Why a Controversial Palestinian History Class at Berkeley Was Canceled, Then Reinstated

A group of Palestinian youths cycle past a section of Israel's separation barrier to promote a cultural festival in the West Bank city of Ramallah and as a protest against the wall on June 30, 2009 in the Qalandia checkpoint between northern Jerusalem and Ramallah. ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty

For a Palestinian insurgent supposedly determined to see Israel destroyed, Paul Hadweh looks remarkably like his fellow students at the University of California, Berkeley. I met the 22-year-old senior on the rooftop of a campus building, overlooking the expanse of San Francisco Bay, which glimmered in the pure light of late afternoon. He wore gray Converse sneakers, stylish jeans and a teal T-shirt. On the table beside him lay an iPhone, earbuds coiled, and a packet of loose tobacco. He could have been just another kid, except a nervous energy radiated from him like steam. This was understandable, for in the last month, Hadweh has been depicted as an enemy of Israel, one dangerous enough to allegedly warrant intervention from the country's government.

For a few moments, we admired the view of the Bay Area. We were about 140 miles from Chowchilla, the Central Valley town where Hadweh lived until he was 10 years old; and we were about 7,000 miles from Beit Jala, the West Bank village of mostly Palestinian Christians where Hadweh's father, a doctor, moved the family in 2003 (it is near Bethlehem); but we were mere steps from where, in 1964, Berkeley students launched the Free Speech Movement, in protest of the administration's restrictions on political activity. This juxtaposition galled Hadweh, irritated him more than Israeli politics, more even than the death threats he has received. "They've thrown an undergraduate student under the bus in the most public of manners," he says of an administration that tried to stop him from teaching a class about Palestinian history.

Berkeley has a long tradition of students teaching classes. In 1965, in response to growing student unrest on campus, the Berkeley philosophy professor Joseph Tussman started a program that allowed both students and faculty to "engage in intensive reading and discussion of texts in an ungraded environment." The experiment came to be known as DeCal, for Democratic Education at Cal. Any student can teach a class on any topic, provided the student has a faculty sponsor and approval from the Academic Senate. DeCal classes typically have about two dozen students and are quite popular, to judge by the current offerings. There are 195 such courses offered at Berkeley this semester, and they reflect the diversity of curiosities among the school's 27,000 undergraduates: Intro to Baking, Intro to Surgery, Berkeley Poetry Review.

The DeCal website urges students who've enjoyed a DeCal course to start one of their own: "It's not as difficult a process as you'd expect." Paul Hadweh almost certainly disagrees.

Paul Hadweh says he has received death threats for trying to teach a class on the history of Palestine at UC Berkeley. Paul Hadweh

Hadweh's family arrived in the West Bank in the midst of the Second Intifada, as the periodic armed Palestinian campaign against Israel is known. It was a gruesome affair, with Palestinian suicide bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israeli military incursions, a bloody dance from which neither side wanted to disengage, even as they made the obligatory overtures for peace. At the conclusion of the second intifada, Israel remained vulnerable to rocket attacks from Gaza (and, more recently, a spate of knife attacks), while the Palestinians remained the stateless people they'd been for decades.

Hadweh's family is Christian and relatively wealthy. Nevertheless, he felt the full force of the occupation, especially after Israel started to build a West Bank barrier in 2002. "Occupation affects every aspect of your life," he says. I asked if he'd ever had the chance to hold a dialogue with his Israeli peers, the sort of thing that makes for hopeful public radio segments. Hadweh sneers: "There's no way any connection can ever be made. There's a 26-foot concrete wall between us." (The barrier varies in composition and height, and many Israelis say it is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.)

After graduating from high school in Bethlehem, Hadweh returned to the United States for college. He started out at Sacramento City College, then transferred to Berkeley, routinely ranked the best public college in the United States. Many come to higher learning with the expectation of broadening their horizons; Hadweh, a peace and conflict studies major, freely admits to his narrow concentration: "I came in here to learn about Palestine. And I said, 'I'm gonna come out of here having learned about it.'"

