Facing a backlash over academic freedom, UC Berkeley has reinstated a student-taught course on Palestinian history that it suspended last week after receiving complaints from dozens of Jewish organizations concerned that it was designed to push an anti-Israel agenda.
But a new review of "Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis" by senior faculty in the Department of Ethnic Studies concluded otherwise.
"Nothing in the syllabus indicates that a single viewpoint is taught uncritically," the department chairwoman, Shari Huhndorf, wrote in a Sept. 18 letter to the dean of social sciences, who had suspended the class. "On the contrary," it said, "the syllabus indicates that multiple viewpoints are welcomed and debated in the class."
The class will resume this week under a slightly different name: "Palestine: A Settler Colonial Inquiry."
The highly unusual move of suspending a course approved by the academic senate comes as the campus — like many others across the country — grapples with heightened tensions over Israel. In recent years, a majority of UC campus student governments have passed resolutions calling for divestment over the Israeli government's human rights record — highly contentious and emotional campaigns that have left students on both sides feeling attacked.
This spring, the UC regents passed an anti-discrimination policy that specifically condemns anti-Semitic attacks on Zionism, or Israel's right to exist. The initial proposal condemned all forms of "anti-Zionism," but more nuance was added after widespread concerns from faculty over academic freedom.
Some students, including then-student regent Avi Oved, recalled instances of Jewish students being called "Zionist pigs" and other slurs.
A separate UC regents policy states that courses may not be used to push a single political agenda or to indoctrinate students — a rule cited by some critics of the course on Palestine, including the Anti-Defamation League.
But the course's undergraduate student instructor, Paul Hadweh, suspects the campus simply buckled under political pressure. He said no one from the administration approached him with concerns or questions about the class until after they had suspended it, and that he was treated as if he were "guilty."
"I demand an apology from the administration for the harm that they have done," Hadweh said Monday in an interview.
Hadweh said the class's nearly 30 students come from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, and that while he doesn't yet know their political views — the course only met once before it was suspended — any viewpoint will be respected.
Before discussing such complex and emotionally charged topics, the class entered into a "community agreement," he said, to create "an open space free from personal attacks, free from any sort of discrimination, free from attacking anybody's religious beliefs."
The course syllabus and class name was modified slightly after a request from Carla Hesse, dean of Social Sciences, according to a letter the dean wrote Monday to department heads about the situation.
Hadweh said the changes were "cosmetic," made to "clarify that the syllabus is about exploration of key questions on the topic of Palestine and settler colonialism."
Hesse wrote that she asked the ethnic studies department head, the student instructor and the sponsor to consider "whether the course description and syllabus had a particular political agenda structured into its framing and weekly assignments in such a way as to limit open inquiry of the issues it engages," and "whether the stated objective of the course to 'explore the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine' potentially violated Regents Policy by crossing over the line from teaching to political advocacy and organizing."
Hesse also wrote that she had received "understandable concerns" about academic freedom since her decision to suspend the one-unit course that is part of the longstanding DeCal program, led by students. In addition to an open letter from students in the course, outgoing Chancellor Nicholas Dirks received a letter late last week from the Middle East Studies Association of North America and its committee on academic freedom, expressing concern "that political groups based outside the university have been given undue influence over curricular matters ..."
One pro-Israel advocate said she hopes this incident "opens up a broader conversation" about the vetting of courses. The dean asked the right questions about the course, said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the AMCHA Initiative, a pro-Israel advocacy group that documents cases of anti-Semitism in higher education.
"We would have liked for that to have happened at the get-go," she said.
The course's sponsor, UC Berkeley lecturer Hatem Bazian, said he was relieved the course will continue, but said it never should have been suspended. "The faculty own the curriculum," he said, "and this is actually a very alarming point to see a university administration acting without due regard to the faculty expertise."