Professor Iymen Chehade (Facebook photo)

The suppression of students and faculty supportive of Palestinians and critical of Israeli occupation seems to have become more pronounced this month.

At Barnard College, a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter went through the appropriate channels to obtain permission to hang a banner for Israeli Apartheid Week. The banner, which read “Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine,” was taken down by college administrators after groups pressured the college.

An SJP chapter at Northeastern University was suspended by the university’s Center for Student Involvement for one year. Max Blumenthal reported for Mondoweiss that “SJP’s February 24 distribution of notices across Northeastern campuses that mocked the sort of eviction notices slapped on Palestinian homes slated for Israeli demolition – an awareness-raising tactic increasing in popularity among SJP chapters nationwide,” contributed to the decision to ban the chapter. (Subsequently, university police visited Muslim and Arab members of SJP and the university pursued “disciplinary sanctions” against students.)

There is a third case in Chicago, which has received less attention. It involves a part-time faculty member named Iymen Chehade, who teaches a course called “The Israeli/Palestine Conflict” at Columbia College Chicago, a college for arts and communication education.

Before proceeding, I must acknowledge that Columbia College Chicago is my alma mater. If I was still enrolled, I would be speaking out in support of Chehade and the students.

Chehade decided to screen 5 Broken Cameras to his class. It is a film by Emad Burnat, a Palestinian farmer and first-time filmmaker, and was the first Palestinian documentary to be nominated for an Oscar. It tells the story of Burnat’s life, as he documents the brutality nonviolent protesters suffer at the hands of Israeli settlers and soldiers who protest a separation wall expanded in the village of Bil’in on the West Bank.

One student complained to the administration about the class after this screening. Administrators decided to meet with Chehade and tell him that he needed to be more balanced. A few days later, the college eliminated the class from the fall semester of 2014.

The Illinois Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found the complaint from the student “trespassed on the academic freedom of a professor and should have been referred back to the instructor for resolution.”

“Because a student objected to a film, Columbia College acted in a manner that strongly suggests a desire to suppress a narrative that deviates from the predominant accepted discourse on matters pertaining to the long-standing conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinian population living in the West Bank and Gaza,” AAUP Illinois declared.

A letter by AAUP Illinois to Dr. Louise Love, the vice president of academic affairs at the college, provides a glimpse into the pressure that can be brought to bear against instructors at American campuses or universities.

“On October 28, 2013 Professor Chehade was made aware of the undated student complaint in a meeting with Chairperson Corey. According to Professor Chehade, Chairperson Corey [of the Department of Humanities, History and Social Sciences] refused to reveal the identity of the student but at one point described the student as a ‘she.’” Corey asked if Chehade was “balanced” in his teaching.

In another meeting, Love asked Chehade “if he presents the material in the class from a balanced perspective.”

“These interrogatories between yourself as the senior academic officer of Columbia College, Chairperson Corey and a contingent part-time adjunct have a chilling effect on academic freedom,” the chapter concluded. “The issue of ‘balance’ is frequently used to rein in a professor from critical thinking and new pathways of knowledge toward a consensus approach that is more acceptable to elite or mainstream opinion. Both you and Dr. Corey appeared to be taking sides in raising this issue and were unnecessarily questioning the pedagogical manner of Professor Chehade.”

The unidentified student apparently agreed to serve as a kind of agent for the department and “report back to the chair at the end of the semester.” AAUP Illinois considered this to be a further violation of Chehade’s academic freedom” because “department chairs should not use students as scouts or monitors of a professor’s performance.”

Chehade was apparently offered a contract to teach two sections of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict course on October 28, 2013. It was scheduled and students had been registering. Therefore, as the college suggests, the removal of a section could not be the result of a “review” of enrollment. AAUP Illinois suggested “Columbia College was trying to limit additional student exposure to Professor Chehade’s teaching of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”

Administrators even tried to hush him and smooth things over by offering him an opportunity to teach “Middle East History: To Muhammad.” The only issue Chehade had is that this was “1,400 years removed from the Palestine conflict and the course was not Within his area of expertise.” Chehade “honorably declined the course and surrendered approximately $4,600 that he would have received for teaching a second course.”

