Berkeley history course examines Palestinian history, ’putting the people first’

UC Berkeley Professor Ussama Makdisi’s Palestinian history course focuses on the history of Palestine, as told by Palestinians. In this archival photo, Palestinian refugees travel by foot after being displaced in the late 1940s.

"But people saw me as a stereotype and never really put the effort into truly understanding me," said Alkhawaja, whose parents are Palestinian. "I had to compromise my identity and constantly explain who I was. I felt like a spectacle. ... It was very dehumanizing, and I didn’t feel like I ever belonged."

But at UC Berkeley, Alkhawaja, a first-year astrophysics major, has found an inclusive academic community in a class where she said her identity isn’t just viewed in the context of violent generalizations, but as part of a rich and vibrant history that should be understood and explored.

Taught by Berkeley history professor Ussama Makdisi , the course, History 100 M Special Topics: Palestine and the Palestinians: A Modern History, is using a unique lens to teach students about contemporary Palestinian history in the South Asian, Southwest Asian and North African regions - through the voices and experiences of Palestinian people.

The course, which will be offered as History 110D moving forward, challenges students to answer transformational questions like: What does Palestinian liberation mean? What would peace in the Middle East look like? And how does modern history offer insights for people in the region, moving forward?

Makdisi said he encourages "intellectual courage” and a free flow of ideas and opinions in his classroom. (UC Berkeley photo by Sofia Liashcheva)

"There’s a history that predates what we call the Arab-Israeli conflict," said Makdisi, who initially came to Berkeley as a visiting scholar in 2019 and began his first full year as a faculty member last fall. "The reality is there’s some extraordinary histories of coexistence in the Middle East and Arab world."

Dania Matos is the vice chancellor of equity and inclusion.

Sam Bernstein, a graduating history major said the course has exposed him to a history that was previously inaccessible. Bernstein, who grew up very connected to his Jewish religion and traditions, took Makdisi’s course to get a better historical understanding of Palestine and how people coexisted over time.

Nuggets of history that have surprised Bernstein include the fact that, for a time prior to the establishment of the state of Israel,  Arabs, Muslims, Jews and people of all faiths lived peacefully in the region of Palestine.

"That was really enlightening for me," said Bernstein. "I think mainstream narratives want us to think that there is an inherent conflict between Jews, Arabs and Muslims. But Professor Makdisi has created an atmosphere of learning where we can approach the history with more nuance.

"It’s a massive historical mission, and I feel privileged to have access to this information."

A sense of living history

Author of the book Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World , Makdisi has conducted research on the history of the modern Middle East for over 20 years, debunking religious myths and Islamophobic stereotypes that Makdisi said have persisted in the West’s historical narrative.

But ancillary to his academic research, Makdisi’s expertise is informed by his childhood in Lebanon during the country’s civil war in the 1970s and ’80s. Makdisi said he witnessed the human toll that the politics of violence and war can have on people in the region.

Those years were very formative, he said, as they helped him understand how historical narratives are often constructed to favor the victors in "very simplistic terms."

Makdisi said he realized very early on in his academic career that since establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, in which large populations of Palestinians were displaced, Arabs have been orientalized and stereotyped as terrorists, and as extremists by the West.

Arab history, he said, was ignored, and the people were demonized, "making it easier to dehumanize them."

"But living through war, you really do appreciate the sense of living history in a way that it’s not just a detached, remote idea about people in the past," he said. "It’s about linking past and present together and seeing how people in the present have an opportunity to open their eyes, to see the humanity of people around them."

A place to belong

Berkeley transfer student Lydia Hirsch said she has taken courses at other colleges that taught Palestinian and/or Middle East history, but they never helped her understand the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank.

While Makdisi has focused less on the conflicts and more on the people, Hirsch said the course readings have made her realize now more than ever that "history shapes the world we live in today."

"And you can’t really understand political problems that exist today without having an understanding of history, or it will just seem like a really myopic view of the actual problems," Hirsch said.

Soumbasakis said the history course has expanded their knowledge around contemporary Palestinian issues. 

By Ivan Natividad

View all articles by Ivan Natividad