Processing Antisemitism, Terror, and War | Facing History & Ourselves
Five students sit at a table in a classroom.
Mini-Lesson
Current Event

Processing Antisemitism, Terror, and War

Help students process the antisemitic terrorist attacks by Hamas and the ongoing violence in Israel and Gaza.

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At a Glance

Mini-Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • Advisory
  • English & Language Arts
  • Social Studies

Grade

6–12
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Antisemitism

Overview

About This Mini-Lesson

In the early hours of Saturday, October 7, 2023, Hamas fired rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel and launched an antisemitic terrorist attack designed to murder Jews. More Jewish lives were lost on October 7, 2023 than on any one day since the Holocaust. As a result of this horrific violence, the region has now plunged into a war that will continue to cause the loss of innocent Israeli and Palestinian lives.

While this mini-lesson was developed immediately following the events of October 7, we believe that its elements remain relevant for classroom use even in the days and weeks that follow the initial terrorist attack and the outbreak of war.

The activities are intended to help teachers support their students as they process the loss of life, learn strategies for following breaking news responsibly, and consider how they can take care of themselves and others.

We are already witnessing increases in hate against Jewish and Muslim people following this atrocity. Please find suggestions below for how teachers can identify intolerance in their schools and communities and support their students’ learning about antisemitism and Islamophobia.

We recommend you use a selection of activities best suited to your students’ needs.

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:

  • 5 activities
  • Recommended articles 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.

Self-reflection is important preparation for facilitating conversations about troubling current events. As educators, we have to make time to process our own feelings and become aware of the way our own identities and experiences shape the perspectives we hold. Read the “Start with Yourself” section on page 2 of our Fostering Civil Discourse guide. Then reflect on the following questions:

  • What emotions does news of the attacks in Israel and the outbreak of war raise for you? What questions are you grappling with?
  • What perspectives will you bring to your reflection on the attacks with your students?
  • What emotions might your students bring to your discussion? How can you help students navigate these emotions?
  • As the news develops, how will you continue to learn alongside your students?

As you prepare to teach about this topic, it is important to learn about how antisemitism, Islamophobia, and Anti-Arab sentiments may arise in your school and community in response to violence in Israel and Palestine. For example, an Axios report documented the following instances of antisemitism and Islamophobia after the conflict in Gaza in 2021:

In Los Angeles [in May 2021], people in a convoy of cars flying Palestinian flags harassed and physically assaulted patrons sitting outside a [kosher] restaurant. A witness told the Los Angeles Times: "They were chanting, 'Death to Jews' and 'Free Palestine.'"

Investigators found anti-Palestinian graffiti — which reportedly said "Death to Palestine" — spray-painted on the front door of an Islamic center in Brooklyn, New York [in May 2021].

Antisemitic and Islamophobic violence can result when people conflate the actions of individuals, a group, or a government with everyone who is perceived to share that same identity. Some people protesting against the conflict in Israel and Palestine do so using Islamophobic and/or antisemitic tropes, ideas, and language. This is, in part, because Islamophobes and antisemites exploit the situation, using it to further anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment. It is also due to the widespread circulation of antisemitic and Islamophobic tropes and conspiracy narratives. The degree to which these tropes and false narratives have been deeply embedded into our society can lead to people who don't have antisemitic or Islamophobic prejudices using such tropes unknowingly when talking about the conflict. 

You should be aware that students may see increased antisemitism/anti-Judaism, Islamophobia, and anti-Arab sentiments online, in their communities, or in your school. 

Avoiding Antisemitic and Islamophobic Tropes in Discussing Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Here are some points to keep in mind for how to avoid antisemitic and Islamophobic tropes when discussing conflict in Israel and Palestine, which are reproduced with light edits from the UK organization Solutions Not Sides:

  • Be clear about what you mean when you use labels:
    • Palestinian and Israeli are national identities. 
    • Zionism is the belief in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. ‘Zionist’ or ‘Zio’ should not be used as a term of abuse.
    • Arab is a grouping of people whose mother tongue is Arabic, and there is great diversity across the Arab World.
  • 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 take a certain political position on the history, activities, or policies related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • Do not assume that all Palestinians or Israelis support the actions of their governments.
  • Do not state that Muslims should leave Palestine because they have the rest of the Middle East or that Israeli Jews should “go back to where they came from.”
  • Israel is not conspiring to take over the Middle East or the world, and Palestine is not conspiring to enforce a Caliphate on Israel/the world. These are two national identities who both want to exist in the same piece of land.
  • 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.

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Activities

Initial Classroom Response

After a traumatic event, it can be beneficial to focus first on emotional processing, addressing the “heart” before the “head.” Give your students space to reflect on their emotional responses to this event.

If possible, coordinate with your school leadership to determine which class periods should be designated for a reflection with students. In class periods where you do not reflect more deeply on the events, a moment of acknowledgement and an invitation for students to reach out to teachers to continue the conversation may be sufficient so as not to overload students. 

