Palestine, Settler Colonialism and Democratic Education at UC Berkeley

The University of California has a long tradition of high-ranking administrators on the 14066283_10157447923250515_1892003510723741784_owrong side of history. Clark Kerr’s name lives on in memory for most only as that “able practitioner of managerial tyranny” denounced by Mario Savio in December 1964 in the heat of the Free Speech Movement. This week UC Berkeley’s Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks and Carla Hesse, Executive Dean of Science and Letters, proved once again that Berkeley administrators have yet to learn the lessons of the civil rights movement, though in the intervening 50 years generations of students have flocked to the campus and enriched it financially, intellectually and ethically precisely because of its legacy as a place of social transformation and free intellectual and political exchange.

On Tuesday September 13, Dean Hesse suspended a student-run “Democratic Education at Cal” or “DeCal” course titled “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis” (Ethnic Studies 98/198), which had been approved through the normal, scrupulous vetting process of the Academic Senate. On that day, The Office of the Chancellor, having received a letter of complaint about the course sent by outside pressure groups at 7:35 am, had by 10:26 am replied to the spokesperson for the Zionist campus watch group, AMCHA, announcing the suspension. This is to say that a decision to abrogate the authority of the Academic Senate and to violate the right to education of UC Berkeley students was made in less than three hours by two administrators after receipt of the AMCHA complaint.

The suspension was first made public in a letter posted online at the San Diego Jewish World; the letter is written on behalf of the Chancellor and addressed to the leader of AMCHA, a Zionist organization that has spearheaded a lengthy harassment campaign throughout California campuses; it was also cc’d to California Assembly members Weber and Medina, and Senators Block and Liu. The instructor of record, the chair of the Ethnic Studies Department, the Academic Senate and the students enrolled in the class in a term already into its second week were not informed of the course suspension until after the outside pressure groups had been appeased. In their letter protesting the course, these groups went so far as to urge the Chancellor to “direct the UCB Academic Senate to ensure that all future courses reviewed by the COCI (Committee on Courses of Instruction), whether taught by students or faculty, must be carefully evaluated for their compliance with the Regents Policy on Course Content.”

Claiming that the Ethnic Studies Department, the instructor of record and the undergraduate student teacher had failed to follow standard procedure – patently false as attested by emails, meetings and documents submitted to the Academic Senate – the dean’s official notice of suspension went so far as to say 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.”

Thus a dean’s opinion was presented as reason enough to overrule a process of evaluation and assessment by faculty, units and the Academic Senate, all charged with responsibility for academic standards and ethical engagement and all operating in the understanding, as is stated in the Regents policy document from 1970 referenced by AMCHA, that “it is The Regents’ policy that no campus, no academic college, no department, and no instructor distort the instructional process in a manner which deviates from the responsibilities inherent in academic freedom.” Suspending a course without discussing concerns with the department, the instructor of record or students enrolled certainly distorts the instructional process, and this was done in what seems now an impetuous act of impunity for when the facts became public and due outcry was forthcoming from professional academic associations—see for example the Middle East Studies Association letters protesting the course suspension and two on behalf of Professors Abdulhadi and Sharoni—faculty concerned with academic freedom, civil liberties watchdog groups and a letter from the 26 tuition paying students enrolled in the course, Hesse found herself unable to maintain the pretense that she had ever had the authority to violate the procedures of the Academic Senate or to inflate her own personal political views as principles of university governance. On September 19th the course was reinstated with a cover story that changes to it had been demanded and made. In fact the changes were “cosmetic” in the view of Paul Hadweh, the student organizer who was informed that his course was suspended on September 13 after the Chancellor’s Office had written warmly back to AMCHA.

What Zionist pressure groups oppose is neither process nor even using the classroom for indoctrination as they claim. They oppose a course, any course, which studies the Palestinian experience and its history of colonial settler dispossession. They oppose the content of such courses and the perspectives of such people. In 2014, AMCHA targeted a similar course at UC Riverside where Professor David Lloyd and Tina Matar, the student course facilitator, were subject to PRA requests, threatening emails, including rape threats and pilloried on the website Canary Mission, which posts the photographs of student activists along with libels intended to dissuade prospective employers from hiring them. Islamophobic hate crimes on campus, such as at UCR last year are also part of the picture of intimidation as is the unwillingness of Chancellors to preempt or prosecute such actual crimes against critics of Israel with the same zeal with which they, for instance, appease AMCHA. Palestine Legal, an organization devoted to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of people speaking about Palestinian freedom, and the Center for Constitutional Rights have documented an 85% increase in incidents of censorship, punishment and retaliation for advocacy of Palestinian rights in 2014 and the first six months of 2015 with over 300 incidents and 100 additional requests for legal assistance; the overwhelming majority of these incidents target students and scholars. Israel advocacy groups, think tanks and public relations firms with access to head administrators, trustees and government officials have used their influence in attempts to chill speech and stifle the free exchange of ideas that the 1970’s Regent’s policy so inadequately and ambivalently indexes. As reported in Haaretz, Israeli government officials join in the threats against USA campus life, going so far as to “declare war on BDS”. And an L.A. Times article noted that “according to an Israeli TV station, the Assn. of University Heads in Israel had “covertly” tried to stop the course.”

With the start of the new academic year, this network of Israel advocates has launched the “war on BDS” by also targeting two tenured faculty members, Rabab Abdulhadi, Director of Arab and Muslim Ethnicities Diaspora at San Francisco State University, and Simona Sharoni, Chair of Gender Studies at SUNY Plattsburgh with a smear campaign and intimidation tactics including “open-records” requests for documents concerning hiring, continued employment and conferences attended. What Professors Abdulhadi and Sharoni have in common is their advocacy of BDS and their public criticism of the violence of the Israeli regime. (See Nada Elia’s “The Right to Educate”.) Key among the ideas feared by Israel advocates is the widening consensus that Palestine must be understood, studied and discussed within a comparative framework of settler colonialisms and decolonisation

In fact, Dean Hesse explicitly queried the decolonial framework of the DeCal course and asked that the sentence “drawing upon literature on decolonization, we will explore the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine, one in which justice is realized for all its peoples…” be changed to the more abstract questions: “What might decolonization mean in this context, and how might it open the possibility for justice and equality for all peoples in the region?” Truly straining credulity, Hesse presented only the peculiar justification that to explore the possibility of a decolonized Palestine might potentially “cross over the line from teaching to advocacy.” Of course, nowhere in the Regents’ 1970 policy does it say that exploring the possibility of social justice is prohibited at UCB. In their letter the students of “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis” stated publicly that they viewed the suspension and possible cancellation of their course as “an act of discrimination against students who wanted to debate and discuss this contentious issue in a spirit of genuine sincerity, mutual respect and open-minded curiosity.” Thus the suggestion that the administration was protecting the university from the threat of indoctrination and that an imaginary neutrality should supersede actual debate: these justifications also proffered by the dean’s backtracking letter look like a face saving measure and nothing more.

As the September 16, 2016 letter from California Scholars for Academic Freedom reminds the UCB administrators, “Academic freedom means that what is acceptable or unacceptable for professors as such is determined by the faculty not by administrators, alumni or donors.” This is a defense of a fundamental right to educate, as Nada Elia puts it, which mirrors in reverse the struggle for the right to education in Palestine, where provocations, check points and violence make even the day to day administration of classes an impossibility much of the time. The right to educate and to learn free from intimidation, threats and bureaucratic embargo on the sayable and the imaginable, these are the rights that belong to the students of “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis” and which they have found again in the solidarity of even conservative faculty, who were rightly appalled by the sovereign exception to faculty governance exercised by Dirks and Hesse.

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