Pro-Palestinian voices complain of censorship on US campuses

Friday 22/01/2016
Poster in solidarity with Steven Salaita

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.