Fearful? Intimidated? Raise Your Hand

Fearful? Intimidated? Raise Your Hand

October 04, 2011
By Elianna Mintz, ICB reporter

Israel Campus Beat published an article in June that addressed the issue of anti-Israel rhetoric in the classroom. The story asked readers to submit examples of problematic encounters they have had with faculty in classes.

The good news is that there are limited examples. The bad news is that there are any examples at all. Worse still, students often seem reticent to pursue grievances through available channels.

[This report omits identifying information about specific campuses. Rather than focus on specific instances of classroom intimidation, ICB hopes this report will motivate students who encounter problems in the classroom to take appropriate steps to remedy them.]

On one campus, students reported that a sociology professor incorporates anti-Israel speakers, events and field trips into her course curriculum. The professor once required attendance at a lecture by members of Breaking the Silence – an organization comprised of former Israeli soldiers who decry what they call unethical behavior by Israel Defense Force soldiers – and has taken students on a trip to the Palestinian territories. She is the faculty advisor to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and encourages her students to join the group.

One student told ICB that as a freshman he felt targeted by his Teacher Assistant (TA) for his pro-Israel views. One day a homework assignment was returned to him that surprisingly had comments written on the page. TAs graded homework in the class and rarely offered written comments.

The assignment had been to define “heteronormativity” and provide an example of how it is enforced in contemporary Western society.

“Heteronormativity is the cultural norm of sexual relationships between opposite sexes,” the student wrote. “Examples of heteronormativity are seen in the media and sometimes in the law. Heteronormativity is also very prevalent within religion. Within Islam, in places such as Iran, or Gaza, men are hanged for being homosexual.”

The TA wrote a warning on his paper:

“Careful when using examples. Why did you choose to only vilify Islam? There has been no hanging of gay men in Gaza but there have been accounts of IDF soldiers gunning down gay Palestinian and Lebanese men. We must be careful where our stereotypes come from as this sounds Islamophobic…”

The student had not mentioned Israel in his homework submission, but the TA took the opportunity to make anti-Israel remarks in her comments.

However the TA’s comment was not out of character, according to the student.

“Once, a non-Jewish student used the Holocaust as an example of people not standing up for social justice,” the student relayed. “The student mentioned that Jews did not stand up during the early stages of the Holocaust because they never knew that something so horrible could happen to them in a modern society. The TA answered in a rather annoyed tone that, ‘The Jews did know that it was coming, they just didn’t care.’”

While the TA, who did not respond to ICB’s requests for comment, did not have the status of a professor, students nonetheless were afraid to stand up to her. She was the one grading papers, and students feared that their grades would be affected negatively if they expressed their beliefs, so they remained silent.

Professors Peter Haas and Sam Edelman of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East insist that every student can and must speak up.

“Pro-Israel students need to be educated on the basic history of Israel and the Middle East,” Haas said. “With this basic understanding, they can respond to propaganda in class. As long as you point out the fallacies of their arguments with intelligent questions, you can expose other students to the truth.”

If speaking up in class does not bring about the necessary change, however, experts suggest that students focus on professors’ bad teaching.

“It is a professor’s duty to promote critical thinking and present both sides of an argument,” Edelman said. “When professors only show one side, they are not fulfilling their duty as a teacher and should be reported by fellow faculty and students. Students are guaranteed protection from discrimination,” Edelman stressed.

Every school has a formal grievance procedure to protect students from faculty harassment, even from professors who have tenure. Edelman recommended that students inquire about their university’s grievance policy by speaking to a dean and then utilizing it.

“If a pattern is determined and enough students protest and file papers on a particular professor, you gain protection. Otherwise you are not protected,” explained Edelman.

If the grievance policy is not enough, however, a student can pursue external legal action.

Recently, with the help of Kenneth L. Marcus, the executive vice president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has included Jewish students under Title VI, a federal law that protects students from discrimination and harassment on campus for their race, color, national origin or religion.

Yet all too often it seems as if students do not take appropriate steps to ensure that problems are resolved.

On one campus, numerous students reported that a Middle East Studies teacher on campus has expressed anti-Israel sentiments in the classroom and reduced grades of students who did not agree with his political views.

One student reported that in response to a question on a quiz, he identified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The professor marked the question wrong and wrote that Israel’s capital is Tel Aviv, since Jerusalem is occupied illegally.

“I truly feared that speaking out in class would affect my grade,” the student said, “but sometimes I couldn’t help myself and did speak up. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I just regurgitated the nonsense. When the teacher relayed blatant misinformation to the class, some of us spoke up. But it made no difference.”

Another student who had the same teacher said that pro-Israel students stopped speaking up after a few weeks: “There was just no point,” she said. “[The teacher] constantly brushed our comments aside as if they had no value. Even if we argued our points well in a paper, points were taken off. We had to write according to the teacher’s views or our grades would be affected.”

In an email exchange with ICB, the teacher asserted that students may think the course is biased because it “highlights the Arab world and Arab and Muslim perspectives above all since these topics are generally under-represented in college undergraduate curricula.”

“As for my presentation of Israeli and Jewish history,” the teacher continued, “I believe it is more honest than what has been traditionally told to them as the ‘Truth.’”

Staff at that campus’s Hillel told ICB that they encourage students to go through the proper channels by scheduling appointments with university administrators.

“We stress the need to follow through with their complaints,” the Hillel staffer said, “but we find that only one in 10 actually do.”

A 2005 Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) survey of students confirms this statement. The survey found that most instances in which students encounter violations of their academic freedoms on campus problems go unreported. Thus, problems are not being addressed.

In a 2007 report entitled “Academic Rights, Academic Responsibilities: A New Approach,” ICC maintained that “students must accept their share of responsibility for upholding academic freedom and maintaining an environment that is conducive to learning. They must speak out against abuses.”

“If we remain silent we are being complicit and they will think we agree with them,” Haas told ICB. “We need to speak up and say ‘enough.’ Only once we put pressure on universities will we see a change.”