Richard L. Cravatts

Perverting College Coursework to Conform to Ideology

In April of 2012, the California Association of Scholars, a division of the National Association of Scholars, prepared a report for the University of California Regents entitled, “A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California.” In that report, the association outlined in a thoughtful way how the politicization of teaching by the professoriate degraded academic integrity, conflicted with the core principles of academia, and was antithetical to the promotion of scholarship and the pursuit of meaningful learning.

In fact, the report suggested, “Political activism is the antithesis of academic teaching and research. Its habits of thought and behavior are un-academic, even antiacademic.” Why is that? Because, the report said, “. . . political activism values politically desirable results more than the process by which conclusions are reached. In education, those priorities must be reversed.”

Imposing a one-sided, pre-determined line of thought in coursework has the exact opposite effect that most universities strive to achieve; namely, preventing the truth from emerging as a result of considering competing views and coming to conclusions about the truth by analyzing many views on a topic. “. . .The fixed quality of a political belief system will stifle intellectual curiosity and freedom of thought when it dominates a classroom,” the report noted. “In any worthwhile college education, a student’s mind must have the freedom to think afresh and to follow wherever facts or arguments lead. But this freedom of movement is constrained when the end process of thought has already been fixed in advance by a political agenda.”

Apparently, the recommendations in this report have been forgotten at least at one UC school—Berkeley—where this fall a student-taught, one-credit course, “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis,” drew collective howls of indignation from Jewish organizations and others who saw the course as being a prime example of politicized instruction that not only seemed to violate the spirit and letter of the Regent’s policy on course content, “constitut[ing] misuse of the University as an institution,” but also, more troublingly, had as its primary teaching purpose an assault on Zionism itself, and a blueprint for the possibility of dismantling Israel through “decolonization.”

Tellingly, Israel as a sovereign, democratic state is not even mentioned in the course syllabus; instead, the factitious country of Palestine is the focus of the course, an area now overrun by colonial “settlers” who might reasonably be extirpated by utilizing the ideological tactics outlined in the coursework. The revealing syllabus notes that the course will “. . . examine key historical developments that have taken place in Palestine, from the 1880s to the present, through the lens of settler colonialism . . . [and] will explore the connection between Zionism and settler colonialism . . . in Palestine. Lastly, drawing upon literature on decolonization, we will explore the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine, one in which justice is realized for all its peoples and equality is not only espoused, but practiced.”

With the familiar tropes that animate various discussions about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the course constructs a false narrative about Zionism, Israel, and the Palestinian Arabs, erasing any Jewish connection to Judea, Samaria, Gaza, and what became Israel; characterizing Israelis as mere settlers, colonizers from European states who created a Jewish state with no viable connection to the land and whose imperial dreams subjugated an indigenous Palestinian people and populated their lands through land theft, displacement, and ethnic cleansing; denying Jews the right of self-affirmation, and framing Zionism as malignant and immoral, while simultaneously sanctifying that same right on the part of the Palestinians in their disingenuous campaign to achieved statehood.

The problem with narratives, of course, is that they are artificial, contrived, ahistorical, and spurious, favored by social justice advocates and a nod to the postmodernist thinking of Michel Foucault. Foucault’s concept of “discourses” suggested that knowledge was based on a series on “constructs,” that this essential artificiality of ideas, history, culture—all of it was subject to question and no one narrative was intrinsically superior to or more valid than another. So it may serve the ideology and political purposes of this course to trumpet Israel’s perceived defects—apartheid, imperialism, militarism, and settler colonialism, among them—but filling a syllabus with readings from a long, well-known list of Israel-haters and pro-Palestinian, anti-Semitic activists does not an academically-sound course offering make.

Nor is it surprising that the faculty sponsor of the incendiary course is Hatem Bazian. Bazian is a lecturer in the Departments of Near Eastern and Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies at Berkeley, a native Palestinian, and one of the “101 most dangerous academics in America,” according to commentator David Horowitz in his book by the same name. In November, 2000 when Benjamin Netanyahu, who at the time had been out of office for two years from his first term as Israel’s prime minister, was prevented from delivering a speech at Berkeley, it was Bazian who was able to insert his favorite narrative into the evening’s activities, namely, how Netanyahu, as a representative of the Jewish state, had to answer for the occupation “by settlers,” in Bazian’s view, “who are the most racist and fascist people on the face of the earth.”

When he is not busy calling for an intifada in America or bemoaning the omnipotence of wealthy Jews in academia, Bazian has not hesitated to seek inspiration from the Koranic texts, such as the use of a particularly noxious segment which he delivered at a 1996 American Muslim Conference with the theme of creating an Islamic State of Palestine.  In his book American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us, Steven Emerson quoted Bazian as reciting to the crowd, “‘In the Hadith, the Day of Judgment will never happen until you fight the Jews . . . and the stones will say, ‘Oh Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me. Come and kill him!’”

Nor is this the first time a troubling course has been offered in the UC system. In 2015, a one-credit course, entitled “Palestine & Israel: Settler-Colonialism and Apartheid,” was taught at UC Riverside by an undergraduate, Tina Matar, who unsurprisingly was a leader at that Riverside’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and instrumental in promoting an anti-Israel divestment resolution.  The syllabus for the Riverside course was remarkably consistent with the Berkley version, accusing Israel of occupying Palestinian land to which they had no reasonable claim, colonizing it, establishing a system of apartheid, and, after ethnically cleansing the indigenous peoples of the land, oppressing and subjugating them under a brutal, militaristic rule.

For the Riverside course, the faculty advisor was none other than English professor (and SJP faculty advisor) David Lloyd, who is also a vociferous promoter of the BDS campaign and founder of the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. “By endorsing the boycott,” he wrote, “we withhold our consent from collaboration with academic institutions that are part and parcel of Israel’s ongoing occupation, furnishing its technical infrastructure and expanding onto stolen lands.” Israeli academics’ silence, for Lloyd, is consent—and complicity. “We continue to wait for Israel’s own institutions to condemn forthrightly both the occupation and the denial of academic freedom to Palestinians.”

“The initiative was in the first place impelled by Israel’s latest brutal assault on Gaza and by our determination,” Lloyd told an Israeli newspaper. “The response has been remarkable,” Lloyd told Haaretz, “given the extraordinary hold that lobbying organizations like AIPAC exert over U.S. politics and over the U.S. media, and in particular given the campaign of intimidation that has been leveled at academics who dare to criticize Israel’s policies.”

In May of 2002, Snehal Shingavi, 26, a fifth-year graduate student in English and founder of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Berkeley, posted his course description for a fall offering called English R1A, “The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance.” The course listing, and its instructor, may never have gained any notice from the outside world, save for the two very controversial final lines included in the description for a course in poetry. The highly-politicized, biased description read:

The brutal Israeli military occupation of Palestine, [ongoing] since 1948, has systematically displaced, killed, and maimed millions of Palestinian people. And yet, from under the brutal weight of the occupation, Palestinians have produced their own culture and poetry of resistance. This class will examine the history of the [resistance] and the way that it is narrated by Palestinians in order to produce an understanding of the Intifada . . . 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.

This description, written ostensibly for a poetry course, read like the Hamas charter, complete with its total indictment of Israel and the Jewish state’s fundamental right to exist, and included, more disturbingly, a pre-determined point of view that most students, even a conservative one, would have a difficult time questioning or contradicting in class. Shingavi’s warning that “conservative thinkers should seek other sections” was equally perverse, not only because it violates the very premise of education—to seek out some kind of truth through a scholarly inquiry into various points of view about a topic—but also because by excluding any alternate points of view, the professor is not teaching, he is indoctrinating. And what business does an English professor have teaching political propaganda masquerading as a study of poetry?

Problematic courses have been offered on campuses outside the UC system, as well. At Vassar College, for example, Joshua Schreier, associate professor of history and director of the School’s Jewish Studies program, teaches a course called “History 214: The Roots of the Palestine-Israel Conflict.” The Fall 2008 description for the course makes obvious, in case there was any doubt, exactly where professor Schreier falls regarding Israel. The syllabus outlined that the central focus of study would include: “Why does Palestine, an area of the Ottoman Empire where the vast majority of people were Arabic-speaking Muslims only 70 years ago, currently host a ‘Jewish’ state whose leadership claims to represent, first and foremost, only one of the ethnic/national communities living there?”

More to the point, in order to eliminate any ambiguity about the course’s intentions, the course description admitted that “Students should keep in mind that this course is NOT designed to present ‘an objective’ account of a ‘two-sided’ conflict.” And the assigned readings for the course are equally revealing, based on the fact that each of the seven recommended texts were written by anti-Israel, anti-Zionist activists with a pronounced and well-known bias against Zionism and the Jewish state. Jeff Halper, for instance, author of An Israeli in Palestine and founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, has declared that “A Jewish state has proven politically, and in the end, morally, untenable.”  “The ‘two-state’ solution envisioned by all Israeli governments since 1967 . . . is simply unacceptable,” he said, and “a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” would require “an international campaign for a single state.” “I think it is impossible to have a Jewish state.”

Another course reading is The Iron Cage, a polemic written by Rashid Khalidi, occupant of the Edward Said chair at Columbia University and virulently anti-Israel, obsessively anti-Western, and apologetic for every defect and social pathology in the Arab world, and particularly those of his beloved Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  Khalidi has stated repeatedly the false belief that the Palestinians have a legal right to murder their oppressors in what is euphemistically referred to as ‘resistance.’ “In a June 7, 2002 speech he delivered before the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee,” a 2005 editorial in The New York Sun editorial pointed out, Khalidi had pronounced that Israel’s ‘Killing civilians is a war crime. It’s a violation of international law. They are not soldiers. They’re civilians, they’re unarmed. The ones who are armed, the ones who are soldiers, the ones who are in occupation, that’s different. That’s resistance.’”

In the concluding recommendations in its report to the UC Regents, The California Scholars Association suggested that the State’s universities should “Proclaim that the campus ought to be a rigorous marketplace of ideas, and that this essential idea is betrayed when the campus becomes a sanctuary for a narrow ideological segment of the spectrum of political and social ideas.” That courses, research, and scholarship now exist—not only in California but throughout academia—to promote the one-sided views of this “narrow ideological segment” is a troubling defect in what universities stand for, and our institutions should insure that, in all instances, students are not taught what to think, but how to think.

About the Author
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of the forthcoming book, The Slow Death of the University: How Radicalism, Israel Hatred, and Race Obsession are Destroying Academia.
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