Crisis on Campus E. Bay federation head wants dangerous class canceled at Berkeley

The object of Nahshon's ire is a class on the U.C. Berkeley fall schedule titled "Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance." The East Bay Jewish federation director claims the freshman course — offered by graduate student and pro-Palestinian activist Snehal Shingavi — isn't education but propagandizing. And, he said, it certainly doesn't belong in the English department.

"This course represents another step on what is a slippery slope of intimidation and inhospitability to Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus," said Nahshon.

Last week Nahshon fired off a mass e-mail to more than 2,500 recipients expressing his concerns. The class, he believes, must be canceled.

"The course, as constructed, truly does not belong. We've made clear our views to the university that a course [of] indoctrination rather than education is inappropriate to the university environment," said Nahshon, who is executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. "I think the most straightforward way to see that doesn't happen is to remove the course. If the university has other ways, certainly this is their expertise, and I'd like to hear about them."

In his e-mail, Nahshon urged recipients to write letters to university administrators, and many have taken him up on his offer.

Stephen Miller, a mathematics professor at Rutgers University and a 1993 U.C. Berkeley graduate, didn't need Nahshon to prod him into placing an angry phone call to his alma mater. He was irked by a caveat in the original course description that discouraged "conservative thinkers" from enrolling.

"The one thing I think is indisputable is that this is incredibly embarrassing for Berkeley. And it cheapens the degree of anyone who went to Berkeley if Berkeley will stand for a class that prescreens people based on opinion," said the New York City resident.

"Any system where a graduate student can devise a class on his own without any sort of check on it from the department is bad," he said. In this case, it made "an entire university…look stupid."

The class swept U.C. Berkeley into the center of a media maelstrom last week, as critics ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the university and Shingavi for his overtly polemical course description and his caveat to conservatives.

The university's online catalog included the following description for English R1A, a class intended to fulfill the reading and comprehension requirement for incoming freshman:

"Since the inception of the intifada in September of 2000, Palestinians have been fighting for their right to exist. 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.

"…This class takes as its starting point the right of Palestinians to fight for their own self-determination. Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections."

Shingavi, a fifth-year graduate student in the English department, is a leader of the Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as the campus head of the International Socialist Organization. He is also active in the Stop the War Coalition, and has organized campus activism against sweatshop labor as well. Messages left for him were not returned.

Professor Janet Adelman, who chairs the English department, said she, too, takes issue with Shingavi's "obviously partisan description" and clear violation of the university's code of conduct in urging those of a mindset than his own to avoid his course.

Shingavi has encouraged those with "ideological conflicts" to avoid his classes in the past, which Adelman characterized as "a problem." At her behest, he removed his "conservative thinkers" statement last Friday from his course's online description.

Despite her differences with Shingavi, Adelman defends his right to teach, and said neither she nor the university plans to pull the plug on the class he created.

"The university decided, and I agree, that it is within the instructor's right to shape the material in a way that he wants to as long as he allows open conversations in the classroom, and grading is done by the announced criteria of the class, which is concerned with skill and argumentation rather than according to the students' political views," she said.

"I am committed to ensuring that an open discussion on the issues the class deals with takes place. That, by definition, means that indoctrination is not taking place."

The English department has fallen into the bad habit of allowing graduate students "virtual autonomy" in creating their 1A courses, according to Adelman. Many, she believes, craft courses "too sophisticated for beginning students who are learning how to conduct an argument."

In the future, she promised, courses will be reviewed by a faculty member to ensure they contain no statements like "conservatives need not apply," which would violate the university's code of conduct.

Nahshon, however, says Shingavi's removal of the "conservative thinkers" clause "doesn't change the substance of the issue one iota."

"This is a course premised on a series of political views which, certainly, the graduate student teaching it has a right to espouse. But this is a course in the English department, not on political movements in the 21st century. To base the course on the premise of demonizing Israel for victimizing the Palestinian people as described in that course description is just grossly inappropriate and dangerous."

After meeting last week with Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl and other university administrators last week, Adelman said is currently in the process of working with Shingavi to settle upon exactly how his class will be monitored.

Following last week's meeting, Berdahl released a statement reading, in part, "Universities should not avoid presenting controversial material and we do not. It is imperative that our classrooms be free of indoctrination — indoctrination is not education."

Adelman adds that the English department has been deluged with calls and e-mails, many of which she characterized as incredibly vitriolic and hateful.

Some compared the faculty to Nazis.

"That's despicable," said Adam Weisberg, the executive director of Berkeley Hillel.

He maintained that "if people have concerns about this class, they have every right to articulate it. But they have to articulate it in a thoughtful, intelligent manner that doesn't make this into a personal issue."

Weisberg agrees with Adelman that an analysis of resistance poetry is a legitimate academic pursuit.

"There is full legitimacy of the literature of many genres being taught in a university setting. And I think the literature suggested for this course probably has a place in the academy as well," he said.

But Shingavi's course description makes him uncomfortable.

"It's incumbent on any instructor… to not grind a political ax or push a particular viewpoint. I hope he would honor that responsibility and rise to the occasion."

Others are not so sure.

"I think this is yet another example of political indoctrination taking precedence over debates and discussion," Randy Barnes, the Israel Action Committee co-chairman, told the Daily Californian. "This is just one more reason Cal is the laughingstock of the country."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.