By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
In his forthcoming book “The New Philistines,” the Wall Street Journal correspondent Sohrab Ahmari devotes a few paragraphs to a symposium on art and identity convened by the radical magazine, Artforum. “Indeed, there was never any real disagreement among the participants, and this was typical,” he writes. “These are discussions among in-the-know artists, academics and critics, who all agree about nearly everything: everyone knows that ‘neoliberalism’ is something bad; that liberal democracy is merely a more subtle form of tyranny; that Western societies are racist and sexist by design.”
Ahmari’s insights into radical groupthink in the art world could equally apply to other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, like literature, international relations and history. The fact that this trend exists is hardly news; the tendency of university teachers to discourage their students from engaging with conflicting or competing views by imposing a mixture of dogma, so-called “trigger warnings,” and intellectual bullying has long been established. But the situation is getting worse.
Case-in-point: “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis,” now on offer from the University of California, Berkeley. An activists’ seminar masquerading as a unit of academic study, the course was pulled last week after university authorities determined that it didn’t comply with required teaching standards. This week, it was promptly reinstated following the intervention of a group called “Palestine Legal” on behalf of the course teacher, Paul Hadweh.
Interestingly, the web page advertising the course specifies that it’s open to all students and that “no prior knowledge is necessary.” Judging by the themes examined in course facilitator Paul Hadweh’s course, along with the set textual readings, he might just as well have said “prior knowledge unwelcome.” In this course, students are expected to behave like blank pages upon which an uncontested, single truth is engraved – and anyone who says otherwise must, by definition, be a racist, a colonial sympathizer, or a Zionist.
There are many reasons why American-Jewish groups are fretting over the course, not least its functional exclusion of students with pro-Israel sympathies. But we also need to understand that at stake here are more than Jewish sensitivities. What this course represents, above all, is an assault upon the method of studying history that has prevailed – and should still prevail – in universities in the liberal democratic world.
We can all agree that there are such things as facts. We know there was an American Civil War, World War I and World War II, and that there was an oil shock in the 1970s, and that Grover Cleveland was the only American president to serve two non-consecutive terms. But why these things happened have been furiously contested by historians, and it’s essential to expose students to these sharp differences – which can be based on anything from newly-uncovered archival documents to debates over ambiguities in the writings of the historical figures being studied – if they are to gain a proper grasp of history as a discipline.
Not so with “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis.” For a start, the title tells you all need to know. The fact that 750,000 Palestinian Arabs became refugees during the 1947-48 war is subject to only one interpretation: these were natives willfully and violently expelled by European Jewish settlers with a pre-existing plan of ethnic cleansing.
Prominent on the course reading list are the writings of an Australian academic, Patrick Wolfe, who defines “settler-colonialism” as “a zero-sum game, whereby outsiders come to a country, and seek to take it away from the people who already live there, remove them, replace them, and displace them, and take over the country, and make it their own.” In the context of Israel and the Palestinians, this framework both precludes and excludes: It precludes any discussion of Jewish indigeneity to Israel, and it excludes any consideration of the refugee question within the broader geopolitical environment of the time, by not even noting that massive and often forced transfers of population were all too common in the wake of World War II, including the expulsion of 850,000 Jews from the Arab world and the deportation of nearly two million Germans from what was then Czechoslovakia.
Even by the standards of its own propagandizing, the course is pitifully weak. Absent are the writings on “settler-colonialism” from such luminaries as the French Marxist Maxime Rodinson, the articles by the collective of Arab and Israeli communists around the journal “Khamsin,” and the book “To be an Arab in Israel,” an autobiographical account by Fouzi el Asmar (hey, if you’re going to study this stuff, you might as well be thorough, right?). Perhaps Mr. Hadweh feels it’s unfair to ask his students to read too much. Or perhaps he feels he can make his point by assigning just one book for each course component; for example, to learn about “The Character of the Zionist Settler-Colonial State,” the only text you need to consult is “Zionist Colonialism in Palestine” by Fayez Sayegh – the lazier students can probably wing it by simply remembering the title.
As for the writings of other historians with dissenting viewpoints – like Benny Morris on the left, Martin Gilbert in the middle, and Efraim Karsh on the right – these might as well not exist. One gets the distinct impression that if the late Jewish Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher suddenly turned up in Hadweh’s seminar room and explained his analogy that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is like the man who jumps out of a burning building, lands on another man, and then proceeds to fight with him, he’d be given a failing grade and booed out of class.
Can this approach to the study of history be effectively challenged? One answer might be to play these academics at their own game, by instituting a class entitled “Israel: The Culmination of Three Thousand Years of Jewish Yearning.” You could certainly assign some fantastic texts, like Arthur Hertzberg’s anthology “The Zionist Idea” or Walter Laqueur’s “History of Zionism.” And you could focus on some fascinating themes, like the IDF’s approach to asymmetrical warfare, or the decision to airlift Ethiopia’s Jews away from the devastating famine in that country.
But that wouldn’t be my choice. I want history to be taught as a battle of ideas, and students of Middle East history and politics should read as much as they can, from Edward Said to Shabtai Teveth. Study, discuss, argue – but above all, demand that your teachers guide your intellects rather than instructing you what to think. And with Hadweh’s course, credits are awarded based on “assignments,” “group presentation” and “participation” – which means that if you attend a demonstration and burn an Israeli flag, you’ll be on your way to an “A” grade.
What we are looking at here is nothing less than the indoctrination of students using, with perfect irony, the First Amendment as cover. If we carry on like this, we’ll end up with what Francis Fukuyama famously called “the end of history;” just not in the way that he meant it.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of“Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).
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