oriental Studies specializing in the Middle East at Oxford University, followed by a Master’s in Education at the American Jewish University. She now lives in Los Angeles with her young family.

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