Fostering "Difficult Dialogues": The Struggle for Palestine

Barnard College was one of 26 higher education institutions to receive $100,000 for academic programs to promote campus environments where sensitive subjects can be discussed in a spirit of open scholarly inquiry, academic freedom and with respect for different viewpoints. The Ford Foundation made the awards in its "Difficult Dialogues" initiative in New York City on Dec. 12, 2005. 

The Difficult Dialogues initiative was created in response to reports of growing intolerance and efforts to curb academic freedom at colleges and universities. The goal is to help institutions address this challenge through academic and campus programs that enrich learning, encourage new scholarship and engage students and faculty in constructive dialogue about contentious political, religious, racial and cultural issues.

A key component of the Difficult Dialogues initiative at Barnard was the development of a new "Reacting to the Past" game, The Struggle for Palestine, under the direction of Natasha Gill (Research Associate) and Mark C. Carnes (Creator, "Reacting to the Past"). Game materials were developed in collaboration with Neil Caplan, Adjunct Assistant Professor of History at Concordia University, Montreal. Caplan has written extensively on the history of Israeli-Arab relations, most recently The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories (Wiley-Blackwell).

The Struggle for Palestine game was created to offer students an insight into the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the period of the British Mandate in Palestine, and especially in the 1930s. 

In the Spring 2009 pilot (shown below), students were able to enter the universe of life in Palestine before 1948, when so much of the conflict was determined, and to learn about the positions of the Arabs of Palestine and the Zionists at the time. The game was based around the work of the Palestine Royal Commission (also known as the Peel Commission) which arrived in Jerusalem in 1936 to try and determine the causes of conflict and make recommendations for the future.

Most students in the game took on positions and personalities that clashed with their backgrounds, their world views and narratives of the conflict. Nevertheless, the students dove into their tasks because the game gave them the opportunity to by pass the traditional debating style and to focus intently on understanding the world that the Jews and Arabs inhabited at the time, to hear how the parties themselves interpreted the conflict, and to immerse themselves in the details of life on the ground.

The designers hope the "Reacting" pedagogy will help break down myths and immerse students in the different politics that shaped Middle Eastern identities.This game is appropriate for advanced students, and ideally should be taught by professors specializing in the Middle East and/or Israel/Palestine conflict.