By Daniel Siegeltuch
On Saturday, October 17, 2015, the World Affairs Council –Washington, DC sponsored a Professional Development Workshop titled “Teach-In on Gaza,” organized and hosted by Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in conjunction with the Jerusalem Fund. The workshop, attended by DC metropolitan area high school teachers, provided the educators with the tools to deepen their students’ understanding of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Susan Douglass, K-12 Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, welcomed the educators and introduced the workshop’s first activity, a screening of the documentary Seeds of Conflict. The film, directed by filmmaker Ben Loeterman, designates the year 1913, four decades before the establishment of the State of Israel, as a pivotal moment for the region and the relationship between its inhabitants. According to the documentary, Jews, Muslims, and Christians coexisted peacefully in the region throughout the reign of the Ottoman rulers. The Ottoman Empire’s decline, along with an influx of European Jewish immigrants escaping violence and persecution, altered the region’s dynamics as the empire crumbled and political Zionism increased Jewish migration to Palestine. All of these historical shifts culminated in a 1913 standoff between Jewish and Arab soldiers that left several dead. This moment, the film argues, represented a turning point in the relationship between the Jews and Arabs from one of coexistence to one of tension.
Following the film, Susan Douglass introduced guest speaker Mustafa Al-Aksakal, Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University, who led a round table discussion addressing the film’s historical context. Mr. Al-Aksakal explained that the Ottoman Empire before World War I was a multiethnic, multi-religious empire with strong governing institutions that protected the interests of its diverse groups. During the rise of the European mandate system in the war’s aftermath, he asserted, European powers began to divide former Ottoman territories along ethnic and religious lines. This division eliminated the Ottoman Empire’s stabilizing institutions and increased the potential for conflict.
Throughout the discussion, the teachers exchanged insights on how to present these ideas to their students. They discussed lesson plans, texts, simulations and art projects that could help illustrate this narrative of conflict and coexistence in their classrooms. After a fruitful conversation, the participants enjoyed a Mediterranean lunch, concluding an engaging workshop.