Educators must stand with Gaza

August 6, 2014

Educators have a responsibility to advocate for all children, whether they live around the corner or halfway around the world, writes Craig McQuade.

IN LATE July, I began my first experience teaching summer school literacy classes to a group of fifth and sixth graders. While they can often be a handful--especially on days when they don't want to read or write--I see a whole world of potential when I look at my students.

Like other children their age, they love to draw, they love to tell stories, they love to build in their robotics class, and they love--love!--to run around. My students are a great boost to my day and constantly remind me why I so willingly gave up my ability to sleep in during the summer.

However, I have found teaching summer school to be a wholly surreal experience when I return home every afternoon and am bombarded with the news of Israel's wholesale slaughter of the people of Gaza. I find myself thinking of the students of Gaza. I think of how much potential they each hold inside of them, how they are not that different from the children I work with every day.

They have dreams and goals and passions, just like their peers all over the world. They, too, enjoy drawing and telling stories and running around. But their opportunities to reach their potential, develop their talents or live their passions are few and far between. If a missile or bullet fails to find them, the occupation undoubtedly will.

A child wounded in Israel's assault on Gaza
A child wounded in Israel's assault on Gaza (Mohammed Al Baba | Oxfam)

Israel's ability to strip the opportunities that Palestinian students have is virtually boundless. For those students fortunate enough to have survived three Israeli offensives in the past six years--and countless acts of violence committed by settlers in the West Bank or soldiers policing the walls that cut through Palestine like so many scars--the option to further one's education is very limited, if it exists at all.

While Israel and its supporters regularly complain that the cultural and academic boycott of Israeli institutions infringes on academic freedom, they themselves are quite comfortable restricting the movement of Gazans--as well as Palestinians living in the West Bank--so that they are unable to attend the post-secondary institution of their choosing. If there is anyone who is truly culpable of limiting academic freedom, it is the occupying state of Israel.

IN RECENT years, the fight for justice in the education system in the U.S. has taken center stage in the struggle against austerity and one-sided class warfare. Parents, students, teachers and staff have collectively put their foot down to say no to school closings, no to overcrowding, no to creating routes that children must walk that put them in danger every day, no to the endless drive towards standardization and testing, and no to the building of charter schools and the elimination of education as a fundamental right of every citizen in a democracy.

If the conditions we are fighting against here in the U.S. form the proverbial line in the sand for educators across this country, then it is imperative that we bring into our analysis the daily struggles of our colleagues in Gaza and the West Bank. If our conditions are already intolerable, how much more difficult must it be to be an educator in Palestine?

I pose this question not to trivialize or deemphasize the important battles being waged in our own country, but to draw attention to the fact that, to paraphrase the late Nelson Mandela, our struggle for justice in our schools is incomplete without justice for the schools of Palestine.

We have the ability--and we must utilize it--to fight against school closings and overcrowding in the States. In Gaza, however, there is no board meeting to disrupt or central office to picket; in Gaza, schools close because they cease to exist. When schools, along with hospitals, mosques and civilian infrastructure, are considered legitimate targets in a military assault, how can they stay open? How can the people of Gaza prevent overcrowding in their schools when there are no other buildings to send their students to?

It is second nature for teachers and parents in the United States to petition, protest and demonstrate when the school board proposes adding miles onto students' routes to and from school--miles which may cross gang lines, are poorly monitored and will put students in increased danger every day.

However, in the West Bank, there is no option for students who must walk around Jewish-only roads or through countless checkpoints just to attend class. There is no guarantee for the children of Palestine that their journey will be safe or that they will return home at the end of the day to the same family members they left behind. If munitions fail to find a family member, there is always a possibility that indefinite detention will.

The educators I work with, as well as many others across the country, work to ensure that students feel safe within the four walls of the school building, if nowhere else. In Gaza, any illusion of a schoolhouse being a safe place for children was shattered long ago as Israeli bombs and mortars caved in roofs and indiscriminately killed those who had hoped they could find shelter in a building that anyone claiming to live in a democracy should recognize as sacred ground for civilians.

Anyone who has ever stood in a room filled with hungry or malnourished students knows how difficult it can be to focus their efforts on their education. When food is scarce, science, math, literacy and history suddenly appear as fairly trivial affairs.

What an impossible feat the teachers of Gaza must have before them--educating a population that has been meticulously kept at levels barely above starvation by (literal) bean-counters working for Israel's occupation. How can schools provide nutritious or filling meals for their hungriest students when there is simply no food?

AS EDUCATORS, it is our duty to stand with the children of Gaza and all of Palestine. These children are neither statistics to be forgotten nor "telegenically dead" bodies to drum up support for a cause. They are children worth of a chance at life like anyone else. They are students who deserve a consistent and quality education.

Gaza's children born in 2008, the year that Operation Cast Lead began, should be preparing to enter kindergarten this year. Instead, they must live with realities of the third major offensive on their homeland in their lifetimes. Eighteen-year-olds living in Gaza would have been 12 during Cast Lead. The conscious lives of every school-aged child living in the open-air prison Israel created on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean have been filled with nothing but massacres and destruction.

Being an educator means being a constant advocate for students, whether they are in your classroom, passing you every day in the hall, or halfway around the world. The students of Gaza lack educational services that it would be unthinkable to work without in a school in the U.S.

And what about Palestinian students with special needs. How devastating must the lack of a permanent school building be on students with learning disabilities? What about students with physical impairments? The infrastructure in Gaza is not even appropriate for their peers without disabilities. An overwhelming percentage of students in Gaza suffer from PTSD--how are they to cope with the academic demands of school when they cannot escape the trauma committed against them?

If the education justice movement is to remain at the center of the fightback against oppression and austerity that it can and should be, it must take up the call for justice in Palestine as well. It must advocate for the academic boycott of Israeli institutions, and it must push for a boycott of Israeli products in schools and pension fund divestment from companies complicit in the occupation.

Equally as important, it must put front and center an acknowledgement that every U.S. dollar sent in aid to Israel is a double loss for education. Those dollars represent a theft from our public school system at home--as well as the physical destruction of a school system in Palestine. The struggle for justice in education requires joining the struggle for justice in Palestine.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives