*By Shaina Low
Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting The Young Women’s Leadership School, an all-girls junior and senior high school in Astoria, Queens. I was invited by 10th grade world history teacher, Zander Lyvers. Zander and his students were in in the midst of a unit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he was in search of organizations working on conflict resolution that would share their work and also take the time to view and learn about the students’ projects.
Their unit began by looking at the inflammatory Islamophobic advertisements Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative placed in the New York City subways last fall. As a project-based school, Zander assigned the students to research the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and create their own advertisements that promote peace and reconciliation. In addition to creating the visual ads, students were required to conduct research on the conflict and complete proposals detailing their ad’s objective, target audience, and the issue that it was attempting to overcome.
During my visit, I had the opportunity to view slideshows of all the students’ projects and meet with pairs of students to learn more about the motivation and inspiration behind their designs. One recurring theme throughout the projects was a criticism of international intervention that is not directly accountable to the needs and interests of Israelis and Palestinians. One advertisement depicted early 20th century British diplomat Henry McMahon as a puppeteer controlling Arab and Jewish leaders, implying that the conflict in the Middle East was one driven by Western interests.
A personal favorite was a reinterpretation of British graffiti artist Banksy’s “Balloon Girl” (see the image above). The young girl’s body is superimposed with the Israeli and Palestinian flags, and she is grasping a bunch of balloons. Each of her balloons has the flag of a foreign country. In the student’s view, these foreign nations have played a role in perpetuating or prolonging the conflict, rather than helping Israelis and Palestinians meet their needs and interests.
Encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to be less reliant on international involvement and to take responsibility for ending the conflict, the poster includes a quote from German writer Hermann Hesse which reads, “Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.” This message, in particular, resonates with OneVoice’s message to empower ordinary Israelis and Palestinians to establish their own roles in conflict resolution, and without forgetting the past, find productive ways to move forward to ensure better futures for both societies.
During each of Zander’s three classes, I connected the students’ work with OneVoice’s by describing various OneVoice campaigns including OneVoice Israel’s headlines competition and OneVoice Palestine’s mural initiatives, both of which used advertising and mass media to promote the two-state solution. The students’ questions ranged from wanting to learn more about the challenges we face on the ground in Israel and in Palestine, to learning more about OneVoice’s unique focus on empowering youth to be change-makers and leaders in Israeli and Palestinian societies.
In each class, students asked about their own role and what they could do as New York City teenagers to make a difference and promote peace in the region. In our ensuing discussion, we brainstormed ways for them to get engaged—whether it is educating their families or peers about the conflict by screening a documentary or hosting a forum, meeting with their elected officials and telling them that the resolving the conflict should be a greater priority, or starting or joining club that is working toward conflict resolution.
Through IEP tours, I have visited countless university and high school classrooms across the county. In my experience, teachers often find it difficult to teach a unit on such an expansive, polarizing subject that covers over a century of history and simultaneously demonstrate the impact of the conflict on American foreign and domestic policy. Zander’s untraditional approach impressed me; not only were students able to see how the conflict directly influences discourse here in the United States, they were challenged to find creative ways to promote a peaceful resolution.
*Shaina Low is OneVoice’s International Engagement Program Associate.