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Controversial Anti-Israel Course at UC Berkeley Reinstated After “Cosmetic Changes”

The University of California, Berkeley has reinstated a course that aims to examine the history of Israel and the Palestinian territories “through the lens of settler colonialism” on Monday, less than a week after it was suspended over concerns that it amounted to political indoctrination.

The one-credit, student-led class, titled “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis,” seeks to “explore the connection between Zionism and settler colonialism” and its influence on “Palestine, from the 1880s to the present,” according to its syllabus. Students will then “explore the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine.”

The course, part of a program that allows students to instruct their peers, was initially suspended last Wednesday after 43 campus watchdog and pro-Israel groups raised their concerns in a letter to university chancellor Nicholas Dirks. The groups argued that “the course’s objectives, reading materials and guest speakers are politically motivated, meet our government’s criteria for antisemitism, and are intended to indoctrinate students to hate the Jewish state and take action to eliminate it.”

The letter pointed to the UC system’s Regents Policy on Course Content, which calls on the university to prevent classrooms from being “used for political indoctrination,” and to “remain aloof from politics and never function as an instrument for the advance of partisan interest.”

In response, the chancellor’s office wrote that the course “did not receive a sufficient degree of scrutiny to ensure that the syllabus met Berkeley’s academic standards,” and would therefore be suspended pending further review.

The course was reinstated on Monday. Carla Hesse, executive dean of the College of Letters and Science, said in a letter to faculty that she asked the Chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, as well as the course’s faculty sponsor and student facilitator, to clarify three particular issues:

[H]ow a course focused exclusively on Palestine was consistent with the academic mission of the Department of Ethnic Studies, as opposed to another department or program with expertise in regional area studies. …

[W]hether the course description and syllabus had a particular political agenda structured into its framing and weekly assignments in such as way as to limit open inquiry of the issues it engages …

[W]hether 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… .

Hesse indicated that her questions and concerns were addressed, and that “necessary and appropriate” revisions to the course were made. “I am therefore rescinding my suspension of the course,” she wrote.

But the course’s student facilitator, undergraduate Paul Hadweh, told the blog Electronic Intifada that he only made “cosmetic changes” to its description and that the syllabus remained untouched. His attorney, Liz Jackson of the group Palestinian Legal, similarly insisted that the changes were “cosmetic.” This appears to be the case—the new syllabus is nearly identical to its older version, and while “Analysis” in the course’s title seems to have been swapped with “Inquiry,” the reading material still conforms to the same narrow, highly-politicized viewpoint that placed it under scrutiny in the first place.

Indeed, the Anti-Defamation League on Tuesday expressed “deep concern” that the course “presents students with blatantly biased views towards Zionism and Israel as fact. As the title implies, 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.”

“Attempts to deny the Jewish people’s connection to Israel and the right to self-determination are modern expressions of anti-Semitism,” said Seth Brysk, the group’s Central Pacific regional director.

Adam Cole, a national commissioner of the ADL, pointed out in a letter to Berkeley’s chancellor and president last Monday that the course content, which includes readings that refer to Zionism as “settler colonialism” and claim that Israel is bent on “eliminating Indigenous societies” and possibly “genocide,” includes no “countervailing view about Israel and Zionism.” Cole argued that this may be in violation of the UC system’s recently passed “Principles Against Intolerance,” which reject “anti-semitic forms of anti-Zionism.”

According to the U.S. State Department, anti-Semitic attacks on Israel are characterized by efforts to demonize, delegitimize, and/or apply double standards to the state. Cole observed that the course reflects a double standard by singling out Israel, while no other courses in Berkeley are singularly devoted to examining other countries as settler colonialist projects, nor require students to consider their elimination; demonizes Israel though its politically-charged readings, one of which—Zionist Colonialism in Palestine by Fayez Sayegh, which was published in 1965, two years before Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza—argues that the “Zionist settler-state” is “racist” and “cannot fail to be recognized as a menace by all civilized men”; and delegitimizes Israel by characterizing its very founding as “settler colonialism.”

The course’s painstaking efforts to delegitimize Jewish claims to any part of the territory it describes as Palestine are also made exceedingly clear in its own promotional poster. The graphic shows a series of maps—variations of which have been repeatedly exposed as erroneous and misleading—delineating the borders of what it calls “Palestinian land,” “Zionist settlements,” “Israeli land,” and “Israeli and occupied land.”

[Photo: Paul Hadweh / Facebook ]According to the poster, the entirety of modern-day Israel and the Palestinian territories was, after the end of the first World War in 1918, “Palestinian land.”

