Focusing on a course taught to Palestinian and Jewish Israelis, this essay suggests that the study of life writing can help students develop a better informed civic identity, particularly in relation to divisive national matters. By carefully constructing collective classroom practices of reading, writing, discussing, and listening, the instructor can forge an environment that strengthens students’ capacity to appreciate the textual and contemporary interaction between individuals and their historical contexts, and to hear alternative perspectives and experiences attentively, without argument. University classrooms can thus play a vital role in democratic culture, as spaces in which a broader range of voices can be heard and in which minority voices are specially protected and projected.
As a professor of English literature, I have long wrestled to conceive a productive relation between politics and the classroom. This is a task that is delicate and challenging: I have sought to create a meaningful dialogue between the world outside and the world inside the classroom, between a pressing national and political reality, on the one hand, and the hothouse environment of the classroom that is meant to allow students a protected space in which to gain mastery in new fields and to encounter new ideas without feeling coerced, silenced, or intimidated, on the other. How to make a dynamic, political space of the classroom without in any way indoctrinating students? How to build the most conducive environment for the exchange and testing of ideas related to “real life,” relevant to students’ growth as individuals and as citizens, yet loyal to my professional charge, my discipline, and to methodology in the humanities more broadly?
My premise in this essay is that teachers of literature concerned with these goals might find in the field of life writing the tools for helping students build a mature, more knowledgeable civic identity, particularly in relation to divisive and painful national matters. Civic development, I suggest, can emerge out of engaging with narratives of life writing, even when those texts are not situated in the specific context in which students live. Such development requires, first, sustained, guided practice in the related activities of reading, writing, discussing, listening, and asking questions. Second, it requires a carefully sequenced set of activities and texts. Third, civic development of this kind depends on a representatively diverse classroom (or at least some semblance of it). Fourth, it benefits when the instructor explicitly sees his or her role as helping students to integrate past personal and national understandings with new ones rather than rejecting, replacing, or “correcting” past convictions;1 this is a role that requires self-consciousness, empathy, and also, on my view, a gentle bearing. Finally, the formidable challenges to civic development are eased and substantively addressed by making sure that textual content is only ever part of the project. By focusing continuously on disciplinary aims, such as the attention to genre and its histories, and the amassing of narratological vocabulary, the instructor works to grant all students a shared set of terms with which to analyze rather than argue with the texts and the fellow students before them. Those terms are offered as tools for the long term, for narratives they will encounter in their future lives. The work of honing this analytical facility also provides a respite for students and instructor from the emotional demands of painful content. While the account of my pedagogical exploration is set in Israel amid a mixed Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli student population, I believe the model can be adjusted in ways that would make it applicable in other settings of higher education.
Diversity: How Necessary Is It? Is It Enough on Its Own?
From 2001 to 2014 I worked at the knotty issues of a politically engaged classroom while teaching in two American midwestern research institutions. But the issues had already emerged when I was teaching as a graduate student of English in the late 1990s, and a few years earlier, when I was studying as an undergraduate at a liberal arts college. When I began my career, I found myself teaching many courses that dealt with American history and culture despite having trained in British literature. Immediately, it became clear to me that my students’ self-understanding as Americans was critically important to the way we studied our collective past, to their questions, observations, and responses to the readings. Yet one of the greatest difficulties was that so often my classrooms were made up of students with relatively similar ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, a fact that I had been conscious of as an undergraduate myself. As a nineteen-year-old in 1989 in my first-year seminar in college, Perceptions of the Other, in which we read mostly texts concerned with race, I met only one woman of color, who confided to me that in nearly all her courses she was the single woman of color. Fifteen years later in midwestern classrooms, I looked out at the student body and recognized that while each student had something valuable to bring to the discussion, nevertheless, in broad strokes, we were missing a representative diversity of American experience that might lead to more energized and rigorous exploration of major ideas and ideals.
I thought hard about when diversity matters and how it matters, trying to push beyond bromides. If I brought a range of viewpoints to the classroom in the form of the texts I chose, could that suffice? It became increasingly evident to me that a diversity of student backgrounds was, in fact, critical to study in the humanities because its subject matter rests on interpretation, and no one interprets with full detachment, from the neutral ground of “nowhere.” As the philosopher Thomas Nagel (1989: 5) puts it, “We are small creatures in a big world of which we have only very partial understanding, . . . how things seem to us depends both on the world and on our constitution.” This truth is one that many college students have yet to confront when they begin their studies in the humanities; this understanding is one of the most significant ways in which we instructors differ from our students. Almost always (especially when working with recent high school graduates), we have read more, seen more, spoken to a wider cross-section of people, and know more of the past; our comparative sense is usually more deeply developed. Thus, if the big world outside is represented only by texts and not human voices in the classroom, a student's partial understanding can remain partial—and unacknowledged as such—much longer.
Over time, my response to the lack of diversity in the classroom came to be a regular evocation of the missing presences. Given the population of the state, this was most pronouncedly the lack of a representative percentage of African Americans. I did not mean to speak for those missing, but rather to recognize their absence and to consider what the absence meant about our myths and hopes for American ideals of equal opportunity.
