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Will PBS Be a Victim of ‘Dying to be a Martyr’?
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An online lesson plan that is more than 10 years old and is about conflict in the Middle East and suicide bombers has been recently discovered by numerous conservative websites that are using it to hammer PBS. The specific lesson plan at issue, part of the online PBS LearningMedia library that PBS says includes more than 120,000 free multimedia resources for teachers and students, is called “Dying to be a Martyr.”

The first person to write about this on on April 12 was Justin Haskins, an executive editor at the Heartland Institute. His article, labeled “Exclusive,” carried this headline: “PBS lesson plan encourages students, teachers to sympathize with Islamic suicide bombers.”

PBS, in a response to questions that I asked about these web critiques and this lesson plan, vigorously denies that interpretation and says, “In no way does it condone the heinous actions of individuals who would target innocent civilians. PBS would strongly condemn any assertion that terrorism is ever appropriate.”

That is certainly correct, except that the critics, whatever their motive (could it be because PBS funding is on the line in the new Trump administration budget?), raise what I consider to be some legitimate questions about the content, or more precisely as I read it, a lack of more contextual content, within this lesson plan. And is the fact that this plan is more than a decade old and only now getting lots of attention because no one really paid any attention to it until recently, or is it that the new and sudden attention is intentionally being used by critics as another way to support the de-funding of PBS?

Follow-up articles quickly appeared on, on and the as well as and Even "FOX & friends" got into it. There may be more. All of the articles also reported that the sources of funding for the lesson plan were the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is the umbrella public broadcasting organization and distributor of federal funding, and J.P. Morgan Chase.

There is actually quite a lot of good material in the teaching plan, including two powerful on-camera interviews with Palestinian suicide bombers. One is with an 18-year-old named Mohanned Abu Tayyoun, now in an Israeli jail, who waivered on his commitment and decided not to carry out his mission. The other is an interview with a 25-year-old Palestinian, Majdi Amer, who eventually, in 2003, did go through with a suicide attack on a bus in Haifa that killed 17 people and wounded 50.

It is, in my view, important to hear such views and understand what motivates them. It is also undeniable that life for Palestinians in the territories Israel occupied after the 1967 war—and with close to 600,000 Jewish settlers now living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—can be and often is desperate, hopeless and humiliating for many. It is also unfortunately true that this struggle has been going on for decades and may well go on for decades to come. So teaching plans that are helpful for youngsters in the grades 9-12 are a good thing.

But those who are now writing critically about this, whatever their motivation, raise some challenges worth thinking about, in my view. So it is, also in my view, worth reading Haskins' article and some of the others, as well as the LearningMedia lesson plan linked to above and again below, to form your own judgment.

Some Questions Raised

For example, Haskins notes: “Nothing in the instructions tells teachers to denounce Mohanned’s claims or radical Islamic views in general,” and “no instructions are provided telling teachers to denounce the radical claims by Majdi and there are no other lesson plans describing the conflict from the point of view of the Israelis.” The piece points out, for example, that “the immorality of mercilessly slaughtering innocent human lives is not discussed in PBS’s teacher’s guide.”

On Monday, I sent an email to PBS corporate communications pointing out that “the critiques make a couple of specific criticisms 1) that the project 'seems to encourage students to learn to sympathize with radical Islamic terrorists,' 2) that there is no instructions or denunciation of the immorality of suicide bombing, and also radical Islam, and 3) that there is no lesson plan describing the conflict and the tactics from an Israeli point of view." I added: “Grateful if you could provide substantive responses from the producers and PBS about these issues, and also any general comments they wish to make about the criticisms.”

Aside from the quote above from PBS condemning any assertion that terrorism is ever appropriate, PBS has also sent a quite lengthy response to the questions raised in the articles that I forwarded to PBS. That is posted below.

Stumbling Across It

Meanwhile, I emailed Haskins, the author of the initial article, and asked how and why this all came about involving something that’s been around for more than ten years. Here’s some of what he said:

“I'm the source of the story, as you probably figured out. Prior to my reporting, I can't find a single other person who has reported on it in 10 years. The reason it's getting a lot of attention, frankly, is because no one knew it existed. It's buried on the back of a website only used by students and teachers (I realize I'm generalizing), and no one knew it was there. I certainly had never heard of it before.

