Supporting Young People in Response to the Israel/Palestine Conflict

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By Rachel Elgy

The ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine has seen a dramatic and devastating renewal of violence in recent weeks, and whilst a ceasefire has been agreed, we are still a long way from a peaceful resolution for all. In response to this situation we are seeing a rise in deeply disturbing incidences of antisemitism and Islamophobia here in the UK. The sensitive nature of this conflict can leave educators scared to discuss it in classrooms. However, young people do not exist in a bubble and will be hearing, seeing or reading distressing images and stories emerging from the current violence whether through friends and family, the news or social media. Many will have strong emotional reactions, and some may have personal connections to the issue. Furthermore, young people may also be impacted by the increase in antisemitism and Islamophobia we’ve seen in recent weeks. It is therefore essential that schools create and provide safe spaces for young people to discuss and navigate the news, and to have their perspectives listened to.

Tips for discussing the Israel/Palestine conflict with young people

As teachers, it can be hard to know how to support young people to navigate their way through these issues and respond to their questions, concerns and fears. There can be a temptation not to mention anything and to shut down conversations. However, young people need space to interrogate their thoughts and feelings. They need reassurance and facts, and they need to learn the skills of critical thinking, listening to different viewpoints and being prepared to change their opinions on an issue, in order to prepare them to become citizens in a globalised world. Below are some key steps to discussing the complex and sensitive topic of Israel and Palestine, helping young people to feel safe and included, whilst encouraging them to become critical thinkers and active citizens.

1. Be proactive, not reactive

Don’t wait for the issue to be brought up by the young people. Without prompting, pupils may never mention that they have been distressed by a news story, experienced related prejudice, or seen a graphic and upsetting image online. Alternatively, if things are brought up, this might happen at inopportune moments with teachers who are not prepared or equipped to discuss them. Create opportunities in assemblies, form groups, citizenship and PSHE to talk about the conflict. The Red Cross provides a free e-mail service called Newsthink, which provides ideas on how to help young people explore current affairs from a humanitarian perspective, and can provide useful starting points.

Working in partnership with local community and religious groups can bolster work in this area, bringing in additional viewpoints and expertise, and highlighting issues that the pupils are facing, which may not have been considered by the school leaders and teachers.

2. Start from where the young people are

Talk to the young people and ask what they have heard, give them the opportunity to bring things forward. This can happen in a conversation, or you may wish to provide anonymous opportunities for young people to raise questions and concerns. There are many different ways in which to do this. For example: utilising online questionnaires, providing a box into which young people can post questions, or giving each child a post-it note, upon which they can anonymously write their questions. Doing this allows you to pitch the work at the right level, avoiding over-complicated explanations, which could increase worry and confusion, or leaving out important issues because it is thought that young people aren’t aware of them.

3. Create a safe space where discussions can take place openly

Young people will not open up about their opinions and fears if they worry that they are going to be judged, laughed at or told off. It is important to create a supportive environment where young people are not worried about getting things wrong and are encouraged to work together to help each other’s understanding. It is also important that discussions are not dominated by one or two students. Therefore, it is vital to create a safe space within which all pupils feel respected and able to take part. This can be done through the collaborative creation of ground rules. Some suggested rules are included below:

Be open and honest: We don’t want anyone to feel that they can’t ask their question or express their opinion. Therefore, we will not laugh at others’ opinions, or shout each other down.

Respect the feelings of others: We will think about the impact of our words and body language on others and try to express our opinions in a respectful fashion. We will listen to the opinions of others, even if they are different to our own.

Direct challenges to the front of the room, not at each other: It is fine to disagree and challenge each other’s ideas. However, if we do disagree with something that someone else says we will direct our challenge to the front of the room, so that no-one feels attacked and the whole class remains involved in the conversation.

It can be a good idea to create a space where pupils can choose to go for some time out if they become upset or uncomfortable during the session. If this information is shared with pupils before the discussion begins they can take the decision as to whether they need this space, rather than the teacher needing to decide upon a course of action once an issue has arisen.

