Changes in education and the school curriculum are having a profound influence on how young people think

Gerry ChidiacIn recent years, young people in Canada and throughout the Western world have become far more likely to sympathize with Palestine than with Israel, especially when compared to older people. The shift has become even more dramatic since the Israeli assault on the civilian population of Gaza began in October. What we do not know for sure is the reason for this shift.

Pro-Israel pundits critical of our education system have placed blame on teachers and professors. There is little plausibility in this argument, however. Most educators are terrified to bring this issue into their classrooms because an example has been made of colleagues who show sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

A report by Independent Jewish Voices Canada discusses the “chilly climate” in our educational institutions, noting “fear of endangering contract renewals or future career prospects” among instructors.

There have, however, been curriculum changes that are not directly related to the Israel-Palestine issue that may be having an impact. I have been directly involved in school systems in North America since 1967 and have seen dramatic shifts. Social Studies books used to be little more than nationalistic propaganda that indoctrinated children to believe that their country was the greatest on earth, that they should be thankful to live there, and that they should devote their lives to preserving the status quo.

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Books were written by the victors of colonial conflicts, and students simply needed to memorize a series of dates and names and write occasional essays explaining why the characters in these texts should be lauded. One can still see this perspective prevalent in older people who espouse colonialism as a good thing.

The emphasis in education today is on developing critical thinking skills and fostering a just society. Truth and reconciliation concerning Canada’s colonial past are taken very seriously, and educators recognize that we are on a path of healing that will take generations. In addition, there is an emphasis on responding effectively to bullying and harassment. Students are taught that it is not okay to be a bystander and that they need to respond if they see an injustice.

Barbara Coloroso has done a great deal of work in teaching parents and educators how to foster caring and resilience in children. After the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, she was asked to give workshops in that country and recognized the direct link between bullying and genocide. She penned the book Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide and gave numerous lectures on the topic.

In one lecture series, she features a picture from a Nazi rally where everyone in the crowd is giving the “sieg heil” salute except for one young man with his arms crossed, physically stating, “I don’t think so.” That is the type of principled person our schools are working to produce.

We also need to recognize that young people do not consume media the same way as older people. Whereas older generations get their news from the corporate media, where the pro-Israel lobby still holds a great deal of influence, young people are watching social media feeds where Palestinians in Gaza are livestreaming their ongoing execution. They see what is happening and compare it to the ideals they are being taught, and then independently and critically conclude, “Woah, that’s pretty effed up!”

The global support for the Palestinian cause has not subsided and is unlikely to diminish. Soon, young people will begin voting only for candidates who refuse to take money from pro-Israeli interest groups, and that will have a profound impact on the political landscape in many countries.

Teachers have not taught their students to support Palestine. We have taught them what it means to be a caring and decent human being and a critical thinker. Our young people have concluded for themselves that they need to stand with Palestine, and we need to realize that they will continue to do so.

Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust.

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