Diarmuid Breatnach

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I received an on-line invitation to support a protest about the exclusion of Palestinian Studies from the California State high school curriculum on Middle Eastern studies. Aside from the obvious importance and relevance of Palestinian studies in any Middle Eastern syllabus, there is the glaring need for such options in a country that is the biggest supporter of the state of Israel, with which the Palestinians are in conflict. But then it is precisely its relevance that ensures its opposition, nor is it only with regard to Palestine that such exclusion occurs.

After months of controversy, California has released the final version of a model statewide ethnic studies curriculum for use in high schools. The original draft curriculum rightfully included the histories and narratives of Arab Americans, including Palestinians, written by scholars in the field.

Due to pressure from anti-Palestinian organizations, the Arab American lesson no longer includes content developed by Arab American ethnic studies educators, and has NO information about Palestine. Palestinian history and narratives should be central to any ethnic studies curriculum, and this attempted erasure is appalling. …..

We’re not the only ones raising the alarm. All original curriculum drafters have asked for their names to be removed as authors because the revised curriculum no longer represents their work and vision. It no longer highlights contributions and struggles against structural racism and social, political, and economic marginalization. It has become an “All Lives Matter” curriculum.

Mosaic map of Palestine and detail of Jerusalem. Civilisation of Palestine, 5th Century BC. Jerusalem, Museo Di Israele (History Museum) (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)


Some decades ago in London I was involved with a number of others in organising a course called Irish Aspects at Goldsmiths College1. The course was composed of a series of weekly 2-hour evening meetings at the site, which was in the New Cross area of SE London. The sessions would cover, as its title indicated, different aspects related to Ireland, such as literature, politics, history ….

The course did fairly well but when it came to the following year, the College administration indicated they were considering closing it down. The course attendance, despite minimal advertising, was fair and the expense to the College, apart from the heating and lighting in the room we were using, was a mere two hours per week at tutor rate, with which we paid the speakers we brought in.

In discussion with the Director, he admitted that “The case for Irish studies is unanswerable”, by which I clarified that he meant “cannot be opposed”. Nevertheless, they did close down the course and would not even offer us a room in which to meet weekly without any paid tutor hours.

A few years later I applied to the Irish Studies course at University of North London2 and got in a year later. In fact, only half the BA course was in Irish studies and one had to choose another section of the Humanities prospectus to make up the whole. Over the years of studying and engaging with the subject of Irish Studies, I learned that in the whole of Britain there was not one whole degree course available in that subject and the only thing close was Celtic Studies, at the University of Aberyswyth, in west Wales3. So a BA course based on the history, culture, literature, art and language of a neighbouring country, with which the British State had been politically and militarily engaged for 800 years, from which huge migration to Britain had taken place for centuries, was not thought appropriate to make available in any one of over 130 universities in Britain4.

It was of course the same as with the refusal of the Palestinian course in the state of California, USA – its very relevance and importance was the reason why it could not be provided.

It is well documented by many writers and historians that the colonialists and imperialists do not wish the indigenous of the colonised lands to have a good appreciation of their own culture and history and certainly Ireland under British rule provides an abundance of examples of that negation.

But the lack of such courses in Britain did not only deprive Irish migrants and their children of the opportunity of such study, it also deprived the host community, along with other migrant communities. And that too has its rationale.

In a long struggle with a colonised people it would be disastrous for the ruling class if the host of the ruling class to suppress “the natives”. And the potential with regard to Ireland was serious, since the Irish migrant and diaspora community in Britain was huge and some of it well integrated into sections of British society – particularly the working class and its trade union and political expressions.

Mosaic map of Palestine and detail of Jerusalem. Civilisation of Palestine, 5th Century BC. Jerusalem, Museo Di Israele (History Museum) (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

In addition, the Irish had much to teach the host population about the real nature of the British ruling class, since they had seen and felt it with fangs and claws bared, a sight of which the workers in Britain in more recent times caught only an occasional glimpse5.

The people who manage the imperialist and colonialist systems occasionally do stupid things but they are not stupid. They control education as an important ideological process and product. Battles can be fought over course funding and available subjects and these are justified. Some will be won for the ruling class needs its moderates, liberals and revisionists to moderate the content and try to control the discourse and therefore the conclusions. Ultimately however workers and communities from oppressed nations and groups need to set up their own courses and rely on their own resources.



1 Now part of the University of London.

2 Now part of London Metropolitan University.

3 I note that Liverpool University now offers a BA (Hons) course in Irish Studies. However, even there, students in Year One are required to take other 30 credits of subjects outside that curriculum.

4 Ireland was invaded by colonisers from Britain in 1169 and the English occupation is counted from that date; currently Britain holds six counties in the north-east of Ireland as a direct colony. The Irish compose by far the largest ethnic group historically migrating to Britain and for most of its history, past and recent, have been the largest ethnic minority community present.

5 It can hardly be pure coincidence that the Irish in Britain supplied the working class there, as well as with many of its activists and prominent figures, two leaders of its first mass movement (the Chartists), its first classic novel (The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists) and its battle hymn (The Red Flag).

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