So when he discovered that there was no course that, in his view, fairly addressed the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories, he decided to make his own. "If you're not going to give me a space to explore Palestine, then I am going to make that space," he says with an edgy defiance that hints at how hard that space has been to claim.

Last year, Hadweh took an Arabic course with Hatem Bazian, an Islamic scholar at Berkeley who has been involved in political activism that, some say, seeks to delegitimize and malign Israel. Over the summer, Bazian helped Hadweh create a DeCal course called Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis.

According to the syllabus submitted for review, the course would "explore the connection between Zionism and settler colonialism," as well as "the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine, one in which justice is realized for all its peoples." The readings plainly suggest an antipathy to the Zionist project and hence Israel itself: Edward Said, dissenting soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces, theorists of post-colonialism. Zionism is frequently mentioned in the syllabus; Israel, almost not at all.

I asked Hadweh if his course calls for the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state. He met this question with disgust, explaining that there is no getting rid of Jews from a land they call home. "I'm deemed anti-Semitic because I fundamentally believe we can all live together." He's vague about how he'd resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but both he and Bazian appear to seek a single state in which Palestinians and Jews are equals, and expelled Palestinians are allowed to return. Many believe this would effectively be the end of Israel, since demographic trends overwhelmingly favor the Palestinians.

Paul Hadweh, a senior from the West Bank, wanted to teach a course on the Palestinian experience. He seemed to have secured all the necessary approvals to do so. Alexander Nazaryan/Newsweek

Hadweh believes this is an urgent question to discuss. "This isn't a course that is pro-Palestine or pro-Israel," he says. His goal was "exploring history."

Bazian approved the course, as did the head of the Ethnic Studies department and the university's Academic Senate. As the fall semester began, he started to hang posters advertising the class around campus: four maps in a row, each showing the contours of Israel and the Palestinian territories. The first map, from 1918, is nearly all teal (Palestinian land), with just a few flecks of black (Zionist settlements) near the Mediterranean coast. Israel was founded in 1947; the map from 1960, accordingly, is overwhelmingly black. In the map's final iteration, there are only two disjointed swaths of teal: the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Twenty-four students signed up for the course, with six more on the waitlist. The first meeting would be on September 6.

Berkeley's famous progressivism can sometimes be more convenient for the school's detractors than for the school itself. Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, used the late 1960s tumult at Berkeley to position himself on the national stage as a law-and-order Middle American disgusted by the excesses of the revolutionaries camped out in front of Sproul Hall. More recently, "Berzerkeley" has served as an easy target for anyone wanting to denounce the overreach of political correctness or social activism, even as the school itself has become ever more conventional, less interested in social revolution than attracting gifted students and star faculty away from nearby rival Stanford.

Israel, on many college campuses, has become the new Vietnam. Earlier this year, the Board of Regents of the University of California system endorsed a report that began by noting that "there has been an increase in incidents reflecting anti-Semitism on UC campuses." The resolution said, "Anti-Semitism, anti-semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California." Many Jewish groups saw this as a major victory; the resolution was a loss for activist organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine, which had urged the University of California and many other universities around the nation to boycott and divest from Israel. The co-founder of that group was Bazian, Hadweh's adviser on the DeCal course.

The first news report of Hadweh's course appeared to come on September 8, from The Algemeiner, which calls itself the "fastest growing Jewish newspaper in America." The article was titled "UC Berkeley Offers Class in Erasing Jews From Israel, Destroying Jewish State."

After that piece was published, several Jewish-American groups reached out to Berkeley administrators. The Amcha Initiative, based in California, sent a letter to the chancellor signed by 43 organizations that said Hadweh and Bazian "intended to indoctrinate students to hate the Jewish state and take action to eliminate it."

Ron Hassner, a political scientist at Berkeley with a Ph.D. from Stanford, agrees with this harsh assessment. Hassner, who teaches religious conflict, says he was appalled by the DeCal course. "The class is despicable because it is bigoted," he says, comparing its intellectual underpinnings to the "flat Earth" theory.