A critical point on “balance” is made in the letter from AAUP Illinois. This should be the response to any college or university that suppresses the teaching of any professor like Chehade:

…Professor Chehade has the academic freedom protection to present material in his own name in a course and articulate opinions in class. Professors are not bean counters and need not pursue an ephemeral, sterile “balance” at the expense of “professing” and pursuing the art of teaching as a moral act. Specifically, Professor Chehade has the right to show the film, 5 Broken Cameras. His academic freedom gives him the right to introduce controversial course-related topics, and materials into his classroom. He need not insure that equal time in the name of balance is given on every topic brought into class. A course on slavery need not proffer arguments for and against the racist, dreaded institution. A course on gay rights or the history of genocide need not “balance” the number of arguments in favor of gay rights and in opposition to genocide with those that support discrimination against homosexuals and mass murder…

AAUP Illinois recommended that college administrators reassess the process for handling student complaints and also offer two sections of the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict course in the fall semester of 2014.

“Student interest has been robust and given the public scrutiny surrounding this case will likely increase looking forward.”

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Appearing in a video segment produced by The Real News, Chehade explained, “This is a very popular course. It’s a course that’s garnered a lot of interest at Columbia College. We’ve had three sections of it at one time. There is a consistency as far as the high number of students in the class in all three sections when I had the three sections and all two sections when I had two sections.”

Here is how Chehade addressed the issue of “balance”:

DESVARIEUX: Iymen, you know, it’s common to hear calls for a more balanced approach, especially when you discuss Israel and Palestine. Isn’t this a fair demand in an academic setting, especially in regards to a subject of such important geopolitical significance and human rights?

CHEHADE: Well, when you take a look at the conflict itself, it is asymmetrical. It is–people like to present it as an issue that is between two equal opposing sides that are fighting over territory, but it is much more than that. It is actually one group of people who have the power that is derivative of a nation state, which includes a military, which includes funding from around the world, against a group of people who do not have civil rights and who are under occupation, which is illegal under international law–the building of settlements, the continued dispossession of the Palestinian people for decades now is–if you look at international law, these are facts. These are not opinions. These are not things that can be balanced, because they are fact. And so the presentation of these facts is what the issue is here.

This is the result of a dynamic happening in academic settings across the United States. Student chapters of Hillel, which seek to provide a community for Jewish students but also engage in efforts against those who are critical of Israel, launch what effectively become campus-wide defamation campaigns they would be incensed by if a similar campaign was carried out against a pro-Israel professor.

In fact, Chehade has been targeted by the Hillel student chapter at Columbia College.

“In the fall semester of 2011, eight students from three different sections of Chehade’s course, some of them members of Hillel, signed a petition also making the charge of ‘bias’ against Chehade,” according to Eric Ruder of SocialistWorker.org. “In a follow-up meeting between the students, Chehade and some Columbia College administrators, the students cited as examples of Chehade’s bias that he referred to the West Bank and Gaza as the “Occupied Territories” (they preferred the term “Disputed Territories”) and that he used the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ to describe how Israel drove some 750,000 Palestinians from their land and homes through violence, intimidation and terror.”

Chehade’s story is not unique to the times. As the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement escalates (and even wins victories), the pressure on professors to be “balanced” or censor what they teach about the conflict is likely to intensify. But it is particularly unsettling, as someone who graduated from Columbia College, to see administrators allow this to happen.

The college’s mission, which I heard over and over again when I was enrolled, is “to educate students who will communicate creatively and shape the public’s perceptions of issues and events and who will author the culture of their times.” Administrators should not only encourage the screening of films like 5 Broken Cameras, which have the power to do just that, but also encourage campus screenings of this kind of art that has the power to generate provocative discussion.

Unfortunately, administrators forsook the school’s mission and allowed one unidentified student’s complaint to spur the suppression of a professor’s class on one of the most significant subjects of our time.