When a Syllabus is a Weapon

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Of the many forms that anti-Zionism assumes on college campuses today, the most alarming is the expression of anti-Israel bias by professors in their classes. At UMass Amherst, it’s bad enough that some academic departments regularly host guest speakers who challenge the legitimacy of Israel’s existence, or blame Israel entirely for the Palestinian refugee problem. But at least students are not required to attend; their grades and careers are not at stake. Political indoctrination in the classroom is worse. The traditional duty of the professor is to stick to facts, and when analyzing complex political controversies, to expose students to a variety of lenses through which the facts can be interpreted.

In its “Declaration of Prin­ciples on Academic Freedom,” composed in 1915, the American Association of University Prof­essors announced that academic freedom does not include the right to indoctrinate students. This classic text emphasizes that students should learn about “divergent opinions” in political matters. The AAUP rejected “taking unfair advantage of the student” by imposing a single opinion “before the student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question.” The professor should encourage students to look “methodically” at all sides of a political controversy before adopting any conclusion.

For about a century, academics generally adhered to the AAUP guidelines. In the field of Israel studies, the standard approach, until recently, was to expose students to the “competing narratives” (this term appeared frequently in textbooks about Israeli history). For example, one would read Palestinian accounts of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War alongside Zionist accounts. Today, however, there is a good chance that a student learning about Israel will hear a professor one-sidedly portray Israel as an “apartheid regime.” A sense of complexity and balance is giving way to a sense of “social justice” and righteousness.

A new study by the AMCHA Initiative provides vivid evidence of the shift in teaching. AMCHA is an organization whose mission is to document and combat anti-Semitism on U.S. college campuses. The study, entitled “Bringing BDS into the Classroom,” assesses the syllabi of 50 courses focusing on the Palestinian-Israeli (or Arab-Israeli) conflict. The study compares the readings in courses taught by professors affiliated with Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) with the readings assigned by professors who are not affiliated with BDS. The study indicates that pro-BDS professors impose their political agenda in the classroom by excluding readings that represent alternatives to the BDS perspective.

BDS urges faculty to weaponize their courses in the fight against Israel. And professors affiliated with BDS seem to have no reservations about ignoring the AAUP’s traditional guidelines on teaching. UMass Amherst professor Sut Jhally, a vehement opponent of Israel, declared that “the main place we want to get to and that we encourage is the classroom. And it’s the college classroom, because that is a captive audience.” (As reported in the Algemeiner, Oct. 11, 2019.) Jhally has been in the news recently because he organized two large BDS rallies on the UMass campus over the past year. The AMCHA report suggests we need to be just as concerned about how someone like Jhally makes use of the classroom.

The AMCHA report shows that Jhally, whom one might consider to be an outlier, is a member of a growing cadre of professors who are using every academic venue to discredit Israel. Replacing comprehensive instruction with pointed political advocacy is the “social justice” way of teaching, and anti-Zionism is now part of the “social justice” agenda. The AMCHA report warns, “Faculty who carry out the guidelines of … BDS by substituting their personal politics for sound pedagogy cannot help but erode public trust in our universities’ ability to adequately educate the next generation of citizens.”

As the AAUP understood a century ago, academic freedom is the right to engage in unprejudiced academic inquiry free of interference by non-academics. Academic freedom is not the freedom of professors to use the classroom to promote party ideologies. Such partisanship will eventually destroy the independence customarily enjoyed by professors. For when the classroom becomes a site of militant political advocacy, professors can no longer claim that their special academic training renders them immune from outside criticism and control. When it comes to purely academic questions in the study of physics, literature, or history, there is indeed no authority higher than the faculty. But when it comes to political matters, in a democracy the public is the sovereign. If students are going to be exposed to political propaganda at all, the public, not the professoriate, has the right to decide what the content of this propaganda will be. And if the ideal is to have a classroom without propaganda, then academic administrators must restore the professionalism that is the basis of academic freedom.

Daniel Gordon is a professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

When a Syllabus is a Weapon

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