Centering Humanity While Following the Israel-Hamas War | Facing History & Ourselves
Multi-ethnic students discuss in classroom
Mini-Lesson
Current Event

Centering Humanity While Following News of the Israel-Hamas War

Students reflect on their personal “universe of obligation,” the perspectives they see in the news, and how they can center others’ humanity when taking action.

Published:

At a Glance

Mini-Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • Advisory
  • Social Studies

Grade

6–12
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement

Overview

About This Mini-Lesson

This mini-lesson helps students consider how they can 1) center their community members’ humanity in conversations about the Israel-Hamas war; 2) expand their own “universe of obligation” as they react to the news, including the ongoing war; 3) explore strategies for following reliable news that represents a range of perspectives; and 4) ground their actions in respect for others’ humanity. The “Preparing to Teach” section of the mini-lesson contains suggestions for how teachers can learn more about their students’ reactions to the war and how to respond to students’ questions.

This mini-lesson is designed to be adaptable. You can use the activities in sequence or choose a selection best suited to your classroom. It includes:

  • 4 activities
  • Recommended articles and videos for exploring this topic

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this mini-lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

On a day before teaching the activities in this mini-lesson, it may be helpful to learn more about your students’ reactions to the Israel-Hamas war. You can provide your students with a list of feelings words, such as the following:

  • Angry
  • Confused
  • Curious
  • Nervous
  • Numb
  • “Nothing”
  • Reluctant
  • Frightened
  • Sad
  • Frustrated

Then, ask students to respond to the following questions on an exit ticket. Their responses should be kept confidential.

  • What feelings, from the list or others, do you have when you think about the Israel-Hamas war?
  • How is the war impacting you or the people you are close to? 
  • What questions do you have?
  • Is there anything that you want your teacher to know? 

You can use the questions students ask and the information they share about their proximity to the war to determine whether this mini-lesson is suited to your students’ needs at this moment, and if you decide to use any of the activities, what adaptations you might make. For example, consider that some students with proximity to the war may be actively seeking space to discuss it, while others might not wish to engage in conversations about it with their classmates. Some students may be just learning about the war and forming their opinions. The Intelligencer article Teenagers Looking for Answers: How New York high-school students are processing the war gives some examples of how different young people are processing the war, which may also be helpful to read as you plan the activities you will use. You may wish to give students the option to opt out of activities and journal privately instead.

Students may ask questions about the Israel-Hamas war, the October 7 Hamas terrorist attacks, or the history of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The following suggestions can help you respond to students’ questions:

  • Acknowledge and validate students’ emotional or ethical reactions that might be motivating their questions.
  • If a student asks a question that does not abide by your class norms, point out the ways in which it doesn’t and remind them why your norms are important. You can still acknowledge and validate their emotional or ethical reactions. 
  • You do not need to know all the answers, and it is okay to be transparent with your students about what you don’t know.

Save this resource for easy access later.

Save resources to create collections for your class or to review later. It's fast, easy, and free!
Have a Workspace already? Log In

Activities

Activities

The Israel-Hamas war is emotionally challenging for many students. In addition, people sometimes invoke—intentionally or not—harmful antisemitic, Islamophobic, or anti-Arab tropes when they discuss the conflict. The goal of this activity is to help students generate norms that can help them center the humanity of all people. For more ideas on classroom strategies for preparing students for challenging conversations, see our guide Fostering Civil Discourse. The Solutions Not Sides resource Understanding Positions and Triggers in Relation to Israel-Palestine can provide additional information on discussing the conflict.

If you have already established a class contract, begin by reminding students of your norms. Play the video At a Brooklyn high school, Muslim and Jewish student groups issue solidarity statement (2:36). (Note: You can choose to share this letter written by students of Cherry Hill Public Schools in New Jersey in addition to, or instead of, the video.) 

Ask your students:

  • What do you think are the values of the students in the video? How can these values help to strengthen a school community?

