Israel linked to suspension of Palestine course at UC Berkeley

Scandal-plagued UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks leaves office as he arrived: amid controversy over his role in suppressing speech about Palestine.

D. Ross Cameron Oakland Tribune/MCT

The University of California, Berkeley – an institution synonymous with free speech protests in the 1960s – has shut down a student-led course on Palestine.

The censorship is one of Nicholas Dirks’ last acts as chancellor of the college. His administration decided to suspend the course after Israel-aligned organizations demanded that he do so.

There are indications of pressure from the Israeli government as well.

Dirks, who is stepping down as chancellor in the wake of persistent scandals over finances and personal conduct, leaves as he arrived: amid controversy over his role in stigmatizing and suppressing speech and scholarship related to Palestine.

But the course suspension is also a worrying sign of the growing threat to free speech as Israel and its lobby groups move to suppress discussion of Palestine on campuses, inside and outside the classroom.

The one-unit course, which was set to run this semester and titled “Palestine: A Settler-Colonial Analysis,” was proposed by Palestinian American student Paul Hadweh as part of the university’s Democratic Education at Cal initiative.

Known as DeCal, the program is taught by students under supervision from university staff.

The chancellor has alleged that “policies and procedures governing the review and approval of proposed courses” for DeCal had not been complied with.

He added that Carla Hesse, the executive dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at the university, “is very concerned” about a course “which espouses a single political viewpoint and/or appears to offer a forum for political organizing rather than an opportunity for the kind of open academic inquiry that Berkeley is known for.”

Dirks and Hesse appear to echo the claims made by anti-Palestinian organizations which have been targeting students and faculty who criticize Israel.

Hadweh says he followed every procedure and policy exactly as required in planning the class. He found out about the university’s scrutiny from a report in the Israeli media – two hours before his course was suspended.

Dirks and his administration were pressured, by more than 40 pro-Israel groups. Those groups signed a letter organized by the Amcha Initiative, urging that the course be censored.

Dirks’ office replied to Amcha on Tuesday morning this week. The reply seems to have been prompt – Amcha’s letter was dated 13 September, that same day.

Amcha is a Zionist organization unaffiliated with the university which has repeatedly intimidated, harassed and spied on students and faculty.


The Amcha letter claims that the student-run course would encourage “political indoctrination” and admonishes the student teacher for his involvement with Students for Justice in Palestine.

It also labels guest speakers listed in the course description as “politically motivated” individuals who “meet our government’s criteria for anti-Semitism,” accusing them of intending to “indoctrinate students to hate the Jewish state and take action to eliminate it.”

The course lists only two guest lecturers, both UC Berkeley faculty, Keith Feldman, an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies and author of A Shadow over Palestine, and Hatem Bazian, a lecturer in Asian American and African diaspora studies.

Two years ago, Amcha published a target list of more than 200 professors around the US, including Bazian, who is the faculty sponsor of the DeCal course.

Amcha has also accused Feldman of anti-Semitism over the content of his book and his political critique of Zionism.

Last year, Amcha tried and failed to shut down a similar course at UC Riverside, leveling many of the same accusations.

“Secret” Israeli role

Hadweh said that students who had enrolled in the course were outraged to hear it had been suspended.

“More than anything, it’s saddening that this scholarly approach and academic inquiry is being so thoroughly delegitimized,” he told The Electronic Intifada on Thursday.

“The irony of the situation is that this course was suspended – without any democratic process whatsoever – because of the claim that it was a space for political mobilization,” Hadweh explained.

“In actually suspending the course, it has forced the students to mobilize politically.”

The students who signed up to take the DeCal course have published an open letter admonishing university administrators.

“The decision to suspend our course is both discriminatory and a violation of our academic freedom,” they write. “We demand the reinstatement of the course.”

A petition with the same demands has been initiated by the organization Jewish Voice for Peace.

The students, along with Hadweh, Bazian and lawyers with Palestine Legal, say that the university’s claim – that Hadweh did not comply with procedures – is entirely false.

“I complied with all policies and procedures required for creating the course,” Hadweh said earlier this week.

According to Hadweh, the course was “vetted and fully supported” by Bazian, as well as a committee tasked with approving all the university’s programs.

Hadweh added that UC Berkeley suspended the class without consulting him, Bazian or the committee which had approved it.

He said that he “first learned that our 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, he said, “I received an email from the university notifying us of the suspension.”

