Berkeley Resumes Palestine Course

Facing backlash and accusations of squelching academic freedom, a class is restored.

September 20, 2016
Paul Hadweh

Less than a week after the University of California, Berkeley, suspended a student-run course on Palestine, the administration reversed its decision and brought it back.

The one-credit course, called Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis, was suspended last Tuesday after members of pro-Israel groups accused it of having “anti-Israel bias.” But the university administration claimed it suspended the course -- a part of the DeCal program, which allows students to propose and lead their own for-credit courses -- because the course leaders hadn’t followed the proper approval procedures and policies.

The course was reinstated Monday morning after a committee from the Department of Ethnic Studies reviewed the course, which has the purpose of examining “key historical events that have taken place in Palestine … through the lens of settler colonialism,” according to the syllabus.

“Nothing in the syllabus indicates that a single viewpoint is taught uncritically; on the contrary, the syllabus indicates that multiple viewpoints are welcomed and debated in the class,” wrote Shari Huhndorf, chair of ethnic studies, in a review of the course sent Sunday to Carla Hesse, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Palestine Legal, a nonprofit supporting the student course leader, Paul Hadweh, sent a letter to Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks condemning last week's decision to suspend the course and alleging that the university violated First Amendment rights and the principles of academic freedom.

The move to suspend the course was criticized by others, too, prompting open letters from the 26 students enrolled in the course and an alumnus decrying the decision.

In a letter Monday morning, Hesse explained the decision, saying she met last week with Hadweh, along with the faculty sponsor of the course and Huhndorf, the ethnic studies chair. She wrote that she asked them work together to:

  • “Clarify how a course focused exclusively on Palestine was consistent with the academic mission of the Department of Ethnic Studies.”
  • “Assess whether the course description and syllabus had a particular political agenda.”
  • “Assess whether the stated objective of the course to ‘explore the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine’ potentially violated Regents Policy,” which prohibits political indoctrination in the classroom.

Along with a committee of four faculty members from ethnic studies, the department chair reviewed the course and recommended reinstatement. The dean accepted the review and the committee's answers to her questions, and she reinstated the course. In addition, Hadweh worked with faculty members to revise the course description.

“They were cosmetic changes, nothing that changed the substance of the course,” Hadweh said in a phone interview.

Rather, the revisions were meant to clarify that the course complied with the Regents Policy. For instance, the amended syllabus added the sentence “Our analyses will utilize a comparative approach with an emphasis on scholarship in settler colonial studies.”

Although Hadweh is glad he gets to teach again, he is still angry with the university administration’s response and handling of the course. Besides the meeting with Hesse, Hadweh said he had no direct contact with university administration.

“The administration’s actions were inexcusable,” he said. “What they did flies in the face of any democratic process and the principles of academic freedom.”

Further, Hadweh -- a senior studying peace and conflict studies -- criticized the administration’s claim that he had not followed the correct procedures to obtain proper course approval.

“It has been determined that the facilitator for the course in question did not comply with policies and procedures that govern the review and approval of proposed courses for the DeCal program,” the original statement from Berkeley stated.

Specifically, the proposal had not been submitted to the dean of the College of Letters and Sciences. Although the dean is not required to approve the course, she is required to review it.

But Hadweh claims he was never required to submit the proposal to the dean.

Rather, the acting department chair at the time did not submit the proposal to the dean, clarified Dan Mogulof, executive director for communications and public affairs at Berkeley.

Palestine Legal and members of the Middle East Studies Association accused the administration of bowing to political pressure from pro-Israel groups who feared the course would be anti-Zionist proselytizing.

“The sequence of events surrounding the decision to suspend this course is particularly troubling, arousing suspicion that political groups based outside the university have been given undue influence over curricular matters that should be handled by faculty in accordance with established procedures,” a letter sent Friday from MESA to the chancellor stated.

A group of 42 Jewish and pro-Israel organizations signed a letter to the chancellor last week, calling on administrators to suspend the course because it “intended to indoctrinate students to hate the Jewish state and take action to eliminate it.”

The letter accused both Hadweh and the course's faculty sponsor, Hatem Bazian, a lecturer in ethnic studies, of pushing anti-Zionist sentiments. It also claimed that the goal of the class was to teach students that Israel is an illegitimate state and that the readings have an anti-Israel bias.

“A review of the syllabus of Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis reveals that the course's objectives, reading materials and guest speakers are politically motivated, meet our government’s criteria for anti-Semitism and are intended to indoctrinate students to hate the Jewish state and take action to eliminate it,” the letter stated.

Hadweh and Liz Jackson, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, both rejected these accusations.

“This course, the syllabus is clear about this, is looking for a just solution,” Jackson said. “And that’s not about being anti-Jewish, that’s about looking for equality for all people in the area.”

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, the director of the AMCHA Initiative, who wrote the letter, said that if the dean’s concerns were addressed in a substantive way, then the reinstatement of the course would be a positive step. She hopes that after this controversy, all courses will go through a rigorous vetting process to make sure they do not violate the Regents Policy.

The Academic Senate will still review the course; the chair of the Senate could not immediately be reached for comment.


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