Six years ago, I immigrated to Israel as a tenured faculty member in a centrally located university. Of all the surprises of such a dramatic move, my greatest one was the composition of my new student body. Paradoxically, in spite of the stated American commitment to diversity in higher education and the relative underdevelopment of this value in Israel—a democracy characterized by significant structural inequalities and a lack of integration between its majority and minority populations—I found that the Israeli university classrooms were far more socially diverse than any I had ever encountered in the United States, as a student or an instructor. Nearly all of the undergraduate English courses I was assigned held approximately 40 percent Arab and 60 percent Jewish students, all citizens of Israel (except some international students, coming largely from European countries).2 This proportion of Arab Israeli to Jewish Israeli students was the result of a significant demographic shift not unique to my university but mirrored in the other major Israeli universities that teach humanities. In 2012, the Israeli Council for Higher Education launched a multimillion-shekel initiative designed to make higher education more accessible to Israel's Arab population.3 Among its components were the attempt to target the top third of high school students (35,000–50,000 students) to provide support and counseling for them and their families, to offer scholarships for students in economic need, to establish a university budget for support of these students once in university, and to set up precollege study programs designed particularly for Arab students. In 2017, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that between 2010 and 2017 Arabs had gone from being 10.2 percent of the entire student body to 16.1 percent, (this is relative to their being 21 percent of the population of Israel). The greatest jump was among students studying for the bachelor of arts.
My student roster told the whole story, half made up of Hebrew names like Sigal, Zohar, Netanel, David, and the other half Arabic: Takwa, Huda, Muatasem, Husam. Finally, I had a classroom in which a minority population was fairly represented (at times even overrepresented). Yet the work of fostering trust and communication between the two groups and finding the appropriate texts through which to build that trust and communication was likely to be much more difficult, given that relations between minority Arab and majority Jewish populations are shaped and continuously reshaped both by everyday news events and a history of statehood short enough (seventy years) for both sides to recall emotionally the violent conflict out of which it emerged and the subsequent, as-yet-unresolved tensions.
Further, the end of the Oslo Peace Process in the 1990s and the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 significantly intensified mistrust between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. The young students that I was encountering had thus grown up in an atmosphere of much less hope for genuine, peaceful resolution. Most of these young adults would first encounter each other at the university, with the all-important exceptions of drastically unequal exchanges between Jews serving compulsorily in the military after graduation from high school and Palestinians. Outside of the military, in much of Israel, the shared social spaces for Arabs and Jews tend to be ones that are institutionally structured in ways that prescribe roles rather clearly: in commerce, that is to say, in shops and malls; in medicine, from hospitals to pharmacies; and in service, restaurants, and hotels. While it is not unusual today for the traditionally hierarchical roles to flip and for members of the minority population to hold roles of authority or supervision, nonetheless the roles themselves are delimited, not offering much opportunity for full-fledged human relations.
One profound effect of simply assembling in the classroom was that we were on the cusp of such full-fledged human relations. Certainly, in the classroom, as elsewhere, there are circumscribed roles, but they have more give here because part of the job of being a student in the humanities is to speak and to ask questions, and no one can predict precisely what a human being will say in such circumstances. I knew that my end goal in teaching was to make visible links between literary invention in English and something students experienced in the real world. But the range of student experience was still so unknown to me that I couldn't begin yet to forge connections. Every thoughtful teacher knows that all classrooms are shaped by the local “outside” and that teaching strategies appropriate for one environment cannot be transferred simply to other environments. We also know that in order to teach well, we need to know who our students are, where they have come from, and what their expectations and ambitions might be.
I was inexperienced in the Israeli classroom. I spent time talking with colleagues in my department, most of them American-Jewish immigrants to Israel, though some had been in Israel for decades. The majority of them felt that by dint of concerted effort, the department had built a reputation as a particularly humane and welcoming space for all students, with a liberal ethos and a recognized commitment to teaching. Our chair at the time was a Christian Arab, a first at the university. Our department seemed like a little island of calm in the storm that was the broader university, and the broader society, and the Middle East itself. The English language, too, was the island, separate from the conflicts voiced in Hebrew and Arabic.
Many of my colleagues felt strongly that the English literature classroom needed to be created as a safe space, a haven that sheltered students from the clamorous and aggressive world outside where politics and argument were nearly inescapable. The students deserved to study, they felt, without being drawn into identity politics. The route was to steer clear of the contemporary and the local. At a sparsely attended elective faculty training workshop on matters of diversity, this conviction was voiced pretty uniformly by native and immigrant Israelis, all Jewish except for one.4
I took seriously their concerns and the wisdom of their experience but felt an urgent need to take advantage of what seemed to me a rare opportunity for a form of social integration to take on meaning, instead of being simply a demographic fact. I wanted to be able to broach the challenging coexistence in which we silently participated. I believed that as I came to learn my student body, my local university environment, and the aims of higher education in Israeli society, I would need consciously to reject some Israeli norms and accept others. I would need caution—the same caution one always needs in the classroom. Yet, I would aim, against palpable odds, to build a sense of community and shared vocabulary.
