Two Views: Was U.C. Berkeley right to reinstate Palestine course

two views | Academic integrity lost to anti-Semitism

“The Regents… are responsible to see that the University remain aloof from politics and never function as an instrument for the advance of partisan interest. Misuse of the classroom by, for example, allowing it to be used for political indoctrination… constitutes misuse of the University as an institution.” — University of California Regents Policy on Course Content

“Professors who fail to meet scholarly standards of competence or who abuse their position to indoctrinate students cannot claim the protection of academic freedom.” — University of California Committee on Academic Freedom

Unfortunately, neither of these vital principles of academia were upheld this week by U.C. Berkeley. Nor was academic integrity. The result was utterly shameful.

The antennae of my group, Amcha Initiative, and the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel and many others across the state shot up when we learned one of our nation’s premier universities was offering a course called “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis” this semester. An investigation into the syllabus, course readings, instructor and speakers revealed it is even worse than we imagined. A hate-filled, one-sided course, designed not to educate but for the sole purpose of brainwashing students to hate Israel and encourage them to take action to eliminate it altogether, is being offered for credit toward students’ degrees.

Only materials from scholars and authors who condemn Zionism and Israel are to be read. The only invited guest lecturer is a well-known anti-Zionist. And a significant portion of the course calls for examining “the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine,” code for denying Jews self-determination and erasing Israel from the globe. This type of expression is widely recognized as blatantly anti-Semitic by our government, all leading scholars of anti-Semitism and global leaders including President Obama, the pope and the prime ministers of Britain, France and Canada.

To make matters even worse, the course is to be taught by a vocal and active anti-Zionist student and overseen by a vocal and active anti-Zionist faculty member. The student is an active member of Students for Justice in Palestine, while the faculty adviser runs an organization that trains university students on anti-Zionist activism and has stated he believes it is legitimate to bring anti-Zionist activism into the classroom. He has raised funds for KindHearts, a group the U.S. government shut down for ties to terrorist organization Hamas.

And yet, all of this political propaganda is wrapped up in a pretty bow and called academic inquiry.

Those of us who work at a university know firsthand how aggressive anti-Zionist students and faculty are when it comes to recruiting new soldiers in their battle to eliminate Israel. They have been incredibly successful at infiltrating the campus with their hateful messages. Students for Justice in Palestine, the main anti-Zionist student group, repeatedly clogs up student government with boycott, divestment and sanctions resolutions. They disrupt and shutdown pro-Israel events, violating the civil rights of students who want to attend. They host Anti-Zionism Week, which includes Israel-bashing events and talks calling for Israel’s elimination. And, most appalling, many faculty use university funds to sponsor one-sided, biased anti-Israel panels where speakers repeatedly weave classic anti-Semitic tropes into their talks.

But it is utterly unconscionable to promote one’s own personal political agenda and propaganda in the classroom. And it completely violates University of California policy. As someone who has served on her own U.C. campus’s Academic Freedom Committee, I can affirm that academic freedom does not protect instructors who engage in this type of blatant and egregious abuse. The university makes this abundantly clear in its official policy.

Jewish, civil rights and education advocacy groups, including my own — 43 in all — immediately contacted U.C. Berkeley’s chancellor demanding he ensure that the “Palestine” course, and all U.C. Berkeley courses, comply with the University of California Regents Policy on Course Content. ADL, Hillel, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, StandWithUs, the Zionist Organization of America and many others raised serious concerns as well.

And the dean rightly suspended the course. U.C. Berkeley’s statement announcing the suspension appropriately stated, “The Dean is very concerned about a course, even a student-run course, which espouses a single political viewpoint and/or appears to offer a forum for political organizing rather than an opportunity for the kind of open academic inquiry that Berkeley is known for.”

However, after complete distortions about the meaning of academic freedom were made and lawsuits were threatened from Palestine Legal and other groups with a vested interest in brainwashing students with classes like these, the university backed down and reinstated the course.

What transpired is outrageous and shameful. It is now time for University of California President Janet Napolitano to step in. She must demand that each of her 10 U.C. chancellors ensures that all proposed courses are explicitly evaluated for their compliance with the Regents Policy on Course Content. Personal partisan propaganda must not be allowed in the classroom.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is a lecturer at U.C. Santa Cruz and the director of Amcha Initiative, a nonprofit organization that combats anti-Semitism on college campuses.

two views | A minor victory, but a long way to go

The Obama administration recently approved a $38 billion foreign aid package to the Israeli government. This is the largest aid package to Israel in history, ensuring that Israel can maintain the largest and strongest military in the region.

