Controversial U.C. English class garners mixed reviews

When U.C. Berkeley graduate student and pro-Palestinian activist Snehal Shingavi announced plans last spring to teach a course called "Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance," the national media jumped on him like a pack of wolves assailing a mountain of hamburger meat.

Following an embarrassing uproar — with many in the Jewish and general community objecting to Shingavi's caveat urging "conservative thinkers" to look elsewhere — the English department opted to place a full-time monitor in the class and designated a faculty member to oversee graduate student-generated courses. Shingavi's course also inspired the recent creation of a U.C.-wide task force to review course descriptions.

Depending on whom one asks, Shingavi's controversial course — now well underway — is either a top-notch exploration of literary technique or thinly veiled pro-Palestinian propaganda. While the administration has received no complaints, at least one student is pointedly displeased.

Oren Lazar, who said he is the only openly pro-Israel student to regularly attend the 14-person class, puts it this way: "What was I expecting from a guy who has already expressed a very biased opinion, handing out literature that tries to justify Hamas and Hezbollah, and is teaching a class on Palestinian poetry?

"He has an agenda here and it's not to analyze the poetry and better understand the people and the conflict. It's to work against Israel and America and express his own political views. That's what the class has been," said Lazar, a senior and former chairman of the Israel Action Committee.

"His thinly veiled attempt at objectivity isn't fooling me, and hopefully it's not working on the other students in the class."

The English department does not see things Lazar's way, however. Professor Janet Adelman, the department chair, said the class is going smoothly, and complimented Shingavi for "doing a wonderful job of keeping open the possibility of discussion and doing the real work of the class, which is the analysis of texts and forms of argumentation."

So far, she said, the department has not received any complaints. The course's full-time observer, Professor Steven Goldsmith (who is Jewish), declined to speak, but Adelman relayed he has so far been impressed with the course and Shingavi's demeanor.

Shingavi could not be reached for comment.

While Lazar contends that the class' background materials, penned by pro-Palestinian Columbia University Professor Edward Said, clearly indicate Shingavi's bias, Adelman said the materials capture the mindset of the Palestinian poets.

"If this were a course on the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations, then it would be wise to include books from a wide variety of perspectives. The course is on the development of Palestinian poetics in response to a particular political understanding of events, which is accurately reflected by Said's work," responded Adelman, who is Jewish.

"Also, my understanding is Snehal is doing an excellent job pointing out the argumentative strategies Said is using, but is not endorsing what Said says as a truth claim. That's what the observer says. As far as I know, this is not a course about truth claims. It's about a particular political understanding and the development of poetics that comes out of that particular understanding."

Lazar, meanwhile, accused Shingavi of indoctrination.

Discussing a Said essay, "I said, 'This is an account of the Palestinian people. Are you going to present the other side?' He said, 'That's why you're here.' The only way to get both perspectives is to have students come in and monitor the class and speak out against the instructor? That's disgusting," said Lazar, whose parents are both Israeli.

"He's not open to dialogue about the Mideast. He's trying to brainwash the students, that's obvious."

But it's not so obvious to Goldsmith.

"The observer thinks he's been totally impeccable," said Adelman. "So whatever anyone might have predicted back when this story first broke, the first four weeks [of class] is proof that he can teach this material in a way that allows for open discussion and a true educational experience, whatever he thinks privately."

The notoriety Shingavi picked up during the media storm recently landed him on Campus Watch, a Philadelphia-based pro-Israel Web site "monitoring Middle East studies on campus." On the site (www.campus-watch.org) are dossiers on seven instructors and 14 universities, including Shingavi and U.C. Berkeley.

"Campus Watch creates a climate in which people are afraid to say what they think and teach what they are teaching," Shingavi told the Daily Californian about the site, to which Lazar has contributed.

"It was designed to chill academic speech. It carries with it an implicit threat that not only are you being monitored but that there are some kind of implicit consequences," Shingavi added.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.