The current protest movement in Israel—similar to but also different than from the much more urgent, anguished, and even bloody revolutions now sweeping the Arab world—brings into focus for me a dilemma that affects my teaching. For the protesters the question is whether to “depoliticize” the mass movement in order to draw in as many people as possible by focusing on broadly shared civic demands: housing, healthcare, and education. This strategy assumes that once you get people active in one cause they may expand their activism to causes that previously seemed out of bounds, notably Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its abuse of Palestinians’ human and citizen rights. The alternative option would be to further “politicize” the current protest by exposing ways the struggle for internal welfare is inextricable from the politics and economics of occupation, war, and racism. The first option speaks to the frustration and needs of a broad spectrum of Israelis, fudging unresolved issues concerning Jewish ethnicities, Israeli Palestinians, “guest” workers, sex and gender minorities, religious identities, and social class. The second option is more challenging and uncomfortable to many protesters. By confronting Israel’s long-term politics regarding the Palestinian people it stands to lose popular support.
Radicals of all stripes have been facing variants of this problem repeatedly. It’s the strategic tension between an elite vanguard and inclusive compromises. We, educators, have our own little niche within this debate: should we soften the political edge of what we teach in order to reach as many students as possible, or should we be explicitly committed to the logic of our convictions and risk losing students (and sometimes even jobs) along the way? Of course it’s not as crudely either/or as I suggest here. It’s a matter of gradations, flexibility, and improvisation.
My new course on Israeli and Palestinian fiction is now on my mind in this connection as students’ stakes and perspectives on such a course vary. My initial challenge was to design a syllabus based on materials that are a priori not neutral. What to select and how to sequence the readings over the semester is already a charged question. The second challenge is how to work with this contentious material in class. Here, too, my choice is between politically diffuse teaching that creates a foothold for as many students as possible versus taking a more incisive political position that risks pushing some students away. This is the counterpart to Matt Brown’s discussion (in Radical Teacher #82.on postcolonialism) of teaching “the difficult text,” except his challenge is teaching “high” theory while mine is the emotional impact of teaching politically charged material.
My palliative is a teaching style that is attentive, empathetic, and flexible. I do not ram ideas down people’s throats and I try to give as much space for objecting and debating as anybody will use. It seemed to have worked well in my forty years of teaching. My comfort zone was rarely disturbed by dramatic challenges, and those that did occur—only two students come to mind, among thousands—were too off-the-wall to matter. But in one such class, as congenial as ever, two students nodded in wincing recognition when I happened to note in passing that students on the Right—the moderate right, hardly extreme—don’t feel comfortable voicing their views in our urban, commuting, liberal, East Coast classrooms.
This response, together with my embarking now on a contentious course, has me head in the direction of worried anticipation of what may surface in my current class and the unalleviated effort it will take to navigate our material. I am thinking yet again about ways over-determined texts can affect classroom dynamics and create conflictual situations. Some of you may in fact face more challenging pressures that I do. Because Radical Teacher does not seem to get many submissions that address this question squarely, and because I myself don’t have an answer beyond improvising case by case, can we hear from you, readers?
By Linda Dittmar