In September 2016, UC Berkeley suspended a course, titled, “Palestine: a Settler Colonial Analysis,” a week after it began, after Israel advocacy organizations and an Israeli government minister complained that the class was antisemitic. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks' office justified the suspension by erroneously stating the facilitator failed to follow procedures, and by citing concerns that the course “espoused a single political viewpoint and appeared to offer a forum for political organizing.”
After an outcry, the university reinstated the course. But UC Berkeley never accounted for the blatant violations of academic freedom and free speech.
Berkeley’s suspension of an academic course on Palestine stands in sharp contrast to the university’s defense of free speech for white supremacist visitors like Milo Yiannopolous and Ben Shapiro. The contrast provides a stark illustration of the “Palestine exception” to free speech.
The Course, "Palestine: A Settler Colonial Inquiry"
Paul Hadweh, a Palestinian-American and UC Berkeley senior majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies, spent eight months preparing to facilitate the student-led course, which set out to examine Palestinian history through the framework of settler colonialism. Hadweh designed the course in close consultation with his faculty sponsor, and followed all procedural requirements. The course was approved by Hadweh’s sponsor, the Ethnic Studies Department, and the faculty body charged with overseeing academic curriculum. The class met for the first time on September 6, 2016, and twenty-six students enrolled.
The syllabus included material from both Palestinian and Israeli scholars like Edward Said, Saree Makdisi, Eyal Weizman, and Ilan Pappe. The course description emphasized, “we will explore the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine, one in which justice is realized for all its peoples and equality is not only espoused, but practiced.”
The enrolled students included a diverse group, self-described as “Christians, Muslims, and Jews; we are white, Black, Latin@, Asian, North American indigenous, Middle Eastern, and more; we study Peace and Conflict Studies, Ethnic Studies and Middle Eastern Studies, Media Studies, Economics and Engineering.”
The accusation that the course would only tolerate a single viewpoint was false, as explained by the enrolled students: “We the students collaboratively designed and established community agreements to ensure that we would engage with course content and each other in a mature and respectful manner. Any and all participants were welcome to attend the course, irrespective of background or preconceived perspectives on the subject matter.”
Suspension Without Warning
Executive Dean of the College of Letters and Science Carla Hesse suspended the course on September 13, 2016, three weeks after the semester started and one week after the course began. Hesse made the decision without consulting the course facilitator, the faculty advisor, or the department. To support its decision, the university cited concerns that the course was one-sided, that it was a vehicle for political mobilization, and that Hadweh failed to follow proper procedures.
The university publicly announced its decision less than 30 minutes after informing the faculty advisor and department chair that the course was suspended. Administrators made no contact with Hadweh to discuss their concerns about the course or give him an opportunity to respond before publicly alleging that he failed to follow proper procedures and that his course was inappropriate for the university setting.
Nor did the university reach out to Hadweh to discuss how he may protect himself and stay focused on his studies while facing scrutiny in the international media.
Hadweh learned his course was in jeopardy when a friend alerted him on the morning of the suspension that he was in the Israeli media. This was only several hours before the university suspended it. That same day he began to receive a barrage of harassment emails and contacts from reporters.
Blatant Academic Freedom Violations
As Palestine Legal pointed out in multiple legal letters, the university’s reasoning for the suspension (that the course was politically one-sided) violated First Amendment protections and the university’s academic freedom policies. The procedural justification that “the facilitator for the course in question did not comply with policies and procedures” was also erroneous. No policies or procedures were cited to support this claim, and the university later conceded it was an error.
Palestine Legal demanded immediate reinstatement and an apology to the students. The suspension also caused an outcry among academic freedom advocates, faculty associations, the Berkeley Academic Senate, alumni, and students who also demanded the reinstatement of the course.
Pressure from Israel Advocacy Organizations
The suspension followed heavy pressure from Israel advocacy organizations and the Israeli government. Israeli news media claimed the course offered “practical tips for how to drive Jews out of Israel.” Israel Channel Ten also reported that Israeli Minister Erdan and the Association of University Heads had been trying covertly to prevent the course from taking place. Headlines in the American pro-Israel press claimed, “UC Berkeley Offers Class in Erasing Jews From Israel,” and “New Course At Berkeley University: How To Get Rid Of Israel.” The director of UC Berkeley Hillel wrote, "This course seems to be a matter of political indoctrination in the classroom and is a violation of the newly adopted principles by the U.C. regents on intolerance."
The Israel advocacy group AMCHA Initiative, along with 42 other Israel advocacy organizations, issued a public letter and commenced a letter-writing campaign to Chancellor Dirks about Hadweh’s class on September 13, claiming that it violated Regent’s Policy by allowing a classroom to be used for “political indoctrination” and “as an instrument for the advance of partisan interest.” AMCHA’s media statement called the course, a “classic example of antisemitic anti-Zionism.” The group Students Supporting Israel likened UC Berkeley to a “Hamas terror academy.”
