UC Berkeley reinstates Palestine class, rejecting pressure from pro-Israel groups

US Politics
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After an abrupt suspension last Tuesday, a college course about the decolonization of Palestine has earned a reprieve from the University of California on Monday. After reviewing the course material, the Berkeley campus officials decided the class promoted open discussion and didn’t push a political agenda.

The one-credit course is called “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis,” and was designed by a U.C. Berkeley senior of Palestinian descent, Paul Hadweh. Online outcry and a flurry of petitions across the campus in support of the class helped save it from annihilation. Every student in the class, Ethnic Studies: 198, wrote an open letter the day after the cancellation protesting what they called an affront to academic freedom. In signing up for the class, they insisted they wanted only to learn about the world’s most vexing and important conflict.

Paul Hadweh (Photo: Palestine Legal)

Paul Hadweh (Photo: Palestine Legal)

“People want to learn about it,” Hadweh, 22, told Mondoweiss. “I’m happy that we’ll finally be able to go back to the classroom.”

Carla Hesse the dean of the college of letters and science received a letter protesting the suspension that hailed the diversity of the students who are interested in the class.

“We are a diverse group of students that includes Christians, Muslims, and Jews; we are white, Black, Latin@, Asian, North American indigenous, Middle Eastern, and more; we study Peace and Conflict Studies, Ethnic Studies and Middle Eastern Studies, Media Studies, Economics and Engineering. In short, we are a sample of some of the wide and varied backgrounds, beliefs, and interests that compose the campus community. One characteristic we all possess in common, however, is a genuine interest in the academic discussion surrounding Israel and Palestine,” the students wrote.

Palestine Legal, a Palestinian advocacy group, said that free speech rights were under threat.

“The First Amendment protects the right to free expression from government interference. This right ensures that students and professors are not targeted for expressing disfavored viewpoints. Any attempt by university officials to circumscribe academic content because you disagree with the perspective is impermissible “viewpoint discrimination,” in violation of the First Amendment,” Palestine Legal wrote.

After reviewing the course more thoroughly, Hesse approved it. The group also helped represent Hadweh during the week-long ordeal.

“This is a victory for Paul who spent spent 8 months going through all the recommended and mandated procedures to facilitate a course,” said Liz Jackson, a Palestine Legal staff attorney, in a statement by the group. “It’s also a victory for the 26 students who enrolled and had their academic studies severely disrupted, and for students and scholars across the U.S. who are facing a coordinated attack on the right to speak and study freely about Palestine-Israel.”

The campaign against the class was lead by the AMCHA Initiative, a pro-Israel advocacy group which has a long history of attempting to stifle discussion of the Israeli occupation on University of California campuses.

In 2014, the group accused San Francisco State University professor Rabab Abdulhadi, who teaches about Palestine, of misusing funds by meeting with Palestinian scholars in Jordan and Palestine. They also accused her of terrorist sympathies, as they do with others. She said this kind of accusation was not only false, but also perilous. 

“The accusation that I support terrorism is both false and extremely dangerous in a post-9/11 climate that criminalizes advocacy and casts suspicion on even the most tenuous of associations with groups and individuals described as terrorists,” she wrote.

“AMCHA’s racist attack is nothing but political bullying intended to stifle and criminalize any and all discussions of Palestine or Palestinians in order to shield Israel from accountability for its continued violations of Palestinian rights,” professor Abdulhadi wrote in a letter published in Mondoweiss.

But AMCHA wasn’t the only one interested in this 1 credit Berkeley class. According to the Electronic Intifada, an Israeli minister in charge of combating the boycotting protests, Gilad Erdan, condemned the course as a means of promoting the protest tactic.

Hadweh told Electronic Intifada that he “first learned that our course was under scrutiny from a report in the Israeli media that describes the involvement of an Israeli government minister in efforts to cancel the course.”

And then, miraculously, two hours later, something miraculous happened, EI reported.

“I received an email from the university notifying us of the suspension,” he said.

But AMCHA did the heavy lifting, writing an open letter to the school signed by  by 42 other groups and several Berkeley professors in calling for the suspension over accusations of antisemitism, against school rules prohibiting classes that  “advance of partisan interest” or “political indoctrination.”

But Hadweh said he and others only sought information, not activism. When he arrived at Berkeley, a school that proclaims its history of free speech activism, there was only one sporadically offered class on Palestine.

“Unfortunately, it’s a topic that departments and faculty are too scared to touch. And you can see why with what happened with this course,” Hadweh explained. What that means is that there was “not a place in the institution to critically explore the question of Palestine.”

Hadweh emphasized that the lens with which his student-led class, offered through the university’s DeCal program, was only one of many ways to talk about the issue.

“The difference between colonialism and settler colonialism is that while colonialism seeks to exploit the native population, settler colonialism seeks to eliminate the native population,” he said. The course would examine the pattern using the North America and Australia as examples.

The brief suspension of the class, which faculty blamed on bureaucratic misunderstanding, came after AMCHA (which means “your people” in Hebrew, although AMECH has a ring to it too) reviewed the course and declared it to be pushing the “decolonization” of Israel and the elimination of Israel, which the course falsely defames as a colonial state.

