Yesterday the University of California at Berkeley rescinded its suspension of a course, Ethnic Studies 198: Palestine: A Colonial Settler Analysis—a vehemently anti-Israel, one-credit, once-a-week, student-led course.

The entire purpose of the course appears to be political advocacy and organizing, in violation of university policy for an academic class. California Regents Policy 2301 provides:

“The Regents…are responsible to ensure that public confidence in the University is justified. And they are responsible to see that the University remain aloof from politics and never function as an instrument for the advance of partisan interest. Misuse of the classroom by, for example, allowing it to be used for political indoctrination…constitutes misuse of the University as an institution”.

The course was so obviously political advocacy that the course poster [see Featured Image and below] used the completely discredited BDS propaganda map which was so false and misleading that MNSBC apologized for once using it during a news segment.

Over the last several weeks—coinciding with the start of the Fall semester—the class had become the center of a maelstrom, garnering national and even international headlines. The supporters of the course are supporters of the academic boycott of Israeli academia. That academic boycott has been condemned as a violation of academic freedom by over 250 university presidents and major academic organizations. Yet those BDS supporters defended the course on the ground of academic freedom.

The issue was whether such a course should receive the designation as a university course, with all the credibility that carries with students, not whether the anti-Israel views can be expressed or taught. This was not an issue of free speech or academic freedom, but whether normal academic standards would be subverted for the anti-Israel political cause contrary to university policy.

It’s important to understand why it was suspended in the first place and has now been reinstated.

That’s because supporters of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement are already hailing the course’s reinstatement yesterday as a huge victory in the face of “political pressure from ideologically and Islamophobically committed groups”.

The reality is that the course and its reinstatement makes a mockery of normal academic standards, and is yet another example of how BDS has damaged academia.

As I note below, the course had to undergo some minor revision in the course description (but not the course itself) before Carla Hesse, the Executive Dean of the College of Letters and Science, agreed to reopen it. Faculty involved with its initial approval also had to explain how her “serious concerns” about the course would be addressed.

So BDS activists may now think this UC Berkeley case gives them carte blanche to continue to field tendentious and politically-biased courses unopposed. In fact, it should put politically-motivated instructors on notice that, once exposed, their flagrant misuse of the classroom is likely to encounter some degree of pushback from university administrators, who need to ensure compliance with campus policies and practices.

Cal Berkeley’s Anti-Israel Course Offering

The course in question had been suspended back on September 13 by university administrators after generating considerable criticism that it meets the U.S. government’s “criteria for antisemitism”, and would be a forum for indoctrinating students against Israel.

Berkeley cancels, TOI

Multiple commentators on the course (see for example here, here, and here), note that all of the course readings are blatantly one-sided, biased and factually inaccurate and that the only guest speakers listed on the syllabus are outspoken critics of Israel and public supporters of BDS.

Others point to the fact that one of the major goals of the course (as reflected, for instance, in one of the graded class assignments) is to fashion ways to “decolonize Palestine”—essentially requiring that students “research, formulate, and present” a how-to model for eradicating the Jewish state.

The course instructors also raise red flags as to whether the DeCal seminar will become a vehicle for political indoctrination.

The faculty sponsor—Dr. Hatem Bazian—is the chairman of the virulently anti-Israel organization American Muslims for Palestine, co-founder of Students for Justice in Palestine, and a major BDS campaigner. He uses his academic position to advocate for BDS and against Israel, and the DeCal course is a prime example.

Hatem Bazian

Hatem Bazian

According to media reports, he’s also a former fundraising speaker for KindHearts, an organization that was shut down by the U.S. government back in 2006 for its alleged ties with Hamas.

The student facilitator of the course—Paul Hadweh—is reportedly a Palestinian from Bethlehem. He’s a proponent of the academic and cultural boycott against Israel, an active member of UC Berkeley’s SJP chapter, and a firm believer that Israel is a hopelessly racist state that “stole land” and maintains itself through “massacres and brute force”.

