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.
“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.