Students debate Israel’s future in long-running Hopkins course

Steven David’s longtime course helps students form and share thoughtful opinions about one of the most polarizing conflicts of our time

Steven David holds class outside in March 2024
Steven David holds class outside in March 2024
To commemorate the end of this semester, Johns Hopkins University political science professor Steven David and 16 of his students gathered for lunch across the street from the Homewood campus. Their conversation over pizza was friendly and unremarkable-homework, finals, summer plans-despite a semester spent debating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The students were the latest group to complete David’s longtime, well-received course, Does Israel Have a Future’ It’s a fraught topic, especially in the shadow of the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict. Yet Hopkins students don’t shy away from the debate: David has had to turn many students away in the eight years since he started teaching the class due to a 15-student cap (this year’s 16th student made "a totally compelling case to be in the class" and was granted admission).

"So if you have your opinion, let it be an informed opinion, and have a little empathy for people who disagree with you. There’s not enough of that going around these days."

Steven David The course’s titular question reflects its Socratic spirit.

"I’ve always been interested in the Middle East, especially the situation with Israel," David says. "I’ve been working on a book that examines existential threats to Israel, beginning in ancient times and coming up to contemporary times. I thought having a class that paralleled the themes of this book made sense."

Readings cover the rocky terrain of the conflict’s history and provide commentary from experts on all sides. If students don’t leave the course with a definitive answer to the question of Israel’s future, they’re at least able to form an educated opinion-and argue it while understanding opposing views.

The Hub sat down with David to discuss how he fosters civility and empathy while teaching one of the most polarizing conflicts of our time.

In higher education settings, there’s a lot of talk about bridging divides and having civil discussions of difficult topics, but what does that actually look like in practice’

It’s actually easier than you might think. The students who attend the class know that we encourage debate and dissent from each other and from me, but also in a very civil and respectful way. And all the students respected that. They had emotional connections to this issue. Some of the students had relatives in the Israeli Defense Forces; some had family in Gaza. So many of the students had a personal stake in what’s going on. Others were just intensely interested in learning more. As the readings reflected, there were very powerful views and opposition with one another, but at least the students debated in the context of knowledge-they learned the history of the conflict, different perspectives of the conflict, what happened when, why various groups at different times held the positions they did. So when they came to their own viewpoints, they did it from a place where they knew a lot about what they were talking about. And I don’t think that’s the case more generally.

Debating Israel’s future, one week at a time
/ The Chronicle of Higher Education

How did this year’s class differ from previous iterations’ Did you notice a change in the tenor of discussions since the conflict has become so much more emotionally charged this year’

The class’s theme revolves around threats to Israel’s existence, both domestic and external. In the past, we focused more on internal threats: people who want Israel to be a Jewish state, not a democracy. People who want Israel to be a democracy and not a Jewish state. The Arab minority, the ultra Orthodox-I can go on and on. Now, the external threat has become much more salient. Furthermore, all the protests, demonstrations on campus, and the events of Oct. 7 gave a new immediacy and relevance to the class.

One of the most moving moments in the class, at least for me, is when we went around the room and discussed how October 7th affected the students individually. This was a departure from the more academic arguments that we held. It was very emotional, and it brought students to tears, both Jewish students and Muslim students. This is something that affected everyone on a very personal, emotional level. And I think it was good for students to see that. Not only Jewish and Muslim students, but students who had no obvious or direct connection with the conflict. So this class was very different from prior classes.

I would guess that students seeing their classmates get emotional-seeing that this conflict directly impacts your classmates-probably makes students act more civil in conversation.

That’s true. [You’re able to realize] it’s not just me who has a stake in what’s going on in this conflict, it’s others as well.

I think a lot of people’s knee-jerk reaction to different opinions, especially with regards to this conflict, is to label the person with an opposing viewpoint as bad. I’m curious if you see that kind of labeling play out in your classroom, or if your class structure somehow mitigates that behavior.

I don’t think anyone in class saw people with different views as being evil or bad. There was an effort by everyone, including myself, to try and understand how people came to hold their viewpoints.

At the beginning of the semester, we had debates assigned for each week on very controversial issues. Is BDS [Boycott, Divest, Sanction, a protest movement against Israeli businesses] anti-Semitic’ Is Israel solely responsible for the Palestinian refugee problem’ Was the creation of Israel justified’ I asked the students to pick the side they agreed with, and then before the debates began, I flipped them. So every student had to argue a side that he or she initially disagreed with, often fervently. And I think this enabled them to get into the shoes, at least somewhat, of the people with whom they were arguing. And I think that helped.

Throughout the course, I also made a point of assigning articles and books that convey very different opinions. I didn’t want to simply have a textbook that tries to homogenize different views, but have the students read from advocates of each position themselves-that Israel is a settler colony, that Israel is not a settler colony, that Israel has an important right to exist, that it doesn’t have a right to exist, that Israel is a democracy, that it’s not a democracy.

And I think the students were whipsawed back and forth. They’d read something and think, "Wow, I agree with this." And then they read something else and think, "Well, wait a minute, I agree with that." Hopefully at the end, they developed a more nuanced understanding of what is happening. And my object wasn’t to say that no one is wrong, no one is right, and all views are of equal value. Yes, of course you have opinions at the end, but at least let your opinions be informed by those who’ve looked at the issue carefully and with reference to history and politics. So if you have your opinion, let it be an informed opinion, and have a little empathy for people who disagree with you. There’s not enough of that going around these days.

What do you hope that students ultimately take away from this course’

I hope they take away first, again, the knowledge of how this conflict emerged and that it is not simply a black and white issue. And that they can argue their views from an educated position. And I hope it galvanizes them to talk to others and maybe become politically active in pushing for their perspective in the public sphere, in the policy sphere, that they don’t simply take the class and wash their hands of it. I hope it stays with them for a very long time.

What has teaching this course taught you’

It’s given me a renewed appreciation for Hopkins students. They do the work, they’re thoughtful, and at least in a classroom setting, they’re prepared to modify their views in a civil, reasonable way when confronted with arguments that make them realize they weren’t a hundred percent right about something. And it’s not so much about where they come out [on the issue of Israel and Palestine]. I don’t know if students’ views have been dramatically changed by this class, but they certainly have, I hope, a more sophisticated and empathetic view of this conflict than many of their peers.