For further information about how to create a safe space for sensitive discussion please see:

4. Consider your own perspective

None of us comes to the classroom from a culturally neutral standpoint and none of us lives in a bubble. We are all influenced by a huge variety of sources, including the media, our neighbourhood, religion, family and friends. Unfortunately, this can mean that we are carrying stereotypes, prejudice and misinformation. Before conducting education on this issue (or indeed any topic) it is important to consider our own biases and knowledge base on the issue. How do I know what I know? What sources have I used? What value judgements am I bringing to the discussion? The teacher does not have to stay completely neutral on all issues, in fact it may be inappropriate to do so. For example, it is completely fine for teachers to assert the values of human rights and equality. In addition, a teacher does not need to know absolutely everything about an issue before discussing it in the classroom. Admitting you don’t know the answer to a question and researching it with the young people can help to demonstrate that no-one’s knowledge is absolute and teaches young people the value of research and how to research for information in a safe and effective way.

5. Adopt a participatory approach

Supporting pupils to explore sensitive issues requires a participatory approach, with shared control between teacher and pupils, where pupils and teacher listen to each other and share ideas. It is important that the educator is not the focal point of the discussion and that it is not dominated by one or two young people. Providing opportunity for small group discussions as well as whole class conversations provides young people with the opportunity to raise issues in a smaller group.

In a whole class discussion the discussion should be carried and developed by the young people, with the facilitator just providing facts and reasoning and enquiry questions to help guide the discussion and help young people think critically about their ideas, helping young people to listen to the views of others and accept that there can be more than one viewpoint on an issue, that other people’s point of view can also have value and that there is not always a right answer.

A speaking prop can be used to encourage only one person to speak at a time and to bring in quieter members of the group. However, young people should also have the right to ‘pass’ or remain silent.

6. Acknowledge the complexity of the issue

One of the reasons why discussing the Israel and Palestine conflict can be so difficult is because there are no easy solutions; leaders, organisations, activists and communities have been trying to find a workable solution for decades and have not yet found the best way forward. Therefore, don’t expect that a classroom discussion will or even should come up with a solution. It is possible for multiple perspectives to be true at once, and for young people to discuss and disagree on the topic in a respectful way. It can be helpful to frame the work as dialogue rather than debate – there is no side that ‘wins’ the argument at the end, rather it is an open forum where varying ideas and opinions can be heard and considered.

7. Be nuanced in your use of language

And encourage the same from the students. Be specific: are you referring to actions led by the Israeli Government (rather than by ‘Israel/Israelis’), retaliations from Hamas (rather than by ‘Palestine/Palestinians’)? Be careful not to perpetuate stereotypes, whether about Jews, Muslims, Israelis or Palestinians. Do not assume that all Palestinians or all Israelis support the actions of their governments/authorities and remember that not all Palestinians are Muslim.

Solutions Not Sides is a not-for-profit organisation delivering educational programmes “with the aim of shifting attitudes away from supporting one side against the other, and towards seeking a solution for the human beings involved.” They share some important points for how the Israel/Palestine conflict can be discussed without antisemitism or Islamophobia, including clarifying key terms:

  • Zionism is the belief in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination (and not all people who call themselves Zionist share the same opinion about the exact territory, principles, etc. of the state of Israel). ‘Zionist’ or ‘Zio’ should not be used as a term of abuse
  • Arab is a grouping of people whose mother tongue is Arabic and there is great diversity across the Arab World (i.e. Jordan can’t simply become Palestine just because they are Arabs)
  • Islamism is an academic term with French origins that refers to a broad spectrum of political ideologies. Islamism is not a synonym for terrorism and should not be used as such

8. Empathise with how the young people are feeling

Empathising with how someone is feeling is not the same as agreeing with them or condoning their point of view. Even if a young person’s anger or fear is expressed through prejudice, misinformation or stereotypes, listen to them, recognise their emotions and try to address their underlying issues. Just dismissing their concerns or giving intellectual arguments as to why they are wrong, instead of understanding why they may feel concerned, has the potential to create bitterness, a feeling that they have not been listened to and to reinforce their prejudice and fear.

Young people need the opportunity to explore their emotions and learn coping mechanisms to cope with traumatic events. Avoid exacerbating fears and upset by using graphic images or images of people in distress. Animations can be used to illustrate points if a visual representation is required.

Solutions Not Sides highlights that we should be sensitive towards those who are pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. They may have friends or family involved in the situation, or Israel/Palestine may represent something important to them. Being pro-Palestine or being concerned for Palestinian human rights is not antisemitic- there are indeed many Jewish people who are working hard to support Palestinians living under occupation or suffering in the current violence. It is also possible to be pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, or to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestine and pro-solution. The issue becomes problematic when people use and exploit the conflict to further an antisemitic or indeed an Islamophobic agenda, or who harass or intimidate Jewish people or Muslims because of the conflict.

