Berkeley: University of California (UC) Berkeley senior Paul Hadweh designed a course on the history of Palestine in order to spark discussion about his family’s homeland under Israeli occupation.
“I wanted to create a space where we can read, think and speak critically about the question of Palestine,” Hadweh said.
But the one-credit, student-led offering — which aimed to analyse Palestine through “the lens of settler colonialism” — was suspended last week after just one class following a storm of criticism that it fostered “anti-Semitism” and indoctrinated students against the Israeli regime.
According to an Israeli TV station, the Association of University Heads in Israel had “covertly” tried to stop the course. Administrators said the reason for pulling the plug was procedural — that proper approval had not been obtained.
Then campus officials reversed gears on Monday, reinstating the course after students, faculty, free-speech advocates and Palestinian rights groups issued letters and circulated petitions denouncing the suspension as a violation of academic freedom.
Among them, the 26 enrolled students — from diverse racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds — called it “an act of discrimination against students who wanted to debate and discuss this contentious issue in a spirit of genuine sincerity, mutual respect and open-minded curiosity”.
The university’s ethnic studies department has revised the original course description and syllabus, according to a letter issued on Monday by Carla Hesse, executive dean of the College of Letters and Sciences and dean of the social sciences division.
But a comparison of the curriculum plans showed only minor changes, most notably in the wording of the course description as questions to be explored rather than statements of what would be studied. Hadweh called the revisions he made in consultation with ethnic studies faculty members “cosmetic”.
“There were no substantive changes,” said Hadweh, 22, who is majoring in peace and conflict studies. “It was not the revisions that allowed the course to get approved, it was the pressure from people across the globe who were appalled that this public institution would so severely infringe upon the principles of academic freedom.”
Pro-Israel groups said on Monday that they remained troubled about the course.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a UC Santa Cruz professor and director of the Amcha Initiative, which ostensibly fights anti-Semitism on campuses, said the reading list remained biased against Israel.
“The readings, without exception, present a very negative view of Israel,” she said. “That really should raise eyebrows in scholarly circles.”
Other critics said the focus on “decolonising” was akin to calling for the elimination of Israel — a stance defined as “anti-Semitic” by the US State Department.
Hadweh said, however, that the Palestine experience would be compared to the colonisation of indigenous people in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, with inquiry over how to create “justice and equality” for all.
In the letter to faculty members, Hesse said the revisions addressed three concerns she had expressed to the course’s student facilitator, faculty sponsor and the ethnic studies chair. She did not mention Hadweh by name.
One was whether the offering had a “particular political agenda structured into its framing and weekly assignments in such a way as to limit open inquiry of the issues,” thus violating UC rules against political indoctrination and partisanship.
Hesse also said she also asked them to assess whether the course’s stated objective to “explore the possibilities of a decolonised Palestine” potentially violated UC policy against “crossing over the line from teaching to political advocacy”.
And, she said, she discussed whether the course — by focusing exclusively on Palestine — was appropriate for an ethnic studies rather than a regional studies class.
Hesse on Monday said she fully supports and defends “the principles and policies of our campus that protect the academic freedom of all members of our community,” but suspended the course because neither she nor the ethnic studies department chair had been formally notified of the class offering or seen the syllabus.
As dean, she added, she reviews courses but does not approve the academic content.
“I did not request or require any revisions of the content of the course,” she wrote in the letter to all department chairs of the social sciences division and the Academic Senate’s divisional council.
Hadweh said he was stunned that a one-credit, student-led course would create an international furore, but was gratified by the outcome.
“It’s inspiring to see how truly faculty at the university and around the world really cherish the principle of academic freedom and did not allow the administration to get away with allowing outside pressure to dictate what can and can’t be spoken about on campus,” he said.