What is the most and least successful course you have taught?

Rebecca L. Stein

Duke University

For the past ten years, at a variety of research institutions, I have taught an introductory course on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Because of the need for brevity within the advertised course schedule, the full title of the course— "Palestine, Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict"—rarely appeared on the books. Herein a symptomatic irony lies. For while the language of "conflict" is legible to many students across the political spectrum, the very term "Palestine" is understood as incendiary by many, Jewish students numbering heavily among them—a signifier that suggests not merely "bias" on the part of the professor in question, or so some charge, but also her refusal to countenance histories of Jewish oppression and victimhood. For other students, Arabs numbering heavily among them, the potential absence of this term signals acquiescence to the dominant narrative of the conflict—one which has effectively absented Palestinian indigeneity from the historical record. The central project of this class is less to mediate between these largely incommensurate positions than to refuse the notion of a history or political conflict understood in dyadic terms—that is, as Jewish suffering versus Palestinian suffering; a history in which victimhood is mutually exclusive, the claims of one party canceling those of the other.

The power of this class lies less in the assigned material, and in the stories and reflections it elicits from participants. Over the course of ten years, I have heard about the Jewish grandmother who emigrated to Palestine from Germany in the 1930s; the Palestinian relatives who lived as refugees in Lebanon; the family from East Africa who never met any Jews, and mistrusted all accounts of anti-Semitism; the Israeli extended family, originally from Argentina, who only encountered Palestinians during their army tours of duty in the occupied Palestinian territories. The success of this class lies in the power of these personal narratives—ones that, taken together, can complicate the dyadic model in ways that few academic sources can. Yet this is also the source of the class's failure. On the final day of instruction, when students are invited to speak in personal terms about "what they really think" (an idiom I usually discourage), I am always stunned by the number of students who return to the comfort of the dyadic account, using the language of identity politics ("As a Jew, I think. . ." or, "As a Palestinian, I think. . .") to avoid the complications that the class material has introduced. I tend to conclude that academic language, with its tools of analysis and critique, is too dispassionate to dismantle beliefs that are, for many of these students, integral to not merely their public performance of self, but perhaps their private understandings as well.