Suspension of controversial Palestine class at UC Berkeley sparks debate

The university argued that the course, which studied Palestine ‘through the lens of settler colonialism’, was anti-Israel and antisemitic

The University of California, Berkeley has suspended a course dedicated to studying Palestine “through the lens of settler colonialism”, sparking international debate about academic freedom.

The course at UC Berkeley – entitled Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis – faced intense backlash this week from Jewish organizations, which argued that the class was “anti-Israel and antisemitic” and “intended to indoctrinate students to hate the Jewish state”.

After a stream of negative news stories and editorials the northern California school, considered the top public university in the US, announced that it was suspending the class because it “did not receive a sufficient degree of scrutiny to ensure that the syllabus met Berkeley’s academic standards”.

Israel advocates and antisemitism watchdog groups applauded the decision and called for an overview of the course review process. But pro-Palestine organizations, along with some faculty members at UC Berkeley, have criticized the suspension, arguing that administrators were silencing viewpoints and prioritizing public relations over academic discourse.

The dispute comes at a time of increasing tensions between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine university activists, with Jewish donors and organizations launching coordinated campaigns to counter a growing Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) movement across the US.

The “colonialism” course, which already had its first class this fall, was part of an acclaimed UC Berkeley program called DeCal, which allows students to propose and teach courses to their peers with guidance from a faculty member.

Hatem Bazian, the faculty sponsor of the course, proposed by undergraduate Paul Hadweh, said the class went through standard review procedures and was approved on multiple occasions before it was abruptly suspended this week without warning or discussion.

“This was disheartening and insulting and shameful of the university,” said Bazian, a lecturer in Middle Eastern studies and ethnic studies. “They are essentially throwing the student under the bus and responding to political pressure.”

Bazian said the course was designed to offer a “comparative approach” and that respected scholars have used the “colonialism” lens to study the region.

“The fact that something is controversial does not mean it’s antisemitic. It does not demean any Jewish person,” he said.

Hadweh said no one from the administration contacted him before publicly announcing the suspension.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was devastated,” said the 22-year-old senior. “I knew I followed all the policies and procedures.”

But in a letter to UC Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks, the AMCHA Initiative, an organization dedicated to “protecting Jewish students”, attacked Hadweh and Bazian and cited the course’s connection to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

“It was completely one-sided,” AMCHA director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin said in an interview. “The perspective was one that … is a hateful one.”

BDS and SJP leaders have argued that they are not antisemetic and that they are pushing for a boycott of Israel in response to human rights abuses associated with the occupation of Palestinian territories.

Critics, however, contend that those groups want to dismantle the Jewish state, and AMCHA cited the syllabus’ goal to “explore the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine” as evidence of an effort to “eliminate” Israel.

At UC Berkeley, where student activists launched the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, a group of Jewish professors have called on administrators to reinstate the course. They argued that critics are misrepresenting the class and that the university was stifling academic freedom in response to demands from Israel advocacy groups.

Regarding the notion that “any reference to settler colonialism is anti-Semitic”, the professors wrote: “This claim is patently false, a recent innovation on the part of those seeking to suppress open intellectual inquiry on Zionism, Israel, Palestine, and the occupation. A great number of publications, many emerging from within the State of Israel, have considered settler colonialism to be a proper framework for studying the area.”

Michael Burawoy, a sociology professor who signed the letter, said it was obvious that the university was concerned about losing funding in the wake of the backlash: “This was an arbitrary administrative intervention brought about by pressure.”

Bazian added that he felt the situation was particularly unfair to Hadweh and the 28 students enrolled in the course. “I’m completely saddened.”

The students in the class published a public letter Thursday condemning the suspension as “an act of discrimination against students who wanted to debate and discuss this contentious issue”.

Rossman-Benjamin said her group wasn’t trying to target the specific student, but wanted to push for an improved review system for DeCal curricula. “The student did nothing wrong … The process broke down.”

UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof claimed that a dean was not properly notified of the course and said administrators are considering multiple options, including canceling the course altogether or reinstating it with modifications.

“It should also be noted that the dean is very concerned about a course, even a student-run 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,” he said in a statement.