Portland to Palestine: A Student-to-Student Project Evokes Empathy and Curiosity

By Ken Gadbow

When asked to synthesize 16 weeks of study on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, covering dozens of readings, films, role plays, guest speakers, and discussions, the high school students in my Middle East Studies class at Trillium Charter School in Portland, Ore., quickly organized a nine-point list of the most important topics and activities. All but one were related to the Mercy Corps’ Why Not program, an internet-based exchange run by the international humanitarian relief organization (also based in Portland). My students’ real-time interactions with their counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza made real the suffering and daily lives of people their own age living in conflict, and challenged them to consider the responsibilities of global citizenry.

Why Not, now part of Mercy Corps’ partner organization Global Citizen Corps, began as an informal email exchange program between students in northern Iraq and Taiwan in 2003, facilitated by Mercy Corps, and has grown to encompass over 600 youth in the United States, United Kingdom, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories, corresponding through two-way blog and live video conferences. The “Why Not” label was coined by a group of students organizing a Mercy Corps-supported community newsletter in Beirut in 2005. Plagued by pessimism about the potential impact of their efforts, some were suggesting that they should abandon the project altogether, when one eager, hopeful participant blurted out, “Lesh la?”—Arabic for “Why not?” The words became the name of the group’s newsletter and later of the Mercy Corps program itself.

Why Not was dropped in my lap in the spring of 2007, just a few weeks before summer break. Mercy Corps was looking for some flexible partners who wanted to work with youth in the Palestinian Territories. I had done no previous teaching on the Middle East, and was relatively uninformed about Palestine-Israel. I was aware that the United States was a supporter of Israel, that presidents from Carter to Bush II had been involved in peace efforts, and that the U.S. media frequently portrayed Palestinians as violent aggressors, but I did not know much more. I took the opportunity to learn along with my students.

The Why Not experience involves on-line discussions, loosely moderated by teacher-facilitators, and videoconferences using web-cams, microphones, and LCD projectors. Mercy Corps helps teachers get started, but the process is relatively simple: The blogging portion is simpler than using Facebook, and the video portion can be run from common applications like Skype. During the videoconferences, participants can generally all see each other on the screen at the same time as students take turns in front of the microphone, posing and responding to questions and ideas.

Six countries have students taking part in internet and video exchanges facilitated by Mercy Corps. The Palestinian Territories are among them; Israel is not.  We talk a lot in class about the need to balance perspectives. We frequently turn to news reports from the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and the Israeli government to look at events from different positions.  My students are captivated by the experience of speaking directly with young people living in war, but it is not simply the Palestinians who become real to them, it is the whole conflict, it is the reality of war itself.  People are suffering.  People are living in fear.  Israeli kids riding buses are living in fear.  Palestinians whose homes might be bulldozed are living in fear. Children, Israelis and Palestinians, trying to get to school are living in fear.  Students get that. 

Why Not is a tool for forging understanding. Since my initial experience with the program, I regularly teach units or whole classes on the Middle East and use Why Not as a centerpiece of these experiences. I have students participate in Why Not blogging and videoconferences, in part, for the “wow” factor, the “Oh my God, I can’t believe we are actually speaking to people in Gaza” factor. I do it for my student who produces no work, yet who keeps coming to class because this issue has become real to him. It is not from the news or from the teacher. It is looking you straight in the eye. It is laughing with you, telling you jokes, rapping in Arabic. It is human connection. During the first videoconference we, Americans and Palestinians, could not stop laughing. We giggled at the microphone, at the video camera, at the hiccups in the connection. The sheer present-ness of the experience was intoxicating.

Teaching the Conflict

Most of my students begin their study of the Middle East with little understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Few can find the Palestinian Territories on a map and many assume that the violence has been happening “forever,” or at least for hundreds or even “thousands” of years. Students understand people are dying, but most cannot identify the belligerents any more than as “terrorists” and “Jews.” Before we begin a unit on Palestine-Israel, students study historic persecution of Jews, modern anti-Semitism, and Zionism. We do an extensive unit on the Holocaust, reading Elie Wiesel’s Night as well as Maus by Art Spiegelman. We discuss and write about what it means to live amidst pervasive fear and uncertainty. We transition into the Palestinian conflict by looking at complementary accounts of the history of the region from the early 1900s. Students analyze perspectives, identify biases, and try to understand motivation from both Palestinian and Israeli perspectives. We later use a role play developed by Jeff Edmundson about the United Nations 1947 decision that established the state of Israel to help students identify some of the players in the conflict. Students tackle the perspectives of Zionist Jews, Palestinian Muslims, the British government, the U.S. government, and the United Nations. Through their characters’ perspectives, students craft plausible arguments that describe the needs of their group, and propose a solution that will provide safety and security to those involved.

