Beyond slogans, colleges can do more to teach about complexity and coexistence


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A police officer grabs a protester by the back of their jacket to stop him from moving toward the encampment on May 2, 2024.

Credit: Brandon Morquecho / Daily Bruin Photo Editor

Sitting in the rear-facing “way back seat” of my family’s station wagon in 1979, we were counting trees tied with yellow ribbons to memorialize 55 Americans held hostage in Iran. As kids, we didn’t understand the conflict, but one thing was clear: securing the hostages’ freedom was a collective national obsession. Much has changed about the way we express our democratic values in the US and how we think about innocent hostages held today in Gaza.

My nostalgia makes me wonder how young people make sense of our current political divisions, including at UCLA. As an educator and researcher at UCLA’s School of Education and Information Studies, my colleagues and I have been discussing our role to prepare K-12 teachers to advance social justice as global citizens. Teaching and learning to think critically and consider a multiplicity of perspectives has never been so crucial, nor has it been so controversial. 

When I mention my friends’ 23-year-old son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who was severely wounded when abducted by Hamas terrorists from Israel’s Nova Music Festival on October 7th, I have been met with skepticism and distrust among colleagues who share my social justice values. It shouldn’t feel so alienating to speak out for the release of the hostages, who include eight Americans among the 120 multinationals held in Gaza for more than 260 days.

Recently, when a colleague asked about the numbered piece of masking tape I was wearing, I explained it is in solidarity with Hersh’s mom Rachel, marking the days of her heartbreak and his captivity. “Well, now you know how the other side feels” he replied, as if supporting the hostages equates to indifference to Palestinian suffering. I tried to counter his assumption by explaining that advocating for the release of innocent hostages does not diminish my concern for innocent lives lost in Gaza. Our hearts can hold compassion for both. 

This false binary is detrimental to finding common ground in the pursuit for peace. The deep anguish many of us feel for Jews, Palestinians — and their supporters — has made it difficult to know what to say. Rather than choosing a side, our common humanity should unite us.    

I learned these lessons years ago as a student at Pitzer College in a seminar that opened my eyes to different perspectives on the Mideast conflict. We debated texts from Palestinian and Israeli authors, appreciating the similarities and differences between the world’s major religions. We learned how our own cultural lens and experiences informed our identities, and we felt inspired to ask more questions, rather than be expected to have the right answer. I’m grateful for this complex picture of the geopolitical, historical and religious perspectives essential to developing a nuanced understanding of current events.

My classmates and I shared a collective journey of discovery, challenging previously held truths without demonizing others for them. The greatest gift I received from my college education is to know what I don’t know, inspiring me to seek new knowledge and perspectives on making the world more just.   

I wish more students had this opportunity and more educators had the confidence to teach this way. Good faith efforts to bridge divides aren’t always easy, and they aren’t fail-proof, but they can deepen ongoing dialogue while building a community with mutual trust and respect.

I’m afraid these essential foundations of education are being avoided in too many college and high school classrooms, since many educators feel ill-equipped to address them. I understand the reluctance to speak out for fear of saying the wrong thing, not knowing enough about the conflict or the anxiety of becoming a meme on social media, and consequently getting “cancelled.” The result of this polarized climate is an unfortunate chilling effect, where not having a discussion is safer than a well-intended one.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts can help navigate barriers to cross-cultural dialogue, but when these principles are unevenly applied, they lose their power. For example, campus statements of solidarity that center one people’s history, while insidiously erasing any mention of the other, serve to further entrench beliefs. Acknowledging the value of others’ ‘lived experiences’ would increase awareness of multiple indigenous claims to land in Israel-Palestine dating back to Biblical times.

Without a rigorous understanding of the roots of the conflict and different historical narratives, we are mis-educating a generation of young people who lack the skills to excavate the depth of complicated problems, and have little agency to generate solutions to them. These omissions lead to oversimplified “either-or” “oppressor vs. oppressed” or “black-white” narratives that have become familiar in the U.S. College is supposed to be the place to cultivate curiosity, critical thinking, and challenge an ethnocentric western lens that may or may not always apply.

The deeply divided campus protests have unveiled the harm of a false dichotomy. Rather than picking a side on a protest encampment, we should be creating a space for students to advance a peaceful co-existence, recognizing each party’s rightful presence.

Thankfully, I recently had the opportunity to participate in a UCLA effort to seek peaceful solutions through its Dialogue Across Difference Initiative. Through this cross-campus collaboration, faculty and staff engaged in dialogue, instilling empathy, while building active listening skills to think critically and compassionately about recent protests and how we can carry these lessons into our respective roles on campus. Education initiatives like this can play a vital role in building a democratic citizenry.

Beyond simplified slogans, opportunities to dialogue across our differences can help bridge our individual and collective aspirations including those who support Israelis, Palestinians, and their allies. These critical conversations can help connect our shared values and unite in seeking justice at home and abroad.

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Julie Flapan is a researcher, educator, and the director of the Computer Science Equity Project at UCLA Center X, School of Education and Information Studies and co-lead of the CSforCA coalition, where she is working to expand teaching and learning opportunities for girls, students of color and low-income students.

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