Jewish groups commend U.C. Berkeley for canceling student-led Palestine course

Jewish community leaders praised U.C. Berkeley’s suspension of a student-led course, “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis,” one day after they had attacked the class as biased, anti-Zionist and in violation of the university’s academic standards.

“The Wiesenthal Center commends U.C. Berkeley’s action to cancel this so-called course that was never more than an extreme anti-Israel propaganda drill masquerading as an academic exercise. We will continue to closely monitor this issue across the U.C. system,” said Aron Hier, the center’s director of campus outreach.

The Anti-Defamation League also applauded the university’s suspension of the course, which Central Pacific regional director Seth Brysk described as promoting a “one-sided, biased narrative consistent with the current movement to delegitimize Israel.”

An excerpt from the syllabus for the student-led DeCal course

The course’s faculty sponsor, American Muslims for Palestine founder Hatem Bazian, accused the school of censorship. He wrote on Facebook: “UC Berkeley Chancellor buckles under Zionist and pro-Israel pressure and shuts down a course on settler colonialism. Censoring Palestine is the norm on campuses!”

The university made the decision to suspend the course on Sept. 13, three weeks into the fall semester, after determining that not all the procedures were followed for academic review and approval of the class, according to Dan Mogulof, the school’s assistant vice chancellor. The class was to be led by student facilitator Paul Hadweh as part of the university’s DeCal program for student-led courses.

Suspending a course after the semester has begun is “fairly unusual,” even for a DeCal course, Mogulof said. “I can’t think of anything in our regular curriculum that would be similar,” he said.

A day earlier, Berkeley Hillel had called upon U.C. President Janet Napolitano and U.C. Berkeley administrators to condemn the one-credit course in a strongly worded statement.

“Any perusal of the syllabus will show that this is a one-sided course which puts forth a political agenda. It does not tell the truth. It ignores history. It ignores facts, such as the inconvenient one that Jews have inhabited

Israel for 3,000 years,” Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut and Berkeley Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman said in the statement. “This course seems to be a matter of political indoctrination in the classroom and is a violation of the newly adopted principles by the U.C. regents on intolerance.”

The course was to be offered as part of the university’s DeCal program, in which students propose and teach one-credit courses under the supervision of a faculty sponsor. Other DeCal classes offered this academic year include “Cal Pokemon Academy,” “Art Anatomy” and “Science in Oakland Elementary Schools.”

The course syllabus said it would cover the history of Palestine from the 1880s to the present and “explore the connection between Zionism and settler colonialism.” Students were required to attend an event “relating to Palestine” during the semester and make a final presentation proposing a “decolonial alternative” to the region’s problems, not restricted to the two-state solution.

Forty-three Jewish and educational organizations signed a letter by the Santa Cruz-based Amcha Initiative, a nonprofit that monitors anti-Semitism in higher education, addressed to U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, expressing deep concern about the course. The signatories included a wide spectrum of Jewish organizations, such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Association of Reform Zionists of America and the Zionist Organization of America.

“A review of the syllabus … 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.

Facing questions about the class, Dirks first released a statement on Sept. 12 defending the course offering, which had been approved by a committee of the Academic Senate, in the name of academic freedom.

“Courses … do not represent the views of the institution or the administration, but rather express a full commitment to academic freedom, and the associated principles and procedures that underwrite the teaching mission of the university,” Dirks said. He was unaware of problems with the approval process at that time, according to Mogulof.

However, the next day, the course was suspended. The executive dean of the College of Letters & Science, Carla Hesse, found in an investigation that the course proposal had not been submitted to the dean’s office before approval, as required. The investigation had begun the previous week, Mogulof said, after students, faculty and staff raised concerns about the course.

“I think she, like anybody else in a position of responsibility, wants to make sure every course is consistent with regental policy, and also that it meets the university’s academic standards and it’s not a forum for political organizing, but an open forum for inquiry and investigation,” Mogulof said.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.