On Colleges Campuses, the History of Israel and Palestine Is Manipulated By Those Who Teach It
I was looking at college classes to enroll in next semester when I stumbled on a course titled “A History of the Palestine-Israel Question” in the History department.
As a Jewish student and president of my J Street chapter, the relationship between Israel and Palestine is the driving impetus for my work. But I am also interested in studying politically backed anti-Judaism — and how it shows up explicitly in both the far right and the BDS language of the left.
Therefore, I clicked on the class.
I found a course description that didn’t even mention World War II, and seemed more concerned with an unwavering critique of Zionism. It was unsettling that this class deemed it appropriate to skip over the Holocaust, but it was also academically irresponsible. The class also attempts to gloss over Jewish historical roots in Israel. It does Jewish students an injustice, but perhaps more worrying is that it does the academic community an injustice. Consideration of the Jewish past may complicate the class’ driving thesis and political agenda, but it does so at the expense of truth and history.
It is not this teacher’s proposed lens itself that particularly disturbs me; I have encountered lots of people in academia that deny Israel’s right to exist. My job as a student and an activist is not to change those people’s minds — as they are often so entrenched in their beliefs that they hinder all political progress. My job is to tell students who come to college with an open mind to read as much as possible on the issue, from a variety of sources. The greatest victory is convincing people to think critically for themselves, and not to subscribe to a certain political dogma.
What disturbs me, however, is that this propaganda and bias is being taught and widely shared. No longer is this one individual’s lens; it becomes the community’s lens, one in which there is little freedom for disagreement or alternative perspectives.
Jewish students like myself want to engage in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but the curriculum is largely influenced by who teaches it and what they choose to include. It is deeply ironic that the same spaces that are meant to inform and challenge us instead offer us blinders and endorse a narrow vision. Consequently, Jewish voices are indirectly coerced into not joining these critical discussions.
There is an important need for discussion and debate that takes into account Palestinian voices, exploring their history too. But the erasure of any history, whether it is Jewish or Palestinian, makes for poor scholarly work and an unfair dialogue.
Unfortunately, a lot of my courses will continue to mirror the blatant disregard for multiple narratives when it comes to Israel. History is taught from the perspective of the professor. I believe that the Israel-Palestine question can be explored in academic spaces without engendering violence against Jewish students. It is not that criticism of Israel is always antisemitic, but rather that when BDS and anti-Israel activity comes to campus, antisemitism follows.
Courses like these, if anything, institutionalize anti-Jewish rhetoric, providing an academic pedestal that offers a mirage of equality.
This course illuminates a more widespread issue, one that plagues Occidental College and college institutions across the country. In our quest for equality, fairness, and justice, professors are quick to discount and dismiss the very threads that complicate or add to the picture. Academia needs to take responsibility for its endorsement of Jewish erasure and how that in turn normalizes anti-Jewish sentiment. It is not that Palestinian voices are unimportant, but rather that we are choosing to privilege certain voices at all.
More Jewish students like myself need to go into academia, not to shift the narrative in our favor — but to ensure that history is taught in socially responsible, nuanced ways. Twenty-five students will enroll in “A History of the Palestine-Israel Question” at Occidental College, and will leave the classroom with a different understanding than when they came in. Unfortunately, they’re only going to hear one side of the story.
Maddie Solomon is a politics major at Occidental College, originally from Denver, Colorado.