Sunday, 15 April 2012

Teaching in Egypt (5): ‘Are you Jewish?’

Because I share my first name with the queen of the Jews and my last name ends in ‘man’, I occasionally get mistaken for a Jew. Which, in the Middle East, is precarious, to say the least.

Every now and then I like to have some fun with that.

The other day I was teaching a brand new class. We had just done the introductions and my name was the only thing written on the blackboard.

To loosen them up I had them play a game in which they had to come up with countries that start with the letter P. Without fail, all of them wrote down Palestine.

“But that’s not officially a country”, I stated, “so we can’t use that.”

The classroom instantly went dead silent. I proceeded to explain why Palestine is not a country, which of course turned into a debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Devil’s advocate

One by one they professed their deep hatred against Israel. In an attempt to try and get them to do some critical thinking, I decided to playdevil’s advocate and asked them to review the matter from the Israeli point of view. “Do you understand why they are treating the Palestinians the way they do?”

I could almost see their brains short circuit as they attempted to do so. All of them were glancing from me, to my name on the board, and back. Then one student suddenly asked: “Miss Ester, are you Jewish?”

“No”, I explained, “I’m not religious, so I’m not Jewish either.”


The class collectively breathed a sigh of relief. “Not that there is anything wrong with being Jewish, of course”, the same student hastened to add, “I don’t mind Jews. But I really hate Israelis. I would leave this class if you were Israeli.”

A number of students nodded vigorously in agreement.

“Well, that’s interesting”, I continued, “I said I wasn’t Jewish, I never said I wasn’t Israeli.”

An even deadlier silence descended upon the classroom, as a dozen pair of eyes stared at me in great disbelief. I left them hanging for a while, as the atmosphere grew gradually more uncomfortable.

Critical thinking

“You need to work on your critical thinking skills”, I finally said. “Just because I ask you to look at things from a different perspective doesn’t make me an Israeli or a Jew.”

After briefly explaining the concept of critical thinking to them, they were apparently still unsure of my nationality. “So you’re not an Israeli?”

“No”, I replied in an impatient tone. “I’m Dutch. We’re known for our tolerance and liberal perspectives on drugs.”

“But you are secretly American, right?”, another student asked.

High time for a full course on critical thinking.

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