Pushing back against right wing attacks on education by centering Palestinian voices

East Jerusalem (Mahfouz Abu Turk - APA Images)

Nora Lester Murad

Mondoweiss  /  March 24, 2022

Determined to Stay: Palestinian Youth Fight for Their Village is a valuable resource that centers Palestinian experiences for young adult readers.

Determined to stay – Palestinian youth fight for their village
by Jody Sokolower
240 pp. Olive Branch Press $20

Determined to Stay: Palestinian Youth Fight for Their Village by Jody Sokolower is one of the rare non-fiction, young adult books that center contemporary Palestinian experiences and voices. 

Teachers and students will quickly recognize that this valuable resource was written by a skilled  educator, and one with deep knowledge about how to teach social justice issues to youth. After working as a classroom teacher in middle and high school settings, Jody spent eight years as managing editor of the social justice publisher Rethinking Schools, during which she edited two groundbreaking books. She now works as co-coordinator of the Teach Palestine Project at the Middle East Children’s Alliance and helps lead the National Liberated Ethnic Studies Coalition.

The structure and content of Determined to Stay utilize and model best practices in teaching material that is unfamiliar to students and about which there are different and potentially conflicting perspectives. For example, a compare-and-contrast approach is woven throughout the book enabling readers not only to learn about Palestine, but about their own communities. This starts right at the beginning with a framing introduction by Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux), co-founder of Red Nation, an Native American resistance organization. Past and current examples of US colonialism are integrated throughout the book, giving readers a home base from which they can venture out to understand what’s happening in Palestine. She also includes the stories of Palestinian-Americans, who only infrequently get to see themselves in books. The inclusion of Palestinian-American stories helps non-Palestinian readers understand that the issues in the book are relevant in the US, not just “over there.”

The bulk of the content is Palestinians telling their own stories. The reader “hears” about Palestinian youth’s lives in their own words. Sokolower does not explain what Palestinians say or give her own opinions. She lets Palestinians’ voices stand on their own. She models self-reflection for the reader by gently commenting on her own experiences in light of what she learns from the Palestinians she interviews. She also models for readers the importance of considering one’s own social location and biases. She reminds the reader that she is an older, white, Jewish woman from the US, and that reality shapes her experiences and perspective.

The chapters are short, between 5-10 pages, and can be easily woven into lessons in various disciplines at different levels. Given that the material is heavy and may be new  to readers, these short bites are perfect for taking in an aspect of Palestinian youth’s lives, and connecting the learning to previous chapters and other material they are discussing in school.

It is refreshing that Determined to Stay starts small. It doesn’t try to explain the entire background and history of what’s going on. Context and history are included in reference to Silwan, the village that is the subject of the book. Most importantly, it doesn’t try to “balance” what Palestinians say with opposing views, a tactic used in US media and educational settings to undermine Palestinian voice.

Again, showing her expertise in social justice education, Sokolower addresses hard issues like arrest of youth, demolition of homes, harassment by Israeli soldiers, the lasting effects of trauma, and more. But in every instance, she highlights the way that Palestinian youth cope, find agency, support one another and resist. In this way, the very difficult aspects of life under military occupation and siege do not define Palestinians, nor do they overwhelm readers. They are actors who think and act and offer hope for change. Seeing them act inspires us to consider how we, too, can act to improve our situations.

There are some maps, artwork and photos. The most important photos are of young Palestinians in a variety of settings, including dancing and playing as well as being arrested and resisting. Since many US readers never meet a Palestinian, they are subject to the ways Palestinians are framed, often as “terrorists,” in US media. Humanizing images are critical for young readers to be able to relate to and connect with the stories of their counterparts in Palestine.

Although Determined to Stay: Palestinian Youth Fight for Their Village is clearly about youth, it is not immediately obvious from the cover that it is for young readers. Adult readers, including teachers, will also benefit from the book, but there are plenty of other books for adults that address Palestinian topics. Determined to Stay: Palestinian Youth Fight for Their Village fills a void because it is aimed at youth readers, and it raises the bar for forthcoming books for this audience.

Sadly, despite increasing interest in Palestine and Palestinians in the US, it is getting harder for K-12 teachers to bring Palestinian perspectives into the classroom. Attacks on what is erroneously called “Critical Race Theory” are the most recent indication of the politicization and divisiveness of public discourse around education. Educators with social justice sensibilities, however, understand that the key to constructive civic discourse is not banning certain books or ideas, but rather prioritizing skills in listening, evaluating facts, analyzing different narratives, forming opinions, and engaging in civil discussion across lines of difference. Determined to Stay: Palestinian Youth Fight for Their Village is a valuable resource for all of us who want to keep education relevant, honest and effective in our struggle to improve the world in which we live.

Nora Lester Murad is a writer, educator, and activist