The University of California, Berkeley has reinstated a controversial course examining Palestine "through the lens of settler colonialism" after facing intense backlash that it was stifling academic freedom.
A coalition of Jewish organizations had launched a campaign against the course, claiming it was "antisemitic" and "anti-Israel", and last week the elite school suspended the class, saying it "did not receive a sufficient degree of scrutiny".
But on Monday, UC Berkeley announced that a review had determined "the course does not cross the line between teaching and political advocacy and organizing".
"I'm hoping that this will make the administration think twice before they respond to outside political pressure," said undergraduate Paul Hadweh, who created the course, which is part of a UC Berkeley program that allows students to teach classes to their peers.
The dispute comes at a time of increasingly tense debate surrounding free speech on college campuses and student activism on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Pro-Palestine groups argue that universities have suppressed their right to free speech and protest and that student activists are up against well-funded initiatives aimed at discrediting and harassing individual protesters.
But Pro-Israel and Jewish organizations claim that the growing Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) movement – along with the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) efforts targeting the Israeli government – are antisemitic and shouldn't be allowed on campuses.
Hadweh's class, called Palestine: A Settler Colonial Inquiry, aims to explore the region in the context of "settler colonialism" and study how "decolonization" could "open the possibility for justice and equality for all peoples in the region". A coalition of opposing groups argued that the syllabus implied that the class "intended to indoctrinate students to hate the Jewish state and take action to eliminate it".
The university, considered the top public college in the US, claimed that it was suspending the course due to procedural concerns, though professors andstudents said that administrators were responding to negative press and criticisms from Israel advocacy groups.
On Sunday, Shari Huhndorf, chair of the department of ethnic studies, said in a letter to administrators that she had determined that the "course is structured by open inquiry rather than a specific agenda".
"We are impressed by how thoughtfully the student facilitator has constructed the course," she wrote, adding: "The histories and dynamics of settler colonialism, structural inequality, and social marginalization are central to our teaching and research."
Hadweh said he has agreed to make minor adjustments to the language of the syllabus, but that the fundamentals of the course are intact.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the AMCHA Initiative, a Jewish group that led the charge against the class, said on Monday that she had not yet reviewed the new syllabus but was upset the school would allow a course that uses the "colonialism" framework and promotes "decolonization".
"It sounds like the revisions were not adequate," she said. "It's deeply disappointing and suggests that they really are not considering ... what 'indoctrination' really is."
Supporters of the course, along with SJP and BDS activists, have argued that they are not targeting the Jewish faith but are speaking up against the Israeli government and against human rights abuses associated with the occupation of Palestinian territories.
Liz Jackson, staff attorney with Palestine Legal, who is representing Hadweh, praised the reinstatement.
"It's a victory for everyone across the US who is facing this documented and coordinated attack on the right to study and speak freely on Israel and Palestine."
Jackson, who noted that she is a Jewish alumnus of UC Berkeley, said the suspension could still have a chilling effect on free speech. "For Paul and every other student and scholar on campus who wants to think about ... this international problem from the perspective of Palestinian history, the message that they got from the university is: 'We're going to pay extra attention to you. And you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent to us.'"
Hadweh, a 21-year-old senior, who was born in the US and grew up in Palestine, said the ordeal had taken a toll on him.
"The university threw me under the bus and publicly accused me of failing to meet policies and procedures," he said, adding, "This was not the first time something like this happened and unfortunately it probably won't be the last."
Hadweh said that, on the bright side, it seems the controversy has inspired his class to be particularly enthusiastic. "I never imagined students would be so eager to do reading."