Share the following principles, excerpted from Solutions Not Sides, which can help students discuss Israel, Palestine, and the war in Gaza with more empathy and nuance:

Do not hold Jews responsible for the decisions of the Israeli leaders, or Muslims responsible for the decisions of the Palestinian leaders

Do not demand that Jews or Muslims must take a certain political position on the [conflict]

Do not assume that all Palestinians or Israelis support the actions of their governments

Israelis and Palestinians are human beings, therefore celebrating their suffering and death is not acceptable

Be sensitive towards people who are pro-Israel and/or pro-Palestine at this time. They may have friends/family involved in the situation, or Israel/Palestine may represent something important to them, such as their own sense of struggle or oppression, or a place of safety in times of persecution. Solidarity with one side or the other is not a crime; people can be pro-Israel/pro-Palestine and still be pro-solution.

Ask your students to decide on a list of norms that should guide their class conversations on the Israel-Hamas war. Finally, ask students to write in their journals one norm in particular that they would like to commit to upholding during class discussion.

This activity asks students to consider how their own “universe of obligation” influences how they feel compassion in the face of violent or disturbing news. Sociologist Helen Fein coined the phrase “universe of obligation” to describe the group of individuals within a society “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends.” Although Fein uses the term to describe the way nations determine membership, we might also refer to an individual’s “universe of obligation” to describe the circle of other individuals that person feels a responsibility to care for and protect. In this activity, we ask students to engage with this aspect of the concept.

As a class, read Universe of Obligation. Then discuss the following questions as a class:

  • What factors influence the ways individuals determine who is within their own “universe of obligation”? 
  • In what ways might an individual signal who is part of their “universe of obligation” and who is not?

Then, ask students to create their own “universe of obligation” using this handout. Once they have finished, ask them to reflect on the following prompts in a private journal entry:

  • How might your “universe of obligation” make you feel closer to certain conflicts, crises, or groups of people in the news? You can think about examples related to the Israel-Hamas war or reflect on other issues in the news.
  • What do you think might be gained if people challenge themselves to expand their “universe of obligation” to include more conflicts, crises, or groups of people in the news? What do you think might be lost if they don’t?

Let students know that while it is natural to feel a greater affinity toward those whom we perceive to be closer to us, it is also important to extend compassion to groups of people we may not automatically feel a connection with. In the next two activities, they will consider how people can expand the perspectives they encounter in the news, and how they can center others’ humanity when taking action. Students should feel free to return to their journal entries as they continue to reflect and learn.

One way students can begin to expand their “universe of obligation” to include the humanity of more groups of people is by following reliable news sources that represent a range of viewpoints. This activity uses a version of the Big Paper teaching strategy to help students consider how they can take care of themselves and expand their “universe of obligation” while following the news. Before teaching, print out each of the “Five Strategies for Following the News” listed below on a separate paper. Paste each strategy on a large piece of poster paper, and place the poster papers at stations around the room.

Before moving into the Big Paper activity, ask your students:

  • How do you learn about what is happening in the world? What are your main sources of news?

Let students know that the strategies in this activity can help them navigate any type of news source, whether they are watching the news on TV, getting news from social media, or visiting news websites.

Five Strategies for Following the News

  1. Know when to unplug: Reading or watching the news constantly or having news or social media notifications always enabled can increase feelings of stress if you are negatively affected by the news. Take note of your physical and emotional reactions as you consume news, on social media or elsewhere, and take breaks if you notice you are feeling anxious, upset, or that your body is tense. Consider designating times to learn about the news and times when you will avoid it and disable news or social media notifications. 

    Reflect:
    • What questions do you have about this strategy?
    • How, if at all, can this strategy help you take care of yourself?
    • How, if at all, can this strategy help you expand your “universe of obligation”?
  2. Learn more than the headline: When you consume the news, consider reading or watching entire pieces from reliable sources. This can help you stay informed about the issues and learn how people are impacted. Also, news outlets devote more coverage to crises than to upbeat stories. Scrolling through social media to see the headlines or watch the beginnings of many news clips can expose you to lots of distressing news without helping you learn deeply about the issues.

