Pro-Palestinian voices complain of censorship on US campuses
Boston - A recent report by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) said there was extensive censorship and sanctioning of pro-Palestinian students and scholars at US universities and maintained such actions threatened time-honoured principles of academic freedom and free speech.
The report, entitled The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the US, details incidents reported by activists, students and professors to Palestine Legal, an organisation founded to protect “the rights of Palestinian human rights activists in the United States”.
The report suggests that in the case of Israeli-Palestinian issues, student activists, as well as faculty members, face suppression of speech. According to the report, there were 140 incidents and 33 requests for legal assistance from Palestine Legal in the first half of 2015; 80% of the incidents pertained to suppression of students or scholars.
Palestine Legal and CCR describe a variety of tactics used by universities and other institutions to silence pro-Palestinian voices ranging from “false accusations of anti-Semitism” to administrative sanctions and criminal investigations.
Incidents of suppression often follow involvement from pro-Israel advocacy groups, including StandWithUs and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), according to the 124-page report. Attempts to stifle campus dialogue and silence pro-Palestinian voices are seen as part of a broader effort by pro-Israel groups to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
StandWithUs, a Los Angeles-based organisation “supporting Israel around the world”, said in a statement the report was “an attempt to whitewash racism against Israelis and Jews on campus, silence the voices of Jewish students and protect the narrow political interests of anti-Israel lobbying groups”.
In one incident detailed in the report, the University of Illinois terminated the tenured position of Steven Salaita, a professor of American Indian Studies, before he even taught his first class in response to comments he made on his personal Twitter account during the 2014 Gaza war.
Salaita recently discussed his story and campus discourse at the Palestine Center in Washington.
“When it comes to speaking in favour of Palestinian dignity and Palestinian human rights, somebody is going to be punished,” Salaita said.
His talk — in support of his book Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom — considered his experience in the context of institutional and systematic suppression. “I knew at the moment of my firing that I wasn’t the first person in academe to have been punished in such a way,” Salaita said. “I also knew, unfortunately, that I wouldn’t be the last.”
Salaita attributed increasing efforts by Israel advocacy groups to suppress speech to the success of BDS and pro-Palestinian movements. “They don’t want to have the debate whatsoever because having the debate is always, for them, a losing proposition,” he said
The Palestine Legal and CCR report suggests that Salaita’s case is not an anomaly. The report points to the denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University in 2007 and criticism sustained by Palestinian-American professor Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University, among other cases.
The report outlines the apparent suppression of student activists involved in Palestine advocacy groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). In 2015, Hillel International — the primary campus organisation for Jewish students — threatened legal action against Swarthmore College’s chapter for inviting Jewish civil rights veterans to speak about their experiences in the American South as well as Israel.
Hillel opposed the events, organised by the Open Hillel Movement, due to the pro-BDS sentiments of some speakers involved.
“The fact that wanting to hear civil rights veterans’ perspectives on a variety of topics could provoke a lawsuit was difficult for me to understand. It still is,” Swarthmore graduate Amelia Dornbush said. “They forced us to choose between the now-trademarked name of Hillel and the principles of Hillel the Elder and we chose the principles.”
In some cases, students have faced criminal charges. Ten students from University of California, Irvine, were found guilty of disrupting a public meeting for walking out in protest at a speech by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington at the time. At Northeastern University in Boston, police questioned students for distributing “mock eviction flyers in dorm rooms”.
“The police were immediately sent to investigate. They pulled out not-well-known members, students like myself, but instead younger, newer members with Arab and Muslim names,” Northeastern graduate Sean Hansen said. “Islamophobia pervades the institutional response to Palestinian solidarity.”
While student organisations such as JVP, SJP and the Open Hillel movement face opposition from on- and off-campus Israel advocacy groups, Salaita said the student activists offer great potential to Palestinian advocacy.
“Movements like Open Hillel and Jewish Voice for Peace — to me they offer tremendous hope,” Salaita said.