The Campus Defense Coalition for Palestine (CDC4) condemns UC Berkeley for having suspended the student-initiated course, “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis.” Although the university has now reversed its decision, we demand accountability for this violation of academic freedom, which the university has remedied only amidst public outcry. We condemn this attempted act of censorship, and the chilling effect it has on free thought and pedagogy, as well as the attempt to placate those who seek to silence the very voices that free speech is meant to protect – those who expose and stand up to racism and other injustices.
Here are the facts. On September 13, the Amcha Initiative, an organization with a history of targeting Palestinian students, faculty and professors, and their allies on campus, published a letter calling attention to a student-led course about the colonization of Palestine. That same day, amidst pressure from the 40 Zionist organizations signed onto Amcha’s letter, UC Berkeley’s departing chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, suspended approval of the course.
A look behind the surface, at the donors who fund many of the organizations that endorsed this letter, suggests that the goals of this letter have less to do with campus safety and more to do with efforts to shut down social justice activity happening off and on campus. As The Business of Backlash, a report from the International Jewish anti-Zionist Network shows, many of these groups who have signed on with Amcha receive funding from the Koch Brothers, well-known for their ultra right-wing, neoliberal, and often fundamentalist commitments. One of these groups, Middle East Forum, received over six million dollars from the Koch brothers in recent years and CAMERA and StandWithUS have also received their money. Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul who donated more to the 2012 Republican presidential race than any other donor, also funds at least two of the organizations on this letter, Zionist Organization of America and Christians United for Israel (CUFI). When conservative funders like the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson fund organizations to shut down critical discussion of Israel, it does not stem from a fundamental concern for Jewish safety, but rather from the knowledge that free speech and critical dialogue about social justice threatens their oil and weapon profits here and abroad.
For that and other reasons, we reject Chancellor Dirk’s claim that the university undertook this action out of a concern for “open academic inquiry,” especially as the university has now changed course in response to concerted and widespread opposition to the suspension. Instead, we see the administration’s activities as part of an ongoing campus policy of attempting to silence critical inquiry into Israel’s role in Palestine and the historic and present-day experiences of racism, military occupation, and assault and repression of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students.
Through his actions, Dirks also ignored the findings of an investigation of several Universities of California by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) investigation following Title VI complaints by Amcha. After years of investigating Amcha’s claim that criticism of Israel creates a “lack of safety” for Jewish students, OCR rejected this complaint and concluded:
In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience. In this context, the events that the complainants described do not constitute actionable harassment.
Dirks’ actions reveal that he and other administrators believe in the baseless and offensive idea that the “comfort” of Jewish students is predicated on the eradication of all campus criticism of Israel, as though all Jewish students support Israeli crimes. Furthermore, their actions fail to even consider the corresponding “comfort” of Palestinian students.
More importantly, their acts reveal the protection of the aggressors in the targeting and attempted silencing of Palestinians, along with all Arabs and Muslims. These students, many of whom already face conditions including present-day apartheid, on-going colonization and occupation in their countries of origin, and racist and Islamophobic attacks on and off campuses, are then subjected to further attacks that administrators, in sanctioning, intensify yet again. Students are targeted, intimidated, fired, suspended, and even prosecuted for standing up for their rights and against profound injustice.
Moreover, the suspension exposes the hypocrisy of UC Berkeley administrators who did not see the need to cancel a rally last spring by the explicitly antisemitic white supremacist group Identity Europa in order to promote “open campus dialogue.” This seeming contradiction is, in fact, part of a consistent pattern of response that protects racism under the guise of academic freedom.
That the university reversed its decision to suspend the course is an important first step. Not to have done so would have been to succumb to pressure from Zionist groups and serve their aims to silence anti-racist academic work and organizing on campus.
We urge the Chancellor and UC Berkeley’s administration, going forward, to stop submitting to the bullying of a network of Zionist organizations and donors intent on shutting down true “open dialogue” on Palestine and who systematically target students, faculty and professors who engage in such critical inquiry. We urge them to come clean about the process through which this cancellation occurred. We also support Berkeley students enrolled in the course who correctly perceived its cancellation as an assault on their academic freedom.
We call upon Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Carla Hesse, the Executive Dean of the College of Letters and Science, to take a clear stand against such repression and: 1) Offer a comprehensive public accounting of how it came to cancel Ethnic Studies 98/198; 2) Apologize to undergraduate course initiator Paul Hadweh and faculty course sponsor Hatem Bazian; and, 3) Formally disavow racist and colonial organizations such as the Amcha Initiative for their ongoing backlash campaign against students, scholars and activists.
 In 2012, Amcha tried, unsuccessfully, to expand the federal government’s definition of anti-Semitism to include any and all criticism of Israel. Then in 2013, the Zionist Organization of America, which signed onto the letter and is a key partner of Amcha, led a campaign at Florida Atlantic University to get students punished for a silent protest in support of Palestine. While these organizations state that their intents are to protect campus safety, their actions belie their true motives: to shut down criticism of Israel and solidarity with Palestine.
Furthermore, many of the foundations funding backlash against Palestinian and solidarity organizing also contribute to higher education. They then leverage this funding to impose ultimatums on university administrators to curb any and all criticism of Israel and solidarity with Palestine.