Palestine course reinstated at Berkeley, draws Jewish ire

Jewish organizations went from praising U.C. Berkeley to again criticizing it this week as the university reinstated a student-led course about the history of Palestine that it had previously suspended after a public outcry.

“The class thesis and much of its syllabus is built on the foundation of the denial of the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel and the attempt to negate the right of Jews, like any other people, to assert their self-determination,” said a statement released by the Anti-Defamation League one day after the university reinstated “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Inquiry” (originally “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis”).

Carla Hesse, executive dean of the College of Letters and Science, cited procedural missteps in the original approval when she suspended the course on Sept. 13,  shortly after objections to the course made the news. At the time, Hesse determined that the proposal had not been submitted for approval to the department chair or the dean’s office as required, according to assistant vice chancellor Dan Mogulof.

The suspension came after dozens of Jewish organizations, including Hillel International and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, criticized the inclusion of the one-credit course in the fall curriculum. They charged that it promoted a “one-sided, biased narrative consistent with the current movement to delegitimize Israel,” according to ADL Central Pacific regional director Seth Brysk.

When the course was suspended, many Jewish organizations praised the decision. But within a week, the pendulum had swung in the other direction.

In a Sept. 19 letter to department chairs in the division of social sciences and to members of the divisional council of the Academic Senate, a body that represents Berkeley faculty, Hesse announced that she had rescinded her suspension. She said she and the chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies had reviewed the course materials, resolving the procedural issues.

Additionally, the course’s student facilitator, working with the department chair and executive committee, made minor revisions to the description and syllabus in response to questions Hesse raised about whether the course was promoting a political agenda.

The course explores connections “scholars have drawn between Zionism and settler colonialism,” requires students to attend an event “relating to Palestine” during the semester and make a final presentation proposing a “decolonial alternative” to the region’s problems, according to the updated syllabus.

“I fully support and defend the principles and policies of our campus that protect the academic freedom of all members of our community, whether students, faculty, staff or visitors, as well as the shared governance of our campus by the administration and faculty Senate,” Hesse wrote in her Sept. 19 letter reinstating the course.

Despite those comments, faculty members warned that the university had infringed upon academic freedom by suspending the course in the first place. The divisional council held a special meeting Sept. 19 and released a statement asserting that no breach of procedure had occurred in the original approval process and reasserting the Academic Senate’s authority over curriculum.

“The events of September 13, 2016, in which a student-facilitated, DeCal course, ‘Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis,’ was suspended by the campus administration undermine the Senate’s authority over courses and curricula, and abrogates shared governance on our campus,” the statement read in part. The DeCal program allows students to propose and teach one-credit courses under the supervision of a faculty sponsor.

The course’s faculty sponsor, Hatem Bazian, is the founder of American Muslims for Palestine and a lecturer in the ethnic studies department. Paul Hadweh, the course’s student facilitator, sharply criticized the university in a statement issued by Palestine Legal.

“The university threw me under the bus, and publicly blamed me, without ever even contacting me. It seems that because I’m Palestinian studying Palestine, I’m guilty until proven innocent,” said Hadweh, a Cal senior whose family is originally from Bethlehem. “I hope we can now focus on the challenging intellectual and political questions that this course seeks to address.”

The Zionist Organization of America and StandWithUs joined the ADL in criticizing U.C. Berkeley for reinstating the course. “Our understanding is that the revisions to this disturbingly biased course are not substantive, and we reaffirm our belief that it violates [U.C.] policy prohibiting political indoctrination in the classroom,” said Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, in a statement.

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.