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Zion Square (credit: Fabcom on Flickr)

Last Thursday night a group of Jewish Israeli teens attacked Palestinian teens in downtown West Jerusalem while hundreds watched in what the police are calling an attempted lynching. One young man was beaten almost to death.

In my interviews I spoke to several Israeli teachers who said it would not be possible in their school to teach the Palestinian narrative. One teacher said regretfully, “This school specifically is not a school of exposing. Because I teach history, I can talk about the politics and the Arabs and the Palestinians, but in general, they are the enemy. It’s not ‘let’s feel sorry.’” An educational scholar I spoke to while designing my questions explained to me that even using the word “narratives” would identify me as on the left, and so I should avoid it.

This is not to say that I did not encounter some schools that were seeking to broaden their students’ views. The head of one National Religious school reported that his school “sort of insists, and I think it’s pretty rare here, that they have a basic introduction to Islam and to Christianity. Actually it was a time when a Catholic nun to speak to the boys, which was quite an event. In the last years we’ve been bringing some Muslims to speak about being Muslim, which is pretty rare in this divided city.” Many teachers are seeking to teach effectively against prejudice, but the overall trend is toward silence or worse.

Living intertwined with the Palestinians, Israelis have almost all the power. Instead of internalizing the moral obligations that come with power, however, the message that many Israeli children seem to be receiving is of the need to protect their people at any cost. A secular teacher in my interviews, when asked to describe the history curriculum, replied with a laugh: “Zionism, Zionism, Zionism…If you learn general history it’s just…to make the table where we can learn on it Israeli history. [In] ancient history, we teach…from 550 BCE to the destruction of the Temple. And then it’s not important anymore. Nothing happened afterwards.” Another secular teacher commented, “We talk a lot about the Holocaust. It’s important, but it keeps us in the place where we are victims.”

Comparisons with the worst of Palestinian behavior also creates a permissive attitude. Instead of holding students to the high ethical standard that Jewish tradition and their material, military and educational level would demand, some commentators point to the actions of impoverished and poorly educated Palestinians who have lived under both Israeli occupation and corrupt Arab regimes. Articles like this one and this one comparing the recent attack with the lynching and murder of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah in 2000 imply that as long as the worst of Israeli actions don’t sink to the level of the worst of Palestinian actions, they are ethically acceptable. As a 14 year-old who participated in the attacks said, “He [a Palestinian victim] was beaten and should have been beaten until the end. For all I care, he should die. He’s an Arab. If you pass through Damascus Gate, they will stab you.”

Meanwhile the Israeli government makes the situation more complicated and fraught. Instead of moving briskly to the two-state solution, the government blurs the line between public and private right-wing incursions on Palestinian land, encourages Jewish building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and protects settlers who commit violence against Palestinians. Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar has developed a program to bring Israeli students to Hebron to learn the settlers’ narrative about that West Bank city – they hear little of the Palestinian view. None of this helps Israeli young people develop lucid ethical principles about their neighbors, to say nothing of the anger, confusion and resultant violence it encourages in Palestinian youth.

Thus Israel is left with a teen population, civilian and military, with an enormous amount of authority and privilege over its neighbors. Despite this massive power imbalance in their favor, significant numbers of these teens have internalized the message that they are the victims, with the right that victims feel to use all means to fight their enemy. They learn almost nothing about their neighbors: how those neighbors see themselves, the land, their history, their religions. They are encouraged to measure their behavior not against the high standards of Jewish tradition but against the worst events of the conflict. They see adults who do not draw bright lines of ethics but instead use power and obfuscation to advance their own interests.

The Israeli educational establishment, from Minister of Education Sa’ar to individual teachers can begin to reduce such attitudes by encouraging learning about the Palestinians. Programs such as “Side by Side,” developed by Professors Dan Bar-On and Sami Adwan, are ready to be implemented. The students deserve the opportunity to develop historical, intellectual and ethical tools to help them guide their decisions.