An anti-Palestinian campus watchdog attempted to shut down a student-led course on the history of Palestine at the University of California at Riverside (UCR). But the university this week rebuked the group’s efforts and stated its commitment to academic freedom.
The Amcha Initiative spearheaded demands to have the UCR administration investigate the course. Amcha has a history of obsessive attempts to silence criticism of Israeli policy and label supporters of Palestinians’ rights as anti-Semites.
Amcha claims that the course, titled “Palestinian Voices,” is “anti-Semitic,” has an “extreme anti-Israel bias” and “violates a UC policy prohibiting political indoctrination in the classroom.”
There were no complaints about the course filed by students or anyone related to the university.
In an emailed statement to The Electronic Intifada on Thursday, the vice chancellor of strategic communications for the university said that the administration does “not engage in debate” with everyone who criticizes the university for providing an arena for free speech.
Moreover, the university has conducted a thorough review of the course and has concluded that the claims are worthless.
With the university dismissing these claims, Amcha’s efforts have fallen flat — chalking up yet another failed attempt by Amcha and allied anti-Palestinian organizations to stifle academic freedom and freedom of speech on campuses.
Along with Amcha, right-wing Zionist groups including StandWithUs, the Lawfare Project, the Zionist Organization of America and the David Horowitz Freedom Center joined the effort to smear the course and its student instructor.
The groups claim that the course “indoctrinates” students and could lead them to support Students for Justice in Palestine — or worse, the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
In 2014, The Electronic Intifada exposed Amcha’s massive project to spy on students across the University of California (UC) system who may be sympathetic toward Palestinians’ rights. Amcha has also been behind numerous failed legal claims with the US Department of Education against the UC system which alleged that Jewish students faced a “hostile” and “anti-Semitic” atmosphere on campus because of Palestine solidarity activism and Muslim student organizing.
The university president asked Bill Kidder, Chief Compliance Officer and Associate Vice Chancellor of UC Riverside, to conduct a “detailed review” of the course following complaints by outside political organizations.
On 3 June, Kidder released a six-page memorandum — obtained by The Electronic Intifada and posted below — which concludes that “the existence of objections and concerns about ‘Palestinian Voices’ (some of which are eloquently articulated) constitutes an insufficient basis to second-guess academic judgment.”
The administration official also states that “there was not a failure to adhere” to the prohibition of “political indoctrination” as put forth by UC Regents policy “when that policy is interpreted harmoniously with (as it should and must be) and alongside the University’s robust commitment to academic freedom … animated by the academic judgment of the faculty.”
Kidder’s memo also states that the administration is “not aware of any complaints from students enrolled” in the course — meaning that the only complaints this course has received have been from outside groups and individuals who have no connection to the university.
“My own history”
The course, which was offered for this current academic quarter, has about ten students and was originally promoted as “Palestine-Israel, settler-colonialism and apartheid.” The title was officially altered after discussions with the administration, but the course content remains what the instructor and her faculty advisor had planned.
The one-unit class, which is not part of a requirement for any academic program and is evaluated on a pass/fail basis, meets once a week for two hours.
Tina Matar, a UCR undergraduate who designed and is instructing the course, told The Electronic Intifada that she wanted to include a mixture of readings and analyses on the history of Palestine. The topics of discussions range from experiences of refugees and Palestinians in exile, women’s movements, oral history and the role of the international community and incorporate texts from Palestinian, Jewish anti-Zionist and Zionist sources. (For full disclosure, chapters from books by this reporter and by The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah were part of the syllabus.)
As soon as the course was listed, Matar and UCR were barraged with complaints by Amcha and right-wing organizations, demanding that the university investigate the course.
Matar said that there were demands that the course be “balanced” with an Israeli student to provide the Israeli-Zionist narrative — an attempt to discredit Palestinian history, she said.
“People are saying, she can have this class, but she should have an Israeli with her,” Matar explained. “[As if] I can’t talk about my own history, my own struggles without someone there telling me it’s okay to.”
“The process of approval and vetting [of the course proposal] was perfectly normal — there was nothing unusual about it,” said David Lloyd, Distinguished Professor of English and the faculty advisor for Matar’s course. Lloyd is an outspoken critic of Israeli policy and an organizing member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).
Lloyd — and the UCR administration agrees with him in the 3 June memo — said that “Palestinian Voices” was carefully overseen by the offices in charge of educational initiatives, and met all the applicable criteria for course content under the policies of the UC Regents (the UC’s governing body).
