Tricky teaching

iCenter takes on Israeli-Palestinian issue with new program ‘Conflicts of Interest’

Framework is meant to serve as a basic structure for how to teach students about the conflict, not what to teach, its authors say

Inevitably, the conversation around Israel always turns to conflict: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel’s myriad domestic conflicts.

And yet Israel educators report feeling “fear, angst and anxiety” when teaching about those conflicts and therefore try to avoid discussing them, according to Alex Harris of Chicago’s iCenter.

“Educators feared they didn’t have sufficient content knowledge. They worried that they didn’t have the right emotional dispositions to deal with some of these key topics. They worried, ‘How do I, as an educator, come to the students and bring in my own perspectives, but also maintain [a] sort of political neutrality, but also work with identity formation,” Harris told eJewishPhilanthropy.

To address this, last year the iCenter launched a new initiative to develop a framework to prepare educators to teach their students about these conflicts and conflict in general. This week, the organization is rolling out this new program, which it is calling “Conflicts of Interest.”

Harris, the director of the project, is particularly proud of the name and its dual layers of meaning. For one, he said, the program focuses on multiple conflicts that are of interest: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also the multiple conflicts that exist within the Israel education world, the Jewish education world, and the education world in general.

“It’s all about how do we engage in conversations about controversial issues, how do we facilitate those dialogues, how do we train educators to be the best educators possible to deal with these complex and controversial issues,” Harris told eJP this week.

“And the other aspect of the name conflict of interest is that oftentimes educators feel that they have a conflict of interest between what they might want to do as an educator almost in an isolated world — critical thinking and looking through that lens — but also in terms of identity formation, the different pressures and different responsibilities that they have as a Jewish educator or an educator in a particular institution, or as an individual who has their own perspectives, their own biases, and their own way of coming to the topic,” he said.

To begin developing the Conflicts of Interest program, iCenter first spoke to some 200 educators – day school teachers, Hebrew school teachers, Israel trip organizers, youth group directors – in order to get a lay of the land and understand the educators’ needs. Harris and the other iCenter employees who worked on the project also read through the available resources, including “20 lesson plans, 23 textbooks and resource guides, 18 white papers, 66 books and articles, and 19 curriculum frameworks,” Harris wrote in an opinion piece for eJewishPhilanthropy last year.

Benjamin Jacobs, director of iCenter’s graduate program in Israel Education at George Washington University, who advised on the project, said the team also spoke to a number of outside consultants, including a former State Department employee and academics focused on both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “peace education.” Harris said an Israeli woman involved in education and politics, as well as a Palestinian expert who has been involved in peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, were also involved. These outside consultants did not agree to have their names published.

Harris described finding a wealth of information about what to teach, but little help in how to teach it. “In our focus groups, we found that many educators are hesitant to engage with the topic altogether. Some lack the necessary background and/or pedagogical skills to teach about the conflict confidently and competently,” Harris wrote.

Harris said the ultimate goal of the project is to give the participants “the three Cs” needed to teach about conflicts: “competence, confidence and capacity.”

According to iCenter CEO Anne Lanski, the multitiered Conflicts of Interest program is not a specific curriculum — with specific facts, values, messages and narratives – but a broader pedagogical method that individual institutions and teachers can adapt to their own perspectives on the issues of Israel, Zionism and the Palestinians.

“Content and knowledge are very important, but… it’s our educational framework that is what makes this uniquely important,” Lanski said.

Jacobs said the framework strove to incorporate “multiple narratives” and encouraged educators to include a “diversity of perspectives,” as an educational tool, but that the ultimate question of values would be left up to them and their institutions. Jacobs said this was to not dictate to students that there is “one perspective and that’s the only perspective that’s allowed” and also to avoid “pedagogic neutrality,” where all views are treated as equally valid.

“Educators have to make certain value choices and political choices and the like based on their learners, their settings and their stakeholders in order to understand how those can be applied most appropriately for them,” Jacobs said.

The program has three main tiers: a 20-hour in-person certificate program, a shorter virtual seminar, and what iCenter calls “Conflicts of Interest 101,” which is more of an introduction to the topic rather than a true course in and of itself. In addition, an academic course on conflict education will be offered through iCenter’s master’s degree program at George Washington University.

Harris said the 20-hour certificate program will begin in the coming months. Each cohort of this program will have roughly 35 participants, with plans to have multiple cohorts each year.

According to Lanski, iCenter expects that “hundreds and hundreds” of educators will go through the program but believes that since many of the participants will then go on to train other educators in the Conflict of Interest framework, meaning the impact will be far wider, with “pieces of it going through the entire field.”

The funding for developing the Conflicts of Interest program was provided by a number of philanthropic organizations, including the Jim Joseph Foundation, Schusterman Family Philanthropies and Crown Family Philanthropies. (The Jim Joseph Foundation, which has funded iCenter since its founding in 2008 publicly acknowledged giving $600,000 toward the Conflict of Interest program last year.)