Tufts Student Condemns ‘Colonizing Palestine’ Course Taught by Professor Who Claims ‘Israeli Occupation’ Started in 1948
A student at Tufts University in Massachusetts has condemned an upcoming class led by a instructor who previously suggested that the entirety of Israel is occupied Palestinian land.
Spencer Zeff, co-president of the campus club Tufts Friends of Israel, wrote in an op-ed published in the school’s student newspaper on Wednesday that the course Colonizing Palestine “positions a one-sided narrative as truth from the outset of the semester.”
As the Jewish News Syndicate first reported, the course will be taught by Thomas Abowd — a lecturer in American Studies and Colonialism Studies — starting next week. It will help students “address crucial questions relating to this embattled nation, the Israeli state which illegally occupies Palestine, and the broader global forces that impinge on Palestinians and Israelis,” according to its description.
Zeff noted that this summary does not mention any “Jewish writers or filmmakers,” and warned that the exclusion of “any non-Palestinian perspective” may prevent students from properly examining the subject matter.
The course “quite literally denies Jewish indigeneity to Israel,” he argued, and “overtly labels” Israelis — including his family members — “as foreign settlers and colonists, as if it was a dynamic as simple as Europeans coming to North America.”
Addressing the university’s defense of the course on grounds of academic freedom, Zeff observed that while Abowd “has the right to teach on this topic and focus on Palestinian perspectives, a disservice is done to students looking for a holistic and nuanced perspective of such an important issue on campus and in the world.”
“I am entering my third year at Tufts with the same fear that I felt when I was called a ‘Zionist scum,’ an anti-Semitic slur, my first year,” he said. “Jewish students are frequently discriminated against in conspiratorial terms and age old tropes on Tufts Secrets, an anonymous Facebook page. I no longer question why Tufts Friends of Israel is the only culture club at Tufts that requires a security detail at the majority of our events.”
Colonizing Palestine has previously been criticized for appearing to advance a biased political narrative by groups including the Anti-Defamation League, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, the AMCHA Initiative, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, StandWithUs, and the Endowment for Middle East Truth.
Tufts Hillel likewise said that while it supports academic freedom, the course’s description is “prejudicial and unnecessarily provocative.”
The head of the school’s Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora rejected these accusations last week, writing in a joint letter with the director of Minors in Asian American, Colonialism, and Latino Studies that “many scholars have for decades characterized Israel as a settler colonial state.”
“We see, unfortunately, more and more that valid criticism of Israel is being portrayed as anti-Semitic as an attempt to shut down debate,” they cautioned. “We will not let these spurious attacks derail inquiry at our university.”
In recent years, Abowd has repeatedly suggested that all territory controlled by Israel is occupied and colonized Palestinian land.
In a 2014 interview discussing his book Colonial Jerusalem, Abowd claimed that the “Israeli military occupation … began not in 1967, but in fact in 1948, when Israel conquered about 70 percent of historic Palestine from the indigenous Palestinian population.”
Israel declared its independence in 1948, months after Arab leaders rejected a United Nations partition plan that would have established a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state. It was invaded less than a day afterwards by a coalition of Arab armies, and territory that remained under its control at the end of the hostilities in 1949 is not considered occupied by the UN.
During a talk at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth the previous year, Abowd similarly accused “the Israeli state” of continuing to “take and colonize and appropriate Palestinian land for the last almost seven decades.”
At the same lecture, he shared a widely-contested series of maps purporting to depict “Palestinian loss of land” from 1946 to 2000. The maps claim that all of the territory that comprises modern-day Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip was originally “Palestinian land,” with the exclusion of small tracts of privately-owned “Jewish land.”
Abowd acknowledged, however, that the UN did recognize Israeli sovereignty within the boundaries of the 1949 armistice agreement lines.
Patrick Collins, a spokesperson for Tufts, told The Algemeiner in a statement that the school’s “courses represent a broad spectrum of ideas and topics,” and that a “university-facilitated discussion of these issues does not imply endorsement of a particular view.”
“We anticipate and welcome the Tufts’ community’s vigorous discussion of varying viewpoints and beliefs,” he continued, indicating that there are “a variety of course offerings at Tufts that present a range of perspectives on Israeli/Palestinian politics and history,” as well as “on topics and issues involving Israeli politics and culture.”
“Outside the classroom, we are fortunate to have many examples of positive, constructive dialogue at Tufts, and to have a vibrant Jewish community on campus, anchored by an active, nationally recognized Tufts Hillel,” Collins said. “Also, Tufts invites a wide array of speakers to campus each year to speak on current issues and events,” he added, pointing to a campus event last year with former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro.
Tufts University came under the spotlight several times last year, including after its student government passed a resolution supportive of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel just before the Jewish holiday of Passover. Some 50 students reportedly requested that the date be changed, while a coalition of 45 organizations denounced the timing of the vote as an effort to deprive Jewish students “of their freedom of expression and the right to full participation in campus life.”
Months later, an unauthorized guidebook was shared on the official Tufts class of 2020 and 2021 Facebook pages, which described the university’s Hillel as “an organization that supports a white supremacist state” and “exploit[s] black voices for their own pro-Israel agenda.” The guide was later removed and condemned by the university’s president.