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Jewish Journal

Cal Keeps Class, Yanks Description

by Sharon Schatz Rosenthal

October 3, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Ami Nahson, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, started a campaign to get UC Berkeley to cancel a pro-Palestinian English class taught by a graduate student.

Ami Nahson, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, started a campaign to get UC Berkeley to cancel a pro-Palestinian English class taught by a graduate student.

"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 ... 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."

-- University of California, Berkeley, Course Description, 2002

"Politics and Poetics of the Palestinian Resistance," the freshman English class at UC Berkeley described above, began last week -- but without the aforementioned description.

A group of California Jewish leaders was instrumental in changing that description -- and in creating a task force to monitor future course descriptions. The leaders also prompted the university to insert a monitor into that class, which is taught by Palestinian activist Snehal Shingavi, a graduate student.

The monitoring comes at a particularly tense time this new semester, as Jewish groups are on the lookout for discord due to events in the Middle East. Issues such as campus divestment, pro-Palestinian rallies and controversial speakers have troubled Jewish groups as the violence in Israel continues, with Berkeley itself having a long history of participation in these events.

At Berkeley, this particular incident began last spring, when the university published an online catalog.

"This course doesn't belong on the university curriculum," said Ami Nahshon, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. "It's a literature course for freshman English students. Literature means literature. Politics means politics. To create a literature course that's so heavily politically biased is unacceptable." Nahshon immediately fired off over 2,500 e-mails encouraging others to help in the campaign to cancel the class.

Back at the campus, Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl insisted that the section discouraging "conservative thinkers" from enrolling in the class be removed from the description.

Meanwhile, word spread to Gov. Gray Davis, who called a closed-door, off-the-record meeting in August at the Simon Wiesenthal Center with Southern California Jewish community leaders and a few of the UC Regents. Davis asked the Regents to arrive at a solution in response to the complaints.

Regent Norm Pattiz from Beverly Hills suggested creating a faculty/administration task force to follow up on this particular case and to address any similar situations that may arise in the future concerning academic freedom and academic responsibility. "I had made that suggestion since the process of changing the course description happened over a period of months," said Pattiz, who is also the founder and chair of Westwood One, America's largest radio network. "Even the final description was not satisfactory to many of us. I felt that we couldn't just let it go on with the implied implication that the university and the Regents approved of the nature of the course description."

In August, Atkinson announced new school policy. There will be a review and discussion regarding course description standards. The school's English department must improve the review of course descriptions and establish a standard evaluation process. Finally, a task force has been formed to ensure faculty supervision and training for graduate student instructors. A faculty observer is currently attending every session of the Shingavi's class.

Whether anti-Semitism played a role in the ordeal is debatable. "I wouldn't go so far to say that this is an example of anti-Semitic behavior on college campuses," Pattiz said. "This is an example of inflammatory and inaccurate information to describe a class in Palestinian poetry, which I thought was completely inappropriate. I'm all for academic freedom."

Doug Mirell, president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance in Los Angeles also said that anti-Semitism on college campuses is not as big a problem as some believe. "I don't think it's appropriate for the Jewish community to be censoring the speech of others even when it's inflammatory and false," said the Loeb & Loeb lawyer. "When the views and characteristics of the teacher and class are known, the next effort should be to work on alternative programming."

As far as conflicts involving course descriptions in the future, Pattiz thinks the task force will handle whatever lies ahead. "It will be a process," he said. "It's premature to say what actions might come out of it. This group will do what it has been asked to do. They'll look at individual situations so something like this won't happen again."

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