The course, according to the flyer, aims to trace the subsequent “history of Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine,” with the first two maps outlining “Zionist settlements” in the territory of the British mandate. Taken at face value, the course seems to suggest that these communities were an expression of “settler colonialism” on “Palestinian land”—as though Zionism, rather than being a national liberation movement that allowed a displaced indigenous population to exercise self-determination its historic homeland, was instead an effort by an imperial power to assume control of land that rightfully belonged to other inhabitants by facilitating the immigration of foreigners.

The latter description flies in the face of historical facts, casting Jews—a population that maintained a presence in the Levant for centuries, and whose deep roots in the region have been affirmed through extensive genetic and archaeological evidence—as illegitimate agents who advanced the designs of an imperial mother country. (Notably, Britain actually curbed Jewish immigration to mandatory Palestine, and interred many would-be immigrants, the majority of whom were Holocaust survivors, in refugee camps in Cyprus while permitting Arab immigration to ensue unhindered.)

In a 2007 article, Dr. S. Ilan Troen, founding director of Brandeis University’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, explained the driving rationale behind this argument:

Ultimately, casting Zionists as colonizers serves to present them as occupiers in a land to which, by definition, they do not belong. Palestine becomes the home to only one indigenous people, not two. In what must be an extreme anomaly in the history of colonialism, this new scholarship views Palestine as occupied by two imperial powers—the British and the Jews. For the multitudes who desperately sought entry into Palestine prior to independence, this characterization of Jewish power would have appeared as a cruel joke.

Tellingly, after establishing this flawed premise, the course aims to help students “explore the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine, one in which justice is realized for all its peoples and equality is not merely espoused, but practiced.”

In other words, after painting modern-day Israel as the product of colonialist Jews who took over land that is rightfully Palestinian, the course will encourage students to explore ways that “Palestinian land”—which, again, the 1918 map defined as the entirety of modern-day Israel and the Palestinian territories—can be “decolonized.”

The course, then, is effectively urging students to consider how Israel’s establishment can be reversed.

Pro-Palestinian groups including Palestine Legal, which has claimed that the initial suspension of the course violated Hadweh’s constitutional rights, have sought to present the class as a benign lesson on “Palestinian history.” However, this description is undermined by the course’s own stated objectives and, as evidenced by the list of readings and guest speakers on its syllabus, its parochial approach to the historical developments that shaped the area that spans modern-day Israel and the Palestinian territories since the late 19th century. Rather, under the guise of examining the issue in a scholarly manner befitting an institution of Berkeley’s caliber, the course materials present students with a limited, exclusionary reading of history, and then encourage them to explore the ways by which political action that fits this particular narrative can be advanced.

This end goal, perhaps not coincidentally, neatly aligns with the calls to action favored by Students for Justice in Palestine, an anti-Israel group that Hadweh, the course’s student facilitator, is involved with at Berkeley. SJP argues, in the words of its Berkeley chapter, that Zionism—the Jewish national movement for self-determination—is “a colonial, racial and Euro-centric Project.” In campuses across the United States, members of SJP champion the view that the Jewish nation-state is inherently illegitimate and was born out of grave injustices that can only be rectified with the establishment of a Palestinian nation-state in its stead.

SJP is a main proponent of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign on American university campuses, which seeks to isolate the Jewish state until it implements several unilateral Palestinian demands, including the immigration of millions of Palestinians into Israel. Of course, rather than secure autonomy for both Israelis and Palestinians, this solution would simply turn Israel into an Arab-majority Palestinian state, and render Jews, once again, a stateless minority.

Fittingly, the course’s faculty advisor is Hatem Bazian, a co-founder of SJP and a lecturer at Berkeley’s departments of Near Eastern Studies and Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies. Bazian, who endorsed the pro-BDS Israeli Divestment Campaign, currently serves as the chairman of American Muslims for Palestine, which provides material resources, training, and speakers to SJP campus activists. (Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, testified to Congress in April that AMP employs seven individuals who previously worked for groups that fundraised on behalf of the Islamist terrorist group Hamas. One of these groups, KindHearts, featured Bazian as a fundraising speaker two years before its assets were frozen by the U.S. Treasury over its ties to Hamas.)

Along with the nature of the syllabus, it seems reasonable to question whether Hadweh and Hatem may be using this course in order to advance a political agenda—all material available from this class thus far seems to indicate that this is a valid concern. And while universities should always work to safeguard the freedom of speech and affiliation of students and instructors alike, they should also be vigilant to efforts to use the classroom to share politically-charged histories that erase competing narratives, particularly when they serve as the basis from which students must consider subsequent actions.

Perhaps, then, it would be helpful to posit this entire dilemma in reverse—would Berkeley ever approve a class that used a narrow selection of scholarly literature to undermine the very legitimacy of Palestinian national aspirations?

The answer should speak for itself.

[Photo: John Loo / Flickr ]