Published on Thursday, May 16, 2002 in the New York Times
Berkeley Course on Mideast Raises Concerns
by Chris Gaither
BERKELEY, Calif., — The political tensions in the Middle East have once again roiled the University of California, with the most recent incident focused on a catalog course description.
The listing for the course, "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance," one of the choices for a required course in reading and composition, was pulled for review last week by university officials after protests by civil liberties and pro-Israeli groups. The critics were outraged by the course description's ideological tone and the efforts of the instructor, a Ph.D. candidate who leads a pro-Palestinian group, to dissuade students who did not accept the pro-Palestinian view from enrolling in the course.
"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," the instructor, Snehal Shingavi, wrote. "And yet, from under the brutal weight of the occupation, Palestinians have produced their own culture and poetry of resistance."
The last line of his course description drew the most ire, especially among civil libertarians: "Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections."
Local Jewish groups consider the Berkeley course an example of what they see as a rising wave of anti-Israel sentiment and sometimes anti-Semitism emerging from local campuses. In the last few months, two Orthodox Jews were beaten in Berkeley, and a cinderblock was thrown through the front window of the Jewish Hillel cultural center.
Across San Francisco Bay, at San Francisco State University, a pro-Israel peace rally on May 7 was confronted by self-described anti-Zionist protesters who reportedly shouted, among other slurs, that "Hitler did not finish the job," according to a letter circulated by Laurie Zoloth, the director of the university's Jewish studies program.
Pro-Palestine protesters have also complained of bigotry and intimidation.
At the Berkeley campus, university officials moved quickly to defuse criticism that followed the publication of the course catalog. Robert M. Berdahl, the university's chancellor, faulted the English department for failing to review the course description and ordered Mr. Shingavi to remove the last line.
In a telephone interview, Chancellor Berdahl said today that Mr. Shingavi had received favorable evaluations from students he had taught.
Still the chancellor said he had not ruled out planting an observer in Mr. Shingavi's classroom to make sure his teaching did not stray into "indoctrination," though the chairwoman of the English department, Janet Adelman, called installation of a monitor unlikely.
Sproul Plaza, which campus protesters have used since the Free Speech movement in 1964, was home to another conflict last month, when about 1,500 demonstrators called for the university to divest itself of stock in corporations that do business with Israel at the same time that Jewish students staged a Holocaust remembrance. Led by the group Students for Justice in Palestine, of which Mr. Shingavi is a member, demonstrators surged into Wheeler Hall, chaining doors and blocking entrances.
The occupation ended with the arrest of 79 people, including 41 students.
Critics of the English class who know Mr. Shingavi said his record of protest stacked the deck against the chances of fair discussion in the classroom.
But Mr. Shingavi argued that rather than debate the Middle East conflict, he wanted to focus on the writers who produced art out of the resistance movement.
"I think it's important to put forward what kinds of propositions this class has centrally," he said. "Otherwise people would walk in not knowing what to expect, and I think that's far more dangerous in a class like this."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company