As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I often find myself in settings where discussing Palestine, or even mentioning my identity as a Palestinian American, presents more challenges than when I worked in the field of human rights and law.
Although educational settings should encourage the free expression of identity, I find that Palestinian American educators aren’t necessarily as free as many of our colleagues. While every school is different, Palestinian teachers are often vilified, diminished or made unwelcome.
To gain more insight into our experience, I reached out to my network of Palestinian American K-12 educators.
Sawsan Jaber, the founder of Education Unfiltered Consulting and a high school English teacher in Illinois, said she was once called a terrorist by another teacher and labeled as an antisemite by colleagues simply for being Palestinian. She said she was even told by an administrator that her Palestinian identity was “offensive” to people and that she should “tone it down.”
While working with other teachers on an instructional leadership team planning an anti-bias and anti-racist curriculum, Katherine Hanna, an elementary school teacher in Massachusetts, identified herself as a person of color and began to share her perspective on the importance of teaching others about her culture. She said that another teacher confrontationally disagreed with her approach and dismissively retorted, “You’re white.”
Although emotionally taxing, these instances of discrimination do not surprise the Palestinian American teachers in my network, because many of them know what it is like to grow up marginalized in American schools. It is what inspired them to pursue a career in education.
Abeer Ramadan-Shinnawi, the founder of Altair Education Consulting and a former middle school social studies teacher in Maryland, said she sought out a diverse school with a diverse staff because she “knew students of color needed a teacher of color to help them out and help them navigate the world.” Sawsan Jaber said she felt a similar responsibility, but it led her in a different direction: She intentionally chose a school district that did not have Arab teachers. “We have many Arab students in our district, and they deserve to see themselves as well,” she said.
Palestinian American teachers told me that they face the most pushback when using Palestine as an example in their curriculums, even in classes specifically about the Arab world. Many recounted how they have to spend an exorbitant amount of personal and professional time anticipating and preparing for backlash. “There are so many layers to consider, and it is exhausting because you can’t be your authentic self when presenting on a topic that means so much to you, when you know you can be censored,” Abeer Ramadan-Shinnawi said.
Even using their own experience doesn’t protect teachers from attacks. When Rita Lahoud, an elementary school Arabic language, culture and art teacher in New York, taught a unit on the olive harvest in the Levant, she said she used a personal example of tasting olive oil from her family’s trees in Palestine. Her mere usage of the word “Palestine” sent one family into a frenzy. Lahoud told me that within hours after sending out a newsletter about the unit, it was shared over 150 times and that she received a “really vile” letter accusing her of teaching misinformation because “Palestine doesn’t exist.” Lahoud expressed her frustration with this attack on her identity and lived experience, saying, “As a Palestinian teacher with a role that requires me to teach about the Arab world, I can teach comfortably and freely on any country except my own. When it comes to Palestine, that is where I have to tiptoe. I have to calculate my words and be very careful about what topics I choose.”
The expression of identity by Palestinian American teachers is often seen — and treated — as inherently threatening or too political. These attacks frequently go beyond the curriculum and become personal. Katherine Hanna had two students tell her, “My parents said where you are from doesn’t exist.” Mona Mustafa, a high school history teacher in New Jersey, said she has been assailed with questions such as: “What is Palestine? Do you mean Israel?”
Regardless of these difficulties, many Palestinian teachers say they view ignorance about Palestinians as an opportunity. “I’m probably the only Palestinian they’ve ever spoken to,” said Mona Mustafa. “I feel like this lack of knowledge can be a good thing, since I am able to start at the base and teach students the connections between the Palestinian struggle to exist and those of other marginalized and oppressed peoples.”
Outside the classroom, Palestinian teachers say they are criticized for engaging in the same kind of anti-racism activities that other teachers are sometimes praised for. “My advocacy for Palestine is professional suicide,” Sawsan Jaber said. Even in her work as an educational consultant, she has had to refuse contracts that include “an intentional written clause that says you cannot mention Palestine or bring up anything Palestinian at all.”
Thuraya Zeidan, a high school English teacher in New Jersey, said that after she co-led a teach-in with other Arab American educators and American philosopher and public intellectual Cornel West about K-12 educators on Palestine, a pro-Israel organization called StopAntisemitism engaged in a coordinated attack against her. The organization, founded in 2018 by a social media influencer, conflates anti-Zionist advocacy with antisemitism and uses a “name and shame” approach that seeks out “consequences” for supporters of Palestinian human rights. “I know [the attack] came as a result of publicly speaking about being Palestinian,” Zeidan said. “I felt like I was facing this consequence because I was vocal. It’s just the reality of being Palestinian — especially being a visibly Muslim female Palestinian.”
“My parents said where you are from doesn’t exist.”
Teachers need to feel safe and empowered to engage in difficult discussions both in and outside the classroom. For this to happen, the teachers I spoke with emphasized that more professional support is needed. “The education community must be more intentional in seeking out representation,” Sawsan Jaber said. She noted that she is often the only visibly Muslim or Arab person in educational conferences she attends. “People are genuinely interested in learning how to do better, but there are not enough people advocating,” she said. “I went to an international conference with 18,000 people, and I was the only Arab hijabi person presenting at the conference. I attend the NCTE [National Council of Teachers of English] every year, and with 10-14,000 attendees, I am one of the very few Muslim Arab speakers.”
While teachers who want to support anti-racist education are strongly encouraged to work with and listen to diverse communities, there has been an unmistakable tendency — even in anti-racist contexts — to delegitimize, silence or deny native Palestinian voices from talking about their experiences. Thuraya Zeidan said educators should be able to teach honestly about all topics. “Too many educators face backlash and risk job security for teaching the truth,” she said.
Palestinian voices must be included in the increasingly popular conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. Those who engage in anti-Palestinian rhetoric or silencing must also be held accountable. How can Palestinian students feel safe if they see that the teachers who look like them are not safe? How will non-Palestinian students show openness and curiosity to their Palestinian peers if they see their school silencing and devaluing teachers who are Palestinian?
All schools, especially genuinely anti-racist schools, must model the very empathy and understanding they expect their teachers to model for their students. This starts with giving Palestinian American teachers the freedom to authentically be who they are: Palestinian.
Rifk Ebeid is a Palestinian American writer, children’s book author (www.rifkbooks.com) and pediatric speech language pathologist. She recently produced “I Am From Palestine,” a children’s animation about the Palestinian American experience in K-12 schools, now screening in film festivals worldwide.
This story about Palestinian American educators was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.