A five-week course about Israel and its relationship with the Palestinian people, offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Carnegie Mellon University last winter, has not been renewed for next year.
Called “Israel’s War and Peace: Past, Present and Future,” the course was taught primarily by Michael Vanyukov, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences, psychiatry and human genetics at the University of Pittsburgh who has had a lifelong interest in Israel. Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America: Pittsburgh, taught one of the five sessions.
The course was created by its instructors as an alternative to another CMU Osher course about the Israel/Palestinian conflict called “The Palestinian Story: Hope in the Absence of Hope,” taught by Tina Whitehead, who, according to her Osher biography, has been volunteering in Jerusalem and the West Bank since 2006, primarily with Sabeel.
Sabeel is a Palestinian Christian group that is deeply critical of Israel. Friends of Sabeel North America appears on an Anti-Defamation League list of the top-10 anti-Israel groups in America, and has advocated for various boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns against Israel. The founder of Sabeel, the Rev. Naim Ateek, “has claimed that the notion that the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people is ‘bad theology’ and that the establishment of Israel is a ‘relapse to the most primitive concepts of an exclusive, tribal God,’” according to a report by the ADL.
In October 2015, Whitehead helped coordinate a regional Friends of Sabeel conference in Pittsburgh.
Osher at CMU offers a diverse range of courses taught by an array of community members. The instructors, called “study leaders,” volunteer their time to teach topics of their own choice.
Last summer, Pavilack and Vanyukov became aware of Osher’s “The Palestinian Story” course taught by Whitehead, and were concerned that its participants might be fed information that “is not correct,” Pavilack told the Chronicle at the time. They wanted to offer an alternative course “based on facts.”
“Israel’s War and Peace” covered the “background for the reestablishment of the Jewish state in the historical Land of Israel” as well as the country’s development and “the causes and consequences of hostilities that have accompanied Israel’s existence,” according to the Osher catalogue. All 38 seats in the class were filled.
Vanyukov was disturbed to learn via an email from Osher leadership that his class would not be renewed for next year. The email pointed to negative evaluations by students as the reason for non-renewal.
Out of 38 students, only 14 submitted evaluations. Of those, half said they would be interested in attending a follow-up course with these instructors.
Comments from four students opined that the instructors were biased toward Israel, while one student said they were hoping for a more “balanced” discussion presenting “both sides of the story.” Thirteen out of 14 students either agreed or strongly agreed that the study leader was “very knowledgeable.”
Attempts by Vanyukov to appeal the committee’s decision were declined, he said.
“It was somewhat of a surprise because nothing really would indicate to me that the course didn’t correspond to any criteria,” Vanyukov said. “The criteria were never given to me, and can be found nowhere.”
Evaluating a course on a topic on which opinions are strongly polarized is necessarily different than evaluating a course on a non-controversial subject, according to Vanyukov. The negative evaluations “came from people who were unhappy with what they considered bias in the presentation,” Vanyukov said.
“If somebody disagrees with the basic facts that are presented on this politically loaded topic, this individual is prone to give negative reviews. If somebody’s anti-Zionist, which in many cases coincides with anti-Semitism, anything that sounds like being in favor of Israel is going to be considered negatively and biased.”
He maintains that the course was taught not from a pro-Israel viewpoint, but “from the perspective of historical facts. They were the facts that were taken from the abundant literature, simply historical facts with no slant to that. It’s not really my fault if they converge into a particular perspective. If there is any perspective here, it can be simply called truth.”
Lyn Decker, the executive director of Osher at CMU, declined to comment on the committee’s decision to not renew the course, stating in an email that “it is our practice to not make public comment or to discuss personnel or volunteer matters.”
Whitehead’s course, “The Palestinian Story: Hope In The Absence Of Hope,” will be running for five weeks again this summer at Osher at CMU, beginning on July 2.
“The course will deal with the history and current situation in Israel-Palestine from the perspective of the Palestinian people,” according to the course catalogue. “The four primary components of the ‘peace process’ will be the main focus: right of return, settlements, boundaries, and Jerusalem. The content of the course will also address the issues that are happening as the course is being taught.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at