Seattle – Tensions between University of California Berkeley students and administrators came to a head this week over the suspension of a student-taught course “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis”, sparking concerns that the university is violating academic freedoms.
Students and academics charged university administrators with buckling under external political pressures from Israel advocacy groups when they suspended the course on Tuesday, allegations the administration denied.
Paul Hadweh, a senior undergraduate, had already started teaching the course through the university’s DeCal programme, which allows students to teach courses on material of their choice under faculty supervision.
Hadweh released a public statement saying that he “learned the 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”.
“Two hours later, I received an email from the university notifying us of the suspension,” Hadweh said.
Hadweh’s supervising professor, Dr Hatem Bazian, a lecturer in Near Eastern Studies and Ethnic Studies, said he was notified by Carla Hesse, the executive dean of the College of Letters and Science, one week into the academic term that the course “did not undergo required academic review” and would be formally suspended until a review of the course material was completed.
Hadweh and Bazian said the course was approved in July through all processes required by the university, including full approval from a faculty adviser, the chairman of the Department of Ethnic Studies, and the Academic Senate’s Committee on Courses of Instruction.
Negative media reports on the course began circulating earlier this month. The AMCHA Initiative, a nonprofit organisation, released a statement to the UC Berkeley chancellor saying that the course met the US government’s criteria for what constitutes anti-Semitism and was “intended to indoctrinate students to hate the Jewish state and take action to eliminate it”.
Jackson told Al Jazeera that in 2010 the Israeli government was involved in an attempt to influence the university’s PR response to student debates surrounding divestment from companies complicit in the Israeli occupation, and that over the past year, Israel pressure groups launched a campaign to equate anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism in University of California policy.
No university administrator attended the class. No discussion took place with the faculty sponsor or the department, so how would they reach such conclusions...
As a result, the university amended its Principles of Intolerance in March to state that both anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic forms of Zionism had no place at the university.
Jackson said that AMCHA, the group that spearheaded the campaign, views any rigorous critique of Israeli policy as anti-Semitism, and she feared that the university’s move in March may lead to a violation of the First Amendment and academic freedom.
Jackson, calling the university decision “anti-intellectual and McCarthyist” said that the purpose of the amendment was “to create a chilling effect against the press, to scare people from engaging in discussions about anti-Zionism for fear of being called anti-Semitic”.
Groups involved in the campaign have since tried to “enforce” the university’s new amendment, with Hadweh’s course as the most recent target, Jackson said.
Dean Hesse, noting that several groups raised concerns about the course’s aims and content, wrote to Al Jazeera that “there has been no pressure, direct or indirect, on [her] office from outside groups to suspend the course”.
Dan Mugolof, an assistant vice chancellor at UC Berkeley, said the suspension came after a “breakdown in communication” with the Department of Ethnic Studies, whose acting chairman approved the course over the summer but did not have the authority to do so. Mugolof told Al Jazeera that the acting chairman also failed to provide a copy of the course proposal to the dean for review, as stipulated in university policy.
The vice chancellor added that the decision to suspend the course was motivated by the dean’s concerns that the course “espoused a single political viewpoint and appeared to offer a forum for political organising”.
Bazian rejected the UC Berkeley line and charged Mugolof with “spin doctoring” the reason for suspension.
“It’s shocking to see this behaviour, where the student is being blamed for an administration that buckled under political pressure,” Bazian told Al Jazeera.
Bazian said the administration did not investigate the course materials before suspending the course, and criticised the dean’s concerns that the course may be one-sided or a platform for political organisation.
“No university administrator attended the class. No discussion took place with the faculty sponsor or the department, so how would they reach such conclusions … besides taking the accusations from external groups that have ideological bias and are advocating the interest of a foreign country?” Bazian asked.
Bazian and Hadweh said that when they and the chairman of the Ethnic Studies Department met the dean following the suspension, the dean did not show support, according to Hadweh.
“It was like the meeting was over before it even started,” Hadweh told Al Jazeera, adding that it was apparent that the administrators had not familiarised themselves with the course material before making the suspension, despite official claims otherwise.
The accusation is particularly damaging for UC Berkeley, a top US university where activists launched major campaigns during the Civil Rights Movement, and that has a long record of campaigning for free speech.
On Thursday, the 26 students officially enrolled in the course demanded that the university administrators lift the suspension, calling it discriminatory and a violation of their academic freedom.
The students, identified as a diverse group from a range of ethnic and educational backgrounds, said they established collaborative community agreements on the first day of class in order to ensure respectful classroom engagement, and rejected claims that the course “would only tolerate a single or particular view”.
The course examines the connection between Zionism and settler colonialism, and Bazian said the portion of the course analysing decolonisation methods was misinterpreted by critics.
While critics viewed a “decolonised Palestine” as the expulsion of Jews, Hadweh’s course syllabus said examination of literature on decolonisation would be carried out “to explore the possibilities of a decolonised Palestine, one in which justice is realised for all its peoples and equality is not only espoused, but practised”.
Bazian said studying decolonisation was a process of understanding historical frameworks that dictate how relations in present conflict will be thought about, in order to rethink these frameworks and pose new questions.
“There’s no set of clear answers when we think about and talk about decolonial thought, because we first have to emerge out of the contexts of nationalist, colonial and post-colonial thinking,” Bazian told Al Jazeera.
He added that “those who are interested in making a static engagement with the present status quo historically and continuously are not comfortable in posing questions that complicate things”.
A decision on the course is expected next week.