What was behind the suspension of a UC Berkeley course on Palestine?

A look at the AMCHA Initiative.

Following the suspension and subsequent reinstatement of a course on Palestine at the University of California Berkeley, many asked: what prompted the suspension? 

More will surely come to light about who pressured the university, and how. But for now, here is some background on the AMCHA Initiative, which spearheaded a letter from 43 Israel advocacy organizations calling on the university to scrutinize the course.

What is AMCHA?

The AMCHA Initiative and its founder, Tammi Rossman Benjamin, have a demonstrated record of demanding that universities restrict, punish, and censor speech in favor Palestinian rights. Under the banner of “combating antisemitism at institutions of higher education,” AMCHA’s single-minded mission is a concerted anti-intellectual effort to silence any criticism of Israel on campuses. We, with other civil rights groups, warned UC leaders of AMCHA's efforts to silence speech as early as 2014. 

Our report – the Palestine Exception to Free Speech – documents the pattern of baseless legal complaints, administrative disciplinary actions, firings, harassment, and false accusations of terrorism and antisemitism, which target students and scholars who speak out for Palestinian rights across the country. The report features AMCHA repeatedly because they have spearheaded so many suppression campaigns.

A group of prominent Jewish Studies professors described AMCHA’s actions as “deplorable” in October 2014, after AMCHA published a blacklist of more than 200 Middle Eastern studies faculty who expressed views critical of Israeli policy. In response, the Jewish Studies professors wrote in a statement:

“AMCHA’s tactics are designed to stifle debate on issues debated in Israel and around the world, and the presumption that students must be protected from their own universities is misguided and destructive. Efforts such as these do not promote academic integrity, but rather serve to deaden the kind of spirited academic exchange that is the lifeblood of the university.”

Following are a few important examples, among many (search the Palestine Legal report for “AMCHA” to see more), of AMCHA's demonstrated record of attempting to restrict protected speech on campus:

  • At the University of California Berkeley in September 2015, the AMCHA Initiative and its allies asked the administration to investigate a student-led course on Palestine. Cal administrators responded by suspending the course and echoing AMCHA’s concern that it “espoused a single political viewpoint and appeared to offer a forum for political organizing.” The administration reinstated the course after an outcry from the students enrolled, academics around the country, and a letter from Palestine Legal calling the suspension a violation of First Amendment and academic freedom principles. The Academic Senate that approved the course will further investigate this incident and the administration’s breach of faculty governance procedures.
  • At the University of California Riverside in spring 2015, the AMCHA Initiative called for the elimination of a student-led literature course on “Palestinian Voices” because the course set out to explore the political and cultural history of Palestinians and was taught by a Palestinian-American student. AMCHA called the course antisemitic, argued that discussion of the Palestinian narrative should not be permitted because it is one-sided, and called for its elimination because it allegedly violated university policy. The course went forward but the student instructor was subjected to weeks of Islamophobic and misogynist cyberbullying and hate mail. In the end, the university investigated and rebuked AMCHA's theory, defending the course as fully protected under the UC's course content policy and academic freedom policies.
  • In May 2014, AMCHA accused Professor Rabab Abdulhadi at San Francisco State University (SFSU) of misrepresenting the nature and purpose of a research trip to Palestine and abusing taxpayer funds to meet with “known terrorists.” AMCHA demanded she be investigated and sanctioned.  SFSU reviewed the facts and concluded that AMCHA’s allegations had “no merit.” The record, including documents AMCHA cited, demonstrated transparency and accuracy in Professor Abdulhadi’s application for travel authorization. SFSU president Leslie Wong issued a statement: “Professor Abdulhadi’s academic work in race and resistance studies requires examination of some of the world’s most challenging and controversial issues. San Francisco State University will continue to respect academic freedom, and we will not censor our scholars nor condone censorship by others.” Despite the university’s support, Professor Abdulhadi was subjected to months of false and inflammatory accusations on the Internet, and university scrutiny. The attacks against her continue.
  • In February 2013, a video surfaced showing Rossman Benjamin of the AMCHA Initiative making unsubstantiated accusations that SJP and the Muslim Students Association support terrorism. She asserted that members of both groups are “generally motivated by very strong religious and political convictions, they have a fire in their belly, they come to the university, many of them are foreign students who come from countries and cultures where antisemitism is how they think about the world,” and that such students “come with a serious agenda, who have ties to terrorist organizations.” In response, UCSC students petitioned UC president Mark Yudof to condemn Rossman Benjamin's statements and end communication with the AMCHA Initiative. Students created a poster and online video campaign featuring testimonies about how Rossman Benjamin's statements affected them. For example, one student explained, “I am not a terrorist, I am a biology major.” Rossman Benjamin's response to this video campaign was to demand that President Mark Yudof investigate SJP and MSA chapters at the UC.
  • In 2012 at UCLA, AMCHA launched a campaign against Professor David Shorter based on objections to material supportive of BDS included on his course website. The chair of the UCLA Academic Senate responded by investigating Shorter and releasing false information about the accusations to the press, in violation of Shorter’s academic freedom rights. Although the university vindicated Professor Shorter, the violation of his rights caused significant damage to his personal and professional life. In grievance proceedings recently resolved in 2015, the university acknowledged his rights were violated, and the Chair of the Academic Senate who initially investigated Shorter (improperly), issued a statement of regret acknowledging that, "When any outside organization attempts to drive discussions on our campus for the sole purpose of furthering its own political agenda, this belittles our faculty, students, and the values of this great public university. Such actions are antithetical to the spirit of UCLA, where we strive to maintain a welcoming environment for students of all religious and ethnic backgrounds.”