Our Classrooms as a Forge for Peace
By Dr. Abigail Mariam
Today, in a classroom in Gaza, we may find rock strewn all around the floor and student drawings crushed under the weight of overturned desks. Or we may find nothing at all but rubble.
A bombed-out school is one of the latest sites of an intergenerational violent conflict between the Israeli government and Palestinians since the 1940’s, claiming innumerable lives over the decades. On October 7, 2023, this conflict escalated into an attack by Hamas on Israeli settlements that claimed the lives of nearly 1400 Israelis. Since then, an estimated 3,780+ Palestinians have been killed, over 1,500 of whom were children. Currently, Israeli government officials have committed to an all-out attack on Gaza, with global observers fearing a genocide of Palestinians is underway. While official estimates struggle to keep up with the rapidly unfolding events, nearly 1,000,000 people have been displaced within Gaza. The legacy of this violence has been a vicious hatred, one which has made mourning the loss of innocent Israeli or Palestinian lives tantamount to supporting terrorist groups.
Here in the United States, expressing support for Palestinian resistance against oppression under the Israeli state has been misconstrued for explicit support of terrorist tactics and for the murder of innocent people. Students at universities have been targeted by employers and others. Online and social media have been flooded with disinformation, while certain accounts providing information about conditions on the ground have been suspended. The atmosphere of swift and severe responses paired with disinformation makes even asking questions about the protracted history of conflict between modern Israel and Palestine dangerous.
So where does that leave those of us educators who are committed to justice and peace, who want to equip our students with the tools to sift through misinformation and critically analyze this conflict? Is there even a place for us to create a space for this, within an already polarized educational landscape in the U.S.?
Yes, educators can establish those spaces in their classrooms and create opportunities for their students to dig deeply into the underlying questions of social inequality and injustice that animate the conflict in Palestine-Israel, as well as many others. A classroom can forge peace, creating a knock-off that is not the real thing, or can be a forge for peace, like a welder’s furnace where iron is remolded and shaped into useful tools.
The power of the classroom, whether it is within a school building or out in the community, is not lost on any of us. Many educators in the United States and around the world know that the classroom can be used to reify social structures and legitimize them. Classrooms can forge peace, can manufacture a false understanding that peace is the absence of overt conflict. That the stasis in between flare ups, such as the murder of innocent Black people by police officers or dropping bombs on Palestinian communities, is peace. That a society with the bottom half of the population having 2% of national wealth and the top 1% having 33% of wealth is at peace.
But our classrooms also have the potential to be places where our students can learn how to make peace, a genuine peace that is mature in its recognition of injustice and its pursuit of the freedom of all peoples. Teacher and scholar bell hooks asserts that “the classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility…to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.” Any classroom has the potential to be a site of exploring ideas and resisting oppression.
In that spirit, classrooms can be a forge for peace. Education can be a space where students and teachers can create tools for peace through asking questions, sharing honestly and vulnerably, identifying injustice and advocating for justice for all people. Like a forge for a welder, in classrooms we can warm up the temperature and restore feeling to the parts of us that we have numbed to tolerate living in a world of injustice. Educators have a real impact in incorporating curricula that uplift racial and social justice, that allow students to have respectful debates and ask the hard questions of themselves and others.
And right now, that impact is needed. We are all living through a historic, tragic moment as this genocide of Palestinians unfolds in Gaza. For educators who prioritize teaching about justice, it is imperative that we provide our students with the tools to sift through biases in media reporting, to ask questions about the suppression of certain voices online, and to develop informed opinions about the nature of the escalating violence. In so doing, we are setting our students and ourselves up to pursue peace and advocate for safe conditions for all people. Fortunately, for educators who don’t know where to start, there are learning resources available designed by people who have been pursuing peace and justice in this region, including the Middle East Children’s Alliance or the Palestinian Youth Movement.
So what choice will we all make, in this pivotal moment in history? Will our classrooms forge or be a forge for peace?
In Gaza and around the world, we suffer from a shortage of peace. Wars are raging, social conflict is conventional, and we students, educators, and community members have become accustomed, maybe even numb, to these tragedies. For all our sakes, we can and must step into the call to develop learning communities that warm us up back to feeling, to seeing, to engaging, and to providing the forges from which a mature, authentic peace can emerge.
Dr. Abigail Mariam is a researcher, storyteller, and community educator committed to elevating the brilliance of children and their communities and equipping students with tools to critically analyze their world.