The Nature of the Single Narrative

It was on a humid day last June in a small town near the Dead Sea that I was able to sit down with Esra, an Arab-Israeli who had been kind enough to share her upbringing. We talked about food, politics, and her experiences growing up in an education system that taught a very specific narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unbeknownst to me, Esra had been taught in a segregated school, since in Israel, Arab-Israelis and Jewish-Israelis are split at birth through the education system. They are taught different histories, opinions, and most importantly, narratives of how each of their homelands were formulated.

Understandably, Esra had a critical view of the Israeli government, and I was open to hearing her grievances as a woman in a country that she felt was not treating her equally. Some of the native Jewish-Israeli’s who I was traveling with gave their own accounts of growing up in Israel. The conversation, while contentious at points, was important in that both receiving sides of a narrative were told a completely different script. We heard a story, and we listened.


My own upbringing was similar to Esra’s, just on the opposite end of the spectrum. Growing up Jewish in Sharon, Massachusetts, a town that religiously resembles Brooklyn, and aesthetically a classic, New England town, it took time for me to realize how pro-Israel my own surroundings were. Between the synagogue I attended, the Sunday school my mother dragged me too, and the parents I would make small talk with, Israel’s legitimacy was not even a question. The country was printed on the map in just as permanent of ink as any other. And being the impressionable and naive, young kid I was, I accepted this as fact. It was not until I came to university that some of my peers educated me about the Palestinian side of the story.


It was two weeks ago, with the recent news of UC Berkeley cancelling a student-taught class titled Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis, that the conversation in that humid room came flying back to me. A week into the class, AMCHA, a non-profit organization tasked at investigating forms of anti-Semitism, wrote to the university, claiming that the student taught course was calling “for the destruction of Israel,” and was deeply anti-Jewish. Last week, however, the class was reinstated.


Being Jewish, my initial reaction upon hearing about the cancellation of the class was satisfaction. I thought justice had been served– why should students be taught a singular narrative just as I was, and just as Esra was? But upon further thinking, I realized my shortcoming.


Upon looking at the syllabus of the course, I came across names such as Edward Said, a well-renowned scholar of postcolonial studies, who I personally had read in various politics classes here at school. Others included Nur-eldeen Masalha, a famous Palestinian academic. These texts were not anti-Semitic, but rather a collection of high-quality works with the intention of opening and expanding the conversation in the classroom. Furthermore, when I sat down with USF Professor Stephen Zunes to discuss the events at Berkeley, we talked about how AMCHA and the other pro-Israel groups who were in defense of cancelling the class were doing so for purely political reasons — and that the university accepted their claim for similar reasons.


The class was not merely a single-sided narrative, but a space that those who had never heard the Palestinian story could do so. Nor was it being taught with materials one could say were extremist in their nature. When I think about my education, and what purpose it serves, I would hope at the end of the day I was challenged in my own beliefs. The class’s objective was to do just that. While I originally thought the single narrative was dangerous, I discovered it was something in fact crucial to our own education, especially when presented with high-quality material.


Carla Hesse, the Dean of Social Science who chose to cancel the class, was wrong to censor the narrative being told about Palestine. Just as Esra may have been ignorant to the stories of Israelis, and how through much of my own life, I was similarly uninformed about the struggle of Palestinians. The student-taught class at Berkeley was not attempting to “indoctrinate” its students, but rather act as an opportunity to learn about another narrative–something neither Esra nor I ever had.

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