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Passion, ignorance, and teaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Among my students who 'care deeply' about the 'Israeli occupation, only 25% placed the Palestinian Territories (correctly) south of Lebanon
Illustrated. Students walk on the UC Berkeley campus, August 15, 2017, in Berkeley, California. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Illustrated. Students walk on the UC Berkeley campus, August 15, 2017, in Berkeley, California. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

How much do students who feel strongly about the Palestinian occupation actually know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? I recently surveyed 230 Berkeley undergraduates to find out which conflicts in the Middle East they were most interested in and how much they knew about the region. I found that a lion’s share of students claims to “care deeply” about the occupation of Palestinian territories. I also discovered that 75 percent of those students cannot locate those territories on a map and 84% cannot name the decade (let alone the year) in which that occupation began. In contrast, students with slightly more moderate levels of interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tend to know more, are more likely to admit gaps in their knowledge and, as a result, are less likely to hold erroneous beliefs. When it comes to studying the Middle East, political passions pose a significant obstacle to learning.

My survey asked students to rate their attitudes towards 18 issues, including US-Iran relations, the civil war in Yemen, drone warfare, etc., on a five point scale, ranging from “I’m not that interested” (1 point out of 5) to “I care deeply” (5 points out of 5). I also posed a series of simple open-ended questions on history, geography, and current affairs.

The results are illuminating. 43% of students surveyed (100 out of 230) expressed an intense interest in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and checked the “I care deeply” box. This fascination with the Palestinian issue does not seem to be motivated by a broader humanitarian concern for national liberation struggles. My students cared far less about other Middle East occupations, such as the Kurdish struggle for independence, the occupation of Western Sahara, or the occupation of Northern Cyprus. Curiously, even the 100 students who “care deeply” about the Palestinian occupation shared that indifference towards other disputes. For example, only 10 of these students “care deeply” about the Sahwari struggle for independence against Moroccan occupation. Only six out of 100 were equally eager to learn about all the other independence movements in the Middle East.

How much do these students know about the region? As might be expected, the results are dismal. The average student in my class could barely answer two questions out of six correctly and the students who expressed the strongest interest in the Palestinian issue did just as badly, even when answering questions that related directly to the conflict they claimed to care most about. Students who felt most strongly about the Palestinian issue knew less about it than their more moderate peers.

For example, like the rest of the class, only 25% of passionate students placed the Palestinian Territories, correctly, south of Lebanon. But students with more moderate levels of enthusiasm provided the correct answer 28% of the time. More tellingly, the students with the strongest feelings about the Palestinian issue were also the most overconfident. They were the least likely to leave their answers blank and the most likely to offer a wild guess. 25% of these students placed the Palestinian Territories west of Lebanon, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The class average for this blunder was 14%.

This pattern of brash ignorance recurred across all questions related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Only 16% of students who “care deeply” about the Palestinian issue provided the correct decade for the Six Day War and only 17% were able to guess that the population of Israel was somewhere between 8 and 12 million people. The others offered guesses ranging from as low as 100,000 persons to as high as 150 million persons.

How can so many students claim to care so deeply about a conflict that they know so little about? It’s tempting to speculate that current political trends on campuses require students to profess strong opinions about divisive issues, regardless of their level of knowledge or understanding, as a way of signaling their identity and values. My survey cannot confirm or disconfirm that hunch. But it does indicate, strongly, that education and moderation go hand in hand. The questions that students answered most accurately involved Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, all countries for which they expressed moderate but not extreme interest.

If misinformation is both a cause and a consequence of political passion, then good teaching is the antidote. Good teaching, in turn, requires the presence on campus of scholars who exemplify both academic excellence and nonpartisan professionalism. And it requires students that are unwilling to permit their political passions to get in the way of a good education.

About the Author
Ron E. Hassner is the Helen Diller Family Chair in Israel Studies at U.C. Berkeley. His publications focus on territorial disputes, religion in the military, conflicts over holy places, and the pervasive role of religion on the modern battlefield; He is the author of War on Sacred Grounds (Cornell University Press, 2009) and the editor of Religion in the Military Worldwide (Cambridge University Press, 2013), as well as numerous articles and book chapters.
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