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Why are some ideas so scary to some people?

Jewish students at UC Berkley campus rally against anti-Zionism FACEBOOK PHOTO
Jewish students at UC Berkley campus rally against anti-Zionism FACEBOOK PHOTO

University campuses are meant to be places of rigorous debate. What happens when outside groups attempt to squelch that debate? And what happens when those groups claim to speak in the name of the Jewish community?

The University of California at Berkeley was embroiled in controversy last month with the suspension of a one-credit course called “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis.” The course is part of the university’s DeCal program, a suite of one-credit courses taught by undergraduates with a faculty adviser.

In response, 43 groups under the leadership of AMCHA – including Hasbarah Fellowships, StandWithUs, and the Association of Reform Zionists of America – petitioned the university over what it claimed was the course’s “blatantly anti-Israel bias,” including authors on the syllabus who have (they claimed) “called for the dismantling of Israel,” and a faculty sponsor who (they claimed) supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

The petition argued that the course promotes “the false and defamatory idea that Israel is an illegitimate settler colonial state.” The petition also objected to students being asked to consider ways to “decolonize” – which the signatories interpreted as “eliminat[ing] Israel.” Hillel International and UC-Berkeley Hillel issued their own parallel statement.

While the students demanded the course’s reinstatement, a blog post in Academe, the American Association of University Professors’ magazine, argued that the official policies of approval had been met, contrary to what the university was claiming. In the end the course was reinstated with some very minor changes in phrasing.


In my own Israeli-Palestinian relations course at Carleton University, I try to relay the experiences, dreams, and traumas of both Israelis and Palestinians. This course didn’t do that. But that doesn’t mean that suspending the course was not a violation of academic freedom.

Beyond issuing general guidelines about the learning goals of a particular degree program, the notion of a “curriculum” is usually quite decentralized within humanities and social sciences programs. The idea is that by being required to take upward of 40 courses, students will be exposed to a range of perspectives, the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. A “biased” course, one could say, is in the eye of the beholder. Do all economics courses include a section on Marxism? Do all “causes of war” courses contain a unit on pacifism? Academic freedom is premised on the idea that different professors will teach these subjects differently, and the marketplace of ideas will reveal to students the most robust ideas.

And what of the term settler-colonialism? Some think it’s a misplaced label, since there wasn’t a traditional colonial centre exploiting a periphery to enrich the core. But settler-colonialism differs from traditional colonialism in important ways.

As in the case of Canada, there is a good case to be made that the State of Israel represents a case of settler-colonialism. I’m also aware that as a Jew, my great-grandparents benefited from Canada’s settler-colonial framework when they immigrated, and some of my extended family benefited from Israel’s.

It is up to the authors on the syllabus to marshal logic and evidence to support whatever conceptual framework they are advancing. Critical thinking entails reading material critically too, and one would hope that this course – like any course – demands that students do just that.

What about the course’s suggestion that students consider ways to “decolonize”? Here I also look to Canada, where the government is attempting to redress Canada’s shameful treatment of First Nations. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a key move in this direction. The petition’s 43 signatories might consider that Israel might also have some work to do vis-a-vis the Palestinians – both those who remain under military occupation, as well as the 20 per cent of Israeli citizens who suffer from structural inequality. I wonder what ideas make those signatories so fearful, and I wonder if they are similarly frightened by the idea of justice-seeking in their own countries, too.

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