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Liberalism or Radicalism on the College Campus?

“The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance”, an English Department class at the University of California Berkeley (UCB), is in full swing this semester, despite the uproar surrounding the class’s original course synopsis, which recommended students of a “conservative” political nature not participate.

The anti-conservative caveat, the last sentence of the politically one-sided class description, was later rescinded after a barrage of complaints that led to an emergency meeting between UCB Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl and the chair of the English Department at Berkeley, Janet Adelman.

The original course description read:

The brutal Israeli military occupation of Palestine, ongoing since 1948, has systematically displaced, killed, and maimed millions of Palestinian people. And yet, from under the brutal weight of the occupation, Palestinians have produced their own culture and poetry of resistance. This class will examine the history of the resistance and the way that it is narrated by Palestinians in order to produce an understanding of the Intifada…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.

The revised course description read as follows:

This is a course on Palestinian resistance poetry. It takes as its point of departure the Palestinian literature that has developed since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, which has displaced, maimed, and killed many Palestinian people. The Israeli military occupation of historic Palestine has caused unspeakable suffering. Since the occupation, Palestinians have been fighting for their right to exist. And yet, from under the weight of this occupation, Palestinians have produced their own culture and poetry of resistance. This class will examine the history of the Palestinian resistance and the way that it is narrated by Palestinians. This class takes as its starting point the right of Palestinians to fight for their own self-determination.

Discussions about the literature will focus on several intersecting themes: how are Palestinian artists able to imagine art under the occupation; what consequences does resistance have on the character of the art that is produced (i.e. why are there so few Palestinian epics and plays and comedies); can one represent the Israeli occupation in art; what is the difference between political art and propaganda and how do the debates about those terms inflect the production of literature; how do poems represent the desire to escape and the longing for home simultaneously (alternatively, how do poems represent the nation without a state); what consequence do political debates have on formal innovations and their reproduction; and what are the obligations of artists in representing the occupation.

“The type of politics we’re seeing at Berkeley right now…I don’t think they really align themselves with the liberal atmosphere, but more with the radical and almost closed-minded left atmosphere where it really strays from main-stream liberalism,” said Berkeley Senior Oren Lazar (who is attending the class), during a Media Line (TML) interview.

Lazar, who describes himself as a liberal who adheres to the differences between freedom of speech and incitement, cited the Berkeley English class as an example of radicalism, saying it is completely biased and presents only one perspective, “and a very close minded one at that,” Lazar said.

“It is important to have a decent conceptual framework for which poetry can be framed,” Lazar added.

“The only author the teacher has given so far for an historical perspective on the class is [American-based Palestinian academic] Edward Said who is undecidedly biased on this topic. He has a one sided stance, and admittedly so by the teacher,” Lazar said.

Lazar questioned the teacher about why only one side of the narrative is being given. The teacher’s response was – “That’s why you’re here,” according to Lazar.

“He made no attempts to hide his bias. In the original course description it said that ‘conservative thinkers should seek another section’. This line was later rescinded by the University but still showed his intentions,” Lazar said.

The teacher of the course is fifth-year graduate student Snehal Shingavi, among the leaders of the political groups International Socialist Organization (ISO) and the UCB chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

“When you see the types of politics expressed by the type of groups that Snehal Shingavi is involved with, then you see that these groups are not interested in a liberal, open atmosphere but in some sort of close-minded, mantra-driven message,” Lazar said.

SJP staged a campus protest against Israeli military incursions into the West Bank last April. Shingavi is reported by the Dartmouth Review to have said that the protestors at the event, who ended their demonstration with a four-hour takeover of Wheeler Hall – an academic building where hundreds of students were trying to take exams, were using “critical thinking tools.”

“One of the protestors bit a police officer, and all of the students were charged with ‘unlawful occupation’”, the Review reported.

In a September 11 memorial service held at UCB, Shingavi was among the speakers (under his ISO hat) to politicize the remembrance ceremony by criticizing George Bush and the American government.

