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New course at Tufts University advances Palestinian narrative while shelving the Jews

“Colonizing Palestine,” offered by the school’s Colonialism Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies departments, will “explore the history and culture of modern Palestine and the centrality of colonialism in the making of this contested and symbolically potent territory.”

Carmichael Hall in the Residence Quad at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Carmichael Hall in the Residence Quad at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A new course on the docket this fall at Tufts University outside Boston has caused a bit of blowback even before students enter the classroom.

Titled “Colonizing Palestine,” it’s being offered by the Colonialism Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies departments, and will “explore the history and culture of modern Palestine and the centrality of colonialism in the making of this contested and symbolically potent territory,” according to the class description.

“Students will examine the region in which Palestine is embedded through a range of path breaking writers, filmmakers, and thinkers,” the description states. “These include novels by Anton Shammas and Emile Habiby, the creative non-fiction of Edward Said and Suad Amiry, the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and Naomi Nye, and the spoken word artistry of Suheir Hammad and others.”

The late Said was a Columbia University professor and leader in the anti-Israel movement, while Amiry has accused Israel of “atrocities” regarding the establishment of the Jewish state.

The late Darwish wrote poems demonizing Israel, calling it a “horse’s blood” and labeling a future Palestinian state as “a prize of war.”

Nye compared the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Mo., to “Jerusalem, a no-man’s land [that] separated people, designated by barbed wire.” Her poetry calls for violence against Israel, saying, “Let’s be the same wound if we must bleed. Let’s fight side by side, even if the enemy is ourselves: I am yours, you are mine.”

Hammad wrote a disturbing piece in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, titled “First Writing Since.” It reads: “[I] do not know how bad a life has to break in order to kill. [I] have never been so hungry that [I] willed hunger. [I] have never been so angry as to want to control a gun over a pen. [N]ot really. [E]ven as a woman, as a Palestinian, as a broken human being. [N]ever this broken.”

The poem also accuses the United States of “transgressions,” and that “if there are any people on earth who understand how new york [sic] is feeling right now, they are in the west bank [sic] and the gaza strip” [sic].

Per the course description, the class will also study the “burgeoning work of Palestinian filmmakers, such as Elia Suleiman, Mia Masri, Emad Burnat [and] Michel Khleifi, to name but a few.”

“By doing so students will address crucial questions relating to this embattled nation, the Israeli state which illegally occupies Palestine, and the broader global forces that impinge on Palestinians and Israelis,” the description states. “Themes covered include notions of nationalism and national identity, settler-colonialism, gender and sexuality, refugee politics, cultural hybridity, class politics, violence, and memory.”

The class will be taught by Thomas Abowd, who is listed on Canary Mission, a blacklist of anti-Israel activists, academics and organizations.

Abowd has an extensive history of engaging in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic causes. In 2015, he spoke at Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine’s Israeli Apartheid Week and declared, “We have apartheid right here on this campus, and we have apartheid right here in this city,” propelling the narrative that Israel is an “apartheid state.”

In 2016, he claimed that Israel “privileges [Jews] to the exclusion of others, so you get this deep sort of biblical historical notion of an unchanging Jewish essence and connections to the Holy Land,” and that Israel views Jerusalem as an “eternal place, an unchanging immutable part of Jewish history.”

He received a Fulbright award to conduct research and teach at Birzeit University near Ramallah, a stronghold for anti-Israel incitement, from December 2011 to October 2012.

“As an institution of higher education, Tufts is committed to the free exchange of ideas. The university’s courses represent a broad spectrum of ideas and topics that enable students to become familiar with a variety of perspectives on important and complex issues facing our global society,” Tufts spokesperson Patrick Collins told JNS. “University-facilitated discussion of these issues does not imply endorsement of a particular view, and we anticipate and welcome the Tufts’ community’s vigorous discussion of varying viewpoints and beliefs.”

‘Undermining the university’s academic integrity’

Rachel Rubinstein, 23, a Tufts alumnus who works at a biotechnology company, explained that as a liberal Jew who does not support Israel building neighborhoods in the West Bank, the course seems intriguing, yet is still troublesome.

“I think a large group of Tufts students do not support Israel’s existence, and probably think this class is necessary and important,” said Rubenstein.

“I support open dialogue on the conflict, but, of course, do not support anti-Semitism, which is why I would be interested in seeing if that is how the class is taught before trying to shut it down,” she added. “I don’t generally understand classes like these; coming from a science background, they tend to touch on [being] too emotional and blaming both sides, but that could be for lack of a political-science background.”

Groups including the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), which is near Tufts, as well as StandWithUs, the AMCHA Initiative and the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) condemned Tufts for offering the class.

“In addition to the title of the course itself suggesting a distorted account of the Palestinian-Israel conflict, the course professor, Thomas Abowd is an outspoken activist against Israel,” said Aviva Rosenschein, CAMERA’s international campus director. “He is on the advisory board for the Boston branch of Jewish Voice for Peace—an extremist pro-BDS organization that has hosted and honored the terrorist Rasmea Odeah.”

Rosenschein continued, “When students choose to attend Tufts University, they expect to be receiving high-level education—not to be inundated with biased material stemming from activists who support the end of Israel and demise of all its people, Jews and non-Jews alike.”

“Studying the impact of British and Ottoman colonialism on Arabs and Jews in the region is entirely legitimate,” said StandWithUs New England campus director Zach Shartiag. “However, if this course frames Jews as colonizers in their ancestral homeland, it will be erasing history, doing a disservice to Tufts students and undermining the university’s academic integrity.”

AMCHA director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin noted that “it’s important to point out that academic freedom protects Professor Abowd’s right to teach this course as he sees fit. However, the fact that Abowd is an ardent supporter of an academic boycott of Israeli universities and scholars, as is the director of the Tufts Colonialism Studies program that is offering this course, certainly raises concerns about whether the course will be used for education or political indoctrination.

“But even more troubling than the possibility of Abowd indoctrinating his students with one-sided, anti-Zionist propaganda,” she continued, “is the possible impact this course could have on Jewish and pro-Israel students at Tufts.”

EMET founder and president Sarah Stern said “this class is a paramount example of what has been occurring in the field of Middle East Studies over the last quarter of a century, where the truth—and a good solid education—is being sacrificed on the altar of mere political propaganda.”

She added that “the word ‘Jew’ derives from Judea, which was the place of our origin. It is beyond tragic that today’s youth are being fed an education that is built on a narrative of falsehoods and lies.”

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