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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson faculty members plan to host teach-in on Gaza next semester

Ashlyn Wang
Protesters stand on a statue in front of the Boston Public Library, holding a giant banner and chanting at the “All Out for Palestine” rally in Copley Square on Monday, October 16, 2023. (Ashlyn Wang/Beacon Staff)

After a back-and-forth discussion with college administrators, a group of faculty members plans to host a teach-in on Gaza early next semester, featuring speakers from the Palestinian Feminist Collective (PFC), a body of Arab and Palestinian feminist activists dedicated to Palestinian liberation efforts.

The group of faculty organizers coordinated the teach-in after discussions around the idea of an educational event began circulating soon after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the ensuing Israeli military campaign in Gaza, which has resulted in the killing of more than 18,600 Palestinians as of Dec. 13.

The teach-in will focus on “provid[ing] students with tools—theoretical, historical depth [of] information—so that they are better equipped to have a more productive and healthy discussion,” interdisciplinary associate professor Yasser Munif said. “And pushing back against some of the binaries or stereotypes about the region … The way it’s portrayed in the media oftentimes is Manichean; it’s binary, you have two separate worlds and there is no overlap.”

The situation in Gaza is “much more complex” and stems from more historical and sociopolitical background than frameworks in the mainstream media and political discourse often depict, said Munif, who teaches courses in social sciences, history, and social movements.

By centering a Palestinian feminist perspective, the faculty organizers hope to provide the historical and sociopolitical grounding necessary for a nuanced understanding of the decades-long conflict.

“It seemed that more historical knowledge and contextualization would be meaningful,” said associate professor Nelli Sargsyan, who is a feminist anthropologist. “A feminist approach pays attention to unequal power relations and…is life-affirming. We thought it would be important to talk about the situation from that perspective, with careful attention to historically and sociopolitically unequal power relations and how that affects and informs people’s lives.” 

Rituparna Mitra, an interdisciplinary and postcolonial studies assistant professor, said the feminist focus on “rebuilding and sustaining” life is important to hold in context with the situation in Gaza, which is in part why she supports the teach-in facilitated by PFC speakers.

“The discussion of sustaining life could be brought into a conversation where so much focuses on death,” Mitra said. “One of the things we’re [witnessing] is the destruction of…the basic infrastructures that sustain life. Just to think more deeply into what that means and how we can reframe or think about this.”

For interdisciplinary professor Nigel Gibson, the teach-in is important because it provides an academic space outside the classroom for faculty and students to engage in thoughtful discussion around the topic.

Gibson and several other faculty members, including Munif, Sargsyan, and Mitra have incorporated dialogue about the Gaza situation into their classes. Gibson emphasized that professors open to such discussion must also focus on keeping their classes on track with course syllabi, so it can be difficult to maintain an ongoing dialogue about the conflict during class time.

“Other things are going on, in terms of the end of the [semester],” Gibson said. “So the classroom really having an in-depth discussion takes away important things we’ve got to be doing in the classroom at this point of the term.”

Gibson and the other faculty organizers feel that continuing such discussions is still necessary, even if course syllabi denote that classes must move on to other topics. Since the college has not yet planned or held any educational events related to the topic, the teach-in aims to fill that void.

“This is part of what college life is about—trying to critically engage difficult topics,” Gibson said, condemning the situation in Gaza as “an ongoing genocide.” 

“We need to understand why it is happening, and what’s at stake,” he said. “Not just slogans and positions…but actually concrete discussion of what’s going on [and] the historical context of why it’s going on.”

Originally, the faculty organizers had planned to hold the teach-in this Thursday, Dec. 14, before the Emerson community departs for winter break. There’s a certain urgency to the situation, Sargsyan said, that undergirds the need to hold a campus event before the looming end of the semester. 

“People are being killed at an unprecedented pace,” Sargsyan said. “Every life is precious… Every day, more people [are killed]. Becoming more aware, sooner than later, and figuring out collective action is urgent, rather than waiting another month and then reflecting on what has already happened.”

After initially proposing the event, faculty organizers interviewed by the Beacon were surprised by the response they received from college administrators, who requested that the teach-in be delayed until the spring semester and held as a series with other events that are “more balanced,” according to a message to the faculty organizers from President Jay Bernhardt and Provost Jan Roberts-Breslin obtained by the Beacon.

The administrators initially said that if the faculty members proceeded with the teach-in as planned for this week, it could not take place within Emerson spaces and would not be funded, promoted, or recognized as an official college event. 

“The college has decided to not host or sponsor any official educational events on the Middle East conflict this semester,” the college said in a statement to the Beacon, adding that administrators are “beginning efforts to plan educational events for the spring semester designed to bring the community together and to accommodate the full range of viewpoints held on our campuses.”

