From Ann Whelan of Northfielders for Justice in Palestine/Israel:
I grew up in the 1960s, a time when young people felt called to justice and peace. Now a retired English teacher, having taught research and persuasive writing for 38 years, explaining to 6000+ students that I would not tell them what to think, but would teach them critical thinking skills to serve themselves for a lifetime. I always offered students options of a few controversial topics each semester; the entire semester’s writing would focus on aspects of that topic. One assignment required writing two essays of opposing viewpoints on the same issue—they were to address their opponents’ disagreements—no lecturing on soapboxes! The goal: respectfully engaging with opponents and rationally making cases for opponents to change their minds. Many were surprised to discover by the end of the assignments that their original positions had evolved. Whether football players initially thought there was nothing wrong with Native American mascots, or dairy and beef farm kids thought vegetarians were likely malnourished, or students thought Nelson Mandela was a terrorist (before apartheid ended), once students honestly explored multiple sides of contentious issues, they knew how to do research, evaluate sources, and not fear changing their previously uninformed positions. They also learned the difficulty of defending a position founded on assumptions, biases, and tradition.
I spent much my of final six or so years of teaching researching Israel/Palestine because I once had two Arab-American students (one Christian and one Muslim) who wanted to explore that. I had always empathized with Jews whose lives and culture were so inhumanely impacted by Hitler; for decades, I read everything I could find on the Holocaust. When these students asked if they could take on this controversial subject, I reminded them how difficult life had been for Jewish people. I wondered if they would find sufficient sources to provide for a logical, persuasive essay for the other side. Essays had to be arguable—a reasonable person could disagree. A Jewish student wanted to research the same topic. I continued to advise them that they must address their opponents’ concerns, with reliable sources, directly and without emotion. The Jewish girl’s parents were willing to learn something new with her, and they supported her research and writing journey. Understatement: My life changed that semester. Three students’ scholarly and fearless research and writing taught me lessons I never anticipated! They woke me up with statistics and history that one almost never hears in the US—so censored is such information by the American media and organizations. Soon after, in 2007, President Jimmy Carter’s book came out, Peace not Apartheid, which confirmed my students’ research.
Some students asked if I could imagine opposing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s cause for civil rights, during his time. No, of course not. They later asked me if I could remain as blind on the Israel/Palestine issue. No—I could not. Northfielders for Justice in Palestine/Israel is hosting a teach-in on the topic November 8 at Northfield’s Methodist Church, to which all are invited. See more information about the teach-in at www.njpmnteachin2014.wordpress.com.