I came to see that not only were my setting and my students different, but I was different, too, as I stood at the head of the classroom, as I marked papers. In the midwestern university where I had taught for more than ten years, I had been a professor from an American minority group—Jews—albeit a strongly positioned and well-represented minority. For some students coming from smaller towns, I had been the first Jew they ever met. Even for more cosmopolitan students, my level of Jewish observance clearly defined me as an outsider. Now, in Israel, everything had flipped. Suddenly, I was aligned with majority culture and all that that meant in relation to Israel's minority populations. I was a Jewish Israeli in a state defined as Jewish. I had spent most of my life in the United States, which meant that I was a citizen of a Western superpower, a recipient of all its riches, educationally, culturally, and materially. I was a fluent Hebrew and English speaker. I did not speak Arabic. Gender was the sole category in which power relations did not favor me.
Identity seemed to matter more than it ever had before: mine and my students’. The more I came to know who I was in relation to my students, to sense the dynamic of the classroom, and to gauge the level of my students’ capacities in English, the more I felt that my field of research, Victorian literature, was an unlikely path to meaning for them and me (in other settings I had taught in, it had seemed especially meaningful). Many students, though not all, wrote a very elementary English. Most turned immediately to online summaries for help and many never opened the original text at all. Few students had grown up as passionate readers. English, for many of them, was not the language they would naturally turn to for self-expression. Perhaps most different, college was not understood to be a life-changing experience. It might turn out to be, but it wasn't sought out or valued for that purpose, as it was by many students of all classes that I had encountered in the United States. It was seen mainly as the necessary path to a degree and a stable job. Imagination (moral, social, personal) and curiosity (about the past, the other, the possible) could not be counted on to make things go in the classroom. If imagination and curiosity were to drive learning, I would need to foster them.
With the freedom of serving in a small faculty that nonetheless held one other trained Victorianist, I decided to move away from the widely taught canonical works of imaginative literature to focus instead on nonfiction, my secondary field of research. Specifically, I wanted to teach life writing in a variety of its many forms: autobiography, memoir, personal essay, collections of letters, collaborative life writing.5
Why Life Writing?
I knew from my American experience that teaching autobiography could strengthen the foundations of a civic education, bringing a new consciousness to undergraduate students who tend to make a strong distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and between literature and history.6 It requires a whole, hard-working semester to help students come to see that no story preexists its telling. Like the writing of a novel, the writing of history, whether personal or public, is a demanding craft. The facts may be facts, but how we tell them makes all the difference. And the writing of autobiography requires a full and intelligent reckoning with the responsibilities of history and the demands of art. Autobiographers are bound by what the theorist Phillipe Lejeune (1989: 13) calls the “autobiographical pact,” in which the reader understands the “I” telling the story of his or her past self to be the person who lived its historical events. The associated “referential pact,” specifies that, to the best of the author's ability, they will in good faith narrate an honest account of the past (22). To that extent, autobiography shares the rules of the discourse of history.
Yet—and here is the conceptual challenge for most undergraduates—although life writing is bound by fact, its power often lies in its capacity to shape itself by the generic possibilities we recognize from literature, as Hayden White (1986) argued decades ago. Autobiographical writing is not the work of chronicling. There are infinite choices to be made in narration. As I knew I would tell my students, the life writer, like the national citizen, is confronted by endless questions: Where do we begin our story? Where do we end it? What do we include? What do we exclude? Do we tell the past in a summary or in remembered scenes and approximated dialogue? Is the past we tell framed nostalgically? Angrily? As tragedy or comedy? As a cyclical past, in which events cycle round, or a linear past, with a defined trajectory? Do we make sense of experience in terms that emphasize continuity or discontinuity? How do we account for development? Progress? Change? How do we represent chance? As providence? As fate? As scientific probability? Each time a person tells their life, they make that life's meaning anew (Eakin 2008: 1–59). And we make the lives anew amid the literary possibilities available to us for the telling.
I believed that life writing was central to a civic education because when students learn that autobiographical writing is shaped by literary and generic choices, they come to realize that so is the writing of collective histories, whether Jewish Israeli or Palestinian, or any other. My American students had tended to label histories shaped by any non-neutrality, by any rootedness, any personal investments at all, as history that had “an agenda.” Was that always dangerous, coercive? I was hoping that in the Israeli classroom, we could begin to ask whether ideological aims as enacted by narrative always constituted a form of spin, often cynically manipulated, or whether we might want to consider them statements of belief and of community affiliation. I believed that the better a reader knows how such narratives are woven, the less they function as sheer manipulation, the more they can be experienced as options, questions, or invitations. The reader or listener who thinks that history or autobiography is straight chronology is the one least protected against a skilled, ideologically driven narrator.
All this was foremost in my mind as I set out to design the right sort of course for my new student body. The semester began (fall 2017), and I had thirty-five students with new notebooks, ready for this class, Autobiography. Of the thirty-five Israeli citizens, fourteen were Palestinian (precisely 40 percent of the class), and the rest were Jewish. Some of my students did not even know what the word autobiography meant. I knew I had a history to teach—the origins of autobiography and its transformations, enabled by the widening of literacy; a genre to teach—the ever-proliferating forms of life writing; and an ethics to teach—of a variety of ethical issues, I had settled on the choices posed by relational life writing and its vulnerable subjects (Couser 2004). I also knew that I wanted to allow students to write about their own lives with more awareness of the shaping force of literary convention and with the honest introspection that characterizes the most probing forms of contemporary life writing. The course would ultimately be one of the most interesting comparative accounts of subjectivity that I have yet experienced in the classroom.
