Teaching American Jewish Students about the Israel-Arab Conflict
Teaching American Jewish Students about the Israel-Arab Conflict

Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Dr. Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf

“Over the past decade, I’ve developed a curriculum on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for American Jewish students who are studying in Israel for the year. The idea behind the course is to educate Jewish students starting university in the US about the relationship between Israel and the Arab world.

“The program, which lasts a full academic year, places an emphasis on how history and current events interact. It provides a thorough understanding of the perspectives of those with whom Israelis are ostensibly in conflict, namely, those who identify as Palestinian Arabs.”

Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, Ph.D. directs The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) program in Israel-Arab studies. He is a clinical psychologist and researcher in psychological warfare and has dealt with victims of terror as well as issues related to war-related trauma.

He remarks: “Students not only learn what Palestinian Arabs think, but also how different sectors of the Israeli population feel. They gain ‘empathy’ - which is distinctly different from ‘sympathy’ - with those who have different perspectives. Students thus increase their awareness and insight to a level which most other students do not have. The goal is to put them into the shoes of those whom they are trying to understand. Guest lecturers present a wide range of viewpoints, ranging from Israelis who consider themselves nationalists to those Palestinian Arabs who sympathize with movements opposed to the State of Israel.

“Field trips are a key element of the course and bring the classroom alive. Prior to each trip, students study the relevant literature and hear lectures on the subject matter. Following the trip, students are required to dissect these issues through research and writing as well as in-class discussions and panel debates. We strive to have students see as much of the dynamic as possible through the eyes of all who are involved. By having students look at both Israeli and Palestinian Arab experiences, they are able to assimilate new ideas.

“Students meet with Arabs living on both sides of the green line. They have extensive discussions with Israeli Arabs their own age and see how Jewish and Arab children interact in integrated schools. We visit Palestinian Arab homes and meet with families who have lost family members in violent confrontations with the IDF.

“Our students are encouraged to experience what it’s like to have to go through security checkpoints regularly. We also learn from those Israelis who have been in the forefront of the settler movement. Field trips are interactive and not merely observational. Students also meet IDF soldiers who interact with the local population, Israelis who live and work amongst Arabs and Arabs who live and work amongst Jews.

“Term papers are central to the course experience. One must not only hear what individuals say, but study all sides of the argument. Students are required to examine an issue and present their own response. Most importantly, they have to present the logic behind it, which has to be backed up with a primary source that supports their line of reasoning. For example, after listening to a panel discussion with opposing viewpoints, students must analyze each side and discuss why one argument can be supported over the other. The same goes for reading a controversial opinion piece. A final paper is required prior to graduation that reviews a work that is considered challenging to traditional Zionist perspectives.

“Students selected to participate in the course must be self-motivated and intellectually prepared for a difficult and challenging personal and academic experience. The typical Jewish student is not likely to be exposed to the various mindsets and to the people they will meet during our course. As such, we seek to enlist potential student leaders as opposed to those that might choose to sit on the sidelines.

Our graduates are disproportionately involved in pro-Israel leadership activities on their campuses.
“I follow what happens when these students return to the United States. Our graduates are disproportionately involved in pro-Israel leadership activities on their campuses. JCPA-trained students have led Israel-related groups at many Ivy League and other top-tier institutions, often year after year. They are in the forefront of dealing with those that challenge Israel on campus. Many students have returned to Israel to serve in the IDF or as research interns at the JCPA. We regularly schedule alumni sessions on campus and maintain a social media presence, where students continue to discuss issues and exchange ideas and opinions.

“The course is designed to enable students to judge events independently and does not attempt to influence students in one way or another. This provides yet another challenge for students who have typically been sheltered from viewpoints and experiences that differ from what is commonly accepted within their peer groups and home communities. While some students find this challenge to be emotionally threatening, those who persevere and complete the course find themselves strengthened and prepared to deal with situations that are uncomfortable and unfamiliar to others.

“Students are also involved in research. Past research topics include looking at the attitudes of American university students, evaluating the credibility of certain messages used in the propaganda war, and exploring the mechanisms behind the thinking of those who support BDS. Our graduates have assisted in JCPA research projects on such subjects on their own campuses.

“The skills honed by course participants prepare them for writing critical opinion pieces. Many of our students have published op-ed pieces both in college and community papers. To sum it up, our course prepares students to be critical thinkers with creative reasoning.”