This year, King’s Academy added an exciting — and one could argue, long overdue — new course to it offerings: Interdisciplinary Study of Palestine.
Faculty member Ethan Jerome’s plan to develop a course on Palestine had been in the works for a while, although at the outset it was not clear to him how it would look. He knew that he did not want to teach a course that only focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was talking to students, hearing their questions about Palestine, and realizing how much more they wanted to know that helped coalesce his ideas and led to the Interdisciplinary Study of Palestine course, which brings together the fields of history, politics, political economy, sociology, anthropology and legal studies.
“Geographically we are near Palestine, and there are a lot of Palestinians in Jordan and at King’s who grow up learning about Palestine in their homes, but not necessarily in an academic way,” says Jerome. “So for that community it is important to have a course like this at King’s. My interest was in providing an opportunity for Palestinians to learn about where they are from, but also to set it up so anyone, not just Palestinians, can take the course and find a lot of value in it.”
William Ballenger, head of the Department of History, Religion and Society, believes that “it is imperative that all King’s students study and engage with the region’s profound and rich history, which includes that of Palestine.”
“I can say with a very high level of confidence that there is no other course in the world like this,” says Jerome. “It is a unique course that gives students a great opportunity to learn about Palestine in depth, and to learn about it from these different disciplines.”
The idea of interdisciplinary study, explains Jerome, is an important aspect of the course. “The focus is always Palestine, but we go through these different lenses or different ways of researching and writing about it.”
Students who are interested in law, history, or the diversity of thought in the social sciences have the opportunity through this course to look at how historians, political scientists and anthropologists research and write about Palestine. “It is really a preparatory course for university,” says Jerome, noting that only seniors can take it.
With that in mind, he encourages his students to think about the major they plan to take at university when they are considering topics for their final projects. “This is their chance to do whatever their major is,” says Jerome. “They study Palestine, but if they are interested in history or law, anthropology, political science or economy, that’s what the focus should be.”
The course has certainly helped Ali Abu Ghosh ’21 feel academically prepared for college. Additionally, he says, the “sheer diversity of angles from which the course approaches Palestine” helped him develop an appreciation for multi-disciplinary learning. “Most importantly, the course explores everything. It is daring and willing to explore uncomfortable territory. We learn both about relations between Palestine and Israel and about internal divisions within Palestinian, Arab and even Jordanian communities which are often left unrecognized.”
With “global citizenship” as one of the school’s Guiding Principles, Ballenger notes that the course is also helping to cultivate student empathy and understanding to that end.
Yiran Zhao ’21 chose to take the course because she believes she has the curiosity and responsibility as a King’s student to gain different perspectives and help drive change. “We are not solely learning about Palestine, but also mastering the skills of analyzing power dynamics and thinking critically, which will benefit us in college and beyond,” says Zhao.
“Palestine is a regional issue and a global issue, even for those who are not Palestinian,” explains Jerome. “I think it is particularly important for students going to university abroad that they have a strong academic background about this issue.”
“I would have loved to take this course,” says alumna Hannah Szeto ’19, co-founder of the student-led Town Hall meetings (see sidebar). “This course is special because most courses around Palestine tend to center around a Western narrative that doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality on the ground.”
“It will also help students articulate their ideas on Palestine in a more academically rigorous way,” adds Szeto. “So that when they get to university and have these discussions with people with different preconceptions of the issue, they can debate in a more informed way and challenge common misconceptions about Palestine.”
Jerome’s own connection to Palestine started in 1996 when he visited Palestine for the first time while studying in Egypt for his undergraduate degree. Since then, he has studied about Palestine — he has a master’s degree in Arab Studies and conducted his anthropology Ph.D. fieldwork in Palestine — lived in Palestine, and taught about Palestine, including undergraduate courses such as Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, History and Politics of the Middle East, Arab-Israeli Conflict and Popular Culture and Media in the Middle East.
“I’m very conscious however that I’m not Palestinian and that some students may wonder why a non-Palestinian is teaching about Palestine,” says Jerome. “What I bring to the course is the academic background and being connected to Palestine as a student, researcher and teacher for 25 years now.”
He points to conversations he has had with many of the 53 students across all grades that signed up for his shorter two-week J-Term course: Palestine: Oral History, Memory and Remembering. “They came up to me and said they were unsure about taking it because I was teaching it, but said thank you, because basically I drew from all of these sources about Palestinian oral history and they learned a lot. I cannot speak on the experience of Palestinians, but I can provide sources of Palestinians speaking both academically and experientially about being Palestinians, and all the complexity of what that means.”
This is a subject that needs well-informed teachers with well-informed passion and knowledge above all else, according to alumnus and Town Hall meetings co-founder Dario Karim Pomar ’19. “The narrative that only Palestinians can teach about Palestine creates a dangerous precedent because it almost implies that only Palestinians can truly become invested in fighting for Palestinian rights,” says Pomar. “It is quite the opposite in reality — everyone, from everywhere, has to be involved in these efforts.”
Since enrolling in the course, Abu Ghosh often finds himself making connections between the readings and personal stories he has heard. “I signed up for this course to learn about home, but it has ended up providing me with so much more.”
Hearing Student Voices
From the Students for Justice in Palestine club to the Town Hall meetings, student activism is alive and well on campus. In 2019, Dario Karim Pomar ’19 and Hannah Szeto ’20 established a “town hall-style” discussion group. The aim of these meetings was to provide guided discussions on intellectually challenging topics such as the role of politics in education and, above all, to discuss issues related to Palestine.
“It came as a result of prolonged conversations with fellow classmates and faculty members about the need for a formalized modern Palestinian history course,” says Pomar. “Hannah and I had often discussed what we felt was a definite hole in the curriculum. This shortcoming brushed over the very rich Palestinian cultural identity present within the King's community.”
Pomar and Szeto discussed their concerns with faculty member Dr. Ethan Jerome, who gave them advice on how to bring up such topics with the community at large, leading them to settle on town hall-style meetings. “The Town Hall meetings were a safe space free from judgment where people could flesh out their thoughts,” says Szeto.
What resulted was an open discussion about King's role in creating a curriculum that better represented its student body and that accurately and unashamedly discussed political conflicts that hit close to home, according to Pomar. “The first meeting concluded with a consensus that the first step had to be creating a course on Palestine.”
“I had thought about a course on Palestine previous to that Town Hall, but hadn’t put all the pieces together of what I wanted to accomplish,” says Jerome of that first meeting. “When I met with Dario and Hannah before the meeting, all of their questions were telling me: look, students don’t know that much about Palestine, and they are Palestinian. We need a course on Palestine.”
Jerome recalls how after the meeting and “all the pieces came together of these different units and how it would look, so that meeting really helped push me to come up with a unique course.”
“I was thrilled to find out that this course actually came to fruition,” says Pomar. “If only I could still be at King’s in order to take the class!”
Pomar believes it is important for students to have more of a say in what they are being taught — especially in a school like King’s where “the student body is largely extremely motivated and invested in their own education.”
Szeto also believes alumni should have some say in what is offered in the curriculum. “If there is a clear appetite for a certain subject, especially if that subject directly concerns the Middle East and contemporary issues, we should take advantage of it and engage with it academically,” adds Szeto.
“Where both student interest and teacher strength happen to align, the Department of History, Religion and Society happily embraces the role of matchmaker,” says William Ballenger, head of the department. “Dr. Jerome had recently completed his Ph.D. in the field, and with Palestine’s undisputed importance and contribution to our regional history, both past and present, creating this course was a no-brainer.”