    Reflect:
    • What questions do you have about this strategy?
    • How, if at all, can this strategy help you take care of yourself?
    • How, if at all, can this strategy help you expand your “universe of obligation”?
  3. Seek out a range of viewpoints: Individual news stories are often referred to as “pieces,” “items,” or “segments.” When you follow the news, try to read or watch more than one piece on each issue, and think about whether the pieces offer different perspectives or all include similar coverage. Consider what voices or perspectives are represented in each piece and whether there are people involved in the issue who were not interviewed for the piece. Take note of what questions you still have after reading or watching the pieces. If you use social media, consider if there are certain perspectives that you see more often, and try to be intentional about seeking out a range of perspectives. Over time, try to develop the habit of looking at more than one reliable news source to learn about a topic.

    Reflect:
    • What questions do you have about this strategy?
    • How, if at all, can this strategy help you take care of yourself?
    • How, if at all, can this strategy help you expand your “universe of obligation”?
  4. Talk it out offline: People are more likely to express hurtful or simplistic views in online comments than in person, and it is also easier to mistake people’s meaning when conversations happen online. Talking through difficult news stories in person with friends and others you trust can help you sort through your reaction to the story and decide how, if at all, you want to respond. Before talking through an issue in the news with someone, consider what your goal for the conversation is. If you want support or to process the news in general, consider choosing a person you trust to let you talk through your feelings without shutting you down. If you want to learn about perspectives on the news that are different from your own, you should be prepared to listen as well as share.

    Reflect:
    • What questions do you have about this strategy?
    • How, if at all, can this strategy help you take care of yourself?
    • How, if at all, can this strategy help you expand your “universe of obligation”?
  5. Avoid reposting or sharing graphic content: If you come across images, videos, or text that depict violence, don’t share it with others, especially people who share an aspect of their identity with the victims of the violence. While it can feel helpful to share this content, it can also be disturbing and harmful to those who see it.

    Reflect:
    • What questions do you have about this strategy?
    • How, if at all, can this strategy help you take care of yourself?
    • How, if at all, can this strategy help you expand your “universe of obligation”?

You can use the following resources to support additional learning on media literacy and news analysis:

The purpose of this activity is to help students consider how they can center the humanity of others if they chose to take action related to the Israel-Hamas war or other issues in the news. For additional resources on how students can engage in action, see our virtual event We Are Facing History: Civics & 21st Century Democracy, our lesson Reflection and Action for Civic Participation, and our unit 10 Questions for Young Changemakers.

As a class, read Centering the Humanity of Others When Taking Action.

Ask students:

  • What does the idea of centering humanity mean to you?
  • What are other examples of how people can take action while centering the humanity of all people? How could the example from the first activity of students working together to promote a positive school culture connect to this idea?
  • How might the shift “from winning to helping” when taking action help people to expand their “universe of obligation”?

Then, read the Intelligencer article with your students Teenagers Looking for Answers: How New York high-school students are processing the war. Once students have finished reading, ask them to choose one of the young people profiled in the article and to reflect individually on the following questions:

  • What are the questions or reactions that this student is grappling with?
  • What actions have they chosen to take? Why did they choose to act in the way they did?

Ask students to share their reflections in small groups of 3–4.

Then, ask students to reflect on the following prompts, adapted from Project Zero’s “The 4 Ifs” thinking routine, in their journals:

  • If I take the ideal of acting while centering peoples’ humanity seriously, what are the day-to-day implications for how I live my life? What might my personal actions and behaviors look like? What might I choose to do differently? 
  • If my community takes the ideal of acting while centering peoples’ humanity seriously, what are the implications for our collective action and behavior? What new actions would we take on? What current actions of behaviors might we need to change?
  • If our world takes the ideal of acting while centering peoples’ humanity seriously, what are the implications for our world? What current and future policies and proposals are needed? What wrongs need to be righted?
  • If we don’t follow this idea of acting while centering peoples’ humanity, what could happen?

Materials and Downloads

Additional Resources

You might also be interested in…

Unlimited Access to Learning. More Added Every Month.

Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif