As more and more stories emerge of university administrations trying to circumscribe debate over the Israel/Palestine issue, even NBC News has done a sympathetic piece: “the campus has become the latest battleground for pro-Palestinian student activists who claim they have been marginalized or unfairly punished by university higher-ups.”
One case we have not dealt with yet involves the partial muzzling of Iymen Chehade at Columbia College. Last week there was a rally at the Chicago school on Chehade’s behalf, featuring Ali Abunimah. Supporters of academic freedom were urged to sign this petition.
Chehade teaches part-time at the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College, a private arts and media school; for nearly four years he has given two or three sections of a course called “The Israeli/Palestinian conflict.” Last fall, he showed a class the documentary Five Broken Cameras, about the popular struggle against the occupation in Bil’in, and a student complained to administrators that Chehade exhibited “bias.”
At that time, Chehade says, a department chair, Steven Corey, met with him and urged him to present the material in a more “balanced” manner.
Chehade asked Corey why the student didn’t approach him directly. He says Corey said that he could remember when white students were intimidated by angry African-American professors and didn’t speak up. But on the heels of that meeting, Chehade was stripped of one of his course offerings this spring. The on-line course catalog for Columbia had listed two sections of the class. Then one was removed. The school has said that it dropped the course because of enrollment and scheduling issues (the Real News reports).
Update: Columbia College has issued a statement, below.
Chehade has filed a grievance against this muzzling. “This issue can be an opportunity to change the exclusivist nature of academic freedom– which seems to be open to everything, except discussing Palestine,” he says.
He describes his class as an “open environment.” He was aware that some students were uncomfortable with his perspective, he told me, but he always encouraged students to make their differences known in the classroom.
“I say to my students, feel free to have a discussion with me. I’ve had plenty of Birthright students. You have an opportunity to discuss the issue honestly here. I don’t penalize my students if they have a different perspective. I give them assignments where they can back up their opinions with sources.”
The instructor says he was contracted to give the class and was then targeted for his political opinions. Chehade is the faculty adviser to chapters of both Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace on campus (they are combined in one group); and his view of the conflict is not balanced because the conflict is not balanced: One side has more power than the other and has continually dispossessed them, Chehade says. Three years ago a group of students complained because he used the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the fact that 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from or fled their homes in Palestine during the creation of Israel and were not allowed to return. But many scholars use that term (as Shira Robinson lately explained on our site).
“Israel is committing crimes against the Palestinian people,” Chehade says. “And the college is taking the position of supporting a settler-colonialist state that has waged a war against a people for decades.”
Chehade has gone through two grievance processes; both have been rejected. His case is emblematic of the larger struggle between supporters of Israel and Israel’s critics that is breaking out all over the country. A demand for “balance” is being used at more than one school to silence the Palestinian perspective, lawyer Rima Kapitan said on the Real News; as university administrators inappropriately inject themselves into questions of class content.
The anxiety about speech is a response to the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, Chehade says. “The BDS movement has pushed forward and come far. And those who advocate for rightwing Israeli policies are targeting individuals. I’m one of them.”
Interestingly, one of the college administrators who heard his grievance, Provost Louise Love, was reported to have participated in the firing of an adjunct professor of religion at Chicago’s Roosevelt University eight years ago when that teacher put forward the Palestinian narrative in his class. On that occasion, Douglas Giles, the former instructor, said, the department chair railed against Palestinians as “animals” and Love supported the department chair.
Though Chehade feels that his livelihood is being undermined, he is confident. He points to the fact that the petition on his behalf has garnered nearly 6,000 signatures, and that he has grassroots support all over Chicago.
This echoes the situation at Northeastern, where NBC’s Nona Willis Aronowitz reports that 6,000 signatures have been collected on behalf of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, which was suspended there.
“The other side is fighting in retreat,” Chehade says. “They’re fighting, and they’re losing, but they’re upping things.”
I have to wonder if donor pressure or donor concerns played a role in this case. I’d note that Columbia College’s former chairman of the board, and still a trustee, is Allen M. Turner, who has worked for the Pritzker family firm. Penny Pritzker is now Obama’s Commerce Secretary, and a strong supporter of Israel.
The course is well grounded in fact and presents a diverse overview of Israeli/Palestinian history, including interviews with both Israelis and Palestinians. The class receives overwhelmingly positive evaluations by students, and many report having to wait to get in to the class. ..
Showing a movie [5 Broken Cameras] depicting popular resistance to Israeli occupation does not constitute bias, and retaliating against a professor for engaging students about pressing social issues is a blatant violation of academic freedom. Furthermore, professors are not obligated to present an opposing view to every opinion or fact presented in class. Columbia College’s own academic freedom policies protect professors against such interference. The cancelation also restricts Columbia students from participating in learning and discussion about Israel-Palestine, a topic for which they have demonstrated a clear interest.
Here is the statement from Columbia’s Louise Love:
Columbia College Chicago would like to publicly acknowledge its support of Instructor Iymen Chehade in his use of the widely acclaimed documentary, Five Broken Cameras, to educate students in his Israeli/Palestinian Conflict course. The College would also like to note that Mr. Chehade is in fact currently teaching his course, and has taught it since he joined our faculty in fall 2010.
Mr. Chehade has received strong and continuous support from Dr. Steven Corey, Chair of the Department of Humanities, History, and Social Sciences (HHSS), and Dr. Deborah Holdstein, Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS), in using this important film. Indeed, HHSS and other departments in LAS co-sponsored an on-campus screening of Five Broken Cameras last year, which featured Mr. Chehade moderating a discussion afterward, along with Jewish Voice for Peace, the Cinema Arts + Science Department, and other offices at Columbia College Chicago. HHSS Chair, Dr. Steven H. Corey attended the showing and has never veered in his support for Mr. Chehade’s right to show the movie in a classroom setting. Dr. Corey and the College encourage Mr. Chehade to continue to use the movie (or selections from the documentary) in his teaching and discuss its content, exposing students to such an important perspective on political tensions in the Middle East.
We at the College believe that an education should, in part, be about preparing students to be active and engaged world citizens and to think critically about political and historical narratives. As such, HHSS offers an array of thought provoking and exciting courses like the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict class and makes every effort to schedule them to meet the curricular needs of a diverse student body.
Reductions in the number of sections or courses offered at Columbia reflect a multitude of factors such as overall student enrollment, targets for average class size, and rotation of curriculum. Reductions are not made to alter a specific academic field of study or political perspective, and any course on campus may be offered at a reduced frequency from past semesters.
The College reaffirms the right of all faculty members and students to exercise academic freedom in a manner that Mr. Chehade has enjoyed since he became a member of HHSS.
— Louise Love, Ph.D., VP of Academic Affairs and Interim Provost
Columbia College Chicago
h/t Pucci Dellanno, Icarus Verum.