Palestine, ‘safety’ and the UC Berkeley affair

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Some of you might have been following the University of California at Berkeley free speech debacle, in which a course called ‘Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis’ offered through the university’s student-led Democratic Education at Berkeley (DeCal) program was summarily cancelled following a bellicose campaign by pro-Israel groups and – according to the Israeli media – intervention by the Israeli government minister Gilad Erdan and the Israeli Union of Heads of the 4 Universities.

After a huge outcry, including an open letter from students enrolled in the oversubscribed course, who regarded the cancellation as discriminatory, alongside a forceful letter from Palestine Legal, and condemnation from free speech advocates and organisations such as Jewish Voice for Peace (which I support), the course was reinstated a couple of days later.

You needn’t dig deep to uncover the stinking heap of ironies infesting this deplorable episode. Of course, UC Berkeley is the famed birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, a series of protests in 1964-65 aimed at securing students’ right to undertake political activity on campus. Moreover, the UCB Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, and its Dean, Carla Hesse, who together cancelled the course just hours after receiving a complaint from dozens of Israeli advocacy organisations, initially claimed that those running it had failed to follow the university’s procedures for devising DeCal courses, an allegation that was swiftly disproved when relevant documents and emails were produced.

By contrast, the extraordinary cancellation was undertaken with no discussion with any UCB faculty members or anyone involved in devising the course syllabus. Paul Hadweh, the Palestinian-American student running the course, who is in the final year of a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies, says he learned about its cancellation in an Israeli newspaper. As Palestine Legal’s Liz Jackson put it in her letter to the Chancellor,

‘The ample documentation of a public pressure campaign, combined with your failure to provide a justification that holds water – procedural or otherwise – makes it clear that you suspended Ethnic Studies 198 because Israel advocacy groups disagreed with the course content.’

While the decision to cancel the course was located within the transparently self-serving but now widespread claim that any discussion of Palestinian human rights or Israeli violations of international law constitutes a threat to the ‘safety’ of Jewish students, administrators did not hesitate to ‘throw [Hadweh] under the bus’, as he described it, in order to mollify these pro-Israel groups.

Just like the denial of a constitutionally-protected free speech entitlement to pro-Palestine advocates, this shoddy affair and similar incidents make clear that for university administrators, legislators and others, Palestinian students and defenders of Palestinian rights should have no expectation of safety. Certainly, their sense of safety was of no concern to Columbia University which recently hosted the Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked who advocated the genocide of the Palestinians in a 2014 Facebook post, in which she called Palestinian children ‘little snakes.’ (Another irony: Shaked is now working with Facebook to censor anti-Israel posts on the social media site.)

As my sister wrote movingly to me not long ago,

‘What do you need to feel safe? That when you say a word, like ‘Palestine’, the person in front of you does not cringe, look away, change the subject or worse, assume you are a dangerous person. You would like to have a sense that you are understood, that someone will listen, that you may find some access to some corridor of power, that someone will champion your cause, they might even fight for you or supply you with what you need to keep going, that someone will achieve cult-like status as a hero for your movement.

‘To be a supporter of Palestinian self determination is to be the opposite of safe.’

The vague terror that attends this knowledge is by now a visceral, body sensation I live with much of the time, through many sleepless nights. It is a prickle of fear, a thudding heart, a ‘poorly tummy’ as my children might say. It’s a ‘Free Gaza’ badge worn defiantly, and then shoved into a handbag with such nervous haste it pricks my finger, when an unsuspecting friend unexpectedly approaches. It is that same finger shaking as I hit ‘publish’ on an essay like this one.

I recall the grimaces on the faces of our suburban Canadian friends back in the 1970s when they tasted our tabbouleh, so lemony it brought out a sweat in the skin near your nose, or gaped at our flat, tangy za’atar bread which looked ‘dirty’ to kids weaned on Cheerios and PB&J. It’s just food, you might think, and yet I sensed even then that their alarm was a proxy for some more nebulous suspicion. After all, who eats dirt?

Even then, I understood that the Palestinians – whose human rights my parents have advocated with fierce commitment throughout their lives – were considered terrorists by most, and even worse by some. Not much has changed. Just last year, the Times of Israel reported remarks by the Knesset member Eli Ben Dahan that ‘[t]o me, [Palestinians] are like animals, they aren’t human.’ Consequently, asserting their entitlement to basic human rights constitutes a dangerous schism from a consensus aggressively policed virtually everywhere in public and private life, both here and there, that it is Israel that faces an existential threat from a bloodthirsty Other, and not the Palestinian people.

Indeed, it strikes me that while courageous Jewish advocates of Palestinian rights are often denounced as self-hating, self-hatred is required of Palestinians. For how else to construe the grotesque and perverse demand that they accept the legitimacy of a racist project predicated on their dispossession, and surrender the right to live on their own land in peace, safety and equality, as a condition of ‘negotiating’ that same right?

Despite the reinstatement of the Palestine course, the UC Berkeley affair continues to reverberate, as well it should. Aside from the rest, it’s a reminder that it was Berkeley students who drove the Free Speech Movement, earning the school widespread esteem for its embrace of that liberty, in the face of fierce opposition from its administration. Their contribution was to call the cops.

A version of this post first appeared on Juliana Farha’s website

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Knesset member Eli Ben Dahan “[t]o me, [Palestinians] are like animals, they aren’t human.” He also said that “A Jew always has a much higher soul than a gentile, even if he is a homosexual, …” Isn’t it revealing that the defense minister of the Jewish ethnocracy is a blatant… Read more »