The report from Israel’s Channel 10 states that the “Association of University Heads of Israel is trying to prevent this course using secret means.”

It also says that Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister in charge of combating the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, described “the person who is giving the course as an extremist BDS activist.”

Erdan also said he is “acting to expose [Hatem] Bazian.”

Reports in Israeli media recently revealed that Erdan’s ministry of strategic affairs, supported by Israeli intelligence agencies, is engaging in “black ops” targeting Palestinian activists and human rights organizations.

“Failure of leadership”

Bazian confirmed that the university did not communicate with him or Hadweh prior to suspending the course.

He received an email from the dean at 9:59am on Tuesday saying she had determined that the course had not gone through sufficient academic review.

Half an hour later, he was emailed a copy of the letter Dirks’ office had sent to Amcha in which the chancellor stated that the course had been suspended.

“It went through my signature, it went through the department’s signature, it went through the academic senate that approves courses and got the course control number and room reservation,” he added.

Bazian said he was concerned about the university’s capacity to buckle under political pressure from outside groups, “completely throwing [out] academic freedom, freedom of speech, shared governance and the ability of students to engage in difficult and critical issues in a university.”

Placing blame

UC Berkeley officials maintain that outside organizations had no influence on the dean’s decision to spike the class.

However, it appears that after an outcry from Israel lobby groups, the dean acted quickly to place the blame solely on Hadweh, accusing him of failing to follow procedures.

Hesse claims she began investigations into the course in late August, although Inside Higher Ed has reported that they began earlier this month.

The investigation had been prompted by concerns raised within the university, Hesse has claimed, and started before any public criticisms were made.

UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof also insisted that the timing of the letter sent by Amcha and the chancellor’s statement was “entirely coincidental.”

Mogulof told The Electronic Intifada that “this particular course did not receive the same level of scrutiny as other courses have,” adding that the university administration had “legitimate questions specifically related to Regents policy.”

He was referring to the recent statement by the Regents, the University of California’s governing body, on principles regarding “intolerance” that were also formulated under intense pressure and scrutiny from Israel lobby groups.

“The decision had been already made [to suspend the course] before the messages had reached us,” he asserted.

But close observers of academic freedom issues are not buying the university’s claims.

“The administration seems anxious to claim that their decision was made in reaction to the concerns of students, faculty and staff on campus,” John K. Wilson, editor of the American Association of University Professors’ Academe Blog, wrote. “But the truth is that Berkeley faced a global onslaught of organizations attacking them for allowing this course.”

And as Wilson noted, Mogulof himself had been communicating with right-wing pro-Israel media as early as 1 September, when Amcha and other campus watchdog groups had already been targeting the course.

“Anti-intellectual embarrassment”

Paul Hadweh described his course as “designed to provide students with the opportunity to critically engage with scholarship that examines Palestine’s past and present through the lens of settler-colonialism. In doing so, we hope to explore durable and just political solutions.”

“This course is more about asking questions than providing answers,” Hadweh added. “I think it would be valuable to study this and clearly many of my peers at UC Berkeley do too.”

He said that enrollment had to be expanded after 31 students signed up for a class limited to 24.

“Now UC Berkeley has censored the class before we could even have one discussion,” Hadweh said. “That’s not the education we signed up for.”

The actions of Dirks and Hesse “are profoundly anti-intellectual and an embarrassment to UC Berkeley,” Palestine Legal’s Liz Jackson told The Electronic Intifada, “not to mention a violation of the university’s legal obligations.”

Jackson said that Hesse had summarily suspended the course without reviewing the material “and went over the heads of the faculty chair and department chair, who are experts on substantive issues.”

“Under fundamental academic freedom principles, there can be no requirement that a course be so-called balanced between two sides,” she said. “Because to enforce such a requirement would require a level of intrusion on faculty expertise and a policing of course content from above.”

In reviewing the list of DeCal courses offered this semester and in previous semesters, it is “painfully obvious” that UC Berkeley has placed requirements against “one-sided” political viewpoints only on issues related to Palestine, she added.

“Is Marxism one-sided? Is Copwatch one-sided? The First Amendment and academic freedom obligations prohibit the university from applying a special rule to content that is favorable to Palestinian rights.”

In addition, the rights of students of Palestinian origin to access an equal education is an “alarming legal issue,” Jackson explained.

