How Do I Deal With Israel/Palestine in the Classroom? I Don’t.

A long while ago I was interviewed by a reporter who asked me how I handle the issue of Israel/Palestine in my classes. I told him I’m a political theorist who teaches the canon and, occasionally, the first-semester sequence of constitutional law (that is, not the Bill of Rights part, but the part on the rise of national institutions, questions of federalism, and so on). Israel/Palestine never comes up. And though I could be wrong about this (my memory is not what it used to be), I don’t think I’ve ever even had a conversation about Israel/Palestine with a student. And the truth is: I wouldn’t want to. While I care about this issue passionately as a citizen and as a Jew, it’s not something that interests me as a teacher. Nor am I  interested in what my students think about it. (I also never talk in the classroom about activism or civic engagement or the need to get involved politically—another set of topics that have zero interest for me as a teacher.) The reporter couldn’t believe me. Just one more, albeit extreme, instance of people not understanding the difference between what we do inside the classroom and what we do outside the classroom.


  1. Dana September 15, 2014 at 10:15 am | #

    unfortunately, that division between what we speak about in the world and what we teach in the classroom is not so clear cut for many of us. i understand the point that is being made here re: separation of classroom life from public life/engagements but i think the danger of it is that it reinforces the distinction that the media wants us to exercise and draws on the same logic that so harshly punished steven salaita.

  2. Gerald Izenberg September 15, 2014 at 11:31 am | #

    Dana: no, that is precisely the distinction that we as scholars and teachers ought to be preserving, not to spite what the “media” might want–why give a damn, that is mere reactivism–but because of our mandate and authority as teachers. We have no right, given our unquestionable moral power to influence our students, let alone our economic power to grade them, to exhort them to any kind of action. Corey is absolutely right about this. I am less sure than he that Salaita agrees with him.

    • Dana September 15, 2014 at 11:41 am | #

      Gerald: what i said was not about exhorting students to any action or position. it was simply to state that the division between our classrooms and our public lives and scholarly activities outside of the university are not so easy to draw for many of us. while this division works for some, for those who are racialized as palestinian this division simply does not hold up in the classroom or in our lives. palestine, and other issues deemed controversial, do “spill in” to what we teach and how we teach it. the comment re: media was in relation to how salaita’s teaching record (and indeed his ability to teach altogether) were invoked to support UIUC’s decision and maintain this neat and often false division.

      • jonnybutter September 15, 2014 at 12:04 pm | #

        the comment re: media was in relation to how salaita’s teaching record (and indeed his ability to teach altogether) were invoked to support UIUC’s decision and maintain this neat and often false division.

        What?! How was Salaita’s exemplary teaching record invoked to support UIUC’s decision?

      • Gerald Izenberg September 15, 2014 at 5:24 pm | #

        Dana: I shudder at the phrase ‘racialized as Palestinians.’ If it means anything at all, it means that people are classifying Palestinians as a biological race, with all the pejorative implications of the term. Given the history of racism, race can’t simply be a metaphor for anything else; it’s too loaded. Do you have actual evidence of such “racializing?” As for identity “spilling into the classroom,” it depends how. One can teach black history, the history of Israel, Christian theology or Palestinian literature with genuine empathy yet without advocacy or polemics. It’s done all the time.

      • akshaisingh September 16, 2014 at 10:10 am | #

        Gerald, racialized as Palestinians is pretty obvious. Who are living in the refugee camps in Gaza? Who are having settlements increasingly occupy the West Bank? Who lack the right of return, or for that matter, fair work and labor laws in the land now recognized as Israel? It’s Palestinians. I’ve had several Zionists tell me how this group ‘doesn’t exist.’ Race may be a construct, but it takes occupation and control to racialize a people.

  3. s. wallerstein September 15, 2014 at 5:55 pm | #

    I’d like to use this space to clarify a point, which is not entirely irrelevant.

    I read in another blog, one less read (I think) than yours, Corey, the statement that Jewish students were advised not to take courses with Edward Said because of his classroom biases. That affirmation was made to suggest that Professor Salaita, being Palestinian like Said, would not be impartial towards Jewish students in the classroom.

    I took a graduate seminar in Modern Literary Criticism from Professor Said in 1970. He was not famous then, but I was well aware that he was Palestinian and involved in Palestinian liberation on some level and not only is my name Jewish, but I look Jewish.

    First of all, I never sensed the least prejudice against Jews or against me as a Jew on Said’s part.

    Second, Said never discussed the issue of Palestine in the classroom or when I spoke to him outside of class. In fact, he never discussed politics, although from the reading list, I surmised that he was probably fairly leftwing, but then again, I’m leftwing too.