Building a Reading-and-Writing Community
I devoted the opening weeks to reading some of the classics of Western autobiography, not least in order to set up some of the models that later life writers would challenge, reject, or reshape. I began with predictable explorations of major issues in autobiography. We analyzed how the autobiographers Augustine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau ( 2000), Benjamin Franklin ( 2015), and Frederick Douglass ( 1986) defined their audiences, their purpose in writing, and their guiding questions in representing their development. We also considered how they represented their childhoods, which allowed me to present the idea that conceptions of life stages are shaped powerfully by cultural and historical context.
But we connected the texts with a more unexpected focus on the way that all of these writings featured confessions of early thefts, particularly of unmonumental objects: Augustine writes the famous story of the pears; Rousseau, the apples; and Douglass, the fruit from the master's tree. (Franklin doesn't steal his three puffy rolls, but we considered his eagerness to pawn them off on others.) These stories differ in critical ways, but in each case the theft provides the narrator a sense of differentiation from others, a sense of connection to the world of objects, the beginnings of a particular identity. Thefts ask the one who has taken to define a relation to the social order, and in some cases, to God or to ideas of justice and law. Students found it fascinating that autobiography began as a form of religious confession but quickly shifted in shape to allow for the exploration of narrators who wanted to claim authority over their own desires (Rousseau), who wanted to highlight their material and social transformation (Franklin), who wanted to lay radical claim to their natural rights and the value of their labor (Douglass).
Yet I did not want to move too quickly to the abstractions of identity. I was happy to stay with the homely stories of childhood transgression and differentiation that might paradoxically generate trust among students. I paused here in our exploration of the literature to begin a practice we would continue throughout the semester. I asked students to take ten minutes to write about a theft they had “committed” as a child and to think about the voice in which they wanted to tell the story. I quickly related to them a story of myself as a child of about five. I was standing in line with my mother at a department store, where she was waiting to pay. Underneath the cashier's table was a box with shiny ribbons to decorate gifts. While my mother conducted her transaction, I conducted my own, choosing ten or twelve ribbons to add to our shopping bag. When we got home, my mother discovered the ribbons and made me call the store. The story ended there for me; I didn't remember what had happened next or whether the store had let it go. The drama centered in the relationship between my mother and me; between the world of objects outside myself and my desire, for that box full of shiny ribbons which I still remembered from the vantage point of a child underneath a table her own height, a small world of my own from which I was recalled to the world of adult rules and standards.
When I told this short story, I saw nods of recognition around the room, and recognized, as I often do, how much many students appreciate the decision of a teacher to share her own, very human, history, and also, simply, to tell stories.7 Then I told them it was their turn. I made sure to note that the work was not for a grade and that no one would be required to share their work, but that I expected everyone to write. There were some laughs and some shifting in seats as students took out mostly pens and notebooks and some began to type on laptops, a few on phones. The room stayed intent and quiet for about ten minutes.
I wrote as they wrote. For me, this is an article of faith that I turn to even when the course is not a typical writer's workshop, where this practice is more common. If I ask the students to write, I, too, must write. First, I know that many students experience writing as a challenge. When I write, I am not exempt from the challenge. At the same time, I can model my own comfort as an experienced writer. Second, there is more likelihood that I will experience the time of the classroom as students do if we are doing the same activity simultaneously. Third, and most important, the classroom relation alters if I am writing too, so that I become a member of a learning community and not only its leader. This membership requires my ceding control in ways that mean a great deal to them (often far more to them than to myself). If I am genuinely writing, I cannot at the same time be carefully observing or managing them or worse, making sure no one is “cheating” or slacking. We are simply all at work doing something genuine, not an assignment designed to test or measure them.8
When I could feel a lull in writing in the room, I called the class back to attention and opened the floor for volunteers, taking the time to define our task in listening as appreciative, rather than critical or corrective. (I always try to remember that many students perceive all classroom work as produced for evaluation and correction, and that many are used to competition characterizing the classroom from the youngest ages.) At this point, something began that would carry through the entire semester. Hands went up and students who were often silent in the classroom volunteered to us small windows into the places from which they came. I recall a young Palestinian Israeli man, Rida, reading to us a piece he called something like, “The Car Thief.”9 As a young child in the north of Israel, he lived in a small town where good cars were a great excitement. He described himself as a five-year-old stealing not a car, but the emblem off the front of a car, and the thrill of running away with it. The class loved the story. It was funny; it was kind to his younger self, the narrated I, even as it renounced his actions from the point of view of the contemporary, the narrating I. The students sat in rows of fixed desks and, for the first time, I could see students in the front rows turning their bodies actually to listen to others sitting behind them, something I often remind them to do, but that they rarely do of their own accord, accustomed to thinking that the real discourse is that which originates from the teacher.
