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Silencing pro-Palestinian speech on campus

Written by admin  •  Monday, 16.07.2012, 10:21

At the University of California, pro-Palestinian students face disciplinary action, but Israel's advocates do not

On July 9, 2012, the University of California’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion presented its fact-finding report and recommendations on Jewish Student Campus Climate. According to a letter written by UC President Mark Yudof, the report was launched in response to the 2010 Berkeley student government vote todivest from companies selling weapons to the Israeli military and the 2010 UC Irvine protest against Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.

The “climate report” was tasked with “fact-finding about the challenges and positive campus experiences of Jewish students at UC and to identify steps needed to make campuses more inclusive and welcoming for Jewish students”. The council also presented a fact-finding report on Muslim and Arab Student Campus Climate.

From the outset, the Jewish Student Campus Climate report focuses on non-violent protests and speeches critical of Israel, a state in clear violation of international law, not anti-Jewish bigotry. In fact, nearly 50 per cent of the report (excluding the introduction and recommendations) covered “the Anti-Zionism/Anti-Israel Movement and its Impact on Climate”.

Specifically, the use of the words “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid” to describe Israel’s policies are presented as problematic, while anti-Zionism and the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel are referred to as “manifestations of anti-Israel sentiment on campus”.

What is the definition of “anti-Israel”? We are never told. Imagine a UC report referring to protests against the war on Iraq as “manifestations of anti-American sentiment on campus”. One of the three key demands in the BDS call is equality for all Palestinians living inside the state of Israel. Imagine referring to the Montgomery Bus Boycott as an “anti-American” period in our history.

The report further presents Palestine Awareness Week as a “negative experience” for Jewish students, a framing that disregards the viewpoints of many Jewish students involved in organising and planning the event.

Israeli apartheid

When asked about his reaction to the report, UCLA Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) member Rahim Kurwa said, “it reflects an attempt to put the brakes on campus discussion that is rapidly shifting from whether Israel is practicing apartheid to what we should be doing about it, namely divesting from companies profiting off of Israeli apartheid.”

Another extremely troubling aspect of the report is the clear conflict of interest of one its two advisory council members: Richard D Barton. Barton is the National Education Chair of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organisation infamous for smearing groups working on Palestinian rights and for attacking American Jews who don’t fit within their narrow ideological framework.

Under its “Top 10 Anti-Israel Groups in America“, the ADL lists SJPJewish Voice for Peace, a national organisation with more than 100,000 members that “believes that peace in the Middle East will be achieved through justice and full equality for both Palestinians and Israelis”, and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a coalition boasting 380 member organisations, including California-based Jewish groups such as LA Jews for Peaceand the Tikkun Community.

It is important to note that SJP, a campus group that often bears the brunt of attacks from right-wing, pro-Israel outside agitators, clearly states on its website that it “categorically opposes any form of prejudice or discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation”.

The choice of Barton is not without consequence. While UC students have consistently complained that anti-Semitism is cast about to stifle critique of Israel’s policies, the council members dismiss their concerns that “the charge of anti-Semitism is used in a manner to suppress that criticism”.

Rebecca Pierce, a Jewish African-American student interviewed for the report at UC Santa Cruz, said, “Both former Leviathan Jewish Journal editor, Shani Chabanksy, and myself personally gave the advisory council representativesarticles written by Jewish students at UC Santa Cruz who felt the Department of Education complaint and investigation into our university was being used to silence campus criticism of Israeli policy. Our statements and experiences, which we relayed to Barton, were left completely out of the report.”

In the recommendations section of the report, which has the most potential to curtail the rights of students to speak out and organise, the authors suggest instituting a “hate speech-free” policy that extends beyond the “current harassment and non-discrimination provisions… and seek opportunities to prohibit hate speech”.

A number of students I spoke with believe this is a bold attempt to squash criticism and block action against Israel’s system of apartheid. The advisory council members seem well aware that they are overstepping their bounds when they write, “the Team recognises that changes to UC hate speech policies may result in legal challenge, but offer that UC accept the challenge”.

In recent months, a US District judge dismissed claims of an “anti-Semitic climate” at UC Berkeley. Anti-Jewish bigotry, commission or no commission, should be challenged at every turn, but leveraging the UC administration to silence groups and voices, many of them Jewish, for criticism of Israel and action against apartheid policies on UC campuses is utterly reprehensible.

