University Students and Professors Silenced on Palestine

When I was a student at Oberlin College in the late ’70s, I was encouraged to reach outside myself and become aware of injustices faced by people in our world. I became an activist in the boycott/divest from South Africa movement to free Black South Africans from oppression and apartheid. As was the case at many universities around the country, student leaders educated other students about the issue and helped lead peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins in the president’s offices on this topic. This turned out to be an effective catalyst in pushing universities and corporations to divest their monies from South Africa and eventually end the apartheid regime.

Students and professors on college and university campuses now are encouraged to speak out and organize around social justice issues such as BLM and anti-Asian violence, but if they dare speak out or organize in support of the liberation of Palestine, they are threatened with being labeled ”antisemitic”. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem published a report earlier this year describing the Israeli government as overseeing an undemocratic “apartheid regime”. Human Rights Watch accused Israel of “apartheid and persecution” in a 2021 report—and in February of this year, Amnesty International released a report titled “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel system of domination and crime against humanity”. Yet, students and professors at universities around the country have been subjected to smear tactics, verbal attacks, criticism, and censorship when they organize to end the oppression of the Palestinian people.

A false narrative equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism has been ingrained in the national consciousness as a result of the concerted efforts of the ADL (Anti-Defamation League), Hillel, AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), and other right-wing Zionist organizations. Zionism has come to mean that Jews are the rightful inhabitants of not only the land given to them with the establishment of Israel in 1947, but all the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Eastern Bank of the Jordan River, whereas antisemitism is defined as hatred toward all Jews. Conflation of these distinct terms has attempted to strangle open dialogue about the illegality of occupation of Palestine by Israel. Tying “anti-Zionism” to “antisemitism” ties all Jews to Israeli war crimes and the illegal occupation of Palestine, thereby increasing real antisemitism in the process, a highly undesirable outcome.

When the executive board of the Rutgers adjunct faculty union (ATLFC-AAUP-AFT Local 6324) recently issued a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people and called on the American Federation of Teachers to divest itself of all Israeli bonds and on the United States government to immediately cease all financial support to Israel, the statement was denounced by U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer in a letter to Rutger’s president, Jonathan Hollaway. Gottheimer stated that “this hate-filled misinformation campaign and rhetoric campaign would cause a hostile environment for Jewish students at Rutgers because instructors and union members would show solidarity with oppressed people”. This is synonymous with, and as wrong headed as, saying we should not talk about the systematic historical oppression of African American people in the U.S. on university campuses, because it would make white students uncomfortable.

When Ryan Gittler-Muniz was a student at Yale from 2016 to 2020, he felt that as a Jew, opposing points of view on Palestine were discouraged. He was surprised to see that a big Israeli flag hung in front of the Jewish Student Center. “Yale is a Zionist institution”, he said, “which wants all Jews to align themselves with Israeli/U.S. war crimes.” As an alumnus, Ryan worked last year with a coalition called Yale Jews for Palestine as well as with a Palestinian-led group, Yalies4Palestine. Each group came up with a statement supporting divestment from Israel and the BDS movement. The Yale College Council then voted to endorse the Yalies4Palestine statement and condemned Israel’s genocidal actions in Gaza and the West Bank.  This vote, the most significant pro-Palestinian action taken at Yale to date, received international coverage in dozens of well-known publications, yet, much to Ryan’s frustration, it was intentionally not covered by any Yale publication.

A Palestinian international student from the University of Illinois, who wished to remain anonymous, said that she is reluctant to speak out against Israel and Zionism for fear of being listed on Canary Mission. Canary Mission is a web site that creates profiles of anti-Zionist organizers (often college students)—profiles that include links to the students’ social media accounts and their affiliations with organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine and BDS (Boycott/Divest/Sanction movement). Many of the Palestinian students at the University echoed this fear and said that if the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) found their names on the Canary Mission, they would be labeled “antisemitic” and thus could be prevented from getting into graduate school or getting a good job in the future upon their return home. It would also be difficult for them to travel safely within Palestine. A BDS resolution was passed by the student council at the University of Illinois in February of 2020, but was met with opposition from the Administration. Another Palestinian student said that the University is afraid to support Palestine and Palestinian students for fear of losing Zionist donors.

Anna Rajagopal, a South Asian Jewish student at Rice University, said that she experienced a culture of fear and harassment by both Hillel and the Rice Administration because of her ardent support and activism for Palestinian Liberation. She quietly founded a chapter of SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) at Rice. The rabbi of Hillel, Kenny Weiss, followed her on Instagram and direct-messaged her to question her about her “Jewish Journey”. When Anna told him that both her parents were Jewish, he was incredulous and insisted that she must be a Sephardic Jew since she had dark skin. Rabbi Weiss then told Anna that certain university parents were very upset about her activism with SJP and pressured her to stop. Anna did not stop. Anna got a job at Avoda (a Jewish social justice organization), and was fired after her name was smeared by the Jewish far-right organization “Stop Anti-Semitism”. Because of her views on Zionism, this 21-year-old student was listed as the “Anti-Semite of the Week”. Stop Anti-Semitism’s founder, Leora Lez, not satisfied with getting Anna fired, then contacted the Rice University administration and called for Anna to be expelled. The administration called Anna in for a meeting. They expressed their concern for her activism, since it could have a negative impact on donorship, but said that she couldn’t be punished for speaking out about Zionism, since Zionists were not a protected group under U.S. law.

Universities around the county are more afraid of losing funding than they are of protecting the rights of their students and professors. When Loubna Qutami, an assistant professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA, and Kylie Broderick, a doctoral candidate at UNC, were publicly attacked by right-wing Zionist groups for teaching courses entitled “Palestine in Comparative Ethnic Studies Framework” and “The Conflict Over Israel/Palestine”, respectively. In the case of the UNC course, a member of Congress and an Israeli diplomat met with UNC leadership to pressure them to cancel Broderick’s class. Neither that class nor the UCLA class was cancelled, but neither university’s administration did anything to stop the smear campaign against these two educators.

When students and professors around the country have attempted to shed light on the injustices endured by Palestinians, their universities have tried to shut down their voices. Butler University in Indiana tried, unsuccessfully, to cancel a talk by Angela Davis, the preeminent activist and scholar, because right-wing Zionist groups complained about her vocal support for Palestinian freedom. At the University of Chicago in Illinois this March, Palestinian students were ejected from a webinar about Israeli’s COVID response at the School of Public Health when they asked questions about Israel’s medical apartheid of Palestinians by refusing to provide vaccines to million of Palestinians in the occupied territories. At the University of California, when Zoom cancelled a webinar by Palestinian activist Leila Khalad, the university not only didn’t push back against the Zoom censorship, but it even created another webinar on antisemitism at the same time that the Khalad webinar was supposed to take place.

The silencing of our students and educators on the issue of the liberation of Palestine is not only a violation of freedom of speech, granted by the 1st and 14th Amendments of the Constitution of the United States, but it also thwarts intellectual curiosity and dialogue on a topic that has far-reaching implications for all people in the United States and around the world.

When particular states vote not to teach about slavery in the classrooms, is that doing a service to our students? Should we not teach students about the U.S. oppression of Indigenous populations? Should we not teach our students about apartheid in South Africa? Should we not talk about the Chinese genocide of the Uyghurs?

Under whose authority is Palestine off-limits?

 

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