    Those Jewish students who avoided classes with Said because of his biases missed the possibility of listening to and discussing literature with one of the most cultured, intellectually sensitive and refined, if not the most cultured, intellectually sensitive and refined, person I’ve ever met.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant September 16, 2014 at 2:19 pm | #

      You lucky dog!

      One of my favorite books of all time is Said’s “Culture And Imperialism”

      • s. wallerstein September 16, 2014 at 3:32 pm | #

        Enemy Combatant,

        Said was an even more fascinating conversationalist than writer, but that’s something I learned in the last few years watching him on Youtube. There are some excellent interviews where he talks about his life and answers questions.

        When I was in his course, I was much much too young and narcissistic to appreciate Said’s worth, which is the story of my life.

        He wore a tie just like Nixon and my father did, so I didn’t see him as a completely valid other. Anyway, watch the Youtube interviews: he’s better when he speaks without a script or without a paper to read.

    • Roquentin September 16, 2014 at 6:59 pm | #

      I read excerpts from Oreintalism in a Literary Theory class. I don’t remember much about it or having any strong emotional reactions to it. It was just one more in a long line of texts that semester about how white men where the root of all evil and I was supposed to hate myself. I didn’t see eye to eye with the professor on much of anything though. To be fair, I look back on a lot of the things I said then with a great deal of shame. I think he was bating me most of the time. We got into shouting matches once or twice. I’m sure the feeling was mutual and he’d seen kids like me roll through his class a hundred times.

      He split for about a month and this guy from the film department took over. It was like a totally new class. He mostly just wanted to talk about Freud. That was one of those formative moments where I realized just how much difference the person teaching the material made.

      • s. wallerstein September 16, 2014 at 7:18 pm | #


        Said certainly is not one to say that white men are the root of all evil. I’m not an expert on Said, but I’ve read a bit of his work and first of all, he loved and played classical music and taught people like Conrad and Adorno and Proust, etc., all of them dead white men and not just to denounce them. He might have even taught Sartre’s Nausea. He also taught Arab literature. Said was incredibly widely read. Here’s an excellent interview with him on youtube.

      • Roquentin September 16, 2014 at 9:26 pm | #

        I understand. I’m sure whatever attention I paid to him didn’t give him a fair reading and if I went back to it now it’d almost be like a new book. I hated Adorno back in college too. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally warmed up to him. I, like most kids in college, was mainly concerned with partying and trying to get through class while putting in the least amount of effort I could get away with.

        I also feel like I should clarify that the comment was directed mostly at the professor and not the material. I took many other classes with similar material and didn’t feel that way. The irony was that he was a white male from North Carolina. He was a Baby Boomer, so I’m sure he was at least partially aware during segregation. I’d wager he felt like he had something to prove, as if he could wish his genitalia and skin pigmentation away through political statements.

  4. Sarandip September 15, 2014 at 7:30 pm | #

    Er, Gerry darling. I’m sure that there’s no need to instruct the commenter, Dana, on how race has been appropriated by racists, and how biological ‘science’ used to ‘prove’ its existence. After reading your responses, the patronising, mansplaining tone of which left me wondering whether to cringe or to share with many colleagues so that we could have a good Monday laugh, I thought I’ll do the latter. Dana’s point was NOT that ‘race’ (however people construct/manufacture it) is biological (not was she using it as a metaphor – so your rant about it being dangerous to use race as metaphor is bizarrely out of place here) but that people do assign ‘race’ to those they see as ‘other’ – especially those they construct as a ‘threatening other’ (note how Muslims have become racialised in the past 12 years in the geopolitical west). Aaaanyways, good luck enjoying the privileges with which you make your privileges invisible in the classroom. Some of us can’t.

    • Gerald Izenberg September 15, 2014 at 9:42 pm | #

      “Darling.” “Mansplianing.” “People do assign race to those they see as other.” “rant.” ‘bizarre.” “privilege.” “Muslim racializing.” I hope you do better than jargon, cliche and gratuiitous nastiness wherever you teach, or do whatever it is you do.

    • BillR September 15, 2014 at 11:26 pm | #

      I hope you’re not attempting to co-opt Martin Luther King’s proud color-blind legacy:

  5. ZeitgeistFrog (@ZeitgeistFrog) September 15, 2014 at 11:21 pm | #

    So true, professor. As a non-academic with a bachelor’s degree, I can say with complete honesty that in all four of my collegiate years, I never once encountered a partisan political moment in any of my classes. And I went to a fairly conservative campus in the early 1980’s. But, amazingly, I still occasionally encounter staunch right-wing co-worker or friend who will swear that 90% of academia is involved in a sustained, organized Marxist brainwashing agenda. I would always ask sardonically how Calculus or PhysEd or Chemistry or 19thBritishPoetry can be twisted into left/right pretzel? thanks

  6. Roquentin September 15, 2014 at 11:36 pm | #

    I had professors which did both. I specifically remember one who used her creative nonfiction class as means to push us into attending left wing political events. It annoyed me and these were things I would probably have considered going to anyways. She was gone a lot a put a TA in charge often. After getting a bad grade because I misunderstood the requirements for an assignment (I thought I was supposed to write a new piece, but she wanted us to redo and older one) I dropped the class. I actually used this strategy where I’d take one class too many then drop the course I thought I’d do the worst in a few weeks in. It worked like a charm.