Then another student, Maysaloun, read a short tale of stealing the remote control to the television set and hiding it among the enormous bags of rice her mother stored in a loft. (Maysaloun identifies herself as Bedouin-Kurdish, Palestinian-Israeli Arab.) She narrated in the voice of herself as a child throughout the piece, conveying her delight at outsmarting her siblings. After a few more student readings, we moved to discussing how a narrator can moderate the distance or identification between the child self and the adult narrator. The class was fully engaged. Students were not looking down or at their laptops but at each other. Their faces were animated, and even those at the back of the classroom were clearly listening and absorbed.
From my perspective, the exercise enacted the following beliefs: first, I had asked them to consider their memories as a valuable source of knowledge within the classroom. Second, I believed that they were capable of writing for an audience, which asserted that their work had public value; third, they saw that they could anticipate and prompt the audience's affective responses (laughter, anxiety, and so on) with their choices of narration; fourth, they examined how to modulate distance between a narrating I and a narrated I, terms I had used with them in analyzing the literary texts; fifth, they experienced (and commented on) the significant interplay between written prose and voice, a dimension we would come back to many times over the course of the semester. I left class with the sense that something important had begun that I would now need to protect and sustain.
I had made a strategic decision to open the semester with early texts of life writing but to abandon a historical approach soon after. My undergraduate students have an extremely limited sense of the unfolding of Western history, and I have found that I can't bolster that effectively enough to reap the advantages of a historical-literary account. I count on colleagues to offer that approach in other courses while I focus on generic and thematic approaches dependent on both close reading and narratology. Through close reading, I aim to teach them how to glean cultural assumptions and norms from the text itself, while I provide what I judge to be critical historical context. Through the introduction of narratological vocabulary and concepts, I aim to help them see the text as a system that participates with other texts in conveying meaning in particular ways that we can identify and name, and that can be modified by authors. Finally, through one or two carefully chosen texts within contemporary scholarship of life writing, I hope to teach them about fields of literary study and the way that scholarship about literature is more than the discussion of the intricacies of a single poem or novel but seeks to contribute to meaningful discussion in the humanities, intersecting with multiple other fields.
Thus, we moved from early autobiographical texts that established an independent self to contemporary texts that tested the relation between self and community. When we read the recent memoir of Shulem Deen (2015), All Who Go Do Not Return, the world of a specific sect of ultra-Orthodox American Jews proved immediately relevant to many of the students. As Deen begins to understand his individual needs and beliefs, he increasingly questions whether to challenge or leave a world that erects such strong and clear limits to his personal freedom. Fascinatingly, that text brought together the Jewish and Arab students as moderns: university students, away from home, meeting others unlike themselves, not infrequently eliciting anxiety in their families and belief communities who worried about what it would mean for them to strike out independently and especially to live on their own. New lines of us and them were drawn, in terms of generation as well as position along the spectrum of secularization. While defining oneself against an Other is not always constructive, in this case, the new orientation did prove productive because it began to shake up assumptions of sameness and difference that had previously been categorized solely through the prism of Arab and Jew.
Exploring family relations was our next step, as we continued to investigate the self in relation to others. We moved from stories limning an autonomous self to relational autobiography, a critique of the former. The extraordinary essay, “He and I,” by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg (1985), embodies the sense that we are who we are by virtue of our relations to important others. One student pointed out that among Arabs, it is common to identify a child in relation to his father; you are first and foremost the “son of.” This, he noted, can be a comforting form of identity but also sometimes a frustrating one, because you are never fully just yourself. Questions of when and to what extent we can understand ourselves apart from our parents and grandparents brought lively discussion, which I kept bringing back to the text we had read. Jewish students also described intense connection to their families, down to the shared detail of bearing the names of their ancestors, and the burden and sense of pride that such namings entail. In terms of form, we considered the interplay between anecdote and generalized description of relationship or character. And we considered the role time and duration play in such writings.
I then asked students to write their own accounts of themselves in relation to a vital other. Eliana, a young woman who was Jewish and secular, who had moved to Israel independently, wrote about herself in relation to her American mother who was astounded by how her daughter had chosen to live and what comforts and economic opportunities she had given up. Another student, Aya, who describes herself as a Palestinian Arab, wrote about her family's reaction to her desire to be a pastry chef and own her own bakery of fancy cakes. Again, there were appreciative nods of understanding for the cross-cultural realities of relational lives.
Majority and Minority in the Classroom Community: Challenges, Conflicts, Resistances
The semester unfolded and, as it did, I could more clearly identify points of difficulty in this multicultural experiment between students in the minority and majority national cultures. First of all, nearly all the Palestinian students tended to sit in the back of the classroom. There was some conversation among the Jewish and the Palestinian students, but for the most part, class notes seemed to be shared and desks arranged in separate groups.
Second, and more problematic, when students responded to the texts we read, it was clear that Jewish students, but never Arab students, tended to assume knowledge of a set of references that were exclusionary. I recall one student reacting to a text and intelligently comparing a ritual to the leil haseder, the Passover seder night, but never pausing to realize that at least half the room did not celebrate such a ritual and thus might not understand her comment at all, and likely not even know the term. Though I tried to model an explanatory mode, this problem did not solve itself, and I wound up having to address it by explicitly telling the class to remember that not everyone in the room had the same life experience or frame of reference and so to please make explanations when we spoke. I reminded them of how much we had benefited as readers from Deen's (2015) choice to open a world unknown to others without ever presuming more knowledge than the reader might bring.
