Report from Seattle, Washington, USA.
It’s a black steamer trunk with brass corners, a stage prop, or perhaps it was once owned by an Englishwoman disembarking in Chandrapore.
Actually, it’s a Pandora’s Box filled with hate. It’s called the Palestine Teaching Trunk, and it contains “teaching materials” for high school and middle school teachers. It’s the brainchild of Linda Bevis of the Palestine Solidarity Movement and the Boycott, Divest and Sanction campaign. Bevis and her husband, Ed Mast, create videos and books and have made a business out of their anti-Israel obsession.
Like other professions, social studies teachers gather at in-service educational conferences to learn about new teaching resources and hear presentations from leading educators in the field. At the Fall In-Service Conference of the Washington State Council for the Social Studies held October 11 in Edmonds, Bevis came to recruit teachers to use her trunk in their classes.
I am one of a number of Seattle-area pro-Israel activists. The teaching trunk has been on our radar for some time. We were alerted by StandWithUs Northwest to attended Bevis’ presentation as a non-confrontational group of concerned citizens, Jewish and otherwise, who care about what is taught in our schools. Although the conference was on Shabbat, protecting the Jewish people from slander is, in my mind, a religious duty.
Perhaps the most perverse thing about Bevis’ trunk is that its inspiration was the well-regarded Holocaust Teaching Trunk. The Holocaust trunk was created by the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center. Holocaust centers in other states later added an Anne Frank Teaching Trunk.
The artifice of a trunk has symbolic significance that Bevis may have missed. The images of loading areas by the tracks after the train has left is a heartbreaking scene that never leaves you. Told they were being deported, the Nazis instructed the Jews to pack one suitcase. In the photos, hundreds of suitcases and trunks are scattered on the ground, with not a sign of a living person in the scene. The image is symbolic of brutality and mass murder against the Jews. The scattered trunks and suitcases were merely a ruse intended to make them more docile on their way to the death camps.
An irony of this magnitude is, given our unfortunate history, something Jews understand all too well. The Palestine Teaching Trunk has the power to create future Anne Franks. If you have doubts, read the Hamas Charter. The Palestine Teaching Trunk is a ruse and intended to make Jews suffer, but we will not be docile. Never again.
No one in their right mind argues the fundamental facts of the Holocaust. Bevis, by contrast, takes a subject as complex as the century-long Israel-Palestine impasse and distills it into explosive and emotion-laden accusations, anecdotal incidents (one sided), and outright lies. In short, the trunk is propaganda.
Here is an example:
Within the trunk is a deck of cards called the “Occupation Game.” One card says:
You try to prevent a soldier from inappropriately touching your sister at a checkpoint. Spin the wheel:
1-2: go to ARREST
3-4: go to BEATING
5: go to Action Card #21
6: they berate you and let you go
Action Card #21 says:
You are shot by Occupation soldiers and die instantly.
You hover over the world for some time, unable to leave because you love and fear for your family and friends. You have desires but no power. You wait, along with the living, for the Occupation to end.
Sensitive, big-hearted high school students, teenagers with little knowledge or understanding of the conflict, will find the materials seductive and the authors’ passion for “victims” brave and admirable. They will eagerly attach themselves to a cause they so seemingly just and noble. This is the outcome Bevis intends and she will certainly achieve regardless of her claims of “balance” in the materials.
We admire and reward teenagers who are altruistic and idealistic. But how will teaching them to hate foster a love of humanity and humane values. Think of the younger children for which the trunk is intended. Eleven- and twelve-year-olds don’t have the skills to manage virulent propaganda. Bevis presents her material to teachers who strive to teach children critical thinking. The propaganda in the trunk teaches them not to think at all, the very aim of propaganda. Rather, she is inculcating them with the rage and anger similar to what Palestinians inculcate their own children. Is this a path to peace, or a disguised attempt to destroy Israel?
We have asked six academic leaders, leading educators and historians in the Seattle and Portland area to review the contents of the trunk. The kindest comment was one form or another of, “The trunk is pedagogically dishonest.”
After Bevis’ presentation I attended a talk by Sarah Culpepper Stroup, professor of Classics at the University of Washington here in Seattle. Stroup’s discussion informed social studies teachers about methods to approach controversial subjects in their teaching. She helped me appreciate another reason these teaching materials are wrong for our students.
In order to have a safe environment conducive to learning, teachers should guard against bullying. When someone, especially a teacher, uses derogatory or inflammatory terms, it’s bullying. The underlying issues are not the relevant matter—the inflammatory language, in-and-of-itself, is bullying.
Bevis’ trunk is redolent with white-hot code words used to delegitimize Israel, such as “Apartheid,” “genocide,” and “Israeli war crimes.” No propagandistic trope, no matter how historically dishonest, is unmentioned. By controlling the terms used in the debate, ignoring information that counters her arguments, using deceptively false maps, and creating a false reality through emotionally sensational anecdotes, Bevis teaches teachers to teach hatred toward Israel.
For Jewish students to be subjected to this sort of inflammatory material (or for that matter, any student with the awareness to reject Bevis’ distortions) is bullying and offensive. It creates a hostile environment that invites classmates to “pile on” not only the outnumbered Jewish students but others, such as our friends in the Christian community who are supportive of Israel.
Some of the damage will never be undone. The power of the “teaching trunk” to germinate and spread anti-Israel anti-Semitism will undermine American support for Israel and should not be underestimated.
By contrast, the restraint and intellectual honesty of the pro-Israel community is commendable in the extreme. For example, Rob Jacobs is the executive director of the Seattle-based chapter of pro-Israel StandWithUs. Jacobs was asked to put together an Israel Teaching Trunk to compete with Bevis’ trunk.
“It’s not our job,” said Jacobs. “We are an advocacy organization and we promote one of the side of the debate. We are pro-Israel—not anti-Palestinian—we are pro-Israel and pro peace. It is not right for an advocacy organization to take over the teaching of a controversial subject by pretending to provide balanced teaching materials. We publish a wide range of educational materials, but they have a point of view.”
The battle against the teaching trunk is not over, but on that October day at the in-service, the advocates for balanced teaching materials made a good showing and had an effect. American support for Israel is not a given, it must be protected. The fight to defend Israel from slander in our schools continues.