Marcy Jane Knopf-Newman is an anti-Israel activist and English professor who has taught at Boise State University, al-Quds University, the American University of Beirut, and other universities in the Middle East. In The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans: Addressing Pedagogical Strategies (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), she has assembled a guidebook for American high school teachers on how to teach the Arab-Israeli conflict. (While writing it she transitioned from university to high school teaching herself.) The book’s documentation, though substantial, is extremely biased, as all of her quotes and references are part of a closed loop in which Palestinians are presented as innocent victims and Israelis as evil-doers. Her entire bibliography and a “What You Can Do” section are geared toward fomenting anti-Israel activism.
Inaccuracies abound, including the author’s historical account of the term “anti-Semitism.” Although the word has referred solely to hostility toward Jews since its coinage in the late nineteenth-century, Knopf-Newman politicizes it by distorting its etymology:
After World War II, anti-Semitism began to connote not racism directed at Semitic people (based on language groupings of Arabic, Aramaic, Akkadian or Hebrew) in general, but rather only to Jews, most of whom are of European origin and do not speak any Semitic language.
She attributes the motive behind this imaginary trend to “shift[ing] the discourse away from Palestine,” demonstrating that for Knopf-Newman, even the concept of anti-Semitism is a tool of censorship to suppress discussion of “Palestine.”
The author did not always hold such views. Raised in Los Angeles with what she describes as a Zionist education, she attended Hebrew day schools and participated in pro-Israel activities during high school. Growing up, she heard the well-known phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem,” which Jews have said for thousands of years at Passover Seders. This historical fact is omitted in the book’s preface, where she likens the phrase to a Zionist “cultural commemoration” serving “to foster unquestioned support of Israel.”
Knopf-Newman’s encounters with her Palestinian peers (who, she admonishes, are never to be called “Arabs,” only “Palestinians”) as an impressionable undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati spawned her adoption of a virulently anti-Israel narrative. As a teacher at Boise State she spent three years engaged in research in a Palestinian refugee camp, during which time she recalls cheering with her Palestinian friends after hearing about a successful Hezb’allah missile attack on an Israeli ship. That four IDF sailors were killed doesn’t warrant a mention.
In order to deconstruct how Zionism is taught in America, based in part on her own sense of betrayal, Knopf-Newman revisited her old Los Angeles Hebrew school and examined its teaching materials. She concluded that the curriculum shifted from its original emphasis on Judaism to stress Zionism in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. Her objective in writing the guidebook is “to explore how and what I learned as well as think about ways to disrupt the Zionist narrative altogether by teaching American youth about Palestine.”
To achieve this goal, Knopf-Newman advocates using the classroom as a bully pulpit, a place to correct social imbalances in which only the designated victim’s narrative is discussed. She exhibits no awareness of the differences between a teacher and an activist. Teaching “critical thinking” means indoctrinating students to believe that Palestinians are always right — and Israelis are always wrong.
In a chapter titled “Hip-Hop Education and Palestine Solidarity,” Knopf-Newman advocates using hip-hop, or rap, music because it has short, easy-to-remember segments that prove conducive to incorporating political material. Using her book as a guide, high school students can now rap, dance, or sing their way to anti-Zionism. Lesson plans include how to organize street theater with “apartheid walls” and “tunnels of oppression” that connect to other “sites of oppression.” Such agitprop can be adopted, she helpfully suggests, by teachers of literature, social studies, theater, music, and many other subjects. She particularly admires content that connects genocide, imprisonment, slavery, indigenous people, the “prison-industrial complex,” and even Hurricane Katrina with the delegitimization of Israel in the malleable minds of her students.
The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans is replete with false analogies to so-called “global colonialism,” such as Mexicans and Latin-Americans trying to cross the Arizona border illegally, South African blacks under apartheid, African-Americans under slavery, and Native-Americans. Knopf-Newman makes it a point to claim “indigenous” status for Native-Americans, yet ignores the widely accepted presence of Jews in Jerusalem and the West Bank for thousands of years to insist that “indigenous” cannot possibly refer to Jews in Israel. In the lexicon she reveres, “indigenous” equals “good” and can refer only to Jews who, like herself, have “un-learned Zionism.”
Knopf-Newman makes no attempt to understand either Israel’s predicament or whether its citizens have a right to self-defense in the face of a relentless enemy fueled by irredentist and revanchist goals. She never examines the constant rocket attacks from Gaza. To the contrary, Israelis always “massacre” innocent Palestinians, even when charges of such atrocities are exposed as lies.
Her insistence, against all evidence, that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not about religion omits crucial terms such as “jihad” or “terrorism.” There is no violence from religious fanatics, but rather “armed resistance” to Israel’s imaginary “ethnic cleansing.” She exhibits no awareness that the content of English-language media often differs starkly from Arabic language content. She either cannot or will not admit that turning Israel into another Islamic state is the real motivation of its opponents. How could she, without using the word “Muslim” in her book? Even a discussion about the concept of pan-Arab tribalism is missing.
Knopf-Newman writes in the shadow of her hero, the late historian Howard Zinn, whose A Young People’s History of the United States she quotes approvingly: “History is always a matter of taking sides.” She also reserves praise for her principal mentor Edward Said, the late Columbia University English professor whose Orientalism contributed mightily to the politicization of Middle East studies and who once wrote that, “Facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation.”
Other dubious influences include former DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein, Tel Aviv University pseudo-historian Shlomo Sand, and University of Exeter professor and Israeli ex-patriot Ilan Pappe, all of whom she quotes extensively throughout the book and cites in her “select bibliography.”
In her long list of acknowledgments, Knopf-Newman gives special thanks to virulent anti-Israel activist and Elecronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abuminah, as well as Weather Underground terrorist-turned-education professor and friend-of-Obama Bill Ayers, who introduced her to the world of “alternative pedagogies in American schools.” The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans is the product of these nefarious alliances. Its use in American high schools risks producing radicalized students whose hostility toward Israel is matched only by their ignorance of history.
Berkeley resident Rima Greene co-wrote this book review with Cinnamon Stillwell, the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.