The growth of Palestine solidarity movements on American campuses has triggered heated debates on academic freedom and protests against the suppression of fair and honest academic inquiry into Palestine – particularly in light of spreading awareness about Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights.
The clandestine suspension and subsequent reinstatement of a course titled “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis” at the University of California, Berkeley is another example in a string of similar incidents where student interest in Palestine is suppressed by university administrators. The course is part of DeCal, “an aggregate of student-run courses” that allows students to design and facilitate classes on subjects that “are not addressed in the traditional curriculum,” according to the program’s website. Paul Hadweh, a senior in Peace and Conflict Studies at Berkeley proposed the course to DeCal after he completed a workshop course that is recommended for students who wish to facilitate a course of their own.
Born in Sacramento, California, Hadweh was ten years old when his family moved to Palestine, where he lived and studied at an American school in Bethlehem. During his time there, he thought of himself as “an American first and Palestinian second.” As the situation deteriorated in Palestine, he made sure to carry his American passport at all times. Though his passport would be of little help when an Israeli officer confiscated it, insisting that he was not American but “only Palestinian,” Hadewh recalled while explaining the difficulty of growing up under occupation. “My friends and I would dress as American as possible,” in an effort to cross Israeli roadblocks without trouble, he added.
It was not until Hadweh returned to the United States at 18 that he began to consciously think of his time in Palestine. “Suddenly, others viewed me as a Palestinian in America,” he said. Despite feeling out of place, he enrolled at Sacramento City College, where he had the opportunity to share his experience of life in Palestine at an event hosted by the college’s cultural awareness center. Of his decision to transfer to Berkeley to begin a program in Peace and Conflict Studies, he says that it was a way for him “to stay connected and learn more.” His hopes for a rich and dedicated study of Palestine were “crushed” when he learned the program offered only one course on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which focused on the history, treaties, and geopolitics of the conflict but lost “sight of Palestine, the land itself, and what’s being done to it. The situation on ground was rarely talked about.” Despite his disappointment, he did not miss a single day of this class because as one of the only students ever to have been in Palestine, “I felt I really needed to be there to provide a different view.”
Hadweh’s background and interests are emblematic of the ongoing conversation about Palestine on US campuses. For him, “a lack of institutional space” that accommodates and dedicates resources to studying Palestine is at the core of the conversation. By applying to Palestine what he learned in other classes, for instance international aid and development, he would then complete his research papers looking at those issues in the Palestinian context. It was as a result of this approach that he gained insight into a vast body of knowledge, including the settler-colonial perspectives of the student-led course under the DeCal program. “I wanted to approach Palestine differently, through a different body of literature, and really emphasize discussion,” he explained. “I could complain that the university isn’t talking about Palestine, or I could do something about it. And I did. I created a space to talk, think, and read about Palestine.”
Despite widespread interest among student bodies everywhere, discussion of Palestine at many universities has long been taboo, if not rejected altogether. For Hadweh’s course which was limited to 24 places, “31 students showed up on the first day,” and others approached him to ask about a wait-list. He felt truly excited about encouraging discussion, even if it included “hot moments,” though ultimately “in a way that would enhance learning rather inhibit it,” unlike his prior experience where critical discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “was shut down in unproductive ways.”
Scholars who express an interest in Palestine must already navigate an uninviting space and are sometimes at risk of being denied a tenured position or fired from one, and often have to deal with administrative suppression and harassment, or being maliciously painted as an extremist or anti-Semite when engaging what are considered controversial topics such as Palestine. “It’s no coincidence that there was an attempt to shut down my course,” Hadweh said. He says he felt saddened at the height of the controversy because he had “worked very hard” to make sure that the course would be “a space where all students can engage freely and genuinely with the question of Palestine.” After the university’s mishandling, it became become clear to him “that the administration preferred “to appease outside interests at the expense of open and critical inquiry.”
Hadweh also had something to say about the limitations of the current university’s offerings. “In the university course I took, the only option we had to explore was the Two-State solution, which has been failing. So, all I ever wanted was to create a space where we can talk about the reality of the situation in Palestine and how can we transcend it by exploring different ideas.”
With the conversation set to continue, likely drawing more protests from Palestine supporters and detractors alike, Hadweh feels that while his experience was frustrating, it was also significant. “As far as I know,” he told Palestine Square, “this is the only time the administration suspended a course without consulting with any of the concerned students, faculty, or academic committees.”
Not only was such consultation a requirement, but the suspension of the course was a reflexive action in response to false claims made by pro-Israel groups. This was another instance of academic suppression on the question of Palestine by groups closely associated with well-known Zionist financiers like Shelden Adelson and Haim Saban.