Stories that Connect Us to Palestine

Jody Sokolower
Project  Coordinator,
Teach Palestine Project of the Middle East Children’s Alliance

Note: PDFs of graphic organizers, articles, and other materials used in this unit are in the “materials” column of the Borders and Walls Unit Outline. Journal prompts appear in green and are scattered through this narrative.


My mixed-grade class of high school English language learners is traveling around the room, participating in a Borders and Walls Gallery Walk. Carla, a 10th grader who immigrated to the United States from Mexico, has just finished looking at photos of the Berlin wall coming down, and now she is staring at images of the US/Mexico border wall.

“What would it take,” she asks, “to make this wall come down, too?”

That’s exactly the kind of question I hope to provoke in this unit that focuses on two of the most significant walls in the world today: the US/Mexico border and Israel’s “security” wall that snakes through the West Bank, cutting Palestinians off from their neighbors and families, their farmland, schools, hospitals, and places of worship.

I start with walls but expand our exploration to include a critique of settlers/pioneers and raise questions about borders in general: Who draws border lines? Why? What is the impact on the people and animals living there, and on the land itself?

The Borders and Walls Gallery Walk is the first activity. My goal is to catch the students’ interest and get them generating questions that we can pursue throughout the unit. I pick walls based on who is in the room and what’s happening in the world, and look for three or four evocative images of each. One of Carla’s classmates was from Germany, so I included the Berlin Wall (always a good choice because it got torn down, a clear illustration that borders aren’t necessarily permanent). Because I had students from China, Tibet, and Nepal in that class, I included the Great Wall of China. In the past few years, I have included Syrian refugees behind security fences in France. I usually have four groups of photos.

As students look at the photos posted around the room, they fill out a graphic organizer:

  • What do you see? Be specific. Where do you think this is?
  • What does it make you think about? How does it make you feel?
  • What questions do you have? (This graphic organizer, sample photos, and all other materials for the unit can be accessed in the Borders and Walls Unit Outline).

Once students have analyzed all the photos, they return to their seats and we discuss their responses together. I chart their questions for further discussion as the unit unfolds.

Then I have them answer a prompt in their journals:

What impact have walls/borders had on your life or that of someone close to you? Think about walls/borders in the broad sense (prison walls, gang territory, gentrification, structural racism and/or sexism as well as geopolitical borders). If you crossed borders in an airplane instead on the ground, that still counts.

To make sure that students understand the question, I offer a few examples from my own life: in high school when I decided not to take physics because “boys don’t like smart girls”; how I feel after visiting a loved one in prison when I walk out of the visiting room and leave them behind the concrete walls, the first time I saw the Israeli “security wall.”

I give the students about 15 minutes to write. I tell them: “When you think you’re done writing, you’ll probably put down your pen and wait for other folks to finish. Once you get tired of waiting and pick your pen back up to start writing again, that’s the real journaling. You’ve gotten past the surface answer and now you’re exploring your deeper feelings.”

When everyone has finished writing, I ask for volunteers to share what they wrote and we talk. If more questions come up, we add those to the chart from the previous activity. Then I tell the students that in this unit we will be focusing on two sets of borders and walls: The US-Mexico border and security wall, and the ever-changing borders in Palestine/Israel and the Israeli “security wall.” We’ll look for patterns and also differences between the two situations. Looking at these two situations will give us a strong understanding of the international and historical role of borders and walls.

Manifest Destiny and the Promised Land

The goal of the next lesson is to help students see the similarities in the ideology behind the conquest of the Americas (the United States in this case) and Palestine. We start by reading two original source documents about Manifest Destiny: one from President John Quincy Adams and one from newspaperman John O’Sullivan, credited with coining the term. I project the texts so we can look at them together. After I make sure that everyone understands the meaning of manifest and destiny, we go through the texts phrase by phrase. Then I ask the students:

  • What do these quotes mean? How would you put them in your own words?
  • Why do you think Adams and O’Sullivan made these quotes? What did they want people to believe?
  • What is “Manifest Destiny”?
  • What happened historically tied to this perspective?
  • What is a settler? What other countries were colonized by settlers? How do you think that might have been different than colonies that were ruled by representatives from far away—like India or Haiti?

Next I project an interactive map that demonstrates the rapidity of the conquest of North America. I ask students:

  • What was the impact of Manifest Destiny on Indigenous peoples and cultures? What was the impact for European settlers?

We read “We Exist,” a poem by Janice Gould, a member of the Maidu Tribe of Northern California, as a recent expression of Indigenous feelings about Manifest Destiny.

Then, we repeat the process with texts about Palestine. We begin with a 1971 quote by then-Prime Minister Gold Meir: “This country (Israel) exists as the fulfillment of a promise made by God Himself.”

I ask the students:

  • What does this quote mean?
  • How is it similar or different from the US quotes?
  • What questions does it raise in your mind?
  • Why do you think this quote was so important? How do you think it affected Palestinians? Jews in Israel? Jews in other parts of the world?

I explain to the students that Meir’s statement is an expression of Zionism, the belief that the Jewish people are historically and/or religiously entitled to an exclusively Jewish state on all the land within the current borders of Israel plus Gaza and the West Bank (including all of Jerusalem)—and sometimes parts of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well. We then look at a series of maps that illustrate the progressive conquest of Palestinian land by the Zionists.

I ask students: What has been the impact of the Promised Land on Palestinians? What has been the impact for Zionist settlers?

To round out the lesson, we read “I Come from There,” a poem by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, as an expression of Palestinian feelings about Zionism.

