Keeping ideology out of the classroom
Born in Nazareth, educated in Jerusalem, Lebanon, Egypt, and the United States, Wasif Abboushi today is a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati.
Speaking softly through his salt-and- pepper beard, Professor Abboushi had a great deal to say about the need for objectivity in university teaching -- dealing in this interview not with the somewhat abstract question of Marxism, but with the very live issue of Middle East politics and Arab-Israeli relations.
As a Palestinian activist (though now an American citizen), he recognizes how very difficult it is to leave political, ideological, and religious views behind when entering the classroom. But he stresses the importance of this mental deck-clearing.
He insists that even the most committed person should be objective when dealing with students -- or else switch to another profession.
One possible sign of his academic objectivity is that he has written a textbook, "Political Systems of the Middle East," which is being used by many universities in the United States. Another indication may be the fact that he has achieved full tenure at a university where both the president and Professor Abboushi's dean are Jewish -- as are most of the students taking his courses on Middle East politics.
After teaching at the University of Cincinnati for 12 years, Dr. Abboushi took a two-year leave of absence to teach at Bir Zeit University a small West Bank liberal arts college for Palestinian Arabs 15 miles north of Jerusalem.
Dr. Abboushi and his American wife, who taught English at Bir Zeit, both wanted to stay but found it impossible because of what they saw as hostility and harassment by Israeli officials. So they returned to their Cincinnati teaching posts last September.
Recognizing differing challenges at Bir Zeit and Cincinnati, in both universities Dr. Abboushi has worked hard to be objective and balanced in his teaching. He explains that his first step is to "differentiate between the different roles I play."
He sees himself as a Palestinian, an American, and a professional teacher -- with distinct responsibilities in each role.
"Outside the class I am a human being, like every human being who is a complex person, and outside the class I observe my American and Palestinian responsibilities." So in his nonacademic life he is outspokenly anti-Zionist, has served on the international committee of the Red Cross, and is a former Peace Corps adviser.
He says that in his lectures, however, "whether talking about the Balfour Declaration, or the mandate agreement, or immigration, or whatever, I know what the Zionist arguments are and explain them to my class as faithfully as I can."
To ensure that students are given a broad perspective, he brings in speakers: "Two weeks ago I brought the Israeli consul in Philadelphia to speak to my class. And I did not interrupt him, didn't say a word. I put him at ease and I said, you say what you want. . . . I brought the mayor of Hebron on another occasion to speak to my class. Whenever I feel that there is need for speakers, I systematically bring one from each side.
"In the class, if I use a pro-Arab book," he says with professional pride, "I also require a pro-Zionist book."
When a group of Jewish professors at Cincinnati charged Dr. Abboushi with onesided teaching, two Jewish professors and a group of Jewish students came out in his support. The students said they objected to some of what they heard in Abboushi classes -- but pointed out that Arab students were also hearing things they didn't like.
Professor Abboushi maintains that "if you are a good professional man, objectivity in scholarship is your duty. As a matter of fact, if I walk out of class and think that I have forgotten something in favor of the Zionists, I am so bothered that next time I come in and tell the students. The same happens to me if I have forgotten something in favor of the Arabs. But I don't play games. I don't play the game of an Arab who wants to be so conscious of the Zionist point of view that I slight the Arabs."
Dr. Abboushi has an example at hand: "The other day I was talking about the Balfour Declaration, how the Arabs saw the Jewish immigrants who came from Europe as aliens and couldn't understand why this guy comes from Europe. Although the Arab can sympathize with the immigrant's problems, why is he coming to Palestine with the political aim of creating a Jewish state?"
As the class went on, says this professor who believes in relating on his student and their needs, "I began to realize that many of the students could relate to the Palestinians, in the sense that they thought that if it happened to them, they wouldn't accept it. So I began to realize that this Arab concept that the Jew is alien sits well with American kids.
"But one day I came in and I said wait a minute, there are some Zionist arguments on this. The Zionist did not see himself as a foreigner. One argument that I forgot and that I started to stress was that the Zionists saw the British as sovereign in Palestine. The British issued the Balfour Declaration, which was implemented in the mandate agreement which became international law, so that the Zionists see their rights as based on international law, which the Arabs might not accept."
Dr. Abboushi's concern for balance took concrete form: "I had to make the students aware that the Zionists did not see their position as arbitrary, that it is based on law. And i had to tell my students that emotionally these people did not think of themselves as foreigners. They felt they had come back to their roots. Whether this is right or wrong, they sincerely and honestly felt so."
Despite his personal commitment to the Palestinian cause and his open support for the Palestine Liberation Organization, Dr. Abboushi explains that "in the academic world, ideological commitments, religious commitments, political commitments, should not allow a professor to forget his obligations to his student. The student has a right to be exposed to varieties of positions and commitments and views. Without this, he is exploited.
After some further discussion about his work as an activist, he concludes our discussion saying: "Never should a university professor allow his personal commitments to subvert his duty to present a balanced view to his students."