Our friend, freelance journalist Doug Chandler, has just written what he calls a “think piece,” published online at the New York Jewish Week as a follow-up to the story he’s reported of Brooklyn College hiring someone with an admittedly partisan pro-Palestinian viewpoint, to teach a graduate seminar in political science on the Middle East. Doug quotes the gentleman in question, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, as clearly affirming Israel’s right to exist, his opposition to terrorism, and his support for a two-state solution.
Doug’s initial news article concluded with a comment by one of our own, Prof. Leonard Grob: “Academic freedom can be taken to an extreme, which would negate the responsibility of an academic to present a variety of perspectives, said Grob, vice president of the progressive-Zionist Meretz USA. “I come down with a creative middle between academic freedom and academic responsibility.”
I have to observe that Petersen-Overton was hired and then hurriedly unhired in an apparent (and unseemly) response to a political uproar occasioned by his falsely alleged sympathy for terrorism against Israel. But I do question the qualifications of this 26 year-old second year CUNY graduate student to teach a graduate seminar. Doug’s newest piece is most helpful in the evaluation by experts of the instructor’s course syllabus, which substantiates my view of it as being unnecessarily and unfairly biased:
…. The syllabus, a combination of required and recommended readings, includes such authors as Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Joseph A. Massad and Nur Masalha, all regarded as radically anti-Israel by many Jewish activists, and Ilan Pappe and Neve Gordon, Israeli writers viewed in similar terms. Much fewer in number are those scholars, like Alan Dowty, Shlomo Avineri, Michael Doran and Jonathan Spyer, who are Zionist or pro-Israel.
Several Mideast experts suggested that Petersen-Overton chose his material carefully, stacking the deck in a fairly subtle way.
“One has to differentiate between ‘required’ and ‘recommended,'” said Asaf Romirowsky, an adjunct scholar at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, the Philadelphia-based think tank led by Daniel Pipes. [Doug is aware that this is a right-of-center institution, but he found Romirowsky’s observations reasonable–R. Seliger.] “There’s an overwhelming slant here,” with many of the pro-Israel scholars marked as “recommended,” not required.
One of the decisive factors for Romirowsky is that Petersen-Overton includes Said’s 1979 book “Orientalism,” a work arguing that the West has had a long tradition of making biased assumptions about Muslim and Arab culture, but doesn’t include “Islam and the West,” Bernard Lewis’ well-known critique of Said. Exploring “Orientalism” and not examining “Islam and the West” ignores the huge debate over Said’s theories, leaving students with “a very clear one-sided agenda,” Romirowsky said.
Like other scholars contacted by The Jewish Week, Romirowsky also expressed disbelief that the course’s original syllabus included no exploration of Iran, Turkey, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. Treating the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic as the only conflict in a region rife with tension and conflict is also a disservice to students, he suggested.
Asked for comment, Petersen-Overton said he’s made several “minor” changes to the syllabus, sending his students this week to a panel discussion about Egypt, but he’s made no changes to the Israeli-Palestinian portion of the syllabus. He also said he used as his guide the syllabus of Dov Waxman, a professor of Mideast studies at CUNY’s Graduate Center who has taught Petersen-Overton and recommended him for his current position.
But Waxman said the Israeli-Palestinian portion of his former student’s syllabus is different from his own and that Petersen-Overton includes some scholars he would never use in his own class. Said, for instance, “is not a Mideast scholar,” Waxman said, and his writing on the Mideast “is much more political advocacy than scholarship.” Similarly, Chomsky is a linguist, not an expert on the Mideast, and Ilan Pappe “sees himself as an advocate,” not an objective historian.
They and several others on Petersen-Overton’s syllabus “would be red flags” for many students, creating “a certain charge,” said Waxman. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be assigned, he added, but many of them should be balanced with others. …