Working to Strengthen Citizen-Centered Democracy in a Time of Faltering Hope

By Lonnie Rowell


In our latest publication, SPF presented an essay on the creation of a new antisemitism curriculum entitled Antisemitism from a framework of collective Liberation (Antisemitism from a Framework of Collective Liberation – Social Publishers Foundation). The curriculum was created by members of PARCEO – an education, resource, and research center based in New York City – focused on strengthening educational, organizing, research, and cultural work for justice, along with other educators, activists, and scholars. The SPF essay discusses the historical, socio-cultural and socio-political contexts for the 6-part PARCEO curriculum. The curriculum includes “excerpts from articles and books; videos; visuals; poetry and music; handouts; and reflection questions for discussion and analysis.” All in all, the project appears to be very well thought out and the curriculum includes numerous opportunities for deepening understandings of the history and dangers of antisemitism and other hatreds and forms of oppression. The curriculum speaks to the need for both school-based and community-based efforts to help us turn away from the fear-and-hatred infused polarizations of our current times. I appreciate PARCEO for what amounts to, in my view, a significant public service.

While I am not a formal curriculum reviewer, my 30+ years in K-12 and higher education included lots and lots of hours developing curriculum in social justice-oriented K-12 education and then in higher education as a counselor educator. I have published and presented locally, nationally, and globally on social justice issues and have reviewed countless social justice-oriented submissions as a journal editor and SPF reviewer. Based on all of this experience I have a strong sense of how much work goes into putting together curriculum in a challenging subject area and of how fraught with difficulties such efforts can be. The work is not for the faint of heart.   

I am also mindful that in our current times efforts such as those of PARCEO will be resisted in many locales by many groups. The resistance will come from people who most need introductions to dealing with complex social issues in ways that hold in check and perhaps decrease tendencies to grossly oversimplify and narrow-mindedly politicize challenging issues. The resistance goes far beyond opposing social justice curriculum-building, of course, and in general undermines diverse efforts to increase our personal and social capacities for seeking creative solutions to social, psychological, and national and global challenges posed by our current turbulences and polarizations. In regard to the U.S., television news program host and liberal social commentator Rachel Maddow recently summarized the appeal of Donald Trump to a significant segment of the American electorate in relation to his “simple offer” to the country[i]. As Maddow sees it, Trump’s offer is to end “politics as we have known it” by replacing the inherent complexity, pushes and pulls, and competing interests of democracy with a strong-man rule in which the whims of an authoritarian ruler drive domestic and foreign policy as well as government practice. She asserts that the appeal of strong man leadership reflects a desire for a simpler life and a relief from the tensions of elections, the imperfections of government operations, the intricacies of laws and courts, and the confusions of political claims and counter claims. Beyond Maddow’s points, I would add the exasperation tied to the incredible proliferation of social media and the accompanying bombardment of our thinking capacities by unending downpours of information and disinformation. There are times for all of us when we just want to scream “STOP!”

The new PARCEO antisemitism curriculum reflects a very different kind of response. It is a call to individuals and communities to do our homework in relation to the realities of collective hatreds and historical traumas. It is an invitation to sharpen our critical thinking, civic engagement, and civic literacy skills. In essence, the new PARCEO curriculum addresses confusions, misperceptions, and misrepresentations regarding the current crisis in the Middle East. Two critical questions about international and domestic news on current events in Gaza and Israel come to mind: (1) Is it possible to question Israel’s actions following the brutal Hamas attack on its people and lands without being an antisemite? and (2) Is it possible to condemn the rule of Hamas in Palestinian territories, and the role of terror organizations in the Middle East in general, without being Islamophobic?

Unfortunately, in my view, the answer to both questions is “yes and no.” I say unfortunate because while from a rational and carefully considered perspective that allows for distaste of all politically sanctioned military invasions and of violence in general, of course not every objection to Israel’s military pounding of Gaza is based in antisemitic beliefs, a reply to the first question can be and has been constructed in such a way that any objection to Israel’s current military campaign appears to be based on antisemitism. And the same is true of the second question. In this view, any support for Israel and for Jewish people in general must be based on Islamophobia. Yet, from another perspective of course it is possible to empathize with the Palestinian people without being a supporter of Hamas and to empathize with the rage, fear, and trauma of the Israeli people in relation to the invasion they endured in October 2023 without being supportive of Israel’s dropping an estimated 29,000 bombs on Gaza since the invasion. So, the unfortunate dimension of replying to either question is that both reflect the entrenched desire for simplistic answers to tough issues. In this sense, a high point for the majority of Republican political operatives must have been the glee they experienced seeing college presidents struggle with addressing what is happening on their campuses now in relation to protests and counter-protests concerning the Middle East. By the way, any use of the phrase “it depends on the context” is hated in circles of simplicity.  

The brief discussion above points back to Rachel Maddow’s consideration of the appeal of authoritarianism. In rule by a strong man, there is no need to consider the complexities of democratic decision-making and political judgement associated with questions surrounding tough issues. ‘Leave it all up to the strong man’ is the simple refrain. No need to question, let’s just go along with authoritarian measures such as mass deportations of immigrants, separating children and parents at the border, demonization of those fleeing repressive governments from the South of our borders, condemnation of those who wish to celebrate their difference in what for many are awkward and offensive ways, and ridiculing those who seek to find fresh voices as a part of shaking off colonialist mentalities and recovering from historical traumatization.

In the context of these considerations, will the new PARCEO curriculum, and others like it that approach difficult social issues from more nuanced and well-researched stances that recognize the intrinsic complexities of our world’s issues, socio-political infrastructures, psychological tensions, and historical traumas stand a chance of making an impact? In my view, we have to hope so. And I am thankful for any and all evidence that validates this hope. Harry C. Boyte is a long-time organizer and author of nine books on citizenship, democracy, and community organizing[ii]. Since 2016 he has focused considerable attention on the issue of threats to democracy posed by the Trumpian phenomenon and the prospects of a democratic reawakening in relation to these threats. His deep commitment to, and experience building, ‘citizen-centered democracy’ is an uplifting counter to proclamations of doom regarding the state of our national, state, and local political lives. Boyte consistently calls for a nonviolent, productive, and cross-partisan politics. In my view resources such as the new PARCEO antisemitism curriculum are the practical tools needed for creating such a politics. While the use of such tools is not easy, and putting them to use requires no small amount of courage, the fact that people such as the authors of the new SPF essay continue to construct them and make them available to larger publics is a signpost on the needed path forward.  

[i] See

[ii] See Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship; Also