That a student was used for this purpose is a good example of how BDS faculty weaponize students to corrupt the academic process.

Paul Hadweh

Paul Hadweh

Apparently despite its egregious shortcomings, the course underwent three separate faculty reviews before being approved.

Criticism of the Course

On September 13, the day the course was suspended, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, the current director and co-founder of the AMCHA Initiative, which combats, monitors, and documents antisemitism on American colleges and universities, sent a letter sent to UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

Signed by 43 Jewish, civil rights, and education advocacy organizations representing hundreds of thousands of supporters, the letter raised “serious concerns about vetting procedures” for DeCal courses. The signatories urged the administration to ensure that all credit-bearing courses be evaluated for their compliance with the Regents Policy on Course Content.

The letter did not seek suspension of the course, but urged Berkeley to apply normal academic standards going forward to make sure recognized university courses were not used for political propaganda and activism.

According to the letter, had the Hadweh/Bazian DeCal course been evaluated according to this policy “it would never have been offered”.

It’s important to note that according to administrators, complaints about the course had already been brought to their attention some weeks before the AMCHA-initiated letter by US Berkeley faculty and students. Hillel, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center had also raised concerns about the course.

Days before the course was suspended, Rossman-Benjamin noted in an interview that the “course is ultimately protected by academic freedom”. Accordingly, the letter she sent to the Chancellor didn’t demand that the class be cancelled.

But Chancellor Dirks was sufficiently concerned to suspend the course “pending completion of the mandated review and approval process”.

According to an irate Bezian (but see also this post in the American Association of University Professors’ Academe Blog, and one by the UC Berkeley faculty blogger David Schraub here), Dirks overstepped by suspending a course already underway in the absence of faculty consultation.

Bazian and Hadweh also insist that they fully complied with all the required steps for obtaining DeCal course approval.

Perhaps.

Based on everything I’ve read about this episode, it does look like the administration parachuted in to shut down a course in progress without discussing it first with the faculty involved.

But even these legitimate concerns about the over-reliance on “bureaucratic snafus” to justify the suspension decision and inadequate faculty governance (something which I noted in an earlier post is jealously guarded by faculty regardless of their views on the issues) shouldn’t be an excuse for avoiding the deeper problems about this course.

Dirks and other administrators understood well what those problems were.

In a response to the AMCHA-initiated letter, Dirks wrote that he and Dean Hesse were “very concerned” that any UC Berkeley course, “even a student-run course”, would espouse a “single political viewpoint”, and become a forum for “political organizing”. Dirks also noted his commitment to “confronting intolerance, and bias” and to being fully committed to the Regents’ Principles Against Intolerance, which identifies and stigmatizes antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism as a type of racist prejudice.

Berkeley Israel Settler Colonial Court poster

The Spin on the Course Reinstatement 

The narrative that’s quickly emerging, and which will undoubtedly be reinforced in the coming days and weeks, is that the original suspension was improper—a violation of academic freedom and faculty governance—and that advocating for the boycott of Israel, the destruction of the Jewish state, and the rollback of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination is perfectly acceptable fare for a credit-granting course.

But the reality is that the reinstatement of Ethnic Studies 198 isn’t a slam dunk BDS win because the course instructor and his faculty supervisor, along with the Ethnic Studies Department, had to make modifications to the course description and the syllabus before it was authorized for reinstatement.

To be sure, we’re not talking here about wholesale revisions. (I managed to get ahold of the original and revised version of the syllabi today. There’s some new language that’s been inserted in the course description regarding “engaging and encouraging multiple viewpoints”, but since none of the readings have been changed, it’s difficult to see how that conversation is going to happen).

Hadweh also bragged to various media outlets yesterday that, in defiance of all the “outside pressure” that was supposedly brought to bear against him and his class, he didn’t make any major changes to his course’s content. Now he’s even expecting that the Cal Berkeley administration apologize to him.

