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Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

How I Taught the Israeli-Palestinian War to Undergraduates this Semester

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I teach a course called “Religion and Politics in the Middle East.” This semester we focused on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, studying its origins and the narratives that inform, supply, and direct the cycle of violence. Given what has been happening on campuses across America, we had much to navigate. Direct scholarly analysis, considering a wide swath of well-informed writers from a variety of positions, discussing the matter from a range of disciplinary approaches could cut through the noise.

Because of the subject matter, the course always fills, but that was especially true this term where  the class included both Muslim and Jewish students: one Israeli Jew and some international students who are friends with our undergraduates from Gaza. My primary responsibility is ensuring a safe environment in which to learn.

A class filled with hateful passion is not effective. If we are to learn and understand, we cannot drown each other in our emotions. I used to tell students my opinion on the subject, maturation has shown me they learn more when they can’t locate my positions. Instead of trying to tell me what they think I want to hear, they know that they must be able to construct and analyze evidence-supported arguments that can withstand scrutiny from all directions.

The first thing I ask upon walking into class day one: “Would you be upset if I came in, dropped an American flag on the ground, doused it with gasoline and lit it? Burning it to ash?” The majority indicate this would greatly upset them. “Why?” I inquire, silence replacing the knee-jerk passion as they are forced to think instead of just feel. Slowly unpacking their agitation at the thought-experiment, they realize that they experience the flag as sacred. “Why is this? What makes this design on fabric more than just a colorful pattern, but actually sacred?” Again, silence at the difficulty of having to explain what seemed initially obvious.

We then watch a video of three-and four-year-old American children putting their hand over their heart and saying the Pledge of Allegiance in front of their parents. The parents proudly applaud, triggering their kids’ delight. The kids will now assume the very same posture and say that very same pledge before every school day—at least—elementary school. The same act, five days a week, month after month, year after year. Performing the observance will always be a collective act, never alone. 

Rituals like this are bodily experiences, they involve physical movements that become internalized, the neural connections seared into the brain creating a deep habit whose regularity becomes a part of normal life, thereby seeming natural. To undergird that feeling of necessity, we attribute sacredness, the flag coming to represent values to be held dear, virtues that define their group’s moral interconnectedness and legitimacy.

But if the ritual involving pledging fidelity to the flag is sacred, burning the symbol at the heart of the ritual becomes profane. If the flag represents the good, then destroying it must demonstrate the intent to destroy the what is right and righteous. Their reaction is the result of years of conditioning from a young age. Would they react as strongly if they had not performed the pledge of allegiance ritual toward the flag thousands of times? Probably not.

With this understanding of the sacred meaning of the symbol, I turn up the intensity, asking them  if they would be willing to die or send other young adults to their death for our sacred values symbolized by the American flag. “Would you be willing to kill people trying to murder your sacred citizen values?” Most say yes, repeating the value of “sacrificing life for our freedom.”

Now aware of the willingness to procure violence in defense of what they themselves deem to be sacred, we can universalize that impulse. But if your notion of the sacred comes from your own conditioning as an American, then it is particular to your experiences. To understand what may seem irrational on the part of others, we must understand what they consider to be sacred and the next three weeks is an intensive study of sacred rituals and symbols from societies around the globe by anthropologists, sociologists, and religious studies scholars.

The sacred is uncompromising toward the profane, a spectrum that includes what it s commonplace,the ordinary, evil, and betrayal. Walk in and pick up a violinist’s  violin. What will happen? They will freak out. In a kosher home, see what happens if you wash a fleishidic/fleishig/besari (meat) dish in a milachedik/milchig/chalav (dairy) sink. It’s not good. Catholics don’t wash their face or hands in the holy water for the congregation. It is sacred. Using it for common routines, e.g., washing dirt off one’s hand, is to profane it, to desecrate the revered, rendering it unholy. The sacred does not welcome the profane. Human  communities intrinsically understand what they experience as “the sacred” and “profane.” We ritualize ourselves around the symbols of our hallowed values.

It is once we have a generalized sense of the power of the sacred and profane that we can then turn to the specifics of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, a war in which each party is unable see the face of their enemy. Why is this? Because they have been ritualized to understand their adversary as obscene, as betrayers of the sacred order, and thus blaming them for creating disorder, chaos, instability and, thus, insecurity. They have created their understanding of the sacred in a fashion that forces the other to be implicitly profane. And since the profane seeks to eliminate the sacred, the profane must be destroyed to create the precondition for the possibility of the sacred.

This thereby creates a scapegoat. Scapegoating characterizes the other as essentially profane. It is not some accidental property that could be changed like a pair of socks, but something implicit in their nature that makes them irrevocably profane. There is no conversion therapy, no surgery, no make-over that can change what is an indelible fact about them. The scapegoaters thus reify themselves as living and battling for their sacred ways, as the defenders of the right and the good. It is the fuel for righteous, justified hatred of them.  We defend the virtuous and purge ourselves of violent passions by turning our aggression toward them, those who deserve it. This is not particular to the Middle East. Most civilizations and societies do this. Look around. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Those battling for the sacred generally cannot hear anything but themselves when fighting. Hate for the profaning other selficates them.

Understanding the power of the sacred and the way that the constructed notion of the profane gives rise to scapegoating, we have acquired the critical skills we need to understand both sides of the case at hand. They are able to make sense of what is driving both the Israeli Netanyahu coalition and Palestinian Hamas politics. We can now look at speeches, interviews, and testimony given by those involved and analyses by scholars, journalists, and pundits. We now have the resources to see their presuppositions and their commitments, to be able to occupy the place the ideas are coming from in order to make sense of them and evaluate their cogency for ourselves. And then the semester draws to a close.

The course ends with this question: “Are the sacred narratives of the Netanyahu coalition and Hamas able to coexist, to create the basis of peace with one another, a context in which both flags may fly, or will they necessarily continue to profane one another,  robbing the other of their face?”

Students wrestle with never ceasing complexities, confused by that which is confusing, enraged by that which is enraging, and frustrated by that which is frustrating. By seeing the complexities in their actual complexity with the tools they need to think about them rigorously, clearly, and intricately, perhaps showing how to improve the discourse, making the most important lesson we take away: that discussion shall never cease.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College