“A key goal of the class is to encourage students to accept unquestioningly the false and defamatory idea that Israel is an illegitimate settler colonial state.  Furthermore, by the end of the course students are required to have ‘researched, formulated, and presented decolonial alternatives to the current situation,’ which, in the context of the other course objectives, means that a significant part of the course will be devoted to thinking about ways to “decolonize” — that is, eliminate — Israel,” reads the money quote in AMCHA’s press release on September 13.

In AMCHA’s view, the study of Israel as a settler colonial state means plotting Israel’s destruction. Learning about the colonization of Palestine is a gateway to full on addiction to antisemitism, they warned the Berkeley faculty that the class would encourage students to seek the destruction of the nuclear-armed juggernaut, and not just its deconstruction as a text by curious Berkeley students.

AMCHA also scours academia for signs of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), and has a website that devotes itself to spotting and silencing it. The BDS movement aims to protest human rights violations by Israel through economic means, in much the same way as activists challenged Apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.

Hadweh’s class succeeded against long odds, and he hopes it will have an effect on future decisions in academia.

“I hope it means that university administrations will think twice before buckling to outside pressure and interest and instead double down on their commitment to academic freedom and open and critical inquiry,” he said.

About Wilson Dizard

Wilson Dizard is a freelance reporter and photojournalist covering politics, civil rights, drug policy and everything else. He lives in Brooklyn with his bicycle, camera and drum set.

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22 Responses

  1. Danaa
    September 20, 2016, 3:55 pm

    Interesting and encouraging. This should be noted in light of Avigail Abarbanel’s recent articles about the words used to describe what israel is doing. She argued – quite ogently – against use of the word “occupation” in referring to the West bank and gaza, since occupation implies a kind of temporariness. Something that can – eventually – be ended. Kind of like the US occupation of iraq, or the british occupation of india. But we know this is not the case with israel, which intends – for all appearances – to settle the west bank just as it settled – and colonized – Israel proper. Every israeli knows this is the intent, and this is the plan. But they also know the word “settler colonialism’ conjures images of an America or Australia or canada conquered and settled by Europeans. This is exactly what israel plans to do, but being the age of the internet, it’s abit more difficult to hide the cost to the native people.

    hence the push-back from groups like AMCHA and the israeli government.

    All the more reason to rejoice at berkeley’s decision.

  2. ritzl
    September 20, 2016, 10:13 pm

    So cool. Next time this course is offered it will have 52 enrollees. Yay AMCHA!

    All these efforts at quashing pro-Palestinian activism, or just simple, non-boilerplate discussion of what’s really going on in Palestine, are almost certain to have the opposite of the intended effect. They triple they notoriety/awareness without countering the basic, seldom-heard-publicly facts. In fact they reinforce the credibility of the Palestinian side of the story by showing – in full view – a small dose of the unacceptable (ie. a non-shared value) repression the Palestinians in Palestine live with/under every single day.

    At the risk of being repetitious, there’s nothing the anti-Palestinian crowd can try to do at this point to keep the lid on a foul, generations-long situation which is scratching and clawing its way out into the open, that won’t backfire on them. The basic situation is credible, irrefutable, ongoing, and repugnant to most normal people so ANY publicity can only reinforce those fundamentals.

  3. Talkback
    September 20, 2016, 10:21 pm

    The study of Israel as a settler colonial state is pure heresy. But be patient, nobody escapes the Zionist inquisition and its accusation of antisemitism!

  4. RoHa
    September 21, 2016, 12:06 am

    This was about as blatant an attempt at suppression as one is likely to see short of mobs burning books and thought police arresting dissidents. I am delighted that the attempt has failed.

    (And thanks, Wilson Dizard, for writing “descent” instead of “heritage”.)

  5. Boomer
    September 21, 2016, 7:45 am

    This is a welcome development, yet the whole episode says a lot about the sad reality of Zionist-dominated discourse in the U.S. elites. It is great that there was an outcry and reinstatement.

    It is not really great that it should have been necessary. Not really great that the course was modified. And not great that it remains framed in many media sources, and thus in the minds of Americans who depend on those sources, as more proof of Arab-Muslim-Palestinian evil in opposition to Israeli Righteousness. And especially not great that the U.S. State Department seems to agree, at least if you read this:

    “Other critics said the focus on “decolonizing” was akin to calling for the elimination of the Jewish state — a stance defined as anti-Semitic by the U.S. State Department.”

    http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-uc-berkeley-palestine-20160919-snap-story.html

    • Talkback
      September 21, 2016, 9:30 am

      Sure, decolonizing South African was aking to calling for the elimination of the Afrikaners’ state, too. Therefore it was also a stance defined as anti-Afrikaners by the U.S. State Department,right?

