History Through a New Lens: Islamic and Jewish History at Stuyvesant

A deep dive into two courses that examine history through the lens of religious minority groups, allowing students to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities within the Islamic and Jewish experiences.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Whether it’s Global History during freshman and sophomore year or United States History during junior year, the standard history classes offered at Stuyvesant attempt to fit centuries’ worth of history into a single school year. Though there have been efforts to make the history curriculum more nuanced by including the perspectives of Native Americans and African Americans, history is inevitably simplified to fit into a couple hundred pages of a textbook. Stuyvesant has two electives, History of the Islamic World taught by Dr. Zachary Berman, and Jewish History taught by Robert Sandler, that examine history through the lens of two religious groups, allowing students to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities within the Islamic and Jewish experiences.

Junior Khadijah Shoaab is currently taking History of the Islamic World. She enrolled in the elective because she wanted to become educated in the geopolitical history of the Islamic religion and learn more about her Muslim identity. Shoaab expressed appreciation for how the course not only educates but also serves as a safe haven for discussing religious issues pertaining to Islam. “[This course] has allowed me to have a comfortable environment to discuss different aspects of my religion and also allows me to have an interesting course that doesn't feel like a chore,” Shoaab explained. Shoaab commented on how thought-provoking their class discussions were: “It was the start of the semester, and Dr. Berman had hit us with the question of ‘What is a Muslim?’ Shoaab explained. “There is of course the short answer: someone who follows the five pillars of Islam. But, for some reason, we were all stumped because even though it seems like a simple question, it is very nuanced and has so many layers. We ended up spending more than half the period discussing it, and it was very interesting.”

In Shoaab’s experience, History of the Islamic World shines light onto topics regarding Islam that are often glossed over or not mentioned at all in alternative history courses. “Islam as a whole isn’t ever given more than a couple sections in a school textbook, and [regular history courses] are so focused on the Christian [and] European world for most of the chapters,” Shoaabb stated. “In [History of the Islamic World], it makes the distinction that the Islamic world was growing and falling and spreading […] all while the Western world was also going through its development, and in my opinion, that is never really discussed. So this class takes all this information we are never really shown and displays it to us in a way that makes it clear that these two ‘worlds’ are happening at the same time.”

Shoaab stated that her prior knowledge of Islam influences her experience in History of the Islamic World: “This class is different in that I feel like I have so much more background knowledge than I know instead of learning the things from scratch like I would in a normal history class.” However, Shoaab explained that prior knowledge isn't necessary to gain insight from the class. “Even if you didn’t have background knowledge on Islam, [Dr. Berman] makes it so that we all have a common understanding and allows there to be so much open discussion, so it’s just a nice environment,” Shoaab stated.

Junior Eric Gao is currently taking Sandler’s Jewish History course. Initially, he was unsure if he wanted to take the course and ranked it fifth on his program request form. However, his new interest in Jewish History ultimately led him to keep the course on his schedule.

Gao explained that, similar to History of the Islamic World, Jewish History goes into much greater depth than a standard history class: “I've noticed that in regular history classes, the focus rarely extends beyond the Holocaust when it comes to Jewish history. We've never delved into the lives of crucial Jewish figures, like Maimonides, and we never learn important topics like the Judean Temples, Roman and Byzantine exiles, and more, in Global History classes. Even when we studied the fall of Islamic Spain, Jewish history was not explored despite Jews making up a decent portion of Spain.”

Gao explained that the insight he has gained from the course applies to present times. “Taking the course has heightened my awareness of the historical struggles of the Jewish people and the deeply rooted issue of antisemitism in our modern society […] which [has] allowed me to understand the origins of certain stereotypes and traditions.”

Gao added that the insight he gained from taking Jewish History has also influenced his outlook on the current Israel-Hamas war. “We’ve recently discussed the development of Zionism in the 1800s, revealing that it hasn't always been this violent idea many people think it is—at least not until the 20th century. While I personally do not support the settlement of Palestine and the current state of Zionism at all, understanding the history of Jews in Israel and the intentions of Zionism has broadened my perspective. It’s evident that many people lack an understanding of the Jewish identity, and this contributes to a lot of attacks on the Jewish community and obscures the rich history and traumas they have endured for the last 2,000+ years,” Gao commented.

Senior Theodore Landa, who is Jewish, states that taking Jewish History has allowed him to develop a more comprehensive understanding of current events. “People like to see events in a vacuum, and they really cannot be seen in a vacuum. [There are labels like] ‘the oppressed’ and ‘the oppressor.’ But in this case, it is more complicated. So if you understand the history, in this case, Jewish history, it becomes more evident why the situation is what it is now and why Jews are so set on protecting Israel. It definitely does not excuse the things that Israel is doing [to Palestinian people]. But it is important to understand that each side has genuine grievances.”

Landa also said that Jewish History has widened his perspective on New York City. According to the course description, one of the highlights of the Jewish History elective is that Sandler takes his class on a walking tour of the Lower East Side. “When I walk down the street, it feels like I am walking through history [...] Every block, every street, every building, it has layers to it. What was here before this? Maybe there is a different business, or different ethnic group living here now, but you can still see traces of the Jewish community that have lived here before.”

It is important to note that improvements could be made within the curricula of both History of the Islamic World and Jewish History. For History of the Islamic World, Shoaab explained that there are still significant topics in Islamic history that weren’t covered in-depth due to time constraints and content prioritization. “I wish there was more of a focus on our Prophet’s life within the curriculum because his life story is a very huge part of Islam and how it spread and I feel like it wasn't spoken about enough before starting on the things that happened after his death,” Shoaab explained.

In regards to Jewish History, Gao explained that the course’s high specificity and broad time period contribute to a rigorous and sometimes intimidating workload: “This course covers thousands of years of history in-depth, which makes it very challenging compared to other electives. […] The workload in this class is more substantial than in other history courses. This, however, is balanced by the enlightening content.”

Classes like the History of the Islamic World and Jewish History offer students an opportunity to analyze the past (and present) from a unique perspective. Broadening historical narratives beyond the standard curriculum can help students develop closer ties to their culture or diversify their worldview. We hope that Stuyvesant can offer more specialized history electives in the future—after all, being open-minded historical thinkers is closely intertwined with our ability to analyze current politics in a nuanced way.