News analyst Marc Engberg quoted some of Shingavi’s remarks from the vigil in an article for the California Patriot:

“‘George W. Bush will exploit the memory of September 11th to justify a war in Iraq, just as he did a year ago to justify a war in Afghanistan,’ Shingavi said on the podium at the event.”

Engberg also criticized Shingavi for inappropriately “invoking” the name of Enron and denouncing capitalism during his “political rant” at what was supposed to be a memorial vigil.

Engberg suggested that Shingavi himself was the one committing the wrong of exploitation as well as assuming that all Americans are opposed to a war in Iraq.

Lazar, a seasoned activist at Berkeley, talked with TML about the differences between free speech and hate speech:

“There are a number of people coming out now who are drawing a line between hate speech and free speech; free speech being protected by our constitution and hate speech being speech that drives racial violence, drives incitement like the type seen coming from the Palestinian Authority,” Lazar said.

For example, Lazar said the University of San Francisco State’s President Robert A. Corrigan recently said hate speech is different from free speech and that hate speech is not protected as free speech.

Lazar suggested the difference between hate speech and free speech is a line that has not yet been clearly defined in many circles, and definitely not in academia, but it is one that needs to be more thoroughly explored, especially post 9/11.

“What needs to be looked at is how these issues affect everybody, how they affect the classroom and the world outside of it,” Lazar added.

“The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance” is being officially monitored by a Berkeley professor. Shingavi cannot start the class until the monitor arrives. It is the only course Lazar has seen at Berkeley being monitored in this manner.

The English Department at Berkeley is standing behind the class and maintains that the teacher is qualified, though Lazar says there is plenty of evidence to suggest he is not.

According to Lazar, the teacher doesn’t actually speak Arabic himself, which he says is, “interesting for someone who is teaching poetry translated from Arabic.

“Shingavi will spend a class, like in any other English class, talking about dual meanings of words like the word ‘register’ as in one of the assigned poems called ‘Identity Card’ in which one of the lines was ‘register me’.”

When asked if there was the same dual meaning of “register” in Arabic, the professor had no idea because he neither reads nor understands Arabic, Lazar claimed.

Lazar said in closing, these things need to be discussed on University campuses but not fought about and they need to be kept in the realm of discussion and dialogue.

“The spewing of the rhetoric and lies that we see coming out of the many groups on college campuses and unfortunately out of many classrooms on the college campuses like at UC Berkeley is not helping here and is not helping in the Middle East,” Lazar said.

Note: The Media Line tried to contact Snehal Shingavi through several channels for a period of three weeks. The Media Line received no response from Shingavi himself.

When the Media Line sent a series of questions to Shingavi in response to Lazar’s and other quoted comments, through the English Department, we received this response from UCB English Department Chair Janet Adelman.

(Unedited by TML)

“I am disturbed by your questions, which seem to indicate that your mind is already made up and that you believe everything that you’ve been told by the one student dissatisfied with the class (I have a set of confidential evaluations from all students in the course; the rest of them comment specifically on the openness of the discussion and they like the course very much.) I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment fully on a questionnaire intended for Mr. Shingavi, but let comment briefly on a few questions. First of all, Mr. Shingavi’s politics outside the classroom are immaterial. Our faculty observer in the classroom has repeatedly reported to me that Mr. Shingavi has done an admirable job of maintaining an open classroom in which the views of all are subject to debate; that seems to me all one can reasonably ask from an instructor. (More specifically, let me add that I fail to see what criticism of Bush at a 9/11 vigil has to do with the subject at hand: there are many in the US who are not happy with the curtailment of civil liberties and other actions of the Bush government that are presented as a consequence of 9/11 and therefore are entirely appropriate to discuss at a memorial of that day.) As to the class’s use of the Said book: as we have repeatedly said, this is not a course in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (in which case use of a single text from either side would be inappropriate); it’s a course on the development of a Palestinian poetics of resistence within a certain political framework. The use of Said’s work to provide that framework is perfectly appropriate.”