And yet, some of Israel’s advocates in Northern California say they’ve been battling for Israel’s very existence.

The existential threat? A one-unit, pass/fail course titled “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis” in the Democratic Education at Cal program, known as DeCal, at my alma mater U.C. Berkeley. The class  — which was suspended and then reinstated within the same week — is run by an undergraduate student, Paul Hadweh, who grew up in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. Students who complete the course are to have “researched, formulated, and presented decolonial alternatives to the current situation” in Palestine/Israel.

DeCals are known for giving students the freedom to teach unorthodox classes on topics about which they are passionate. So I was deeply disappointed on Sept. 13, when the university announced it was suspending Hadweh’s DeCal course. The stated reason? The course hadn’t met all the proper approval requirements.

It is nearly unheard of to suspend a course mid-semester, and the administration’s procedural excuses held almost no water. These excuses were a poorly veiled distraction from the fact that this course would never have received any attention if not for the onslaught of pressure from prominent pro-Israel groups, including the Amcha Initiative, a right-wing organization known for smearing and bullying professors critical of Israel. Israel’s minister of public security, Gilad Erdan, also made a point of trying to intervene.

According to Amcha’s letter, “the course’s objectives… are intended to indoctrinate students to hate the Jewish State and take action to eliminate it.” Hillel’s statement said that the course “put forth a political agenda and ignored history,” and after the course was suspended, Hillel thanked the administration “for their support of opportunities for Jewish students to explore their Jewish identity on campus.”

Thankfully, on Sept. 19, the university announced that it was reinstating the course after Palestine Legal, a group that provides pro-bono legal support to pro-Palestinian advocates, rallied behind Hadweh, as did many students, academics and online supporters.

Even though Berkeley reinstated the course, the fact that it was attacked and suspended to begin with highlights a tragic reality: Today in America, a Palestinian who wants to teach about the place where he was born is considered politically motivated and dangerous. This is especially glaring on a campus where there is a funded program devoted solely to “Israel Studies.” Students can take courses on Israeli independence that don’t have to explicitly mention the Nakba, the violent displacement of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948. They can learn about Israel’s democracy without an explicit mention of the fact that Israel undemocratically rules over millions of Palestinians. Palestinian students don’t get to accuse those classes of having a “political agenda” or of “ignoring history” or of threatening their existence, yet those would be very fair cases to make.

When I was a freshman at Berkeley in the spring of 2010, I fought to defeat a boycott, divestment and sanctions bill. When challenged to explain why boycott was an illegitimate avenue of political protest, other than stating that it made me feel sad, I couldn’t.

I brought that challenge to Berkeley Hillel. Are Israel’s policies — a nearly 50-year-long military occupation and an ongoing siege and blockade in Gaza — really defensible? When I left Hillel, I was outraged that my community is not only unwilling to meaningfully engage with people on the “other side,” but is also actively helping to demonize and legally outlaw activism for Palestinian human rights. I helped start IfNotNow to mobilize young Jews to bring the crisis of our community’s support for the occupation back to Hillel’s front door.

Right now, it feels like we’re losing. Pro-Israel organizations continue legislative battles to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and to outlaw BDS; smear campaigns are expanding across the community, and the most extremist right-wing government in Israel’s history is being rewarded with the largest foreign aid package in history.

Nonetheless, the reinstatement of the Berkeley course is a noteworthy victory, however small it may be. It is proof that the discourse is slowly shifting, the conversation is opening and the room for activism is growing. Meanwhile, Hillel continues to give the movement for Palestinian liberation the gift of publicity and intrigue.

Students, if you disagree with Hillel’s actions, don’t wash your hands of this. It is being done in your name. Hold sit-ins in Hillel’s lobby. Demand they stop the attacks. Say the word “Palestine.” Not because you want to destroy Israel, but because the only way to ensure security and freedom for the people of Israel is to demand it for the people of Palestine. It’s our responsibility to fight as hard for Palestinian liberation as we were taught to fight for our own.

Simone Zimmerman is a founding leader of IfNotNow, a movement to end American Jewish support for Israel’s occupation. A 2013 graduate of U.C. Berkeley, she is currently living in Tel Aviv as a Dorot Fellow. A version of this article originally appeared at and is reproduced with permission.