While students are getting to know their Palestinian counterparts through on-line introductions in Why Not, they continue to study the conflict in the classroom. We use a tea party based on characters from Deborah Ellis’ book Three Wishes, a terrific collection of interviews with Israeli and Palestinian youth, to help students understand the perspectives of children living in the conflict. The culminating project for the class is the negotiation of a peace plan from the perspective of a character from the powerful 2001 film Promises by B.Z. Goldberg. Like Three Wishes, Promises introduces its audience to young Palestinians and Israelis affected by the conflict. Students in my class advocate for their assigned positions through a role play written by Bill Bigelow.

Through the Promises role play, students draw connections between the isolation of Gaza and the destruction of Palestinian homes, and U.S. financial contributions to the state of Israel. Trillium students were shocked that the United States grants more than $8 million per day in foreign aid to Israel. Many students advocate in class for a more active U.S. role in ending the violence; some are outraged that the United States is funding the conflict. Many of the students’ proposed solutions to the violence include the United States providing financial compensation to Palestinians. Through role play, students demonstrate their understanding of the intensity with which various sides of the conflict approach the issue. Voices rise during debate over settlements in the West Bank, proposed borders and boundaries, and the status of Jerusalem, among other topics. As students pack up their things after day two of the Promises role play, I overhear a telling exchange: “Wow. That was exciting.” “Yeah, I am just glad nobody got punched.”

Learning about Palestine-Israel rattles the ease with which students let headlines pass by.  They experience how hard it is to abandon someone once they get to know them.  That is the point of Promises.  That is the point of Three Wishes, and that is the point of Why Not.  When the suffering is embodied and not theoretical, we are forced to confront it.  In this conflict, the suffering is concentrated and the issue is polarized.  Students ask family and friends about Palestine-Israel and are surprised to discover how heated it gets.  They are able to make tangible connections between what they see on the news, what they hear from their Palestinian counterparts, and what we study in the classroom.

Students Share Their Lives

U.S. students participating in Why Not learn about issues affecting the daily lives of their counterparts through Palestinian blog posts like “The Water Crisis in the Palestinian Territories,” “Gaza Siege Causing Major Health Crisis,” and “Gaza Facing Humanitarian Crisis.” But not all topics are so heavy. In fact, most of them aren’t. Students spend weeks on conversations based around the question “What do you do for fun?” They discuss the stuff of youth: music, sports, food, movies, and pastimes. Participants share “I Am From” poems; post photo-essays; ask questions about family life, boyfriends, and girlfriends; and slowly move into more challenging discussions.

One such discussion was provoked by a video created by Palestinian youth, titled Lostland and posted under the label “West Bank Meets Gaza,” that chronicles a letter writing campaign in which elementary students in the West Bank wrote and drew pictures to express sympathy and solidarity with their counterparts in Gaza. These personal perspectives, combined with their historical knowledge and what they learned about the Israeli assault, helped Trillium students grasp the geographic and political divides separating Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

The directness of the exchange seems to have the greatest impact on the students. Many students speak of the program as “breaking barriers” and “opening doors.” Chris, a senior, remarked on the contrast between Why Not and “watching CNN or any news channel we have”:

There is an alternative, and that is what we’re engaged in. And that is having Palestinians on this screen talking to you in this room, and you talking right back to them. . . . That is a huge difference from having some third party, some other group of people talk about another group of people. Why not just have them tell you themselves?

Once students have established a rapport online, they express their personal experiences directly to one another, as in “Gaza is Dying,” written by Salam, living in Gaza in March 2008:

We are now in Gaza living in a very bad condition, there is no fuel for cars and my father stopped [driving] due to lack of fuel, we go to school with great difficulty, this is only regarding fuel, in terms of health and medication for patients in the latest attack of the Israeli army injured nearly 350 people sent them to Egypt, this is just another week under the siege. There is no Coca-Cola for example, there is no children’s milk, there is no drinking water. [There is] contaminated water. There is no electricity. . . . I write quickly so as not to break the electricity and what I wrote goes, every day studying in the daytime, because I do not [expect] electricity at night. In spite of poverty, prices are tripled, the salaries are so low and the prices of the goods are higher than Europe.