After receiving this feedback, faculty organizers developed a letter in response, which was sent to the administrators Tuesday afternoon. The letter, signed by 19 faculty members—most of whom are in the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies—reiterated the purpose of the teach-in and claimed that the college’s response undermines the faculty’s obligation to raise issues of social injustice.

“We write to convey our concern that decisions of the college in declining support for this event reflect a betrayal of the college’s commitment to academic freedom, conducted behind the veil of process, and the stewardship of the public conversation,” the letter states. “We acknowledge that this is a challenging time for academic institutions and their administrations, who are themselves under tremendous scrutiny and pressure. However, we think the situation calls for more dialogue and discussion—not less.”

As a result of the lobbying in the letter, the administrators changed their stance so that faculty organizers would be allowed to use campus spaces or college webinar access to conduct the teach-in if they were to hold it on Dec. 14, although the event would still be unaffiliated with the college.

“These faculty have the right to plan and conduct this event as proposed, either on campus or online,” the college said in a statement to the Beacon.

However, after planning the teach-in for Thursday, the event has been delayed due to the limited availability of PFC speakers, who Sargsyan said are “stretched thin” during this time of global social and political unrest. The event will instead be held at a yet-to-be-determined date in the beginning of the spring semester after students return from winter break.

With this postponed timeline, the college “is open to considering the program as part of our educational offerings in the spring semester if the faculty planners decide to participate in our collaborative planning process,” the statement said. “They are also welcome to proceed independently as they previously intended.”

Sargsyan and the other faculty organizers found the college’s initial response to their teach-in proposal “saddening [and] disheartening,” she said, leading them to write the letter in response.

“Our desire as educators to create an educational space to talk about injustice as it’s unfolding [was] being curtailed,” Sargsyan said. “From my perspective, institutions of higher learning are spaces where we want historically grounded information. We want difficult conversations to be had.”

Munif said he was “upset” by the initial response from the college, which seemed to treat discussions of the Israeli-Palestine conflict as “taboo” despite frequent classroom and campus dialogue around other sensitive topics.

“The letter was about the freedom of speech and about academic freedom, and the need to defend that, and make sure that we maintain our right to discuss any topic we see fit,” Munif said. “We have been doing that day in, day out for many years.” 

As far as the question of balance, Sargsyan said combatting dualistic narratives of the conflict was one goal of the teach-in. She noted that instances of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are not in binary opposition, but rather often occur in tandem. 

“Becoming more aware of these instances … we can become more aware that being against anti-Semitism, you’re also against Islamophobia, because all life is precious,” she said. “If you hold that approach genuinely, if you take it to heart, then you can understand that … putting these in opposition to each other is an attempt to use the viewer or the listener as a tool, or to recruit them into systems of injustice.” 

“When we centralize and think in life-affirming ways, we don’t see Jewish [people] as in opposition to Palestinians,” Sargsyan continued. “Rather, together, both are precious.”

Munif said the more nuanced approach entailed in the teach-in allows for a deconstruction of mainstream narratives that are “over-simplistic and also dangerous.”

“This idea that Palestinians are by definition anti-Semitic, hate Jewish people, is obviously wrong,” he said. “This idea that Palestinians deserve what they’re getting is also wrong.”

He added that processes of dehumanization in the media and academia have historically contributed to genocide and said he observes similar tactics of dehumanization of Palestinians in current political discourses. 

“In order to prevent and stop genocide, we have to humanize Palestinians and show that they’re humans like everyone else, and that the conflict there is not a sectarian conflict, but a conflict of land and over resources,” Munif said. “It’s not about anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim. It’s not a religious conflict; it’s a political conflict over land. That should be clear, and that is an entry point to have a healthier discussion.”

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About the Contributor
Maddie Khaw
Maddie Khaw, Assistant News Editor
Maddie Khaw (she/her) is a junior journalism major from Portland, Oregon and serves as the assistant news editor for The Beacon's citywide coverage. In addition to journalism, she is also majoring in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on race, gender, and social justice, and plays on Emerson's women's soccer team.

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    Layla gold / Jan 6, 2024 at 7:24 pm

    It’s so bizarre that having balance viewpoints to “teach” about the Israel – Hamas war was controversial to the professors. If you want to educate students then you need a pro Israel side represented. The article is biased in an of itself since it claims there is a “genocide “ when in fact there is no genocide, it’s a war. A war started by Hamas against Israel. Plus there are kidnapped hostages are still being held, including Americans. Strange this feminist group doesn’t even mention the mass rapes & mutilations committed against Jewish women. Having a one sided “Teach-in” will be preaching to its own choir.