A model I developed for teaching sex education in a conservative and collectivist culture can perhaps be used for combating stereotypes, whether these are antisemitic stereotypes or stereotypes against any group, such as sexual minorities or ethnic minorities. First I will describe the sex ed course and then show how it relates to a strategy for combating antisemitism.
I taught sex education to teachers and administrators in the Arab sector here in Israel in the 1980s-1990s. The courses were taught within the framework of professional continuing education, offered first by the University of Haifa and later by the Ministry of Education. Individuals signed up for whatever courses they wanted. In other words, these courses were not mandatory and they could have just as easily selected a course that year in history or mathematics or childhood cognitive development, etc.
Participants generally were a mixture of very religious Muslims and secular Muslims and Christians. One year, I was teaching in a Muslim area of the country in which the population was very traditional and conservative, and so were most of the course participants. At the first break, one of the female teachers came to me and warned me: (1) If you dare to talk about premarital sex and birth control in this course, I will leave the class and take everyone with me; (2) If you dare to talk about homosexuality, I will leave the class and take everyone with me; (3) when you teach about the biological aspects of sexuality, you must teach the men and women separately. Consider, for a moment, how you think you would have handled this situation. And then think about whether or not that would have accomplished your goals in teaching the class.
My goals included actually having an effect on my students. I was not there just to impart facts and knowledge, I was there to challenge stereotypes and open minds to the complexities of the issues of sexuality and couples relationships. Therefore, it would have been counterproductive were I to say to her that I was there to teach certain material and she could stay or leave as she desired. It would have also been counterproductive for me to even just THINK of her as closed minded and rigid and unmovable. Instead, I saw her as a product of her environment who was, in spite of that, open enough to sign up for a course in sex education.
In order to challenge my students, I had to be familiar with their backgrounds and the culture in which they grew up and lived. When I began teaching sex ed in the Arab sector, many teachers kept even the fact of their attendance in the course a secret from their colleagues. THAT is how conservative their society was at that time and it should give you a sense of the anxiety many of them felt, alongside their excitement at learning new material. (For a more in-depth description of the cultural aspects of teaching sex ed in the Arab sector and an understanding of the different experiences Arab participants had when in courses set up exclusively for them versus when they were a minority in class with a majority of Jewish colleagues, read here. Also includes the theory behind my model.)
The student who had approached me at the break said,
It doesn’t matter how many courses you have taught to Arabs, I do not believe you can really understand our mentality.
I responded to her thus:
You are correct to assume that I can never totally understand your mentality and I hope you will find me respectful and considerate as I teach this course.
I smiled at her and I had a private inner smile that accompanied the thought that this woman does not yet know what she is in for! I learned a lot from mistakes I had made teaching my first class in the Arab sector and now was quite confident in my ability to bring her to places she never dreamed she would go.
There were modifications I had made to my regular sex ed syllabus when offered to Arab educators: the first was to change the order of the topics, putting the least potentially contentious topics in the first semester, allowing for a gradual building of trust between the students and me. Secondly, in teaching courtship for example, instead of working on it within the context of male-female relationships, I talked about male-male and female-female friendships. Same material. I trusted that teaching assertiveness within same-sex friendships is transferable to opposite-sex relationships. Third, since from the start, I had to list the topics that would be covered, I gave generic titles to the more problematic subjects, such as calling the class on homosexuality, something like “Dealing with Differences”. The topic on homosexuality, by the way, was the last one covered. In other words, I did not take anything out of the curriculum, but adjusted the course to make it palatable for my students.
I had the advantage of being a Jewish woman from the Diaspora. I was seen so much as “other” that my students EXPECTED me to have objectionable opinions and views. They were ready to pounce on any “misdemeanour” I may commit that went against their ways. I used that to advantage. You see, had I been an Arab instructor, they would have expected me to follow the “party line” and any controversial statement would have had me labelled as unkosher and unfit for teaching them. They would have rejected ME. As Jew, I had the freedom to say outrageous things about which they proceeded to argue with me and tell me why THEY could not think or do anything like THAT. They rejected my ideas but accepted me as an expert.
