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Palestine class draws criticism

By David Scharfenberg. Daily Planet staff
Wednesday May 15, 2002

The chair of the UC Berkeley English Department said her office has received a stream of hate mail from Israeli partisans in recent days for sponsoring a fall, 2002 course called “The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance.”  

“We’ve gotten some letters of support and some very thoughtful letters of opposition,” said department chair Janet Edelman. “(But) we’ve gotten some quite irrational and virulent hate mail as well.”  

The course received national attention this week because the instructor, graduate student Snehal Shingavi, a leader of Students for Justice in Palestine, included a sentence at the end of the official course description stating that “conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections.” 

University officials said the line violated the Faculty Code of Conduct, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of political beliefs. Shingavi has removed the sentence at the university’s request. 

“I would be disappointed to hear that pro-Israeli supporters would not be engaging in a constructive dialogue with the university,” said Randy Barnes, a UC Berkeley student and member of Israel Action Committee, discussing the hate mail. “There are real concerns that should be reasonably and politely discussed...That he would be so arrogant as to put ‘conservative thinkers need not apply’ shows where this class is coming from.” 

Edelman, who declined to release the text of the hate mail, said in the past the department has allowed instructors to craft their own course descriptions without oversight. She said the practice was a “mistake” and that faculty will review every description in the future. 

The university has not touched the bulk of the description, which includes language describing “the brutal Israeli military occupation of Palestine,” an occupation that “has systematically displaced, killed, and maimed millions of Palestinian people.” 

Roger Kimball, managing editor of a magazine called “The New Criterion,” and author of an editorial in the “Wall Street Journal” criticizing the class, said the course is “political activism masquerading as academic study” and is inappropriate. 

Kimball said the university’s decision to simply remove the final line from the course description is inadequate. 

“It’s just a kind of bureaucratic window dressing to preserve appearances,” he said, arguing that leftist, overly political courses are rife at UC Berkeley and throughout academia. 

But Edelman said Shingavi’s class is a “great course.” She said she is working with the instructor to ensure that there is an open dialogue in the classroom. 

Will Youmans, a leader of Students for Justice in Palestine, said maintaining the course is a matter of academic freedom and inclusion. 

“It’s taking an important step in recognizing Palestinian history and Palestinian culture in a way you don’t see happening on college campuses,” he said. 

Shingavi could not be reached for comment.