Despite previous pushback, Tufts University again to offer ‘Colonizing Palestine’ course

The class, which received criticism when it was offered last year, will be taught by Thomas Abowd, who has an extensive history of engaging in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic causes.

By Jackson Richman, JNS

A course on the docket again this fall at Tufts University is causing controversy even before classes begin.

“Colonizing Palestine,” offered by the Race, Colonialism and Diaspora Studies Department (RCD), “will explore the histories and cultures of Palestine and Israel in relation to one another and through the lens of colonialism studies,” according to the class description.

“We will examine some of the crucial debates relating to colonialism and decolonization, and the relevance of such perspectives for Palestinians, Israelis and the broader Middle East. Participants in the course will do so through a range of pathbreaking Palestinian and Israeli historians, feminist scholars, activists, fiction writers, filmmakers, spoken word artists, anthropologists and others. By doing so, we will address important and persistent questions around themes of nationalism and national identity, gender and sexuality, the intersections of race and class, cultural hybridity and colonial knowledge production,” the description says.

The class, which received criticism when it was offered last year, will be taught by Thomas Abowd, who is listed on Canary Mission, a blacklist of anti-Israel activists, academics and organizations.

Abowd has an extensive history of engaging in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic causes.

In 2015, he spoke at Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine’s Israeli Apartheid Week and declared, “We have apartheid right here on this campus, and we have apartheid right here in this city,” propelling the narrative that Israel is an “apartheid state.”

That same year, in a talk at the anti-Israel Jerusalem Fund in Washington, D.C., he mocked Judaism, labeling the Old Testament a “celestial real estate guide.”

In 2016, Abowd claimed that Israel “privileges [Jews] to the exclusion of others, so you get this deep sort of biblical historical notion of an unchanging Jewish essence and connections to the Holy Land,” and that Israel views Jerusalem as an “eternal place, an unchanging immutable part of Jewish history.”

He received a Fulbright award to conduct research and teach at Birzeit University near Ramallah, a stronghold for anti-Israel incitement, from December 2011 to October 2012.

Abowd defended the course, claiming to JNS that “due to its huge success,” the RCD was “compelled to approave [sic] it this year.”

‘Zionist forces on campus losing pretty badly’

But, he acknowledged, “that is not to say that there are not pretty retrograde anti-Arab and anti-Muslim forces among the administration and the faculty, but only that Zionist forces on campus are losing pretty badly these days.”

Abowd referenced a letter of support, which he shared last year with JNS—dated Aug. 21, 2018, from Amahl Bishara, director of Minors in Asian American, Colonialism and Latino Studies; and Kris Manjapra, director of the Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism and Diaspora—amid what the department labeled as “ ‘blowback’ against the course” in that “it seems to encourage further attacks on the course and Prof. Abowd himself.”

“It baselessly and falsely accuses him of being involved with anti-Semitic causes. It also attacks vital and important Palestinian thinkers that will be featured in the course, such as Edward Said, Suheir Hammad and Mahmoud Darwish,” continued the letter. “It is indicative that even in their decontextualized form, the quotes from these thinkers stand up as worthy of contemplation. Prof. Abowd himself has written a book about Israeli colonialism, in particular in Jerusalem, and many scholars have for decades characterized Israel as a settler colonial state.”

In addition to citing the university’s statement in standing by the course – saying, “We support all faculty members’ right to academic freedom, while understanding that support does not imply endorsement of any particular point of view that a faculty member might espouse” – the letter also states:

“In the Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora, we know that teaching about colonialism and racism often produces backlash. We see, unfortunately, more and more that valid criticism of Israel is being portrayed as anti-Semitic as an attempt to shut down debate. We know there is an obvious difference between criticism of a state and racism against a group of people, as so many scholars, among them Judith Butler, who recently visited our campus, have addressed.

“We will not let these spurious attacks derail inquiry at our university,” the letter continues. “We pledge to start the school year with a renewed commitment to studying the institutional and rhetorical structures of racism, colonization and decolonization in comparative context, and the creativity and cultures of colonized people. Please join us in offering support to Prof. Abowd.”

Abowd declined to provide student evaluations of last year’s course and further comment.