9. Encourage critical thinking

We cannot always be at our pupils’ sides to help them to navigate the world and recognise misinformation, bias, hyperbole and stereotypes. Use reasoning and enquiry questions to get the young people to question what their opinions are based upon, help them to explore the difference between neutral and emotive language, fact and opinion. Equipping young people with the skills to look for evidence and separate facts from opinion and the knowledge and skills to learn independently, are key to their ability to navigate the world.

Whilst the current violence is predominantly between Israel and Gaza, the situation has been affected over many years by the actions and inactions of other international states, including Western and Middle Eastern states. It is important that young people are able to consider a bigger picture, recognise the role the UK has had in the history of this conflict, and to consider the global implications.

Be aware that there are some incredibly harmful conspiracy theories circulating on this issue. Again, Solutions not Sides include useful definitions and clarifications and highlight that: “Israel is not a conspiracy to take over the Middle East or the World, and Palestine is not a conspiracy to enforce a Caliphate on Israel/Europe/the World. These are two national identities who both want to exist in the same piece of land”

10. Encourage Active Citizenship

There is a famous quote by Fred Rogers, which sums this up beautifully:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
Whilst there are people in the world who want to cause harm, there are far many more people who go out of their way to help.

If young people are passionate about an issue, they will often be looking for outlets to contribute, and this should be supported and encouraged. However, research shows the voices of young people are rarely heard when it comes to social issues; some are resigned to the idea there is nothing they can do to effect change, leaving them feeling hopeless.

Encourage active citizenship amongst the young people to help them feel part of the solution. There is plenty that young people can do to create positive change, from raising or donating money, clothes and toys to people affected by tragedies, to raising awareness about issues and campaigning against injustice by attending protest marches, using social media, creating films, or writing to newspapers and MPs. Young people have a voice and should be empowered to use it.

Remember that the lives being lost matter, and that at the heart of this conflict there are people who are suffering. Fundraising for charities supporting those affected by the violence is one way that young people can positively contribute in response to a devastating situation, regardless of the wider politics.

10. Assess and reflect

After the discussions have taken place, provide some space and time for reflection. If the young people have taken on lots of new information and heard a variety of different viewpoints, it can be helpful for them to have time to think them through and seek further information to ensure that they have a clear understanding. Adopt a whole school approach to the issue, make sure that those working in pastoral care know the issues that have been discussed and are prepared to support students and signpost the young people to further places that they can seek advice and support.

For further resources to better understand the conflict:

BBC, Israel-Palestinians: Old grievances fuel new fighting:

BBC, Israel-Gaza violence: The conflict explained:

Solutions Not Sides:

Council for Arab-British Understanding:

Parallel Histories:

Jewish Voice for Peace:
(videos can be a really useful learning tool, but should be used in conjunction with further resources)

Vox: The Israel-Palestine conflict: a brief, simple history:
(videos can be a really useful learning tool, but should be used in conjunction with further resources)

Razor Wire & Olive Branches: this teaching pack explores conflict, human rights and peacebuilding in Palestine and Israel:

Peace Now: Israel’s largest and longest-standing public pressure movement for a two-state solution:

Makan: amplifying the voices of Palestinians, and reshaping the mainstream discussion towards one rooted in rights and equality:

Visualising Palestine: Data-driven tools to advance a factual, rights-based narrative of the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

For further reading on antisemitism

Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Remembrance Centre

EqualiTeach, ‘Solidarity Over Division: Speaking Out Against Antisemitism’:

Book: Julie Neuberger, ‘Antisemitism: What it is, what it isn’t, why it matters’

Book: David Baddiel, ‘Jews don’t Count’.

For further reading on Islamophobia:

EqualiTeach, Faith in Us:

The Children’s Commissioner for Wales have produced a teaching resource for KS3 and 4 students about Islamophobia. It includes three lesson plans and videos to accompany learning:

Teaching Tolerance have produced a lesson plan for KS4 and 5 students on Islamophobia and its impact:

Runnymede Trust (2009) Young Muslim and Citizen. Identity, Empowerment and Change. Ideas, Activities and Resources for parents, teachers and youth workers. (Runnymede Trust, London).

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