It’s disappointing that more adjustments and modifications won’t be made to this sub-par course, with a conscious effort to solicit viewpoint diversity in its course materials and assignments. Doing that might have facilitated the kind of open debate this semester that Bazian and Hadweh say they’re committed to.

Still, it’s important that administrators considered some course adjustments as “necessary and appropriate” in order to ensure that the course would be consistent with campus policies and practices—like the prohibition on faculty using the classroom for “political indoctrination” or as an “instrument for the advance of partisan interest”.

So basically, by requiring that at least a few revisions be made and that those faculty involved with the initial approval of the course “clarify” to the administration how various concerns would be addressed (e.g., whether the course had a particular political agenda that limited open inquiry; violated the university’s recently adopted Principles Against Intolerance; or “crossed over the line from teaching to political advocacy”), UC Berkeley has demonstrated that—in future—it won’t be turning a blind eye to political indoctrination masquerading as robust academic inquiry.

Exclusive Statement for LI from AMCHA’s Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

I contacted Tammi Rossman-Benjamin last night to get her take on the course’s reinstatement.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin | UC Regents Meeting

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin | UC Regents Meeting

In an email Rossman-Benjamin told me that the “revised syllabus has gone back to the academic senate for review and approval, so maybe the syllabus is not yet finalized”.

She also provided the following statement exclusive for this post:

We’re still gathering the facts, but from what I can tell, there is at least one positive outcome here.  In a statement published by Dean Hesse saying that the course had been reinstated, she made it clear that she had asked the sponsoring department (Ethnic Studies) and faculty sponsor to at least consider whether the extreme bias of the course and the portion of the course exploring ‘the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine’ potentially violated the Regents Policy on Course Content, and she noted that the department ‘responded to my questions and concerns…[and] determined that revisions of the course in light of these concerns were necessary and appropriate’.  I’m not sure yet what the revised syllabus looks like — whether the changes are substantive or just cosmetic — but in any case, Dean Hesse did exactly what we had asked in our initial letter to Chancellor Dirks, which was to direct faculty to review new courses and ensure that they are compliant with the Regents Policy prohibiting political indoctrination.  That’s a very positive outcome, one which I hope can stimulate a discussion about the critical need for faculty to explicitly include the Regents Policy in the vetting process of all new courses”.

Conclusion

A course which invites students to explore how Israel might be destroyed was reinstated onto the Fall DeCal course offerings at UC Berkeley. The shield used was the claim of academic freedom and free speech, but that was a ruse.

Still, it could be worse.

It could have involved a high-enrollment, or regularized, signature course taught by a tenured, or even a named chair. That isn’t the case here. Apparently, many of the nearly 200 one-credit student-taught DeCal courses aren’t very rigorous, or known for being “reflective of Berkeley as a whole”. And at least in this case, administrators asked the Ethnic Studies Department to consider whether the class lives up to the standards for open academic inquiry that Berkeley is known for, even if their answer fell way short.

But here’s why this case is still troubling despite the relative insignificance of the class itself: one of the major takeaways here is that campus BDS activists can easily manipulate academia.

They often tend to get away with it too, especially in the Humanities and the soft Social Sciences. That’s because a flawed system and lax vetting procedures allow their courses to slide through without a sufficient degree of scrutiny by faculty outside of these far-left echo chambers.

There can be no doubt that faculty BDS activists are abusing the privileges of academic freedom by offering seminars like Ethnic Studies 198: Palestine: A Colonial Analysis. It’s astonishing that they continue to believe that it’s their right to field courses that offer only pure anti-Israel animus, propaganda, and agitprop.

What’s really ironic about the controversy over this Berkeley class is that BDS supporters routinely act to undermine the free speech rights and academic freedom of Israeli and American faculty and students, yet always seem to make a huge fuss when normal academic standards are applied to them.

Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman