Teaching the Arab-Israeli conflict through a critical lens

As students return to college in the United States for a new academic year, campus battles over free speech are beginning as well.

One recent controversy that has garnered surprisingly little press attention involves a new course offered at Tufts University through its Colonialism Studies program titled “Colonizing Palestine.”

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Thomas Abowd, a faculty member in the American Studies program who has actively promoted an academic boycott of Israel, teaches the course. The official description states the course “will address crucial questions relating to… the Israeli state that illegally occupies Palestine,” and the listed readings provide only the Palestinian perspective. While this unilateral perspective would certainly be acceptable in a course on Palestinian literature or culture, this class is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Quite simply, the course will present one of the most complex political conflicts of our times as a one-sided narrative with no nuance or context. This is not education; it is indoctrination.

As a law professor at one of the most diverse universities in the country, I strongly support both academic freedom and pedagogically sound education. Academic freedom does not mean that there are no restrictions on what professors can teach. Rather, academic freedom means that both professors and students have the right to engage in academic debate without fear of censure or undue or unreasonable interference. Courses must go through an official approval process with various levels of committee review to ensure that they are educationally sound and further the university’s mission. A course should help students develop their analytical and critical reasoning skills and enable students to articulate various perspectives on covered topics.
Interestingly, some Tufts students seem to understand this better than the administration. Tufts Friends of Israel, a student group, wrote to the university president Anthony Monaco explaining that a “course must aid a student’s pursuit of knowledge and provide… the information and tools to arrive at their own conclusions.”
In response to student complaints, Tufts has justified the course by explaining that the university is committed to the “free exchange of ideas” and that “discussion of these issues does not imply endorsement.”

“Colonizing Palestine,” however, is not an idea – it is a one-sided presentation of a complicated political conflict. I cannot imagine how a student would feel comfortable freely discussing ideas in this course that fall outside the party line. There is simply no room for disagreement. Importantly, this is not a case where Tufts is supporting the rights of a controversial speaker invited by a student group. I would fully support the right of pro-Palestinian groups to invite Prof. Abowd or another speaker to give a talk called “Colonizing Palestine.” Rather, this is a for-credit course that has been approved by Tufts. That is university endorsement.

This situation is in stark contrast to the approach of my colleagues who go out of their way to teach their students to think analytically and critically, free of unnecessary classroom bias. They recognize the danger of students simply parroting what they think that a professor wants to hear. When a student tried to guess who a colleague voted for in the last election, he told the student if she were able to guess, it would mean he was not a very good professor.

Another colleague tells students that they should not assume he believes in the positions he is expressing, and that at times he may strongly articulate positions he does not support in order to encourage them to critically examine issues from numerous angles.

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Particularly in these politically divisive times, it is more important than ever for universities to teach students critical and analytical reasoning skills and the ability to see complex issues from multiple perspectives. Requiring such sound pedagogy does not limit academic freedom.

The writer is a professor in the Department of Law at the Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College (CUNY) and publishes on topics including pedagogy, public policy, religion and employment law.

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