If you decide to address news of the attacks and outbreak of war with your class, the following ideas may be helpful to guide students’ reflection:

Build a space in your classroom where students feel safe to process their reactions and are respectful of their classmates. Begin with a brief Contracting activity if you have not created a contract already, or take a few minutes to revisit your classroom norms. Then follow with an acknowledgement of the event and its emotional impact.

Begin by sharing a summary from a trusted news source of the attacks in Israel and the declaration of war in order to establish context and dispel rumors or misinformation. You can use information from the “About This Mini-Lesson” section above, as well as news sources that provide more up-to-date information.

Initial classroom activities should give students space for reflection and emotional processing first. Our Head, Heart, Conscience teaching strategy can provide a helpful starting point for students. Share the following questions with your students and ask them to choose one or more of the questions to respond to in their journals:

  • Head: What information do we know about the attacks in Israel and the declaration of war? What remains uncertain? What additional information would you like to have to help you understand the events better?
  • Heart: What emotions do these events raise for you? Are there particular moments, images, or stories that stand out to you? If so, why?
  • Conscience: Who is impacted by the crisis? How are people choosing to respond to what has occurred so far in this crisis, and why?

Additional teaching strategies that may be helpful include:

  • Exit Tickets: Ask your students to share aspects of their journal reflection or initial response with you on an exit ticket. This can allow you to learn about your students’ reactions to the crisis and determine if anyone in your class may need additional support or follow up.
  • Color, Symbol, Image: As an alternative to using the Head, Heart, Conscience strategy, you can ask your students to choose a color, symbol, and image that correspond to their reaction to news of this event and include those in a journal prompt.
  • Journaling: Our journaling teaching strategy has additional ideas for student reflection prompts and ways you can use journals to help students process.
  • Graffiti Boards: This teaching strategy brings students into a silent group conversation, and may be helpful to include if you want to give students the option to share their responses with each other in a thoughtful and collaborative way.

We recommend that you allow students to opt out of sharing and that you avoid teaching strategies based in debate. If any students seem particularly distressed, follow up with them one-on-one or refer them to wellness staff at your school.

After you have given students time to reflect and process their initial responses to the event, you may decide to guide your students through strategies for engaging with news coverage of the event in a responsible way. Most people—especially young people—access news through social media. Students may be exposed to news through their social media accounts, including graphic imagery or videos, misinformation, and divisive or offensive comments, alongside accurate and helpful news coverage.

Begin by asking your students all or a selection of the following questions:

  • How do you learn about what’s happening in your community, your country, and around the world?
  • How do you get your news? (Do you get news from peers, parents, teachers, newspapers, or social media?)
  • Do you use any strategies to make sure that the news you follow is reliable?
  • How can you stay informed about the event, while at the same time ensuring that you are taking care of yourself and your peers?
  • What questions should you consider before sharing news on social media or with friends?

Then, read the following excerpt from the Self article, Stressful News Cycle Tips: 13 Ways to Protect Your Mental Health, with your students:

Being a human with an internet connection in the 21st century means being exposed to one stressful news cycle after the other—we’re constantly inundated with headlines, images, and stories about the many newsworthy (often troubling) events unfolding around the globe. It’s true that staying informed about and connected to what’s happening around us can help us better understand and participate in the world we live in. But it’s no secret that being so plugged into the news can also be tough on your mental health—especially during particularly intense media coverage surrounding things like war and conflict, environmental disasters, political elections, mass violence, public health threats, and social calamities.

Ask your students:

  • How often do you check the news? Do you have news alerts set up on your phone?
  • What are the potential benefits of following the news regularly?
  • Do you ever come across news sources or social media posts that are graphic, intense, or upsetting? Are there some types of news coverage you think people should avoid?
  • How can people find a good balance between being informed and being overwhelmed by the news? 

Healthy Media Consumption Tips

Finally, share the following tips for healthy news consumption with your students:

  1. Know when to unplug: Reading or watching the news constantly or having 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, 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 notifications. 
  2. Learn more than the headline: When you do consume the news, consider reading or watching entire pieces from reliable sources. This can help you stay informed about the issues. Also, news outlets devote more coverage to crises than to upbeat stories. Just scrolling through headlines or watching the beginnings of many news clips can expose you to lots of distressing news without helping you learn deeply about the issues.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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 like solidarity to share this content, it can also be disturbing and harmful to those who see it.
  5. Find ways to act: It can feel hard to know what to do in the face of upsetting news. However, our actions do not need to solve an entire problem in order to make a difference. If you choose to act, consider finding small steps you can take, such as helping a friend or neighbor or volunteering for a local organization. 

Ask your students to come up with a plan based on what they learned for how they will follow news of this event.

News of mass violence and war can cause feelings of fear or insecurity, and those with personal connections to the conflict may be feeling particularly vulnerable. Ask your students to respond to one or more of the following prompts in their journals:

  • What can we do if we are feeling vulnerable as a result of this attack?
  • How can we stand with and support others who are feeling vulnerable?
  • What are some meaningful actions we can take, even if only in our own home, neighborhood, or school?

If your students wish to continue to reflect on how they can support themselves and each other in the face of this news, consider using our Toolbox for Care teaching strategy.

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