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DeCal's cancellation transpired through unfair shortcuts

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SEPTEMBER 20, 2016

“It has been determined that the facilitator for the course in question did not comply with policies and procedures that govern the normal academic review and approval of proposed courses for the Decal program. As a result, the proposed course did not receive a sufficient degree of scrutiny to ensure that the syllabus met Berkeley’s academic standards before it was opened for enrollment to students.”

With these words the office of UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks communicated its decision to suspend the one-unit, student-taught and faculty-supervised DeCal course, “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis.” The chancellor’s department chose to first deliver their written decision not to the student instructor, nor to the faculty supervisor, nor to the department sponsoring the course, nor even to the Academic Senate Committee on Courses of Instruction (COCI) which had approved the course (and heard about the decision hours later), but to a group of 43 self-identified Jewish, civil rights and education-advocacy organizations. Led by the AMCHA Initiative, those organizations had sent a letter protesting the offering of the course. Their criticism of this Ethnic Studies’ DeCal extended beyond this particular course; they urged the chancellor to exercise administrative control over the faculty and the Academic Senate. Or in the letter’s own words, the signatories encouraged him to “direct the UCB Academic Senate to ensure that all future courses reviewed by COCI, whether taught by students or faculty, must be carefully evaluated for their compliance with the Regents Policy on Course Content.”

While the chancellor’s response did not directly address these general demands, the suspension decision (overriding the Academic Senate and the COCI) offered a glimpse into the formation of an administrative machinery. Operating on an ad hoc basis, this administrative machinery was activated by the complaints of people claiming injury, supported by external partisan interest groups, facilitated by university administrators and announced to faculty as faits accompli while short-circuiting their deliberations. This administrative abrogation of shared governance has repercussions beyond the then-suspension of this course on Palestine. At stake is the survival of spaces for students to study and debate difficult and politically complex issues facing our world today.

The chancellor’s letter also registers the concern of the College of Letters and Science’s executive dean about any course “which espouses a single political viewpoint and/or appears to offer a forum for political organization rather than an opportunity for the kind of open academic inquiry that Berkeley is known for.” Yet, the assumption that the course would have constituted a vehicle for political organization has no evidentiary grounds. It is a presumption. This explains why the letter stated that the course “appears to offer,” rather than “offers,” a forum for political mobilization. But one would still have to wonder why a course on Palestine, even if it is supervised by an instructor who himself is an activist, would “appear” to offer such a forum? Is it that a faculty activist on Palestine is incapable of separating her activist work from her academic work? Or is it that any speech on Palestine cannot but of necessity turn into organizational speech lacking scholarly meaning and relevance? And do we refrain from making that judgment about other fields of inquiry or does it only pertain to the question of Palestine?   

And what about the charge that the course offers “a single political viewpoint?” The Regents Policy on Course Content includes no such limitation. But the policy does state that the regents “are responsible to see that the University remain aloof from politics and never function as an instrument for the advance of partisan interest.” Some will certainly find this 1970 regents policy reminiscent of Cold War rhetoric of political neutrality. But if the administration insists on being guided by this policy, shouldn’t we first interpret what it means today? One need not equate institutions of higher education with politics to recognize that some dimensions and practices of higher education are deeply implicated in the field of power, if only by producing knowledge about it. The administrative decision to suspend the course foreclosed a possible debate over the Regents Policy, making other interpretations of it less consequential. And yet this debate is most pressing in our present moment when the public university is ever-more vulnerable to external political and economic forces, and when academics are called upon to confront these forces. Under these circumstances, what does it mean to insist on “aloofness” from politics? And might not the censorship itself be a partisan act that selects and constitutes a course with a “single political view” from a range of similar courses, while proceeding in a way that is far from ordinary (the suspension of an approved course) without discussion and debate or direct communication with faculty and students on campus?   


In what sense then are we to understand that the course on Palestine offers a single political viewpoint? There are multiple courses offered in the DeCal program, let alone in the university’s general course catalog that might be said to advance a single political viewpoint. Courses on feminism do not necessarily spend time rehearsing the defense of patriarchy, and discussions of Africa and international law do not necessarily entertain accounts contesting the colonial genocide in the Congo. Similarly, courses on American and Japanese imperialism do not inevitably explore defenses of imperialism. In none of these cases is the demand made that instructors offer a counterpoint. Palestine seems to be the singular exception.

The demand to offer a counterpoint is never naïve. It unleashes its own power operations. It signals an area of suspect knowledge requiring contrary inquiries to tame or restrain its potentials. The demand therefore announces particular knowledge as questionable, and works to prevent its unchecked dissemination to the student population. It determines what counts as valid knowledge and what does not — it introduces hierarchy among different modes of knowledge, inquiries and frameworks of analysis.   

There are many reasons that such a demand can be made of scholarship and teaching on Palestine while other areas of study are not subject to the same requirements. These include the extent of lobbying that pro-Israel and Zionist groups undertake to shape global public discourse on Palestine in the US and elsewhere. But there is more. Had this been a course titled “The Israeli-Arab conflict,” it probably would have passed the final administrative test, albeit with some student complaints (we occasionally hear about such courses in other universities) and despite a certain degree of targeting in the various media outlets that monitor the production of knowledge on Palestine in the U.S. What prompted the executive suspension in this case could be seen as the antipathy to the settler colonial framework the course explicitly invoked. The course title and description invited the students to analyze Palestine with the tools of settler colonial studies, a field which addresses sites including the U,S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The late Patrick Wolfe’s seminal comparative work on settler colonialism (also on the course syllabus) includes Palestine as a case study. This should come as no surprise. Anyone familiar with modern Hebrew knows that many towns are classified as settlements — singular: “hityashvut” (before 1948) and “hitnahlut” (after 1967) — signifying the practice of settling Palestinian land and claiming it by inheritance, divine or otherwise. Modern Hebrew is only one among many other sites in which the practice of settling and claiming land leaves its traces, something that should provoke reflection in an academic setting but is instead being policed and shut down.

If we recall that Palestine’s settler colonial history dates back into the late Ottoman period, prior to the establishment of Israel, a course adopting this framework could have raised the following perfectly valid (and important) academic questions: How and when was the question of Palestine conceived as an episode in a larger Arab-Israeli conflict? How does such a framing sidestep thorny questions about the process of colonization crucial to the founding of Israel? What legal issues, if any, does the settler colonial framework yield as compared to the language of “conflict,” “military occupation” or “hatred”? More generally, what relationships between past, present and future become visible from within the framework of colonization and decolonization that other frameworks obfuscate?

These are some of the questions that the administrative suspension of the DeCal course policed, shutting down all invocations of the terms “colonization” and “decolonization.” The result is nothing less than the rejection of critical inquiries into established orthodoxies. But censorship of academic pedagogy and administrative policing of intellectual inquiry not only announce what is questionable in the present — they also extend their power to the future. By declaring suspect those academic inquiries about Palestine that move beyond conventional frameworks of analysis to exploring its colonial history and present, censorship seeks to guard the present and immunize the future against these inquiries. In this regard Palestine is no exception. It only happens to be our present one.

Samera Esmeir is an associate professor in the Department of Rhetoric.

SEPTEMBER 20, 2016