Despite the recent escalation of violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict, few professors will be directly addressing the topic in class.
Two courses offered next semester will deal with the conflict, according to course descriptions and interviews with professors.
Political science professor Ian Lustick, who will teach “International Politics of the Middle East” in the spring, said he thought professors at Penn are reluctant to address the issue because of the “tremendous pressure” associated with teaching it.
“Many of my colleagues who teach Middle East studies go out of their way to avoid ever doing research on the Arab-Israeli conflict or teaching about it, because they don’t want to be subjected to hostile attacks from either direction,” he said.
Robert Vitalis, a political science professor and former director of the Middle East Center at Penn, said he thought professors shied away from teaching the subject because dealing with passionate student reactions “is just going to make your life more miserable.”
Several professors disagreed with the assertion that they and their colleagues were hesitant to teach about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“Of course, it is a challenge to teach, but there are other fields of similar explosiveness that are covered, so that is not an excuse,” modern Jewish history professor and Director of the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies David Ruderman said in an email.
“I do not agree that faculty would generally shy away from this subject despite the challenges of teaching such a course,” he said.
History professor and Director of the Middle East Center Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet said that she could not comment on her colleagues’ perspectives on teaching about the conflict. “I don’t think it’s my place to speak for any other professor or pass judgment on their opinion. Each professor has her or his experience, and it’s a judgment call.”
Those who do choose to teach about the conflict can face pressure from outside groups. Lustick is heavily criticized on the website Campus Watch, a project run by the Middle East Forum, a conservative think tank. Campus Watch “reviews and critiques Middle East studies,” according to its online description.
Lustick added that he has had students in his classes act as “spies” for Campus Watch and other organizations.
History and Africana studies professor Eve Troutt Powell, who teaches “Arab-Israeli Conflict Through Literature and Film” and “History of the Middle East since 1800,” said she had also been featured in outside publications because of her work.
Lustick said that he welcomed the increased scrutiny associated with teaching a polarizing topic, adding that he had sometimes “even sent [Campus Watch] things that they missed, because I want to establish the record.”
Tenured professors are protected from experiencing significant backlash, Troutt Powell said.
She added that she personally ignores the pressure because she believes teaching the historical trends behind current events is important.
“I think a class like this has to be firmly rooted in history and the study of history,” she said. “For me, that means — especially talking about the Middle East — my classes have to provide as much evidence as possible.”
History professor and Director of the Jewish Studies Program Beth Wenger echoed Troutt Powell.
“Like many of my colleagues, I encourage students to think historically about events — asking about what precipitated the conflict on both sides, what sorts of communication and miscommunication might be at work, what longer historical experiences and cultural baggage might influence the current crisis,” she said in an email.
Wenger will be teaching “Jews in the Modern World” next semester, which includes discussions of Zionism and “the emergence of new Jewish communities in Israel,” according to the course description.
While there is a modern Middle Eastern studies major, the Middle East Center is not directly involved in planning courses. It compiles a list of courses that count toward the major and provides academic and research support to its faculty in accordance with the requirements of its Department of Education grant Kashani-Sabet said.
Penn offers a slightly fewer number of courses that deal with the conflict than its peer schools. In the spring, Columbia University will offer five courses that address the topic, Harvard University will offer four and Yale University will offer three, according to the universities’ online course catalogs. Georgetown University will offer 10.