Internal communications released to Palestine Legal through a public records request show UC Berkeley officials scrambling to respond to a high volume of email messages from pro-Israel alumni and donors claiming the course was antisemitic.
Student Facilitator Smeared in the Media
Following the sudden suspension, Hadweh was thrust into an international media storm amidst efforts to reinstate the course, and defend his name from false accusations. The controversy was covered in Israeli, Arab, European, national, and local media outlets. Hadweh was depicted falsely throughout the coverage as a student who violated university policies and attempted to indoctrinate his peers with antisemitic thinking. The university made no statements in his defense.
Reinstatement Without Remedy
On September 19, Dean Hesse announced that she was reinstating the course. The enrolled students met on Tuesday September 20, but Mr. Hadweh was unable to engage his students in the planned discussion of the course material because of questions about the university’s suspension of the course and its reinstatement. They fell two weeks behind on the course syllabus as a result of the suspension.
On Tuesday September 20, the Academic Senate released a statement condemning the university’s suspension of the course as a major infringement of academic freedom policies, and demanding that the university retract and apologize for false statements accusing Hadweh of failing to follow university procedures. The university issued no known response.
Palestine Legal wrote again on October 18th, 2016, because the university had taken no action after the reinstatement to remedy the harms to Hadweh or to remedy injuries to the free speech environment. The letter reiterated: “The absence of a valid justification for suspending the course, combined with the absence of similar scrutiny applied to any other [student-led “DeCal”] course, and the ample evidence of an international pressure campaign on the university to restrict Palestinian perspectives, all point to the conclusion that the university suspended the course in response to controversy over the perceived political viewpoints in the syllabus. This is a violation of the University’s obligation to uphold academic freedom and free speech under the California and U.S. Constitutions.” The university did not reply.
In November, Dean Carla Hesse who was directly responsible for the course suspension wrote to Hadweh to “offer our apology for the public misstatement made regarding your DeCal course” citing “confusion.” Hesse wrote, “We regret stating that you had not followed the appropriate procedures, when in fact you had.” She did not apologize for, or acknowledge, the violations of free speech and academic freedom, or the personal consequences on Hadweh. The university took no known further action on the case.
Consequences to Student Facilitator
For the weeks that followed the reinstatement, Mr. Hadweh was forced to devote himself full time to defending his reputation and responding to high interest from international and local media outlets. He fell irreparably behind in an intensive Hebrew language course, which he eventually had to drop. Hadweh lost sleep, had trouble concentrating, and was consumed with the anxiety of potential consequences to his future and his family.
In December 2016, following the suspension, the Israeli government denied Hadweh a permit to cross from the West Bank to Jerusalem for Christmas. The church applied on Hadweh's behalf, as it has in previous years successfully. This was the first time his permit was denied.
Hadweh, explained, “The university threw me under the bus, and publicly blamed me, without ever even contacting me. It seems that because I’m Palestinian studying Palestine, I’m guilty until proven innocent. To defend the course, we had to mobilize an international outcry of scholars and students to stand up for academic freedom. This never should have happened.”
Letters from Palestine Legal to University of California
- Palestine Legal letter to UC Berkeley challenging the suspension (Sep. 16, 2016)
- Palestine Legal letter to UC Berkeley demanding remedies after the course reinstatement (Oct. 18, 2016)
- Palestine Legal and other civil rights organizations letter to University of California warning of repeated First Amendment violations (Nov. 21, 2016)
Letters from Students, Professors, and Associations
- Open Letter to the UC Berkeley Administration Regarding Academic Freedom From Every Student of Ethnic Studies 198 (Sep. 15, 2016)
- Middle East Studies Association Letter to Chancellor Dirks, (Sep. 16, 2016)
- California Scholars for Academic Freedom, “Letter to Chancellor Dirks and Dean Hesse Re Cancelled Palestine class at UC Berkeley,” (Sep. 16, 2016)
Select Media Coverage
- Berkeley Bans a Palestine Class, Academe Blog (Sep. 15, 2016)
- UC Berkeley’s ban on Palestine course ‘McCarthyist’, Al Jazeera (Sep. 18, 2016)
- Berkeley’s Choice To Nix Palestinian Course Disgusts Me as a Jewish Alum, The Forward (Sep. 18, 2016)
- UC Berkeley Suspends Class on Colonialism in Palestine, Chicago Monitor (Sep. 19, 2016)
- UC Berkeley reinstates Palestine course, but tried to change content, Electronic Intifada (Sep. 20, 2016)
- Why A Controversial Palestinian History Class At Berkeley Was Canceled, Then Reinstated, Newsweek (Oct. 5, 2016)