“What we’re seeing here is the university’s flagrant pandering to outside interests, mainly the Israel lobby, and they have abandoned their duty to protect the educational environment from the interference of outside interests,” she said.

“The result is that a Palestinian American student and his peers who want to study a complex issue from a Palestinian perspective are denied their ability to study their own history at their school.”

“That is flirting dangerously with racial and national origin discrimination,” Jackson said.

Dirks’ pandering to anti-Palestinian pressure

Nicholas Dirks’ scandal-plagued tenure at the helm of UC Berkeley ends just as it began, with the chancellor throwing Palestinians – and academic freedom – under the bus in an effort to appease pro-Israel critics.

In fact, the story of Dirks’ pandering to anti-Palestinian pressure begins even before he arrived in California, when he was vice president for arts and sciences at New York’s Columbia University.

In 2004, the Israel lobby group The David Project released Columbia Unbecoming, a film alleging that faculty, particularly Professor Joseph Massad, had intimidated and abused students who disagreed with their critical views on Israel and had made anti-Semitic remarks in class.

The film was a key element in a campaign by pressure groups spanning more than a decade, targeting Massad, seeking to deny him tenure and to force him out of his job over his views on Israel and its state ideology, Zionism.

In consultation with Dirks, Columbia President Lee Bollinger appointed an investigative committee to look into the film’s lurid claims, which were backed and amplified by various New York politicians, including then congressman Anthony Weiner.

But the investigative committee’s report, released in March 2005, dismissed the allegations and found no evidence of anti-Semitism.

Even The New York Times, which supported investigations of alleged “anti-Israeli bias” at Columbia, conceded in an editorial that “There is no evidence that anyone’s grade suffered for challenging the pro-Palestinian views of any teacher or that any professors made anti-Semitic statements. The professors who were targeted have legitimate complaints themselves. Their classes were infiltrated by hecklers and surreptitious monitors, and they received hate mail and death threats.”

Yet it was Dirks himself who gave new life to the false allegations after he was named as UC Berkeley’s next chancellor in November 2012.

The UC Berkeley news office published a video interview with Dirks in which he attacked Columbia.

Dirks claimed it had been “very difficult” for “some students to find safe spaces in which to talk about Israel where they didn’t feel that the basic context in which they found themselves wasn’t hugely not just anti-Israel, but by implication, anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic.”

He also boasted about his own role in the witch hunt targeting Massad: “We, in fact, and it was my responsibility as the executive vice president for the arts and sciences, convened an unprecedented faculty committee to look into some of the allegations that had been made.”

He also repudiated a petition he had signed in 2002, calling for divestment from companies that supply military hardware Israel uses to maintain its occupation in Palestine. “Truth is, I do not support divestment as a strategy for the university. I don’t support divestment with respect to Israel,” Dirks said.

The UC Berkeley news office revealed that the interview with Dirks had been “recorded shortly before” the Board of Regents, the University of California’s top governing body, approved his appointment.

Dirks’ statements reviving the debunked Israel lobby smears did not go unnoticed by his former colleagues at Columbia, 14 of whom responded with a public letter condemning him.

“Our sense of outrage stems from Dirks’ denial of the fact that the very committee set up by then Vice President Dirks found no evidence whatever for concerns about the climate for Jewish students let alone about the nature of instruction in our department,” the professors of Middle East, South Asian and African studies wrote. “We feel affronted by the fact that the chancellor’s defaming the department means that he now rejects the committee’s finding and seems instead to accept as true the false accusations leveled against us by an external hate group that has since been exposed and discredited.”

Dirks was also one of the college administrators who in the wake of the University of Illinois’ firing of Steven Salaita under the banner of protecting “civility,” apparently sided with those who sought to stifle free expression.

Salaita, whose case sparked international concern over the use of the vague concept of civility as a cover for censorship, was fired over tweets critical of Israel during its summer 2014 attack on Gaza.

In a message to the UC Berkeley community just weeks after Salaita’s firing, Dirks declared that “we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility.”

Dirks’ statement provoked scathing criticism from fellow academics and free speech advocates.

Anita Levy, associate secretary at the American Association of University Professors, called Dirks’ position “astonishing.”

“That the university which gave rise to the free speech movement should celebrate it by embracing the notion of civility is patently absurd,” Levy said.

Translation provided by Dena Shunra.

Nora Barrows-Friedman and Ali Abunimah are the associate editor and executive director, respectively, of The Electronic Intifada.