      On how Apartheid South Africa was unfairly demonized — like Israel
      http://thehasbarabuster.blogspot.de/2009/01/on-how-apartheid-south-africa-was.html

      • silamcuz
        September 21, 2016, 10:11 am

        Yes, elimination of the Afrikaners would have been ideal, but presented a practical challenge to anyone willing to pursuit such a goal. However, one can rest easy knowing that Afrikaners are always going to be genetically disadvantaged in reproducing within most areas of SA because of their frail white skin and lack of hardiness against the harsh African environment.

      • Mooser
        September 21, 2016, 12:57 pm

        “Afrikaners are always going to be genetically disadvantaged in reproducing within most areas of SA because of their frail white skin”

        “Silamsez” you better dial it back a couple of SPF, pal.
        There have been tremendous advances in white people’s defense against the African Sun!
        Sol Invictus can no longer convict us!
        New composite sun-blockers, spine pads, cholera-bands, solar topees, you name it. I myself, prefer a loaded parasol. En garde!
        I may skip the light fundango, cartwheel cross the floor, even get a little sea-sick, but I am not a whiter shade of frail!

        And I know the croaking chorus from “The Frogs” of Aristophanes. Do you?

      • Mooser
        September 21, 2016, 1:12 pm

        “Afrikaners are always going to be genetically disadvantaged in reproducing within most areas of SA because of their frail white skin”

        You are right, “Silamcuz”! When ‘the miller tells his tale’ out on the African veldt, somebody is going to get a sunburned ass.

      • Mooser
        September 21, 2016, 2:31 pm

        Yes, elimination of the Afrikaners would have been ideal, but presented a practical challenge to anyone willing to pursuit such a goal.

        Don’t you have some suggestions on overcoming the “practical challenge to anyone willing to pursuit (sic) elimination of the Afrikaners”, “Silamscuz”? You say such a killing “would have been ideal”.

      • RoHa
        September 22, 2016, 1:51 am

        βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ,
        βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ.

      • Mooser
        September 23, 2016, 1:14 pm

        “βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ,
        βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ.”

        “We are poor little frogs,
        who have lost our way.
        Croak-croak, croak-croak, croak-croak.”

    • eljay
      September 21, 2016, 10:55 am

      … “Other critics said the focus on “decolonizing” was akin to calling for the elimination of the Jewish state — a stance defined as anti-Semitic by the U.S. State Department.” …

      “Jewish State” is a religion-supremacist construct. It has no right to exist – it never had that right in the first place. No state has any right to exist as any type of supremacist state.

      Calling for the preservation of religion-supremacist “Jewish State” isn’t akin to hypocritically supporting one type of supremacism – it is exactly hypocritical support for one type of supremacism.

      • Tchoupitoulas
        September 22, 2016, 11:53 pm

        @Roha

        Google translated that Greek as:

        vrekekekex koax koax,
        vrekekekex koax koax.

      • echinococcus
        September 23, 2016, 5:39 am

        Tchoupitoulas,

        That was transcribed (Modern Greek.)
        The translation being
        Croak croak

      • RoHa
        September 23, 2016, 8:45 am

        Yes, that is pretty much it, but, since they were Ancient Greek frogs, they pronounced the β more like b than v.

      • echinococcus
        September 23, 2016, 3:34 pm

        English dogs, who say bow-wow, can’t get through to Japanese dogs, who say wang-wang, and American frogs with their “ribbit” cannot get understood by their English colleagues, who respond to “croak”.
        One does get extremely pessimistic about an Israel one-state where Zionized frogs say kwa-kwa (just as the German and Russian ones, according to presumably competent Modern Hebrew input), while Palestinians frogs may use some variant of the Algerian qar (unconfirmed at the time of going to press.)

      • echinococcus
        September 24, 2016, 1:57 am

        Tchoupitoulas,

        Not “incorrect translation”: modern transcription, just not translation.
        Also, according to my zoologist friend who visited me today, Brekekekex indicates that the ancient frog was the laughing frog rana ridibunda
        Figures. Modern Greek frogs don’t laugh any longer: just κουάξ κουάξ. Wonder if Palestinian frogs are still laughing.

    • RoHa
      September 22, 2016, 1:16 am

      “a stance defined as anti-Semitic by the U.S. State Department.”

      And why should anyone give a hoot for the definitions of the U.S. State Department? Those dopes have hardly a glittering track record for being right about anything.

      • Boomer
        September 22, 2016, 1:21 pm

        Being designated as anti-Semitic, or as a terrorist or sponsor of terrorism by an agency of the U.S. can have real-world consequences.

      • Tchoupitoulas
        September 23, 2016, 2:57 pm

        Thanks. Hmm, I think I prefer the onomatopoeia of the incorrect translation.

  6. David44
    September 21, 2016, 10:54 am

    “I hope it means that university administrations will think twice before buckling to outside pressure and interest and instead double down on their commitment to academic freedom and open and critical inquiry,” he said.”

    I hope so too; my fear is the opposite. Even though AMCHA (fortunately) failed this time, it threw up a lot of hurdles in the path of both the teacher and the administration. My concern is that, faced with that, fewer teachers will try to run such courses in the first place, and that administrations will try to find ways of heading them off before they have to run the gauntlet of controversy.

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