Joe Eskenazi is a staff writer for j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California.
Palestinian "Resistance Poetry" Class Causes Academic Uproar at U.C. Berkeley
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California and is reprinted with permission. Visit www.JewishSF.com.
SAN FRANCISCO, May 14 - Ami Nahshon has launched a campaign to pressure U.C. Berkeley into dumping a course he claims is blatantly anti-Israel and strays into the realm of indoctrination.
The object of Nahshon's ire is a class on the U.C. Berkeley fall schedule entitled "Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance." The East Bay federation director claims the freshman course slated to be taught by graduate student and pro-Palestinian activist Snehal Shingavi isn't education but propagandizing.
"This course represents another step on what is a slippery slope of intimidation and inhospitability to Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus," said Nahshon.
Last week Nahshon fired off a mass e-mail to over 2,500 recipients expressing his concerns. The class, he believes, must be dropped.
"The course, as constructed, truly does not belong. We've made clear our views to the university that a course teaching indoctrination rather than education is inappropriate to the university environment," he said. "I think the most straightforward way to see that doesn't happen is to remove the course. If the university has other ways, certainly this is their expertise, and I'd like to hear about them."
In his e-mail, Nahshon urged recipients to write letters to university administrators, and many have taken him up on his offer.
Stephen Miller, a mathematics professor at Rutgers University and a 1993 U.C. Berkeley graduate, didn't need Nahshon to prod him into placing an angry phone call to his alma mater. "The one thing I think is indisputable is that this is incredibly embarrassing for Berkeley. And it cheapens the degree of anyone who went to Berkeley if Berkeley will stand for a class that pre-screens people based on opinion," said the New York City resident. "Any system where a graduate student can devise a class on his own without any sort of check on it from the department is bad. It's a really bad system when a graduate student can design a class and an entire university can look stupid."
The class swept U.C. Berkeley into the center of a media maelstrom last week, as critics ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the university and Shingavi for his blatantly stilted course description and suggestion for "conservative thinkers" to avoid his class.
"Since the inception of the Intifada in September of 2000, Palestinians have been fighting for their right to exist. The brutal Israeli military occupation of Palestine, an occupation that has been ongoing since 1948, has systematically displaced, killed, and maimed millions of Palestinian people," reads the course description for English R1A, a course intended for incoming freshman to complete their reading and comprehension requirement.
"This class takes as its starting point the right of Palestinians to fight for their own self-determination. Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections."
Shingavi, a fifth-year graduate student in the English department, is a leader of the Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as the campus head of the International Socialist Organization. He is also active in the Stop the War Coalition and has organized campus activism against sweatshop labor as well. Messages left for him were not returned.
Professor Janet Adelman, the English department's faculty chair, said she too takes issue with Shingavi's "obviously partisan description," and blatant violation of the university's code of conduct in urging those of a mindset other than his own to avoid his course. Shingavi has encouraged those with "ideological conflicts" to pass on his classes in the past, which Adelman characterized as "a problem." At her behest, he removed his "conservative thinkers" tagline from his course's online description last Friday.
Despite her differences with Shingavi, Adelman defends his right to teach, and said neither she nor the university plan to pull the plug on the class he created.
"The university decided and I agree that it is within the instructor's right to shape the material in a way that he wants to as long as he allows open conversations in the classroom and grading is done by the announced criteria of the class, which is concerned with skill and argumentation rather than according to the students' political views," she said.
"I am committed to ensuring that an open discussion on the issues the class deals with takes place. That, by definition, means that indoctrination is not taking place."
The English department has fallen into the bad habit of allowing graduate students "virtual autonomy" in creating their 1A courses, according to Adelman. Many, she believes, craft courses "too sophisticated for beginning students who are learning how to conduct an argument." In the future, she promised, courses will be reviewed by a faculty member to ensure they contain no "conservatives need not apply"-like statements that would violate the university's code of conduct.
Nahshon, however, is unimpressed with Shingavi's semantic change in removing the "conservative thinkers" clause from his course description.
"I think taking that language out doesn't change the substance of the issue one iota," said Nahshon, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. "This is a course premised on a series of political views which, certainly, the graduate student teaching it has a right to espouse. But this is a course in the English department, not on political movements in the 21st century. To base the course on the premise of demonizing Israel for victimizing the Palestinian people as described in that course description is just grossly inappropriate and dangerous."
Adelman is currently in the process of working with Shingavi to settle upon a non-invasive method in which his class can be monitored. She adds that the English department has been deluged with calls and e-mails, many of which she characterized as incredibly vitriolic and hateful. "That's despicable," said Adam Weisberg of the hurtful messages relayed to Adelman's office. The executive director of Berkeley Hillel maintained that "if people have concerns about this class, they have every right to articulate it. But they have to articulate it in a thoughtful, intelligent manner that doesn't make this into a personal issue." Weisberg concurs with Adelman that an analysis of resistance poetry is a legitimate academic pursuit.
"There is full legitimacy of the literature of many genres being taught in a university setting. And I think the literature suggested for this course probably has a place in the academy as well," he said. "It's incumbent on any instructor to not grind a political axe or push a particular viewpoint. I hope [Shingavi] would honor that responsibility and rise to the occasion."
Others are not so sure. "I think this is yet another example of political indoctrination taking precedence over debates and discussion," Israel Action Committee Co-Chairman Randy Barnes told the Daily Californian.
"This is just one more reason Cal is the laughingstock of the country."