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Critic wrong about Palestinian literature class

3 II'm an English professor at the University at Buffalo. Since 2003, I've taught courses in Palestinian literature that figure in two recent Buffalo News pieces: a Sept. 6 story by Stephen T. Watson, and a Sept. 12 opinion column by Elinor Weiss. The latter is particularly disturbing. Weiss groups me with professors who make "a variety of claims using neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers as their experts." This charge is untrue. I despise the lies of Holocaust deniers, and I have never used their pseudo-scholarship in my classes.

Weiss has never taken a class with me, and I have never met her, so I can only guess what motivates her accusation. I sometimes hear similar charges from partisans of Israel who deny the sufferings of Palestinians. Some "Palestine deniers" deny that Israel expelled a million Palestinians from their homes. Some deny that 10 million Palestinians live today in exile, under occupation, or as second-class citizens in Israel.

In my classes, we spend a little time talking about Palestine denial. But most of the time, we talk about Palestinian literature, one of the great literatures of the contemporary world. We talk about the brilliant novellas of Ghassan Kanafani. We talk about the comic fiction of Emil Habiby, who won the Israel Prize for literature. We talk about Anton Shammas, also a Christian Palestinian, who wrote "Arabesques," one of the classic novels of modern Hebrew (yes, Hebrew) literature.

We talk about the writings of Mahmoud Darwish, the most famous poet writing in Arabic, whose poetry readings fill stadiums. We talk about the essays of the late Edward Said, born in Jerusalem and probably the most influential American cultural critic of the 20th century. And we talk about Elia Suleiman's "Divine Intervention," which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Weiss says that I "prey on college students who lack basic knowledge of the Middle East." Here, she defames my students as well as me. Some are Jewish, some are Arab, some are Zionist and some are anti-Zionist. Most are none of the above. But they are all energetic, curious and well informed. Our discussions are lively but never bad-tempered, and students debate each other and me in a friendly way.

Last semester, in a world literature class, I taught two works by European Jews and one novel by a Palestinian: Sahar Khalifeh's "Wild Thorns." A Zionist Jewish student, who is fascinated with the Middle East, chose to write about Khalifeh because of her sympathetic power as a novelist. I'm absolutely certain that he would laugh at the thought that he was my "prey."

In the pages of The News, I have now heard complaints about my allegedly biased courses from Weiss, a local radio commentator, the Buffalo Board of Rabbis and a Zionist advocacy group in Los Angeles. But strangely enough, I haven't heard any such complaints from the students who actually took my courses, not even in their anonymous course evaluations. Nor have I heard any such complaints from my wife, who was raised an Orthodox Jew. In fact, it was her words that prompted me to teach these courses in the first place: "It's harder to hate a people when you've read their poetry."

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