Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

Why I did not sign onto the Middle East Section Statement on Palestine

June 2, 2021

I post this message in response to the invitation and pressure for the Council on Anthropology & Education (CAE) to sign onto a statement by another section of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the Middle East Section (MES). Their statement [http://mes.americananthro.org/mes-statement-on-palestine-updated-5-19-21/#_ftn1] is called the MES Statement on Palestine and has been signed by many entities with the support of many peers, mentors, students, and friends in anthropology and education. I offer another perspective and an invitation to engage in nourishing dialogue. As a scholar of L2 Education who was honored to speak to the English Teachers Association of Israel including Arab, Jewish, and Palestinian teachers in Jerusalem (2017), I view English language education and ethnography as important tools for complex and caring actions toward peace.

An Endorsement for History, Ethnography, Language Education, and Peace (written in consultation with Dr. Alma Gottlieb and other scholars who may wish to remain anonymous)

Bearing witness to the takeover of the Right in the U.S., Israel, and other countries around the world is frightening, and it is important to denounce this trend as members of any institution with power–the power of words against the power of weapons.  With this statement shared with the CAE board and now with all CAE membership, I wish to express solidarity with Palestinians under the occupation, and opposition to disproportionate use of violence by the Israeli military over the 11 days of the recent war and in everyday practices of oppression.  However, I cannot endorse the MES statement as it is written.  The statement is inflammatory and assumes a monolithic “Israel” and “Palestine”–both, spaces that contain many diverse and vulnerable groups who are victims of oppressive actions taken by their respective governments.  The MES statement fails to acknowledge these ethnographically specific vulnerabilities.  

It is painful for many of us to observe that Jewish people who helped build the Jewish state of Israel as a space of refuge from the Holocaust, tracing centuries of ancestry to this homeland, could also support a prime minister and a government that actively promote the oppression and denigration of Palestinian people, and suppress LGTBQ rights and interfaith marriage within Israel. Many progressive, Jewish Israelis oppose their own prime minister’s actions and that of the right-wing settler movement actions much as many of us in the U.S. opposed the Trump leadership.  

At the same time, the MES statement now endorsed by many AAA units, including the CAE, adopts an unrealistically ahistorical perspective that concerns me.  Some of us remember the 1978 Peace Accords, when Egypt lost ten years of rights to belong to the Arab League simply for acknowledging Israel as a legitimate nation.  More of us remember in 1995 when Yizhak Rabin was promoting peace between Israel and Palestine and was assassinated by a young Jewish, right-wing Israeli.  Training in educational anthropology can help one understand the ways that words and passions mobilized to fight oppression can also unintentionally reignite other forms of oppression. As an educator and an educational anthropologist, I see an urgent need to question ‘group think’ mentality that may attract those who stand on the side of anti-oppression, and a need to consider the importance of studying both what is said and what is not said, as well as what is implied by silences and omissions.  I ask myself now, and I ask my CAE colleagues: What further damage is done when endorsing statements that omit discussion of the ways in which both the Israeli military power (backed by the U.S. government that invests wealth in violence and oppression in the name of defense) and Hamas military power (backed by a terror superpower that invests its wealth by sponsoring radical Islamist militants at the expense of Palestinian civilian safety) reject efforts to engage in any real diplomacy and forge a lasting regional peace?

I understand that the Middle East Section Statement rejects a “two sides” narrative because of clear power imbalances distinguishing Israel and Palestine.  While I recognize these power imbalances, I also recognize the on-the-ground realities that have left many Israeli civilians wounded or dead from direct attacks by Hamas into Israeli cities.  The frustration over Palestinian land rights that underlies these attacks is undeniable, but the MES statement declines to condemn Hamas attacks directed at civilians.  Neither does the MES statement acknowledge the multiple past attempts to create a viable two-state solution.  The statement falsely aligns the Jewish state and all endorsements of its right to exist as a form of white supremacy, a statement that I fear is exactly the kind of rhetoric stoking the rise in hundreds of cases of anti-Semitism recently (and ongoing) around the world.  

The MES statement selectively omits other uncomfortable truths about the region.  For example, it declines to condemn Hamas for not holding free and fair elections for Palestinians in Gaza since 2006. It declines to condemn Hamas leaders as perpetrators of cruel violence within Palestine, and for their rejection of peaceful negotiations to establish a democracy.  Likewise, the MES statement omits connections between the 11 recent days of violence and powers far outside of Israel/Palestine–both those that want a Jewish state of Israel and those that do not–that are using Israelis and Palestinians as pawns.  Furthermore, I am concerned that scholars who sign this statement are missing important acknowledgement that Hamas leadership speaks plainly for the destruction of Israel, and uses Palestinian civilians as human shields for rockets and ideology.  

The current crisis is rooted in long, complex histories, and I find myself frustrated that the MES statement does not leverage the power that a nuanced, anthropological approach to conflict can offer to complicated ethnographic realities.  As an anthropologist dedicated to probing the messy complexities of lived realities and training my students to do so with all available scholarly tools of our and adjacent disciplines, I prefer to use the great strengths of the fields of both education and anthropology to nourish understanding of the complicated history of a fraught region.  It is critical to acknowledge that that history includes attempted genocide against Jews, and anti-Semitism and violence in the Arab world against both Jewish Arab (the majority of Israel’s population) and Muslim Arab populations and, more recently, Israel’s Ashkenazi population of east European origin.  Any statement that does not acknowledge this historical complexity is one-sided and I believe should not be supported by educational scholars of anthropology.  

A simplistic condemnation that one side in a political conflict–any political conflict–has a monopoly on righteousness to the exclusion of the other side betrays our training as anthropologists.  Due to omissions and misunderstandings perpetuated in this MES statement, I stand as a minority dissent to the CAE board decision to support the MES statement as it is written.  With this dissenting statement, I stand in solidarity with those Israelis and Palestinians who stretch out their hands for peace, and with those who say “No!” to continued violence and rhetoric that does not clearly support both Israel’s and Palestine’s right to self-determination and statehood.  I also stand in defiance of terrorists, of disproportionate use of military force, and of those who support violence against civilians.  We must stand for a complicated and considered peace.

For reasons well articulated yesterday by Zack Beauchamp on Vox, I retain hope that the struggle for a two-state solution that honors all actors in this fraught land–a struggle that precedes many of our lifetimes–can yet be realized in our lifetimes. 

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