Opinion Letter: Teaching Palestine not propaganda at UBC

Dr. Hicham Safieddine is an associate professor in the Department of History and the Canada Research Chair in the History of the Modern Middle East.

Editor's Note: This letter is in reply to the letter, “A response to 'Decolonize Palestine at UBC' and a call for compassion and nuance at UBC,” written by Drs. Richard Menkis and Jessica Hanser responding to an opinion, “Decolonize Palestine at UBC,” written by the author here.

In their “response” to my op-ed titled Decolonize Palestine at UBC, Drs. Richard Menkis and Jessica Hanser made egregious accusations commonly hurled at those speaking out about Palestine. These include claims that I “distorted” events and used “inflammatory language” that can “harm and intimidate the members of our community.” They argued the views I expressed lacked compassion, fair-mindedness, nuance, and analytical complexity. My  “rhetoric,” they protested, was exclusionary and “doesn’t reach across the aisle.” 

Unlike the authors whose areas of expertise are elsewhere, I have lived experience in, study, teach and research the Middle East. Since my appointment at UBC more than two years ago, neither faculty member has reached out - literally across the aisle - to engage in dialogue or ask a question about Palestine or the Middle East. Had they inquired, I would have gladly shared sources, methodologies, and perspectives on the subject, and would have invited them to sit in my classes if they had wished to. 

Their polemics notwithstanding, I believe that their response offers a teaching moment to all of us on what decolonizing education means, both in general and in relation to teaching Palestine.

Decolonization is not a metaphor or a convenient slogan waved by university presidents, deans, or faculty to sound progressive in course descriptions, holiday messages, or on departmental websites. Nor is it paying lip service to words like compassion or inclusivity. 

Decolonizing education is a practice and a pedagogy. It is a way of being and a way of knowing. It seeks to unlearn many assumptions, methodologies, and discourses that constitute part of an elaborate architecture of knowledge. These systems of knowledge evolve over time according to the acceptable norms and the urgent needs of the hegemonic culture in which they are produced. 

In the Western Academy, this architecture was developed over decades to defend and justify systems of class-based, gendered, and racialized political orders of domination, exploitation, and oppression. 

In the past half-century, many of these colonial and Eurocentric systems of knowledge have been critically analyzed. Credit is largely due to the contribution of Global South scholars including Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, author of Orientalism

The Western tradition of orientalism awards the gatekeepers of Western knowledge the right to speak authoritatively about other peoples without adequate knowledge of their language, culture, or history. This right is afforded to them all the while depicting non-Western inquiry as lacking fairmindedness, neutrality, objectivity, complexity and evidence-based analysis. In short, lacking reason. Orientalist scholars will make these accusations while they themselves use reductive assumptions or normative claims, ignore the evidence, or reproduce the same tropes they accuse the non-Western other of committing. 

The critique of my terminology by Drs. Menkis and Hanser is a case in point. My reference to what happened on October 7 as a “Hamas operation” is decried biased, but the authors’ adoption of Israeli terminology depicting what has been happening since as an “Israel-Hamas War” rather than an Israel-Palestine war or an Israeli genocidal war, is apparently fair-minded.

In addition, it matters less from an orientalist lens whether the views or political consciousness of colonized subjects change over time. These subjects have no history and thereby no future. Textual evidence is cited only to be summarily dismissed. The discussion of the Hamas charter, which is cited in the authors’ response, not my op-ed, is another case in point. The founding charter of 1988 is mentioned as reflective of Hamas’ thinking more than three decades after its publication. By contrast, the 2017 amended charter of Hamas is dismissed as disingenuous, a staple characteristic attributed to colonized peoples. 

The authors claim that the 2017 charter shows that Hamas is “still blaming Jews (this time Zionists) for antisemitism.” They do not specify which article of the charter says so. Let us look at the most relevant language in the new charter cited by the authors. Article 16 clearly says Hamas is in conflict “with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine. Yet, it is the Zionists who constantly identify Judaism and the Jews with their own colonial project and illegal entity.”

Article 17 goes on to say that “Hamas rejects the persecution of any human being or the undermining of his or her rights on nationalist, religious or sectarian grounds. Hamas is of the view that the Jewish problem, anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews are phenomena fundamentally linked to European history and not to the history of the Arabs and the Muslims or to their heritage.” Despite this language, as far as the charter is concerned, it appears that the conflation between Jews and Zionists, itself a Zionist position, is in the authors’ mind.

For orientalists, colonized peoples – whether militants or professors - are incapable of speaking for themselves or knowing their best interests. They need to be given a “voice,” as long as this voice echoes the narrative of the colonizer. In the case of Palestine, the liberal Zionist narrative is the not-so-complex argument, often repeated in mainstream media rather than serious scholarship, that extremists on both sides are to blame for prolonging the conflict. The asymmetric power dynamic between colonizer and colonized, not to be confused with simplistic histories of colonization, is denied as a frame of understanding. 

No such “complex” framing — as the authors utilize — is applied by progressive liberals in relation to the histories of antisemitic pogroms, slavery, Canadian residential schools, or other cases of racial persecution or colonial oppression, and rightly so. But as I stated in my original op-ed, the symptoms of Progressive except for Palestine, remain entrenched in the academy.

In relation to Palestine, posing a moral equivalence between colonized and colonizer - by blaming the “extremist leadership of both sides Israelis and Palestinians”- tends to erase the root cause of the conflict. This root cause is the system of Israeli apartheid built by Zionist dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and occupation of Palestinian land that predates October 7 by more than a century and Hamas by decades.

Historiographies of Palestine written by scholars of all stripes (Palestinians, Arabs, Israeli, non-Israeli Jews, and many others), attest to this long history and persistent presence of Zionist colonization and apartheid from the river to the sea, and by human rights organizations respected in the West like Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, hardly Hamas organs. 

If university educators are serious about decolonization, they need to teach and engage with these histories. This is in fact what many teach-ins, peaceful student rallies, and other forms of active learning at UBC have sought to do since October 7. Rather than smear these events from the comfort of their offices or remotely, opponents should point to concrete cases of organizers or active participants engaging in hateful speech. The Vancouver Chapter of Independent Jewish Voices has said “it has been [their] experience that the Palestine Solidarity Movement goes out of its way to condemn all instances of such behaviour, including manifestations of antisemitism.” Crying wolf repeatedly will not make a wolf appear.

Above all, decolonization is a moral and political commitment to the peoples resisting oppression beyond abstract debates and arguments. Gaza is still burning under Israeli relentless bombardment of homes, schools, hospitals, roads, and every living creature in between. That is the real conflagration of unspeakable horror that needs to stop, not the “inflammatory” language exposing it and supporting the legendary resistance of the Palestinian people seeking freedom and dignity against all odds.