‘Tremendous disservice to the U.S. and Israel’

Susan Price, the head of the Tufts chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), told JNS that they are concerned about the professor’s “ability and desire to promote a balanced discussion of Israel without delegitimizing and demonizing Israel. Abowd has consistently rejected pro-Israel voices as illegitimate and xenophobic in an attempt to silence his critics and legitimize his classroom advocacy.”

Pro-Israel groups also criticized Tufts for offering “Colonizing Palestine.”

Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, told JNS that Abowd’s “responses are fascinating and, of course, support of his own ‘victimhood.’”

“The course based on the description and his comments will be as ‘balanced’ as the last course was, and you will note that the letter in support of Abowd and the course are not concerned with offering classes that discuss Zionism and/or Israeli history in the name of free exchange of ideas,” he said. “The course will clearly bolster intersectionality, underscoring ‘universal Palestinian victimhood’ using the settler-colonial argument to posit that Zionism was an imperial tool of the British and that Jews are an alien population placed in Palestine to usurp the land and displace the people. All this is, of course, a farce and can be disapproved.”

Continued Romirowsky: “Once again, this entire course is an illustration of mainstreaming historical revisionism on campus.”

“For the last several decades, I have been studying what is being taught in many Middle Eastern Studies programs throughout the country,” Sarah Stern, founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, told JNS. “This class offered at Tufts University is simply a prime example of scores and scores of classes offered throughout the country where there is an immense political bias against both the United States and the State of Israel.”

“This sort of paltry political propaganda is a sorry substitute for a good, solid education and does a disservice to the student, who, rather than developing a real knowledge base about a region, gets imbued with the facile slogans and dogma of the left,” she continued. “It also contradicts the very reason why we have regional studies within universities, which is to enable students to come out of their shells and to rise above their partisanship—in other words, to be educated.”

ACF executive director Avi Gordon told JNS that his organization has been addressing the matter “behind the scenes.”

Citing ‘academic freedom’

Manjapra referred JNS to Tufts spokesperson Patrick Collins.

“The university offers a number of courses representing a wide variety of experiences and views, including, for example, a course last spring entitled ‘Visions of Peace in Israel/Palestine,’ a peer-led course exploring perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with a particular focus on ongoing grassroots peace efforts,” Collins told JNS. “We are fortunate to have many examples of positive, constructive dialogue at Tufts, and our vibrant Jewish community on campus—anchored by an active, nationally recognized Tufts Hillel—is an indispensable pillar of campus life. We are committed to continuing to ensure a welcoming and safe home for Jewish students here at Tufts.”

“One of the foundations of higher education is the academic freedom granted to departments to design and offer courses that reflect a diverse and rigorous scholarship best suited for their subject areas,” he added.

Tufts Friends of Israel co-presidents Sofia Friedman and Zachary Berman told JNS that their group “acknowledges Thomas Abowd’s right to teach his courses the way he sees fit, in keeping with the university’s policies.”

“However,” they said, “we are concerned by Abowd’s behavior outside of the classroom, which contradicts the university’s values.”

Friedman and Berman referenced an op-ed by Abowd in The Tufts Daily last September where he refused to refute an August 2018 op-ed in the student newspaper criticizing the course. He criticized FOI as “a tragically misguided organization affiliated with Tufts Hillel.”

“Aggressive rhetoric like this contributes to an atmosphere on campus that is already hostile towards Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli students,” noted the pro-Israel group. “FOI, a student organization committed to having respectful and nuanced discussions regarding Israel and Palestine, believe Abowd’s statements are counterproductive and unbecoming of a member of the Tufts faculty.”

Last year, the campus group said that the class violates a statement by the Office of the President that reads, “While members of our community vigorously debate international politics, Tufts University does not adopt institutional positions with respect to specific geo-political issues.”

“By blindly condoning this course under the guise of the ‘free exchange of ideas,’ Tufts is explicitly endorsing a parochial narrative that rejects Jewish indigeneity to the land of their origin,” they said.

The J Street U chapter at Tufts plans to stand by Abowd’s course.

“Our chapter does not plan on taking any action in response to this class,” the group’s co-chair, Julia Kupferman, told JNS. “We encourage many kinds of Israel education and strongly believe that hearing Palestinian narratives is central to understanding the full picture of Israel-Palestine politics.”