The cancellation of Hadweh's class caused an uproar on the Berkeley campus. Alexander Nazaryan/Newsweek

Administrators apparently agreed. On September 15, The Daily Californian said the course was being canceled because it had been "mistakenly approved." That swung the outrage the other way. One pro-Palestinian website suggested that the Israeli government had exercised influence over the university. Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof says this was an "insidious rumor," and "there has been no contact of any kind with official or unofficial representatives of the Israeli government." More moderate voices noted that DeCal courses like Modern Square Dance and Body Positivity seemed to meet both academic and administrative requirements, so it seemed dubious that only a course focused on the Palestinian experience would garner extra attention.

After the class was suspended, Hadweh was offered representation by Palestine Legal, which frequently defends students who become targets of the pro-Israel lobby. His lawyer, Liz Jackson, is a Jewish alumna of Berkeley Law who, some years ago, went on Birthright Israel, the free trip offered to American Jews. "The knee-jerk labeling of the Palestinian perspective as 'anti-Jewish' is akin to dismissing the study of civil rights struggle in the U.S. or the movement to end South African apartheid as 'anti-white,'" she says, adding that there was "a documented, coordinated effort by Israel advocacy organizations, and the Israeli government itself, to suppress campus debate in the U.S."

Hadweh and Bazian met with Carla Hesse, the executive dean of the College of Letters & Science. On September 19, she wrote a letter to the Academic Senate and departmental chairs in the social sciences asserting that the "meeting resolved the procedural issues concerning academic review and consultation." The course had its name altered, from Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis to Palestine: A Settler Colonial Inquiry, but there were no changes to what Hadweh was going to teach or how he was going to teach it.

Now everyone was unhappy. Hadweh and his supporters thought Berkeley administrators were bowing to political pressure and media coverage; detractors thought the university was allowing anti-Semitism to flourish. There were charges of academic freedom being usurped and of that freedom being perverted for political gains. "It's a matter of double standard," says Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law professor and a frequent defender of Israel. "The critical question is: Would an anti-Palestinian mirror image course be accepted? Academic freedom requires a neutral single standard of evaluation."

I read this response to Jackson, Hadweh's lawyer. She found Dershowitz's position ridiculous. "There are anti-Palestinian courses taught every day all over the United States," she says, pointing to a course on Israeli history taught at Berkeley last spring that seemed to "erase Palestinians" in favor of a Zionist perspective. "Many people view classes from a Zionist perspective as being anti-Palestinian," she says. "It's correct that academic freedom requires a neutral standard applied in an even manner, regardless of the political viewpoint. That is exactly what went wrong here," in her view, with Hadweh receiving "special scrutiny."

Jackson wishes Berkeley had stood up for Hadweh the way the University of California, Riverside, came to the defense of Tina Matar, who in 2015 tried to start a course titled Palestinian Voices. The Amcha Initiative objected, but Riverside decided to let the class stand. A report issued some months after the incident agreed with this decision: "At the end of the day the existence of objections and concerns about 'Palestinian Voices' (some of which are eloquently articulated) constitutes an insufficient basis to second-guess academic judgment." Jackson wonders why Berkeley, which boasts of all the Nobel Prize laureates under its aegis, could not reach the same conclusion.

But there are issues beyond academic freedom. Hassner, the political science professor, says the furor over Hadweh's course would be "very, very hard on the Jewish students on campus," inevitably leading to a rise in anti-Semitism. Just days after we spoke, posters started appearing on campus that said "Jewish bullies" were silencing free speech at Berkeley, though the DeCal course had been reinstated.

Anti-Semitic posters appeared on the Berkeley campus in September. Courtesy of The University of California

Hadweh denounced these posters, but having to defend himself against such charges clearly left him enervated. And it was only September. "What does this say to anybody who wants to talk about Palestine?" he wonders. "Don't."

Maybe the events of the last month have taught Hadweh more than any class ever could. For this is the way the Middle East works, too: anger, recrimination, escalation, exasperation. And in the end, everything stays the same.

This article has been updated with a clarification regarding the letter sent by the Amcha Initiative, as well as with the correct name of the department that approved the DeCal course in question.