Seeing the Light: Teaching about Palestinians; A Lesson about America

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Seeing the Light: Teaching About Palestinians; A Lesson About America

By Daniel McGowan

It started around 1985, when colleges and universities were overwhelmingly demanding that their pension funds no longer invest in South Africa. As a conservative professor of economics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, I disagreed with such prohibitions and political obstructions to the free flow of capital.

I began publicly to ask questions: "If apartheid is evil, why is it bad for South Africans and acceptable for Israelis? Why is the expropriation of land for the exclusive use of whites condemned, but the expropriation of land for the exclusive use of Jews condoned? If Krugerrands are to be banned, why not diamonds? Does cutting them in Israel remove the Black blood on them? If Israel, Taiwan, France, Germany, Britain, or any other ally continues to send arms or military advisers to South Africa, should U.S. military aid to that country be withheld? In order to make economic sanctioning more effective against South Africa, should the U.S. further subsidize Israel so that it can purchase elsewhere the coal, uranium and other minerals that it now imports from South Africa?"

Such uncomfortable questions for comfortable members of the college community were largely answered by silence. The one exception was Richard Rosenbaum, the flamboyant vice chairman of the board of trustees of Hobart and William Smith and later a gubernatorial candidate for the state of New York.

In a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education, he expressed "grave concern...that a professor might be teaching students distorted and, in some cases, totally false information." He vowed to take me "on a mission" to Israel "in the certain knowledge that anyone with a shred of an open mind would come back a friend of Israel." But, alas, Mr. Rosenbaum could not get Executive Director Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to pay for the trip. So he reneged on his offer by relaying a parting insult from "a wise man" with whom he shared my correspondence. This unnamed person allegedly said, "Why take him to Israel? He's obviously a bigot, and that experience will make him think he's an informed bigot."

But if Rosenbaum and friends found my questions on the efficacy of divestment and the comparisons with Israel to be offensive, others, like Walter Williams, John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, found raising them to be courageous. Invariably, my supporters would first ask if I had tenure. When informed that I did, they would encourage me to use it and freely express opinions and beliefs which, although politically incorrect, were well-founded or irrefutable.

The South African divestment confrontation caused me to begin to study Israel and to use it in pedagogical examples. When lecturing on international trade, for instance, I would point to the fact that the Israeli diamond-cutting industry provided a living for some 20,000 people in South Africa and accounted for over a fifth of the value of the country's viable foreign trade (1990). Nevertheless, while a U.S. ban on the sale of Krugerrands was considered a politically acceptable way to fight apartheid, to ban the sale of diamonds was not.

Stimulating Discussions

When studying labor markets, I often stimulated discussion by illustrating disequilibria caused by ethnic or religious discrimination. For example, I would point out that when workers from Gaza come to Israel they work largely with no benefits and protection in a country with a very strong labor union orientation, at least for Jews. So it is no surprise that as Palestinians they are confined to jobs in agriculture, menial construction, and sanitation.

I wanted to study Islam. So I went to the religion department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. The department had five full-time faculty and offered 39 courses, 10 on Judaism and the Holocaust. …