More complicatedly, Jewish students’ casual references in their writings to army service, an experience unshared by Arab Israelis, was necessarily divisive. The very image of a soldier registers in opposite ways for these two groups. For almost all Jewish students, a soldier is a civilian defender, one of “us,” someone's son or brother, father or husband—even a vulnerable party, perhaps about to give up his or her life for the collective. Every Jewish student in the classroom has served either in the army or in national service. While some Arab students have participated in national service, none has served in the army. In the very few references Arab students have made freely about soldiers in my presence, they depicted them as aggressors, “them,” agents of extreme, unnecessary force—and at best, as ignorant dupes. Given this fundamental difference, every time a Jewish student referred to army service, I wondered what had happened on the seismic level of the classroom. This central dimension of Israeli life was one I did not feel equipped to open up at this stage, though we did speak about security and its different meanings for the range of Israeli citizens in the room.
Third, as students came to appreciate hearing from each other, questions were occasionally framed far too universally and exclusively. For example, the question, In your community, how do men treat women? left many of the Palestinian students looking at each other. In one case, a student replied, “Well, our community is lots of communities. We aren't all the same.” I picked up the ball at that point to clarify that no one in class could represent entire swaths of people and that many of the autobiographies we were studying were particularly concerned with the interrelation between family culture and the broader social context, not to mention the conflicts within families. These instances recalled for me moments in the United States when African American students, in particular, were asked to account for African American attitudes, as if they were uniform, with no shaping forces of class, gender, education, generation, geography, psychology. Whereas in the United States I often had only one or two African American students to bear the weight of all they were being asked to represent, at least here I had nearly a half classroom full of students who could attest in their dress, their words, and their behaviors to internal differences.
Broaching the Political
By December I could assess what had been gained beyond the intellectual achievements of our study. Students turned to each other, made eye contact, and gained information about the lived experience of others, in terms of both differences and similarities. They laughed together, which is probably a particularly important dimension that has not been theorized, and they empathized with each other, often vocally. They also asked each other questions, rather than asking only me questions, or asking no questions, though more questions traveled from Jewish students to Arab than the opposite, in what was likely a sign of confidence that comes from majority status. Some students saw the course as an opportunity to exercise the curiosity they may not even have known they felt or did not feel until they were offered a space in which to cultivate it. Still, the political context was left aside.
In late December, one month before the end of the semester, I felt the class had reached a point of readiness for more challenging work, work that would bring us closer to home, to our different homes. I knew that the major historical reference point for the Israeli Jews and a critical factor in their lived understanding of nationalism was the Shoah, the Nazi genocide of Jews in World War II. It is also still the case that these college students are merely two generations removed from the survivors and the victims; many have grandparents who escaped this genocide. Yet this is a part of Jewish and world history to which Palestinian students have often no exposure. When I looked at the Arab students, I knew that in their consciousnesses it was the Nakba, the loss of Palestine to the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948, that stood as the unmatched historical catastrophe. In Israel, historical accounts of 1948 counter one another, as Nakba Day and Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, testify to radically different experiences. I imagined that our Jewish students would have encountered very few, if any, accounts of this day and its consequences from the other side.
I introduced the material from the Shoah with a brief ten-minute lecture on the history: facts, places, dates. I spoke also about the challenges of the denial of this history and asserted that there were no historical doubts whatsoever about its having happened or its scale. Then I said that this material was very close to home for some of our students while being virtually unknown to other students. I taught two extremely different texts related to the Shoah—one was written by a non-Jewish member of the French resistance, Charlotte Delbo ( 1995), who survived Auschwitz and whose husband was executed by the Nazis. Her work is intensely poetic, lyrical, horrifying in its simple language, and in the sections I chose, only limitedly concerned with questions of identity beyond the human and universal. Delbo rendered most of the class silent in its power, yet I had chosen a non-Jewish Holocaust text out of anxiety that a Jewish text would set up too great an empathic difficulty to overcome, and in the end this choice did not serve my purposes well.
The second text, Diary of Anne Frank (Frank  2001), allowed us to move to theoretical matters that I counted on to unify a class that would necessarily be divided by its relation to the content. Remarkably, when I surveyed the students on our first day of its discussion, not a single Palestinian student in the class had ever heard of the text, whereas every single Jewish student had read it, many more than once, in a variety of languages: Hebrew, English, Dutch, German. The Diary of Anne Frank is barely a Shoah document in that Anne's descent into Auschwitz is outside the margins of the text, as is her horrific death at Bergen-Belsen, yet the text is so regularly used and taught as a text of the Shoah that its canonicity in Western and Jewish reading communities merited analysis.
The diary's contents are not difficult to understand, but the diary as a form of life writing raises important critical questions about the inevitable ignorance any diarist has of the end of his or her story, the ending that alters the meaning of the beginning and the middle.10 Further, a diary written by a child or teenager, even one as precocious as Anne Frank, is a document whose reception is shaped by an audience's understanding of childhood. In the postwar period, this readily lent itself to sentimentalization, dehistoricization, and universalization in which Anne Frank came to be represented as every child, a symbol of innocence and hope, a shift whose problematic dimensions were an absolutely new consideration for even students who knew the text well (see Rosenfeld 1991). We then studied the way that the diary was consequently transformed into perhaps the most important prototype for autobiographical writings as human rights testimonials, particularly the rights of girls, an outcome whose costs and benefits can be debated.