The UC double standard

While “no [Jewish] students indicated feeling physically unsafe on UC campuses”, the same cannot be said for Arab and Muslim students. On February 8, 2010, eleven students interrupted a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine. After doing so, they were verbally attacked with racist comments and received death threats from other attendees.

Rather than coming to the students’ aid, the UC administration responded to the incident by threatening them with expulsion and four months later suspended the Muslim Student Union. UC President Yudof was clear in his condemnation: “The constitution does not protect the right to suppress the speech of others.”

President Yudof further hailed the punishment as an accomplishment in making the campus safe for Jewish students, falsely equating challenging Israeli war crimes with anti-Jewish action. Notably, even as President Yudof says “the constitution does not protect the right to suppress the speech of others”, his own Council on Campus Climate recommends that UC implement a hate speech policy to do just that, even at the cost of challenging US law.

On May 25, 2012, my performance at UC Santa Cruz was disrupted by a student in the audience. Hosted by the Community for Justice in Palestine (CJP), the event was part of Palestine Awareness Week. After finishing a spoken word poem critical of the dehumanisation of Arabs and Muslims post-9/11, a student stood up and attempted to shout me down.

Asserting that I was spreading one-sided propaganda, the student refused to stop shouting. Finally, a number of CJP organisers calmly approached the student to diffuse the situation; the student eventually stormed out of the auditorium.

Unlike the Irvine 11 case, there was no condemnation from UC Santa Cruz’s chancellor, no outraged post by UC President Yudof, no arrests, no suspensions, no investigations into the student who “trampled on the constitution” and “suppressed my free speech”. This is not to say disciplinary action should have been taken, it is merely to highlight the UC’s double standard.

Furthermore, those standing for Palestinian rights have endured numerous attacks on their free speech. Professors have been subject to censorship campaigns at UC Santa Barbara and UCLA, students have had their workvandalised, and SJP members have been the victims of verbal and physical attacks, including an incident where members of the pro-Israel group StandWithUs pepper sprayed UC students and community members.

This underscores the blatant hypocrisy and double standard employed within the UC system. While charges of anti-Semitism are flung around to silence students speaking out against Israeli policy, and administrators work to censor and intimidate pro-Palestinian faculty, clear cases of disruption and physical attack go unchallenged by UC administrators.

The light at the end of the tunnel

President Yudof and others aligned against SJPs recognise that it is becoming increasingly difficult to attack them head on. He recently stated at a meeting hosted by the ADL, “while we can’t censor bad speech, we can dictate time, place, and manner”.

When discussing “bad speech”, President Yudof doesn’t address the organisation who sponsored his talk, its attack on UC student groups, or other outside agitators such as StandWithUs. Instead, he outlines a strategy for targeting one sector of the UC student body whom he doesn’t politically agree with.

It doesn’t take much probing to recognise the inflammatory and discriminatory nature of President Yudof’s comments; imagine if one were to say, “while we can’t censor Jewish students, we can dictate time, place and manner”.

The wave of attacks on SJP members and their various allies on UC campuses serve a clear purpose: to silence debate,

counter divestment campaigns, strike fear in any student organising within SJP and deter new students from joining the group, attending events, signing petitions, or showing any inkling of support.

But whether President Yudof likes it or not, there is a change taking place both within and outside of the UC system – from TIAA-CREF’s $72m divestment from Caterpillar, a company profiting from the Israeli occupation, to student deshelving campaigns targeting Sabra hummusand other products that benefit off of Israeli apartheid.

What I have experienced performing in a half dozen UC campuses, and nearly 200 throughout the US, is resilience, creativity, anti-racist values, and an endless well of energy for freedom, justice and equality for all peoples. Reaffirming this sentiment, SJP’s Rahim Kurwa stated, “These efforts at censorship will not stop us from speaking out against apartheid; in fact, they will only embolden our efforts to detach the UC from its ongoing financial complicity in Israel’s occupation.”

As a powerful opposition attempts to hinder a steadfast network of students standing up for Palestinian rights, attacks on free speech remain one of the biggest threats facing UC campus climate today.

Remi Kanazi is a poet, write and author of Poetic Injustice: Writings on Resistance and Palestine. For more information, visit

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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