UC Riverside’s Assistant Vice Chancellor for Strategic Communications, James Grant, Jr., told The Electronic Intifada by email on Thursday that “The syllabus for the course was reviewed by a faculty committee which determined that the course meets University of California standards.”
Grant added that “As a leading public research university, UC Riverside is committed to the principle of academic freedom and to the open exchange of ideas that is at the heart of academic discovery and scholarship.”
“While ensuring that our courses comply with UC Regents policies on content, UCR has consistently defended its role as an arena for free speech and academic freedom. We do not engage in debate with everyone who criticizes us for providing that arena,” the statement added.
Lloyd and Matar felt that it was important to design a course for students familiar with the issue and those new to it that would provide detail “about the history of Palestine from a Palestinian perspective — and that seemed like a fairly innocuous thing to be doing,” Lloyd explained.
That Amcha and other groups would launch a deluge of complaints, he said, was not surprising given that anti-Palestinian organizations around the country are panicking as Palestine solidarity activism becomes more mainstream on college campuses.
Lawyers with Palestine Legal (formerly known as Palestine Solidarity Legal Support) told The Electronic Intifada that an individual believed to be associated with right-wing groups also initiated a public records request, demanding to receive private emails between students and faculty.
“This is what a Palestinian American student gets for trying to learn about the politics, literature and history of her family’s home country,” Liz Jackson, staff attorney with Palestine Legal, said in a statement emailed to The Electronic Intifada on Friday. “But it’s also a blatant attack on the free speech and educational rights of all Californians. UC Riverside should condemn this assault on its fundamental educational mission.”
Amcha and the other groups feel threatened, Lloyd said, that people want to learn about the history of the Palestinian struggle.
“Initially, I thought it was so ridiculous,” he said. “But then I thought, actually, they’re right. The one thing that terrifies them is people learning the facts about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.”
Lloyd said that the anti-Palestinian groups have stopped debating publicly and are instead turning to desperate attempts to silence speech and activism “because they know that once people begin to hear what are the actual facts on the ground, they lose the debate.”
“They fear that the course will become a model for other courses on other campuses,” Lloyd remarked. “And that they need to stamp out the smallest sparks before things catch fire.”
Last year, as part of a wave of resolutions calling on the University of California to pull its funds from companies that profit from Israel’s violations of Palestinains’ rights, the student senate at UC Riverside passed one of their own. Seven out of nine UC undergraduate campuses have passed divestment resolutions so far.
Though the university’s swift protection of the course and academic freedom is a relief to Matar and Lloyd, they say that the administration has not taken measures to protect Matar against an online smear campaign designed to threaten and punish students for speaking critically of Israel.
The personal profiles of activists and students involved in Palestine solidarity organizing have been put on a website by an anonymous group calling itself Canary Mission. With the explicit intention to deter potential employers from hiring students named on the website — by smearing them as “anti-Semites” — it has posted photos of Matar. Matar has also been receiving Islamophobic and racist emails. The university, Lloyd says, knows about this, but has not come to her defense.
Several years ago, a swastika was drawn on an Israeli flag on campus. No one claimed responsibility, Lloyd said. It was a political act of oppression and bigotry, he added, “but nobody’s future was threatened, nobody’s pictures were put up online.”
The chancellor immediately issued a statement denouncing the act, he said, which was obviously the right thing to do. “But this administration has said absolutely nothing about Tina’s image being posted all over the website,” Lloyd added.
“I think they are practicing discrimination against Palestinian students. No other student group would suffer something like this without the administration making a public statement about it.” The Electronic Intifada requested a response from the university on the online harassment Matar has faced, but the university did not comment.
Jackson said that “This case epitomizes the orchestrated suppression campaign by Israel advocacy organizations who are attempting to shut down critical inquiry on US campuses because they have lost the substantive debate about Israeli policy. It has all the elements of the pattern: distortions of law, false accusations of anti-Semitism, a public smear campaign and a surge of anti-Islam hate mail targeting a student.”
Meanwhile, Matar is advocating for the course to continue after this academic quarter ends, and is in talks with students who are interested.
“People are surprised,” she said, about the attacks against the course. “They say it’s ridiculous. [But] I haven’t run into anyone who’s opposed to what I’m doing.”
Editor’s note: Quotations from attorney Liz Jackson were added after the initial version of this post was published. In addition, the author has changed the description of “right wing groups” responsible for the public records request to “an individual believed to be associated with right-wing groups.”