In the end, we studied the contents of the diary primarily in relation to the diary's reception tensions. Students were intrigued by the differences between the document that is a diary, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the knowledge of the end that a memoirist puts to work in shaping his or her account of part of a life.11 Bringing us back to the life writings as models for our own writing, I asked students to write about an event whose ending had not been known to them at the time and then to rewrite the event from the perspective of the knowing subject, much later in time. This stretch in the course was important because it encouraged us to think about literary form rather than inhabit overdetermined readerly positions. Instead, we thought about the uses to which different histories had put Anne Frank and we thought about the complicated dynamics each of us faces, living at a moment of personal, national, ethnic, and global history that is absolutely in the middle—whose consequences and endings we can never foresee but we must narrate regardless. These dramas were productively universal, even though Anne's story was certainly not.
In spite of the turn to form, I made no effort to silence references to content or to students’ personal relation to it. Jewish students referred to the experiences of grandparents who had survived, to murdered family members whose names they bore, or to their own experiences seeing the sites where genocide had taken place. The Palestinian students were generally quiet about the events of the Shoah, but I recall one student speaking up in class to say something like, “I see now that we all have wounds.” The air in class, however, was not charged with difficulty, nor was there more division than there had been surrounding other texts we had read. I believe that this can be accounted for both by the turn to formal consideration and by the previous writing of personal experience that had allowed us to practice hearing personal comments respectfully. At times, I could hear echoes of a naive politicization of the Shoah that is common in Israeli culture, when Jewish students made comments assuming that the creation of the state of Israel was a necessary historical redemption of the tragedy of the Shoah. On the other hand, the turn to private experience allowed for unexpected nuances as well: a student whose Jewish ancestry was Moroccan told us that she had grown up speaking Arabic at home and explained that she had always felt left out of the sacred memorialization of the Shoah.
From Majority to Minority Experience: Flipping the Classroom
I built the syllabus in such a way that I could separate the Shoah texts from the Nakba text with an investigation of girls’ life writing that originated in war-torn zones (mainly in the East) yet was intended for Western, English-reading audiences. I turned to these texts first because some authors explicitly expressed their authors’ awareness of and modeling on the Diary of Anne Frank, and second, because they were a bridge between the Jewish text that pioneered the use of life writing in human rights work and the non-Jewish, in some cases Muslim, texts that now function in related, though complicated, ways.12 Strategically, I also sought to give the class a breath between the texts that were most emotionally challenging for our student body. I was not teaching the Shoah and Nakba texts in order to assert or raise the question of equivalence; I was teaching the material chronologically and as two discrete examples of massive historical events in the life of the peoples represented in our classroom, as refracted through individuals’ life writing.
As the semester came near its close I chose an account of Palestinian subjectivity that would challenge the Jewish Israelis. As I was only somewhat familiar with a range of Palestinian memoirs (the field is burgeoning and I will need to learn it much better), I selected In Search of Fatima, by Ghada Karmi (2002), and assigned its opening chapters, in which Karmi looks back on the moment in her childhood when she leaves behind her home, the Palestinian woman who has taken care of her, and her dog, Rex, as her family travels first to Syria and then ultimately to England in 1948. In other words, the narrative opens on loss and displacement.
But we could not address the content of the narrative immediately. When class began, many of the Jewish Israelis wanted to say something: they had simply never before read a book by a writer who was an Arab, let alone Palestinian. One Jewish student said there was no other context in which she could imagine reading such a book, though she did not specify whether that was for lack of opportunity or due to a sense of transgression. Ellen, a Jewish student in her fifties, an American immigrant of decades ago, said that her son, a soldier in the army, had noticed the book in their home and that their family's conversation over the Shabbat meal had focused on its account. “Whatever I read, I bring it to my family, to the table.”
Ghada Karmi's story of a girl and a dog is interwoven with a short-form political narrative of the events of 1948 from a clearly defined point of view. Like all memoirs, this one too embraces a view from “somewhere,” not nowhere. Jewish students noted that many of the landmarks in Jerusalem were familiar to them. This recognition was a loaded one, since some of those students live in homes and areas that once belonged to Palestinians, and the narrative makes that clear. But the context of the course had both given them permission and required them to read this story, and to read it without arguing with it. Because we had spent nearly a full semester practicing the reading of life writing—considering what questions we might ask productively, considering the participation of specific texts in a genre and in a history, thinking about the relationship between the stories of individuals and those of collectives, analyzing the creation of audience—because of all this preliminary work, students did not take up this text to challenge or to defend its veracity or its validity. They thought about it as the story of a human life. As Ellen remarked, “There's no arguing with life writing.” Later, she added in writing, “This is the unique voice of a person's experience in the larger historical context.”13
At the same time, a political shift was recognizable in the classroom discourse. The balance of power had become far less clear and suddenly the minority students in the classroom had a platform from which to tell the others about themselves. What they had to say was not simple. One student, who had much earlier in the semester read a very funny essay about her childhood belief in a flying mouse, described a grandmother who hates Jews. The student told us that she tries to tell her grandmother that not all Jews are evil, but her grandmother doesn't listen. Another student talked about how her cousins who live in other countries cannot understand how her family would have stayed in a country run by the Jews, instead of doing what any self-respecting Arab would do: leave before accepting Jewish sovereignty. Among Arabs, a few Palestinian students testified, it is sometimes hard to hold your head up high as someone who did not leave in 1948. Another noted that, to add insult to injury, when she goes into a mall with a hijab, security always stop her for an extra check. On Nakba Day, a different student volunteered, her elders told the stories of where her family used to live. Like so many other families, they, too, still have the keys.
