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Why We Protested a Palestinian Course at Berkeley

It never should have come to this. A credit-bearing, student-taught course at UC Berkeley entitled “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis,” which was already underway, was suspended on September 13 by the Dean of the College of Letters and Sciences because “the policies and procedures governing the review and approval of proposed courses…were not complied with for the course in question.”

And yet the course in question had undergone three separate faculty reviews and approvals: one by the student’s faculty advisor, one by the chair of the department offering the course, and one by the members of the Academic Senate Committee on Courses of Instruction.

Why, then, was this student-taught course suspended? Because no one in the chain of faculty oversight ever ensured that the course complied with the University of California Regents Policy on Course Content, a vital university policy that explicitly prohibits using the classroom to advance political interests:

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 telltale signs of political indoctrination were there, however. The syllabus readily revealed a politically motivated and tendentious course, whose readings were, without exception, blatantly biased, and which seemed to have the clear goal of proselytizing to students to hate Israel and to take action to eliminate it.

The syllabus alone should have raised many red flags for the faculty members reviewing this student-taught course, and motivated them to further investigate whether the course intended to misuse the classroom for political advocacy and activism. Had they done so, they would have discovered that the student instructor had a well-documented history of anti-Zionist activism, and his faculty advisor, Hatem Bazian, runs an advocacy organization devoted to providing anti-Zionist training to university students and had openly expressed the view that it is legitimate to bring anti-Zionist activism into the classroom.

For these reasons, this course should never have been offered. It is not education. It is unadulterated political indoctrination. It does not produce knowledge or foster understanding. It foments hate, corrupts the academic mission of the university and deeply erodes the public’s confidence in the university it supports. Courses like this have no place at the University of California, or in any other reputable institution of higher education.

So how did this happen?

Sadly, some in academia are so blinded by their hate for Israel that they are willing to compromise their commitments to education and willingly abuse their positions of power to advance their own personal, political agenda. They forget the commitments they made when they accepted their academic positions. They ignore the mission of their universities. They disregard the trust that young, vulnerable minds unquestioningly put in them. They have figured out a way to game the educational system in order to weaponize young soldiers in their political war. And they do all this while hiding behind the cloak of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is the cornerstone of higher education. But those of us who truly respect and believe in academic freedom know that it cannot exist without academic responsibility. According to the University of California’s Committee on Academic Freedom, “Professors who fail to meet scholarly standards of competence or who abuse their position to indoctrinate students cannot claim the protection of academic freedom.”

In other words, for academic freedom to mean anything, it must be safeguarded from abuse. It is the obligation of a university and, especially, the professoriate, to ensure that academic freedom is not abused by those who would exploit the classroom to promote their own personal or political agenda.

That is why 43 Jewish, civil rights and education groups, including the one I direct (AMCHA Initiative), wrote to UC Berkeley’s Chancellor Nicholas Dirks demanding that he direct his faculty to ensure that this course and all Berkeley courses comply with the Regents Policy on Course Content. Hillel, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and many other important Jewish and education advocacy organizations also raised serious concerns.

And, commendably, UC Berkeley’s leaders reversed course and did the right thing.

As Berkeley unequivocally stated in an announcement of the course’s suspension, “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.”

Political organizing is an important part of college life. But it should be done at a café, in a student meeting hall, in student government or in a university student group. Courses listed in the course guide and officially offered by the university for credit toward a degree must be reserved for education and education only.

The classroom is sacred. It must never become a pulpit for propaganda, particularly hateful propaganda. That is why the University of California has policies clearly prohibiting such abuse. Academic integrity must be safeguarded. Nothing short of this will “ensure that public trust in the University is justified.”

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is a faculty member at the University of California and the director of AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit organization that combats campus anti-Semitism in the United States.


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