    Just like anywhere else, there’s good and bad.

  7. jk September 16, 2014 at 1:24 am | #

    I love the point you are making but I also agree with Dana. Many of folks – women, people of color etc – are “on display” in the classroom. Some bodies are so politicized that their presence in the classroom itself is seen as subversive to students — regardless of what we say/don’t say.

  8. J. Otto Pohl September 16, 2014 at 6:13 am | #

    I currently teach this class every spring which deals in part with Palestine.

  9. J. Otto Pohl September 16, 2014 at 7:33 am | #

    I also used to teach this class which actually focuses on Israel and Palestine. Although many people believe it is one of the reasons my contract at AUCA was not renewed.

    • ROM September 18, 2014 at 10:40 pm | #

      I’d say it was the self-righteous, patronizing and smugly punitive grading policy. Hardly conducive to intellectual exchange.

      • ROM September 18, 2014 at 10:50 pm | #

        But other than that, it looks like a highly informative and well conceived course.

      • J. Otto Pohl September 19, 2014 at 8:38 am | #

        ???? Have you ever taught in the former USSR or anywhere outside North America and the EU? Because plagiarism is a serious problem outside this zone. If you don’t lay out exactly what it entails and how you will deal with it you will have dozens of students arguing with you that they should get an A even though all four of their papers were copied entirely off the internet . I don’t even bother to give take home written assignments here in Ghana because of it. But, other than those students who copied and pasted verbatium off the internet as I recall most students in that particular class got As or Bs. There might have been a few Cs.

      • ROM September 19, 2014 at 11:50 am | #

        I’ve been plagiarized myself by some of them! They take their relaxed attitudes toward citation with them to the US. Perhaps I was a little harsh. Sometimes a tough stance runs the risk of alienating sensitive students, who read what they perceive to be a moralizing, almost accusatory tone and shy away. The instructor may be impartial, but prone to prosecute false positives that are hard to defend against. Anyway, it’s a fascinating reading list and I have no doubt that you have your hands full.

  10. ipomoea5 September 18, 2014 at 7:15 pm | #

    I spent six years as a teaching assistant in the social sciences, and facilitated many discussions about course material. I understand the drive of some of my colleagues to use their courses or tutorials as a platform for social change. Some people find it useful to use current affairs as a hands-on discussion tool in the classroom. My personal contribution to social change, however, involved providing a safe space for students to learn the theoretical tools that they can carry with them outside of the classroom for their own civic engagement (if that is one of their goals). In this sense your approach resonates with me…

  11. Denis Rancourt September 19, 2014 at 8:37 am | #

    Unlike in the USA, in Canada, academic freedom includes the right for the professor to be political in the classroom. This right is often expressly stated in collective agreements (CAs), which are binding labour-law contracts.

    This is the case, for example, at the University of Ottawa where the CA states: “… As such it protects each member’s freedom to disseminate her opinions both inside and outside the classroom, to practice her profession as teacher and scholar … Academic freedom does not require neutrality on the part of the member, but rather makes commitment possible. …”

    Thus, to fire a professor for political reasons in Canada, employers need to find a pretext other than political statements in the classroom, which they do.

    Given the history of academic freedom in the USA, as brilliantly recounted in Ellen Schrecker’s 1986 book “No Ivory Tower”, I believe that academics have a social responsibility to push the limits of academic freedom, and should not willingly accept the harmful principle of a division between being political inside and outside of the classroom (on any topic that one believes is relevant), or inside and outside of one’s profession. Likewise, we should not accept the principle that the ideas and the actions in support of freedom must be divided, in a way that accepts the authority of the state propagated into institutional structures.

    Similarly, professional independence must be guarded and increased, to allow the professor, in consultation/negotiation with the students, to select the teaching methods and content within the discipline, to be the highest authority on those choices. And extreme cantonization of disciplines should be actively resisted.

    Just my two cents. — Denis Rancourt, former (fired) tenured Full Professor of Physcis, University of Ottawa.

  12. b. July 24, 2018 at 6:00 pm | #

    “[I]t’s not something that interests me as a teacher. Nor am I interested in what my students think about it.”

    Does that count as BDS in some way?

    The apolitical moment/space is a deeply political decision.

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