Here we were, with painful stories being told, with difficult references to “the Jews,” rather than Israelis, but the classroom was not tense. It was riveted by listening. There were no interruptions or arguments. There were questions. Israeli Jews wanted to know more because some hadn't even known there was a story. This may seem impossible to believe, but the level of segregation has been very high, and the forms of education many Arabs and Jews receive all but deny the existence of intelligent, human voices on the other side. Quickly, the discussion in class moved away from the text. Earlier in the semester, I might have redirected it to the details of the text, but we had only one or two sessions left, and we had finally reached a point where discussion had flipped and the minority students could provide the dominant discourse, while the majority students found themselves treading lightly, carefully, not wanting to make mistakes, asking respectfully for more information.
Afterward, a few students from both groups wrote me and approached me, thanking me for not steering away the discussion from the political as they said many of their professors did, but for selecting texts that brought it into the classroom in spite of the risks. I appreciated their thanks because I had worked hard all semester, constantly evaluating what was happening in the classroom; but the thanks also made me uncomfortable. I felt that I had been doing my job as an instructor of the humanities who takes account of one of our profession's most powerful premises: that knowledge is rooted in the local, that narration begins in the various “somewheres” from which the particular students in the room see, from the highly contested plot of land we find ourselves on. Perhaps I see it this way because, in addition to my Jewish and Israeli identity, I am also American, steeped in an aspirational democratic ethos.
Nothing transfers precisely. You can't take a pedagogy developed in the Midwest of the United States and simply apply it in Israel. With the participation of my students, we made good use of the circumstances we found ourselves in. We encountered new perspectives. We listened. We stopped countering before taking in. We sat together beginning to recognize how very little we know of each other, how segregated we have been.
We live in oppositional and exclusivist times, in Israel as well as in the United States, my two countries of citizenship. It is exhausting and enervating for the humanities classroom. Yet learning to read others’ texts, in each other's presence, seems a feasible step in the modern reality of Israel. A democracy need not be tension free, as the late Israeli legal scholar Ruth Gavison (1999: 63) argued, and equal citizenship need not be sameness. Democracy is a framework for people with competing conceptions of the good life to live together (66). Thus, a democracy must be a field in which all voices can be heard and in which minority voices are specially nurtured and protected. The classroom is an ideal place for such work to begin.
I am indebted to Thomas Nagel (1989: 5) for a dialectical model of integration. I see it as central to the learning of college students, who often find themselves torn between value systems with which they arrive and the new ones—often oppositional or skeptical, revisionist—being suggested to them. When instructors struggle with what is easy to label student “resistance,” it can be useful to think about the immense challenge such integration requires if it is not to be mere abandonment of previously held beliefs and ideas. This capacity for integration underlies my definition of a mature and more knowledgeable civic identity.
I will shift here between calling such students “Palestinian” and “Arab Israeli.” I use Arab Israeli when I seek to emphasize the relation between Arab and Jewish ethnic groups. Otherwise, I use Palestinian, the term by which most students self-identify. These Palestinian students are all citizens of Israel and live within its internationally recognized borders. In other words, none of these students lives in Israeli-occupied territories in Gaza or the West Bank.
It remains a serious difficulty that there are so few Arab faculty and administrators in Israeli universities.
I use the term life writing as the most inclusive one in current use. For more on the evolution of terminology in the field, see Smith and Watson 2001.
See Blumberg 2018 for an extended account.
The question of where disclosure comes into learning is a complicated one. Tobin 2010 approaches the matter with more conscious strategy than I do but still provides a helpful model. For a recent short meditation on this question with respect to classrooms studying religious traditions, see Clayville 2019.
More fundamentally, my practice reflects the truth that no one is complete in his or her knowledge and that one way we increase knowledge in the literate world is to write, to puzzle things out as we write, to share our writing, to incorporate responses, and to return to reading.
The best evidence I have for the importance of writing when my students write is that it is regularly something they comment on in evaluation.
Where student names appear, it is at the expressed desire of the student.
In my experience, the most useful text on this epistemological problem in relation to Holocaust texts is Bernstein 1994.
On the subject of diary as life writing and on the generic complications of Anne Frank's partially self-edited diary, see Lejeune 2009.
This material has benefited from much recent criticism, helpfully skeptical about the political implications of the production and circulation of these stories. In introduction to these issues, see Smith 2016; Gilmore 2018; Whitlock 2007.
For more on the ethics of reading life writing, see Drake 2017.