Critical Pedagogy Symposium: Teaching Palestine–Recognising and Responding to the Dangers of Online Learning

Critical Pedagogy Symposium: Teaching Palestine–Recognising and Responding to the Dangers of Online Learning

[Dr Brendan Ciarán Browne is an Assistant Professor Conflict Resolution at Trinity College Dublin.]


Few ‘conflicts’ engender the widest possible scrutiny within public, political and academic discourse than Israel’s ongoing settler colonial mission in Palestine. The goal of many critical legal scholars is thus to unpack the ways in which international law is weaponised to subjugate the Palestinian people, providing opportunity for students to debate and interrogate international law’s emancipatory potential therein.

Yet, challenging and critiquing orthodoxies as they are applied in spaces such as Palestine requires a classroom environment that is open to ‘alternate’ or even ‘radical’ views (which often aren’t that alternate or radical at all). While achieving this goal in-person is challenging at the best of times, the dangers increase exponentially when we shift onto a virtual platform, where faculty and students are subject to fierce forms of institutional monitoring. Despite the familiarity of some of the issues I discuss below, I posit that academics should account for a set of particulars when discussing Israeli violations of international law or Palestinian resistance thereto.

I begin by highlighting the importance of the in-person teaching experience in relation to Palestine and the limitations the move towards virtual tuition engenders. Next, I consider the dangers associated with the electronic storage of lectures and teaching material, including the likelihood that these find their way to online forums designed to ostracise and defame those engaged in critical discussions on the topic. Following this, I examine the possibility that classroom recordings stymie debate and sanitise legitimate argument around the legality of anti-colonial struggle. Last, I conclude with practical steps for other masochists out there.

Challenging the orthodoxy

In praising his friend and scholar Eqbal Ahmad, Edward Said noted that ‘Palestine is a thankless cause, one in which if you truly serve you get nothing back but opprobrium, abuse, and ostracism’. Challenging a transatlantic sponsored orthodoxy around Palestine, one that reduces it to a synonym of Israel, is not easy in person and near impossible when debate shifts to a digitised platform. As others have shown the digital silencing and state-sponsored censorship of those who shine light on Israeli violations of international law is sophisticated.

When lecturing on the nature of the Palestine/Israel ‘conflict’ in Ireland, I tend to face a student body that is overwhelmingly white, European and/or American, liberal-minded, and whose predilections are evident from the first day. They expect to deliberate the applicability of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), legal arguments about state sovereignty and belligerent occupation, the legal outworkings of the defunct Oslo Accords, and the role of the United Nations. Some readers will be pleased to learn that the use of legal doctrine to critique Palestinian rights and Israeli obligations provides little controversy. Students are exposed to legal scholarship that fosters a hierarchy between Israeli rights to sovereignty and security over Palestinian rights to self-determination and justice. This viewpoint prevails for many reasons including, as Victor Kattan argues, the blindspot toward Palestinian scholarship, especially the variety that uses settler colonial language in reference to Israel.

To paraphrase Said, any critical legal scholar truly invested in the cause of Palestine must nurture space in their classroom to evaluate the right of colonised peoples to agitate for self-determination, including through armed struggle as outlined in UN resolution 37/43. I have done so in the past and learned that deliberating armed struggle is the quickest way of upsetting liberal sensitivities: the dynamic changes and the room splits. Much time, energy and skill are needed to navigate the tension and ensure space for marginalised voices. ‘Reading the room’ is crucial, a task that is near impossible in the digital realm.

The online security dilemma

Shifting to online teaching about Palestine raises concerns about the preparation of materials, notably the recording of lectures. When the material involves hot-button topics such as international law’s role in the subjugation of Palestinian rights, criticism of a settler-colonial state, and modes of resistance (including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement), the availability of recorded materials is risky for professors and students alike. While it is always possible that lectures are recorded by students, our own production of asynchronous lectures makes mitigation tactics moot. There is no way of knowing or controlling where uploaded material ends up.

Unease at the recording of teaching material is justified when we consider the active role of online groups whose stated aim is to “document individuals and groups that promote hatred of the USA and Israel.” Highly developed and well funded platforms such as ‘Canary Mission’ profile academics – the majority of whom are Muslim, individuals of colour – who express sympathy for the Palestinians. They harvest online materials including lectures and screenshots from student seminars as evidence of “hatred.” The impact of this form of public admonishment is severe. In 2018, The Intercept reported that being targeted by the ‘Canary Mission’ led to acute mental health issues, death threats and a subsequent self-censorship.

Amateur platforms are also popping up, designed to keep record of individuals whose scholarship or teaching is critical of Israel. I have the dubious honour of being listed on one such platform: a private website maintained by an academic at Dublin City University. An ability to mitigate the impact of online threats is heavily linked to the privilege of job security, not to mention religious and ethnic background. Regardless, as the findings from The Intercept report reveal, the risks of recordings are real. It is no surprise that those who teach critically on international law and Palestine are sensitive to the potential impact of this rapid shift to online learning.

Despite the call for international solidarity and the relative success of PACBI (Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), leading European and American Universities continue to invest in promoting research and development ties with Israeli institutions, including those with a history of providing research support for the Occupation. Collaborations between Western and Israeli academic institutions bring lucrative opportunities. Beyond the direct impact of being blacklisted on Canary Mission, there is every possibility that critical teaching on Palestine scuppers the development of ties between an academic’s institution and the prospective Israeli partners. Of course being labelled a troublemaker has implications for job security as well.

Avoiding self-censorship and practical next steps

Beyond the personal costs noted above, most damaging of all is the self-censorship or self-policing the threat of recording provokes. Academics and students who would otherwise feel empowered to proffer critical opinions may feel less inclined to chance it when they see the record button flashing red. Meaningful debate will be lost and teaching to the old, sanitised liberal form will prevail.

Rather than treating the above concerns as an exercise in academic navel gazing, they should be acknowledged as genuine alarms. Whereas the risk pales into insignificance when we consider the sustained violence the Palestinian population experiences, academics should at a minimum be free to research and teach, uninhibited by the vulnerabilties that emerge from a digitised pedagogical turn. How to do this in a way that protects both staff and students?

First, communicate with your institution and obtain written assurances about the storage of online material that is uploaded to the virtual learning environment. Clarity will make transparent the safeguards the university has developed for online data storage. Next, trigger a discussion during a staff meeting of the university’s duty of care to employees. It is the institution’s responsibility to develop support measures should teaching materials be transferred to a hostile online platform. Third, if you must deliver online classes, do them synchronously, limiting the need to record the conversation. You can inform students of the challenges and limitations associated with recording sessions, particularly when seeking to foster legitimate debate around controversial topics. Fourth, curate the online classroom in a way that aids critical debate and student discussion, make use of the ‘break-out’ rooms function to allow for a more manageable dialogue and the mitigating of a dominant voice. Last, if you haven’t done so already, join your union!

As Toufic Haddad argued, “[t]he fate of Palestine, and of a great many other causes of global concern – and survival – appears to be held in the balance.” Palestine is on a precipice. It is incumbent on critical legal scholars to call-out the contradictions embedded within the framework of international law, which have been brutally weaponised against the Palestinian people. As I argue, it will not be easy and many will pay a heavy price. “We cannot go on as usual. We cannot pivot the center. We cannot be moderate” Angela Davis proclaimed. “We will have to be willing to stand up and say no with our combined spirits, our collective intellects, and our many bodies.” And may the personal cost be damned.   

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