This lesson often leads to deep discussions. In some classes, students have argued about our responsibility to the Indigenous people who lived on the land that is now the United States. In English language classes, we sometimes dig deep into how colonial conquest affected their home countries. In Carla’s class, we got into a discussion about the role of religion in justifying political decisions.

Filling in the History

At this point, I provide some historical context to the students. I use a brief history I wrote and stories of three Palestinians who were children or teenagers in 1948. My students are fortunate that I have a Palestinian colleague who comes into class and tells the history of the Nakba and its aftermath, using the story of his own family. Other possibilities include the dual narratives approach to studying the Nakba from Samia Shoman’s unit or reading Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan.

Because most students have been taught that the formation of Israel was a just reaction to the Holocaust, I think it’s important to cover the pre-World War II history of Zionism. For teachers interested in more background, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Israeli historian Ilan Pappé is an excellent source. The four-part Nakba series on the Palestine Remix site contains a very detailed history of the events leading up to and including 1948.

Voices of Palestinian Youth

Now it’s time to look at the current impact of the walls and borders on Palestinian youth. I use the Digital Resistance DVD, which has stories created by youth in two refugee camps near Bethlehem: Dheisheh and Aida. The stories cover a variety of issues that face Palestinian youth: Miras talks about playing soccer in the field by his house before it was destroyed to build the Israeli “security wall.” Then he played on the porch outside his apartment until his was shot and seriously injured as he played; now he just plays video games inside. Kholoud wanted to become a doctor and made plans to study at the university in Ramallah. But the day she is to register for her classes, she is held up so long at the checkpoint, she misses the chance to register. She realizes that the checkpoints make her dream impossible and settles for a business degree at the nearby university in Bethlehem.

At school, I ask the tech staff to put the DVD on all the computers in the library so the whole class can work independently. Using a graphic organizer, we look at the introduction and two stories together, then I ask them to take notes on their choice of at least two more stories. No matter what they choose, they end up with an overall understanding of the impact of the occupation on Palestinian youth. Some of the stories are narrated in English, others are in Arabic with subtitles. My Arabic-speaking students are always excited to hear their home language as an expert voice; this experience is far too rare in most US schools.

Afterwards, I assign journal writing and then we talk about what they learned:

  • What surprised you?
  • What is similar about being a youth in the West Bank and in the United States? What is different?
  • What do you think and feel about all of this?

Indigenous Peoples and the US-Mexico Border

Next we explore the impact of the US-Mexico border wall on people and the environment. I start the lesson with a journal write and discussion:

  • When you think about the US-Mexico border, what images come to mind?
  • Where do you get your ideas about the border—from personal experience? Experiences of friends and/or family? The media?

There are many ways to study the impact of the US-Mexico border and now Trump’s “build the wall!” rhetoric. In some classes, it works best to frame this section in terms of the reasons for and against the US-Mexico border wall. I try to tie our exploration to current controversies and/or events. I often have students read two articles (from Scientific American and NPR) on the potential impact of Trump’s wall plans on the ecology of the area. “How Activist Artists on the US-Mexico Border Contest Donald Trump’s Wall” at links to a number of creative sites of resistance.When I taught English language learners, I centered our study on a Wiki site created by English language learners (see Grace Cornell’s article “Sin Fronteras Boy” in Additional Resources for information on the creation of the site). Unfortunately, this site is no longer available online. Another approach is to read novels or picture books about the impact of the border on children and their families.

Students can also explore the concept of sanctuary:

  • What is sanctuary? Who needs sanctuary in the United States at this point?
  • How did churches and underground networks protect refugees from the violence in Central America in the 1980s?
  • What protection do sanctuary cities offer now?
  • What do students think about the idea of sanctuary cities? Sanctuary schools? What can schools and neighborhoods do to protect immigrants?

Putting It All Together: Final Project

To round out the unit, I pose another journal entry:

When you think about everything we’ve learned about borders and walls in Palestine and at the US-Mexico border, what patterns have emerged? What’s similar? What’s different between the two situations? What do you think about the whole idea of borders and walls? Has your thinking changed from the beginning of the unit? In what ways?

Once again, I ask for students to read what they wrote, and we discuss the issues raised by their pieces. Then I ask students to create a piece of art expressing their understandings and feelings about what they’ve learned.

(One interesting extension of this unit would be an exploration of England’s plans to leave the European Union—this is a situation where borders were largely pulled down, and now they are being re-erected.)

Then I offer students three choices for a final project:

  • Create a children’s book about borders and walls
  • Answer a set of essay questions on the material we covered
  • Write an essay on some aspect of the material

I offer a number of choices for the final project because students’ reactions to the unit are so varied. For example, Thomas was a fairly recent immigrant from China who was a strong and very conscientious student, one who often helped others with their work. After we compared Manifest Destiny and the Promised Land, a Palestinian colleague visited our class. He described his family’s experience being exiled from their village during the Nakba and his own experience growing up in a refugee camp near Bethlehem. Thomas kept falling asleep. I woke him up and asked him to pay attention three times, but to no avail.

The next day, I asked him what happened—what was the problem? He told me that in his English class they had been reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and talking about the Holocaust. Thomas was so confused about how Jews, who had been the victims of such horrible oppression, could be oppressors themselves, that he just couldn’t take it in and fell asleep instead. I agreed that it was both confusing and upsetting. I suggested that if he could hold those two realities in his mind at the same time, he could understand something profound about history, and suggested he focus his final paper on that contradiction. Taking me up on the suggestion, he used his excellent final paper to work through his thoughts and feelings.

I am always impressed by how interested students are in this unit and how easily they make connections to events in their own lives, whether that is the criminalization of youth in their community, the impact of colonialism in their home country, the importance of culture in keeping resistance going over time, or some link that is new to me.