March 2019
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Anastasia Khawaja, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida, USA, & Liana Smith, Montgomery College, Rockville, Maryland, USA

Anastasia Khawaja

Liana Smith

Palestine has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967 (and unofficially since 1948). This topic has been extensively chronicled with regard to identity (Khalidi, 2006; Said, 1992), the occupation of Palestine itself (Khalidi, 2010), and the consequences of the occupation (Khalidi, 2013). This occupation has become more commonly known as the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict. The purpose of this article is not to argue the conflict itself, but to discuss the importance of the voices of Palestinian educators within TESOL and the ways in which collaboration can occur with the emphasis on the role of allyship in support of our fellow TESOL educators living inside the Separation Wall.

The Palestinian Educators and Friends Professional Learning Network (PE&F PLN), formerly known as the Palestinian International Interfaith Educators and Friends Forum, made its debut at the TESOL 2016 Convention in Baltimore, Maryland. The stated purpose of the PE&F PLN is

to promote international exchange and collaboration between Palestinian English language educators and friends in the Middle East and concerned TESOL professionals throughout the world. A particular moral, ethical and spiritual emphasis guides us as we engage in courageous interfaith conversations for connections as professionals and in our role as activists as we seek justice for Palestine. (Palestinian Educators and Friends Professional Learning Network, 2017)

The PE&F PLN has strived to make strong connections to Palestine and refugee areas in order to stand in solidarity with fellow TESOL educators in the region by collaborating on projects and papers that help to provide awareness to the occupation and its effects on everyday freedom, especially in the area of education.

Recently, in an effort to provide visuals for a presentation around the issue of privilege and how it relates to those who profess to be experts on the Middle East, it merely took a Google search of “images of US foreign policy experts on the Middle East” to bring up a sea of white—almost entirely male—faces. There is something wrong with that. It is crucial that the voices of those who are impacted the most by a particular issue be the ones that are heard and that are framing the discourse around the issue. This is true in our work as language teachers and it is true if we are working as activists around certain social justice concerns. As language teachers, we know that it makes good sense to use the strengths that our students and their backgrounds bring to enrich our lessons, our classes, and, indeed, our curricula. We need to be aware of the overwhelmingness of the default (or White) culture. It is imperative that we ration our voice and our presence so that other voices and the presence of others is heard and recognized.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously states in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (King & Washington, 2003). Given the difficulties with traveling to and from the United States and other issues of marginalization for Palestinians, it has proven a challenge for Palestinians to take the lead in the PE&F PLN. Therefore, we, two White women, both with personal ties to Palestine, have taken the lead, so to speak, so that Palestinians continue to have a platform to speak out and educate our membership on what it is like to teach and write under occupation. We realize that we walk a fine line in advocacy and allyship despite that one of us is married to a Palestinian and we both have Palestinian-American children. We realize we do not know what it is like to be Palestinian living in the occupation. Even if we are both considered veteran travelers to the region, we visit as White women. Therefore, we feel it is incumbent upon us to be clear about the reality of our White privilege and how that plays out as TESOL educators and as participants in a movement that seeks human rights for Palestinians. If we aren’t explicitly defining and examining this dynamic that we bring to the table, we can’t provide an honest contribution either in our professional lives or in our activist lives. Michael and Conger (2009) state the issue well:

Given the way that whiteness has been rendered invisible in our society, much of our training as white people has taught us to see racism and racial hierarchies as normal. This is probably our single greatest challenge as allies. Even as we work to end racism, it is constantly cultivated in the world around us and in ourselves. We need to persistently root it out. Simultaneously, we must approach our allyship with humility, recognizing that we are fallible and remaining open to feedback and critique. (p. 59)

In other words, we realize that our role as chairs of the PLN are to lead, but more importantly to defer to the Palestinian voices.

TESOL, like many organizations, has a stated nondiscrimination policy. Most of us teach at institutions that have policies that are almost identical. However, if we examine what Michael and Conger are saying about the normalizing nature of racial hierarchies, it behooves us to be more proactive and more explicit in our quest to ensure that racial imbalances and disparities are rooted out and exposed. To do this in our work as TESOL professionals and in our work as organizers, it helps to form alliances or partnerships with groups and individuals who we can work with to address many of these issues.

Within our field, these alliances are often with TESOL members and colleagues in education and academia. It is particularly helpful to have connections with—or indeed be members of—groups like Black English Language Professionals and Friends, the Palestinian English Language Teachers Association, and the Social Responsibility Interest Section. In Palestine activist spheres, there are allies in organizations such as Dream Defenders, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

We are pleased to be able to announce we have been working with many of these groups to be able to bring the Palestinian voices to the forefront in two presentations at the 2019 TESOL Convention. In fact, we invite you to join us at our annual networking session in the Walnut Room on Thursday, March 14, from 12 pm–12:45 pm. In addition, with crucial leadership from TESOL scholars from Ramallah, Hebron, and Bethlehem, we will present a poster session displaying the daily routes they take to and from their home and their jobs. In addition, we have organized a dialogue session to discuss how to better collaborate with scholars in areas under conflict on various educational projects which will both occur on Friday. In creating these two presentations, and in approaching our current roles as activists, scholars, and allies, we realize the pressing need to not just assist in bringing awareness, but also a call to action—a call for action to aid, to support, and to stand in solidarity with our fellow TESOLers in Palestine for change and social justice while also realizing our role is to stand and support, not “take the lead.”


Khalidi, R. (2006). The iron cage: The story of the Palestinian struggle for statehood. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Khalidi, R. (2010). Palestinian identity. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Khalidi, R. (2013). Brokers of deceit: How the US has undermined peace in the Middle East. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

King, M. L., & Washington, J. M. (2003). A testament of hope: The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco

Michael, A., & Conger, M. C. (2009). Becoming an anti-racist ally: How a white affinity group can help. Perspectives on Urban Education, Spring 2009, 56–60.

Palestinian Educators and Friends Professional Learning Network. (2017). Statement of purpose. Retrieved from

Said, E. (1992). The question of Palestine. New York, NY: Vintage.

Anastasia Khawaja has been in the TESOL teaching profession for 12 years. She is a doctoral candidate in second language acquisition/instructional technology at the University of South Florida. Her dissertation research focuses on the emotions associated with languages that Palestinians use in Palestine and in the diaspora. She currently holds the position of senior instructor at INTO University of South Florida and has international teaching experience in Peru, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates. She is currently the co-incoming chair and conewsletter editor for the TESOL Social Responsibility Interest Section as well as cochair for the Palestinian Educators and Friends Professional Learning Network.

Liana Smith has been in the TESOL profession for almost two decades. She is an ESL educator for Montgomery County Schools and Montgomery College. She has extensive teaching experience in many parts of the Middle East, including Palestine. She holds a leadership role in the Washington, DC, chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and is the cochair for the Palestinian Educators and Friends Professional Learning Network.

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SRIS Open Meeting
Please join us at our open meeting on Wednesday, March 13th from 5:00 pm - 6:30 pm in the Walnut room. We will also livestream the meeting on our facebook page.
Next Issue's Theme: Social Justice and the Arts
How do social justice and the arts intersect with language teaching? What arts projects have you done with your students on social issues? Submissions due 15 April, 2019.