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Jackson School of Global Affairs fellow Robert Malley ’84, who is currently on leave from his position as the United States’ special envoy to Iran while under investigation for allegedly mishandling classified documents, will teach a course called “Contending with Israel-Palestine” this semester. 

According to the syllabus, the seminar will take “an in-depth look at important questions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Malley told the News he had been planning to teach the course since last September.

“In the wake of Oct. 7, I questioned whether it still made sense or whether it would be best to wait,” he said. “Ultimately, I concluded, in coordination with the School, that it had become even more important to try to create an environment where students could learn more about this topic and engage with others in thoughtful, respectful conversations.”

The course, which is open to graduate and undergraduate students and capped at 18, consists of 13 weekly discussions and assigned readings. It begins with a discussion on “Competing Narratives” — which features primary source excerpts from figures such as Golda Meir and Yasser Arafat — and moves through other topics such as negotiation efforts, the American role in mediation attempts, coverage of the conflict in media, a look at Israeli and Palestinian “voices and politics” and the conflict’s debate in the United States before concluding with a class titled “Israel-Palestine Today & Tomorrow (3) – Imagining the Future.” 

Malley wrote that he sought to include readings from a variety of perspectives, while acknowledging that he “invariably left many out.”

Among the course’s selection of readings include excerpts from Theodor Herzel, Mahmoud Darwish, John Mearsheimer, Benjamin Netanyahu and others, while primary source documents include excerpts from Israeli law, the Religious Zionist party platform, the Palestinian National Charter and the 2017 Hamas charter.

“I will invite students to suggest other readings as the semester progresses,” Malley wrote. “In this sense, I view the course very much as a co-creation between them and me.”

Students were required to arrange a meeting with Malley in order to interview for admission to the course. According to Malley, he stressed to students that his “only requirement was that they be tolerant and respectful of opposing views.”

The course comes amid a time of political polarization on Yale’s campus over Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza. Both Jewish and Muslim students have expressed concerns for their safety in response to rising national rates of antisemitic and Islamaphobic incidents.

“I’m well aware of how polarized and even toxic debates around Israel-Palestine can be,” Malley wrote. “I’m also well aware of the fact that we all have biases and prejudices, myself included. I’m trying to take steps as best I can to address that. [Students] don’t need to conceal or change their own – just to listen and try to understand their peers.”

Malley began his political career in the Clinton administration and later worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. In 2015, he served as the U.S.’s lead negotiator for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the “Iran Nuclear Deal.” 

In 2021, President Joe Biden appointed Malley to the position of special envoy to Iran, but on June 29 of this year, the State Department announced that he would be placed on unpaid leave while his security clearance was under review. On July 10, unconfirmed reports emerged that the FBI had become involved in the investigation. On Aug. 15, Yale’s Jackson School of Global Affairs announced Malley as one of eight new senior fellows.

Some American politicians and scholars quickly criticized Yale — and Princeton, where Malley also took a position — for hiring Malley despite the unclear context around his leave. 

“Pitiful. Look who my alma mater just made a prof,” Sen. Ted Cruz, a Princeton alum, wrote in a post also on Aug. 15. “Rob Malley was such a pro-Iran radical that he was FIRED from Biden admin & had his security clearance stripped for ‘mishandling classified docs’ (the details are still hidden).” 

Others have defended Malley. 

Nathan Thrall, an American author whose book, “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama,” is required on the syllabus, said that the circumstances of Malley’s leave should not interfere with his job at Yale.

“Mr. Malley hasn’t so much as been charged with any wrongdoing, and he is among the most qualified scholars in the world to teach a class on Israel-Palestine,” he said, adding that Malley is an especially strong candidate to teach the course. “I can think of very few U.S. policymakers who have done more to learn about and understand Israel-Palestine in all its dimensions or overseen decades of independent research in Gaza, Israel and the West Bank.”

Malley is considered a left-leaning scholar on the conflict. After 2000’s failed Camp David negotiations between then-president Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat, which he attended, Malley co-authored an article that argued it was unfair to place the brunt of the blame on Arafat for the talks falling through — an opinion held by most observers at the time. Instead, Malley argued in favor of  “a more nuanced and realistic” understanding of the talks that also blamed Barak for their failings. 

In 2008, while working on Obama’s presidential campaign, he faced criticism after news reports surfaced that he had met with members of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that the State Department classifies as a terrorist organization. He was subsequently dropped from the campaign.

Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who has worked for both the Bush and Trump administrations, expressed confidence in Malley’s ability to foster a classroom environment that tolerates various viewpoints.

“I disagree with Rob deeply both on Iran policy and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but our debates have always been civil and I think useful for audiences,” Abrams wrote. “It would astonish me if he caricatured opposing views or prevented rather than fostering a good classroom debate.”

It is unclear how long the State Department’s investigation will last. Typically, Jackson fellows spend one year in the post.

James Levinsohn, dean of the Jackson School of Global Affairs, said that offering Malley’s course is “exactly what a school of global affairs should be doing.”

“I hope that the course will contribute to a better understanding of the history and politics of the region,” he said. “Yale students deserve the opportunity to become better informed on these issues and this course will contribute to that.”

The spring 2023 semester began on Tuesday, Jan. 16.

Ben Raab covers faculty and academics at Yale and writes about the Yale men's basketball team. Originally from New York City, Ben is a sophomore in Pierson college pursuing a double major in history and political science.