"I stumbled on it, frankly, while researching for another story. The Christian Action Network (CAN), as I'm sure you know, recently threatened to file a lawsuit against the Department of Education because the PBS LearningMedia website contained lesson plans that [the] organization claims 'indoctrinates' kids into Islam without giving balance to other religious groups. As an aside, I don't think those lesson plans are troubling at all. I'm glad kids are learning about Islam, although I'd like them to learn about other religions too through LearningMedia's lesson plans.

“While searching through those lesson plans, the ‘related’ ‘Dying to be a Martyr’ lesson plan popped up. I was curious, read through it, and decided to report on it. I reached out to the teacher who crafted the lesson plan, but she didn't return my request for comment. Although it has received a lot of attention, I think it could receive more attention once the budget debate heats up, as you alluded to.”

My Thoughts

Before I record the lengthy PBS response to the specific questions raised, I want to explain my interest and lay out my thoughts.

Most importantly, the LearningMedia lesson plan at issue, “Dying to be a Martyr,” is just that, a guide to examining “the roots of the Middle East conflict.” It is not a television program, which is what I normally deal with, but rather a classroom guide, and it is impossible to know exactly how teachers actually use it and/or expand on it and what students bring to it. So it is hard to label such a thing fairly.

Also, I strongly suspect, but could not prove, that the appearance and interpretation of the 10-year-old lesson plan suddenly on these conservative websites was conveniently linked to sympathizing with suicide bombers because it could provide ammunition to those seeking to defund public broadcasting.

On the other hand, as I said toward the top, some of the points posed by the critics strike me as legitimate challenges. My own reading of the lesson plan was that the overall tone it projected was more tilted toward understanding the plight of the Palestinians—which is very real—than to the impact, and especially the immorality, of suicide bombings as a recourse; that the most powerful elements were those bomber videos and that it was more focused on the drama of capturing the voices and desperation of the bombers than on the immorality of the act itself. That is just my impression and it may not be correct. This is a very ambiguous and essentially impossible thing to address with any certainty since we don’t know what actually goes on or is said in classrooms that may use it.

The material, as noted, is also more than 10 years old. And, as you will see below, there is one suggested activity in the plan’s text in which students are asked to take on a reporter's role and write articles and draw conclusions about the impact of witnessing such a bombing and the motivations and the impact on Israelis.

PBS Corporate Communications Responds:

"Here is a direct link to the lesson plan in question on LearningMedia, so you can see all of its elements. Here are direct answers to the three questions you raised around this lesson plan titled 'Dying to Be A Martyr.'

1) The project seems to encourage students to learn to sympathize with radical Islamic terrorists

This lesson, one of 10 lesson plans which utilized video from the award-winning WNET documentary series WIDE ANGLE (which has been off the air since 2009), helps high school students grapple with the complexity of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The instructional activities that are part of the lesson plan (e.g., the culminating activity for students to 'create an objective newspaper article from the perspective of a reporter who has just witnessed a suicide bombing. The article will include background on the conflict, motivations of the bombers, impact of the bombing on Israelis, and a conclusion') and the accompanying resources all provide a multi-faceted view of the issue. Additionally, the Final Report to the CPB and the Project Narrative [which were attached to the message to me] detail the educators, curriculum advisors, and policy experts (i.e., New York State Master Teachers, the College Board, the Asia Society, the National Teacher Training Institute, and others) that were part of the team that created these materials.

2) That there is no instructions or denunciation of  suicide bombing, and also radical Islam, 

In no way does this lesson condone the heinous actions of individuals who target innocent civilians. PBS strongly condemns any assertion that terrorism is ever appropriate. These materials were created more than a decade ago by New York State Global and Advanced Placement History teachers for high school history and geography students, using video content from the award-winning WIDE ANGLE documentary series. These lesson plans tackled tough topics like suicide bombing, totalitarianism in North Korea, and the Chechen–Russian conflict. 

The 'Dying to Be a Martyr' lesson plan and resources aim to help teachers explore the Middle East’s complex history and 'the roots of the terrorism that threatens the world we live in' and is intended to be used as supplementary material at the teacher’s discretion and adapted for their classroom context and state standards. It includes resources for teachers such as information on Christianity, Judaism and Islam; the Balfour Declaration; and U.N. Resolution 181. These materials are meant to help teachers and students, together, unpack complex topics in a classroom discussion as a basis to challenge the views of the young men in the videos. 

3) There is no lesson plan describing the conflict and the tactics from an Israeli point of view.

The answer to question 1 addresses this criticism. If you review the lesson plan in full, you will see that there are a number of activities that allow teachers and students to explore both sides of the conflict. The lesson is meant to be a starting point for teachers to explore different viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with their students."