From Brooklyn to Palestine

Teaching Culture & Resistance

By the Palestine Education Project

PEP stills

The same ground you walk on, we do too… These words, excerpted from a poem by Tyeema translated into Arabic for a mural now hanging in Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus, speak to a journey students and teachers have been making in Brooklyn for the past three years.

Drawing on popular education models and making use of grassroots media tools such as digital stories, hip-hop tracks, and poster art, the Palestine Education Project (PEP) developed a class  we call “Slingshot Hip-Hop: Culture and Resistance from Brooklyn to Palestine” at a small alternative high school. The school has its roots as a “transfer” school, a sort of last chance for students who have not “succeeded” at their previous schools, though as one of our students and recent graduates, Rahking, says, “We don’t say transfer school anymore—it is more of a school of transformation, a place where we learn how other schools have failed us and how we can educate ourselves.”

A collaboration between students, teachers, artists, and community organizers, the curriculum is designed to examine both global and local systems of oppression; to identify the common struggles people of color share against racism, militarism, and displacement; to empower students to discover their own voices of resistance; and to break down the walls that separate us. Our work is grounded in the belief that increasing our awareness of how our struggles are connected to others’ can prove a powerful means of challenging the systems of oppression that adversely affect all of us. What follows is a sketch of the journey that has inspired us to continually re-imagine what is possible both in and out of the classroom.

We start with what one teacher at the school has called “How the Media Gets Between Us.” Living in New York, we encounter very few positive associations with the word “Arab.” So we ask our students why that is. Many will point to the September 11 attacks and the “war on terror.” We follow the discussion with a screening of Jackie Salloum’s “Planet of the Arabs,” a mock trailer based on Jack Shaheen’s book Reel Bad Arabs about Hollywood’s overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Arabs in film. As clips play from films we are all familiar with, an understanding emerges—these negative associations are constantly being fed to us. The students we work with, growing up in predominantly Black and Latina/o communities, are all too familiar with being stereotyped and criminalized, and it doesn’t take long before we are able to engage in a deeper discussion about how and why the media reinforce these negative stereotypes.

From deconstructing media (mis)representation and unpacking the negative stereotypes that surround most discussions about Palestine in the United States, we move on to one of our most valuable and adaptable teaching tools—a participatory activity that invites students out of their seats and onto a large map of Palestine outlined with tape on the classroom floor. Some students are cast as Palestinian Arabs, while others represent Jewish settlers.

Where am I standing?

Student: The West Bank.

And now?

Gaza.

And Now?

Jerusalem.

Ok. So now that we have a lay of the land, can everyone who has a “Palestinian Arab” label take a step onto the map. Let’s have two of you living in Gaza, a few in the West Bank, and the rest in what will later become Israel. There is also a small Jewish population that has been here for a long time, so can we have someone with a “Jewish” label come live here, near Jerusalem. The year is 1920, and we are in British-occupied Palestine…

With the help of narration and a slideshow of images and maps, students begin to physically move through the history of colonization and displacement in Palestine. For instance, when the state of Israel is unilaterally declared in 1948—taking 77 percent of the land, destroying more than 530 Palestinian villages, and expelling over 750,000 people who became refugees—all except one or two students playing Palestinians are pushed into refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. As the activity moves through the further military occupations of 1967 and approaches the present, Israeli settlements that further displace local inhabitants are established in the form of hula hoops. Selected students with “Jewish Israeli” labels are given hula hoops and invited to “move in” to areas in the West Bank and Gaza. The hula hoop settlements take up so much space that students with “Palestinian” labels are forced to live on increasingly smaller portions of the map.

The activity is supported by projecting maps of land ownership and confiscation, military repression, and occupation, as well as images of Palestinian resistance. Parallels are also made to South African apartheid and the colonization of Native American lands.

