The Jewish studies department at this university is one of the best in the country. This is evident by the migration of scholars to this campus to pursue a degree or a minor in Jewish thought, history and culture. The course selection in subjects relating to Judaism, Israel and Hebrew is very extensive, and the professors in the department are incredible. However, in some cases, the courses representing a look at Jewish history and culture for the past hundred years or so have been lacking an integral component: the Palestinian condition.
One course goes in defiance of this trend: JWST419P/HEBR498A: The Culture of Israeli-Palestine Conflict. On the first day of class, Professor Zakim introduced the course with obvious excitement about incorporating Palestinian art, literature and culture into the syllabus. He explained that four years ago he offered the course, introducing a Palestinian view for the first time. It has taken four years for the course to be offered again because of the heightened sensitivity that erupted when the Palestinian viewpoints were integrated into the class discussions. This campus should be embracing this kind of dialogue. When there is a particularly sensitive topic, it should be studied in greater detail, not less.
Even with the incorporation of such a subject in the course catalog, there is very little diversity of conversation within the classroom. Arab-Americans are afraid of taking the class because of its predominately Jewish setting. In one such case, I have a Palestinian friend who has relatives living in and around Israeli territories. I asked her if she would take a course on Palestinian-Israeli culture and she said of course she would, but she hadn't heard of any. I told her there was one offered in the Jewish studies department, and she shyly retracted her enthusiasm. This is a girl who is minoring in Middle Eastern studies and who attends Israeli information sessions sponsored by the Zionist Organization of America. She is afraid to take the class not because she is uninterested in the Jewish-Israeli viewpoint, but because she would fear overwhelming bias in a Jewish studies course discussing Palestinian culture.
The lack of Palestinian classes and Arab culture classes in general, have not just marginalized Arab viewpoints within the classroom; they have also biased the minds of the students whose ideas are rarely challenged. In one instance, a friend of mine in a Jewish studies class made the comment, "I think there is less to say about Palestinian culture than Israeli culture," using finger quotes when he said "Palestinian." I do not want this quote to be taken out of context as this is a very intelligent student who takes as many Arab history and culture classes as possible and wishes to see more of them offered in the future. However, his education has yet to breakdown his own personal bias in the discussion of Israel-Palestine.
These opinions are not in any way meant to represent main ideas on the two sides of such a debate. I use these anecdotes as proof that there are fears, divisions and stereotyping on the campus, which can be reduced with the incorporation of more Arab culture classes in a more neutral setting. I know there are intense efforts being made to build up the Arab history, government and language courses at the university. These efforts need better funding and more student support as they offer hope for a more liberal-minded future.
On a campus with such a large Jewish population, where travel to Israel is very accessible and where the Jewish studies department is so wonderful, there is a need for Palestinian culture classes, which can provide a wonderful compliment to the several rich Israeli culture courses offered each semester. The voice of the Middle East, and of the Palestinians in particular, must be voiced more readily on the campus to encourage and enhance debate. It is time to bring some more controversial dialogue into our classrooms with the hopes of overcoming emotional, physical and psychological barriers dividing our campus community and the world at large.