The point was that they were debating and I milked that for all it was worth. They were hearing themselves and each other explaining why I was culturally inept when I said such and such about this or that. And, as they heard the most conservative among them tell me why I was wrong and did not understand them or their culture, they began to see cracks in their own arguments. And then they began to debate each other. At that point, they began to challenge their own assumptions.
Even with the growing trust among us, they still requested that I teach sexual anatomy separately. Out of respect, I agreed. When the men and women got back together again in the next session, they talked about how they do think they would have been able to study that topic together, but that they could not have known that beforehand.
In the second semester they laughed at themselves a lot, laughed at the way they were talking about things they never expected to ever discuss, certainly not in mixed company, and perhaps had never even allowed themselves to think about in their own private thoughts.
They discussed how they could not bring much of what they were learning into the classrooms in their schools, not directly, that is. But since their own attitudes had changed, they were already seeing that they responded differently to issues that arose in the classroom — and not only regarding sexuality. Furthermore, they were taking their newfound knowledge and understandings home to their spouses and children.
And what about homosexuality? Not only did I talk about it, but I even invited a gay male and lesbian to class to talk with them about what it was like to come out, first to themselves and then to their families, and other aspects of life as a gay person in Israel at that time. We learned about homosexuality theoretically before the break and I told the class about the guests who would come after the break. Not one person failed to return to class. The woman who had warned me not to talk about homosexuality got up and thanked the guests for having come and expressed pain and sadness regarding the difficult paths they and their families had had to walk.
What This Can Teach Us about Confronting Antisemitism (and Other Stereotypes)
- This was a process that took place over an entire school year with a homogeneous group whose membership did not change. A similar approach can be taken in university classes dealing with topics in which stereotypes figure prominently. However, we cannot assume that the students will comprise a homogeneous group and, therefore, debate among classmates may be more difficult to manage than were debates with the instructor that only later opened up debate among students. Yet the instructor can design the course in such a way as to use the conflicts within the group to advantage rather than to curb the debate.
- It is very different, in a number of ways, to use naturally arising conflict as a means for breaking down stereotypic thinking in a classroom or workshop versus under “field conditions”. For one thing, as instructor or group facilitator, we have control over the situation in a way that does not ensue from chance encounters wherever they may occur. Secondly, teaching and group facilitation is accompanied by authority and an expectation of expertise that is not necessarily granted in other situations.
- Social media does not naturally lend itself to this kind of interaction — while I have attempted to be some kind of guide on my own FB timeline, I cannot direct the discussion and debate on threads and sub-threads as I can in person in a classroom or workshop context. Commenters sometimes throw out a comment or two and do not stick around to work out disagreements with others.
- Students in this class came voluntarily, even if they were anxious about it. Perhaps the best place to confront stereotypes is when people voluntarily enter conversations, even if their goal is merely to be confrontational and express disagreement. If they can be engaged to expand upon their views, asking for more and more detail, perhaps they will begin to see if their arguments contain inconsistencies. However, this requires time and, again, social media seems to be a place where this will happen only rarely. It can happen more, however, at protests and demonstration tables if you can engage protesters in quiet discussion away from all the chaos and noise.
- The artistry in this activity involves the ability to ask questions that challenge people’s stereotypes without putting them on the defensive. Once they are on the defensive, or feel denigrated by you for thinking the way they do, you have lost any powers of persuasion you may have potentially had.
- I had a lot of confidence in my knowledge and my skills as a classroom teacher. I do not yet have confidence in my (growing) knowledge about issues concerning Israeli history and Jewish tradition. For that reason, I think I become more confrontational and argumentative at this point than I would like to be. That is probably my own anxiety speaking. I hope that when I will have a solid knowledge base and more experience in this area that I will more easily maintain my own cool as I engage those who are antagonistic and oppositional. This may be true for many of us.
For Jews, fighting antisemitism is personal. We are fighting for our lives. Breaking down the stereotypes is not a purely cognitive activity for either of the parties involved in a discussion. Our unavoidable emotional arousal during such discussions may reduce our ability to think up the kinds of questions that would successfully challenge the stereotypes held by the other person. And it is a skill worth cultivating.
This article was first published on Israel Diaries.