In processing the experience, many students initially talk about the violent nature of the oppression in Palestine—concrete walls, military incursions, checkpoints, mass arrests—as something that is extreme, far from them. “At least we don’t have it that bad” is a common initial response. But the map activity invites students to move beyond this initial response and make connections they haven’t made before. For instance, as those role-playing Palestinians are stripped of their identity (no longer Palestinian but now “Israeli-Arab”) or heavily policed and imprisoned, students often relate experiences of being targeted by the police in their neighborhoods based on their ethnic and cultural identity. During one class, after learning about the Apartheid Wall being erected in the West Bank and how it often separates Palestinians from each other and their land, Carlos offered: “We don’t have actual walls, but come to think of it, there are other kinds of walls put up in our community that keep us divided—economic and cultural walls.”

Solidarity

In the film Slingshot Hip Hop, Palestinian rapper Suhel Nafar talks about being inspired by American hip-hop—how after he and his brother see the Tupac Shakur video “Holla if You Hear Me,” they feel the scenes in the video could’ve been shot in their own ’hood of Lyd (close to what is now Tel Aviv). Many American ghettos are plagued by systematic discrimination and a lack of resources similar to Lyd, and many of our students in Brooklyn are able to identify parallel conditions in their own lives. “Their occupation wears green, ours over here wears blue,” wrote Khary in “Brooklyn 2 Palestine,” a hip-hop track and music video he made as a final project for the class in 2008. In the same year that so many young people of color witnessed the full acquittal of the New York Police Department officers who shot and killed an unarmed black man named Sean Bell, this in-class opportunity to hold up their own deep sense of injustice alongside the injustice felt by Palestinians provided a collective space to express not only frustration and anger but also solidarity.

This sort of “border-crossing” conversation manifests in different ways throughout the classes we teach and becomes particularly relevant and powerful when we look at how the Israeli prison system operates as part of the criminalization and repression of Palestinian society. Using Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine, we take students on a narrative tour inside an Israeli jail for Palestinian political prisoners. Generations of Palestinians have now spent time in prison. Since the 1967 Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, more than 40 percent of adult male Palestinians in the occupied territories have been incarcerated, and since the 2000 Intifada more than 2,500 Palestinian children have been arrested. Because most of our students have friends or family members who have been or currently are incarcerated, this lesson presents an opportunity for students to reflect on how the prison system here in the United States has affected their lives and communities, as well as learning from the Palestinian experience.

In 2010, our students took these connections a step further by envisioning and shooting a short documentary featuring interviews with fellow students and educators about their communities and how the prison system has affected them. Putting forward their stories as well as analysis of the prison industrial complex, they then offer visions for the change they would like to see. The video closes with reflections on how their experiences are similar to what they have learned is happening in Palestine.

Palestine Education Project - bushwick community highschool final video 2010 from Jessie Levandov on Vimeo.

Beyond the Classroom

Having explored strong notions of solidarity, some students express that it is not easy to bridge the gaps between the classroom and the “real world,” where they must confront forces that are actively putting up the very same walls we are trying to dismantle in the classroom. For this reason, the classes include collaborations with artists, community activists, and grassroots media organizations working in New York City, the rest of the United States, and Palestine with the goal of creating media that connect experiences of gentrification and racism in the United States to the experiences of apartheid and military occupation endured by youth in Palestine. These media are then shared with other youth in the United States and Palestine, fostering a larger network of solidarity.

We have also begun a partnership with the Allied Media Conference (AMC), a forum for grassroots media makers and young people seeking to share media tools and develop strategies together. At the conference, students use the media they have created to conduct workshops for those in attendance. The prison documentary mentioned above was the centerpiece of our most recent workshop at the 2010 AMC in Detroit and is meant as a resource for U.S.-based youth thinking about prisons here as well as for Palestinians who would like to learn from parallel struggles.

We have seen students, many who reportedly do not participate much in their other classes, open up and contribute actively when given the chance to connect their own sense of injustice with that experienced by Palestinians. Building these relationships between struggles and people is a crucial part of undermining the structures that for too long have been building walls between us.

This article was originally published in al-Majdal, the English language quarterly magazine of the Badil Resource Center (Bethlehem, Palestine).

The Palestine Education Project (PEP) is a multiracial, multi-ethnic collective of educators, activists, and artists based in New York City, Beirut, and Ramallah.