This particular post garnered a dozen direct responses from my students, including this one from Ian:

Thank you for this new post. Every piece of information on this website I read leads me a little bit closer to comprehending what is really happening over there. I wish that there was more that I could do to help. It must take a lot of courage and perseverance to get through what you are going through every day. I hope to God that your situation will improve.

After another participant in Gaza posted a particularly detailed account about living with limited electricity and fuel, one of my students posted a response titled “This Must Stop”:

After reading “Darkness in Gaza” I cannot even begin to address my feelings about this crisis. Knowing now that the situation is even worse, this worries me and I think about it a lot. If people don’t see people as people, but as things, as a meaningless life, I don’t know if I will have any faith in humanity. Here we live in such luxury, such privilege, but that doesn’t mean that we are apathetic to your struggles. What is happening, to me sounds like genocide, resources cut off and a deliberate destruction of your country. We feel for you, we want to help. What is happening is inexcusable and inhumane. I wish we had more power over our government so that we could send aid to you or help find a solution. But for now, we can talk, we can communicate, we can send you our thoughts and you can share your thoughts with us. Let us bridge this gap of ignorance and let the whole world know that these atrocities will not be tolerated. Let there be peace, understanding and love for all beings. —Fiona

When directly confronted with the daily suffering of people their own age, students readily access empathy and compassion, which may be combined with a sense of guilt or culpability. Students had a chance to confront this issue while preparing for a videoconference in which one of the topics was educational access. The Trillium students were at first reluctant to be critical of U.S. schools, for fear of appearing ungrateful in front of their counterparts, who are at times kept from attending school altogether due to interference by the occupying Israeli military and the prevalence of Israeli Defense Force checkpoints. As the Trillium students began to address these issues individually, they described an American school system in which wealth, race, ethnicity, and language were clear factors in academic achievement. My students became excited, rather than embarrassed, to convey what they saw as systematic injustice within the United States when talking to the students in Gaza. Palestinian students were surprised to learn that there is such disparity in the United States in access to resources between schools in wealthy areas and schools in poor areas.

Lasting Connections

During the spring of 2009, I was working with a Why Not group, some of whom had been part of the program for over a year. We had connected with various groups in the West Bank and Gaza, and had the good fortune to have a few consistent West Bank and Trillium students establish a relationship. Having students recognize each other in a videoconference is inspiring. Noticeable shivers pass among the participants and most of us wind up giggling, even at seven o’clock in the morning.

The Trillium students then had the chance to work with a new group in the West Bank. We had some problems with the connection during our first videoconference, which resulted in poor and occasionally disrupted video feed. Students quickly resorted to instant messaging (a seamless transition for them) and emailing photos in order to continue the dialogue. The first meeting was largely one of introductions and getting acquainted.

Shortly after that meeting, several of my students decided to take part in a rally in downtown Portland to protest the Israeli invasion of Gaza. They created a giant banner with “Why Not Peace Now?” written in Arabic and English and a Palestinian flag with a peace sign superimposed over it. They marched in the cold rain, chanting, chatting, and feeling empowered. A week or so after the march, Trillium students had their second videoconference with the West Bank group.

The Palestinian students began by presenting us with a gift. They had written all of our names in Arabic on large paper and showed them to us one by one. We were touched by the gesture, and feeling embarrassed that we had not created something as well to reflect our appreciation, when one student said, “Hey, get the banner!” Two students unrolled it in front of the video camera. The silence that followed was unsettling. We were not sure if they were able to see it well or if our Arabic translation (via web translator) was offensive. Chris went to the microphone and asked if they were seeing it all right. In Palestine, Dhalia approached the microphone and explained that her group was stunned. They were silent, she said, because “We didn’t think anyone knew we were here.” In a trembling voice, she added, “You even know what our flag is like.”

The blog postings and video gatherings foster relationships over what had seemed insurmountable geographic and cultural barriers. This direct communication makes real to students, indeed to all of us involved, that people across the globe can approach delicate issues with compassion and understanding. This creates a tangible access point to understanding an intense and oppressive situation. And students make friends in the process. As Solomon put it, “At the end people do not want to sign off because they are getting along so well, even though it is a friend on the other side of the world that you have never met.”

Ken Gadbow (Contact Me) teaches at Trillium Charter School in Portland, Ore. For more information on Mercy Corps’ internet-based exchange program, contact Amie Wells (Contact Me) or visit http://globalcitizencorps.org.