On February 4, during the anti-Israel BDS conference at the University of Pennsylvania, there was a breakout session called “The Academic Boycott of Israel.” During that session’s question and answer period there was a very interesting exchange:
Educator in the audience:
“My question falls on Professor Norton’s statement that Boycott may not be the most important part of BDS, and is kind of the closest to where we live as academics and also with Professor Kaplan’s call to think about a positive program on BDS, a positive aspect of the Boycott [of Israel]….And that’s, um, about teaching in the classroom about BDS and how, not just in our life as professional producers of knowledge, and scholars, but as teachers, how can that be formed in this pedagogy, especially I guess when the course is not dealing directly with material that has to do with Palestine”
Amy Kaplan, professor of English at University of Pennsylvania:
“Well I don’t know how you can, how you can address the issue if you’re not dealing with a course that has no content or relationship to it…. But I know that, I mean, you can make courses that have content. I mean, for example, I happen to know that you’re interested in prisons, and the literature and culture about, you know, prisons, so you can teach a course on which you included prison as a really, really big thing, not only in the political life of Palestinians, but also in their literature and in their poetry, so that will be kind of an ideal way — you take a thematic course, and you bring in themes from this issue, and literature is really a great way to teach students about what’s going on — students they think, they know they have an ideological line, a political line, and then they read, you know, they read Darwish, they read, you know, The Pennoptimist and it opens up a whole new world — so that’s my answer to that.”
Here is the audio, from StandWithUs.
Kaplan accepts the premise of the question, that it is desirable to try to insert anti-Israel material into every class, but she notes that some courses (like biology or calculus, perhaps) do not lend themselves to such blatant propagandizing. However, she goes on, there is nothing to stop an intrepid teacher from not only injecting anti-Israel content into courses about literature and culture, but dedicated anti-Israel activist/teachers can actually create courses with that purpose in mind.
The chair of the English department at the University of Pennsylvania, Nancy Bentley, defended Kaplan’s statement:
“She took the position instead that certain kinds of thematic courses, such as prison literature or prison history, would have an inherent relation to the topic of Israel-Palestine (as one case among others). Prison writing is a well established area in literary studies, as is the history of prisons. Any search of data bases will reveal this neutral fact of academic history. And I fail to see how the case of the Israeli-Palistinian [sic] conflict would be inherently inappropriate as a case study for a thematic course of that sort, just as with courses like war literature or the literature of mourning and violence.”
Of course, the problem with Kaplan’s example was not that Palestinian issues might fit in well with certain types of courses; of course they may. The problem is that college professors should not consciously and a priori insert anti-Israel content into courses, or even worse, design courses for the specific purpose of including such material.
What Kaplan advocates crosses the line from legitimate educational values to blatant propaganda masquerading as academics. Bentley sidestepped that issue in her statement.
Kaplan’s examples of using literature classes to push an anti-Israel agenda is actually more insidious. When students sign up for courses in politics or even history, they can at least be on guard for any bias that the teachers show in the course. However, if they want to take a class in art or literature, they should not be subject to what is essentially hate disguised as class materials. There is nothing wrong with introducing Darwish’s poems in a class of poetry if the context is clear; there is something very wrong with doing it to promote an agenda. Certainly Kaplan is advocating propaganda, but she wants like-minded teachers to give it to students whose knowledge of the facts of the conflict are probably limited. If Kaplan wants to loudly protest Israeli policies at a rally, that is her right; but to instruct teachers how to subliminally insert it in non-political courses is unethical, to say the least.
Even worse, this is apparently not considered to be problematic by a representative of an Ivy League school.
A video of the exchange is posted below: