Free speech for all on campus! Unless you're criticizing Israel, that is

Speech critical of Israel is increasingly being suppressed, voices silenced -- along with charges of anti-Semitism

Published September 30, 2015 11:57AM (EDT)


On Sept. 18 I had coffee with Omar Barghouti, one of the two founders of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, the nonviolent movement leading the struggle for Palestinian rights under international law.  As we were to meet on the University of California, Berkeley, campus, I felt it was fitting that we rendezvous at the Free Speech Café, which memorialized another great movement -- the Free Speech Movement led by Mario Savio.

Logically, there should be absolutely no contradiction between advocating for free speech in general and supporting the free speech rights of critics of Israel. An abstract principle for freedom usually does not come accompanied by “except in the case of.”  And yet that has been the case when it comes to discussions of Israel-Palestine.

Indeed, Gary Tobin, Aryeh Weinberg and Jenna Ferer begin their 2005 book, "The Uncivil University: Intolerance on College Campuses," by evoking the Free Speech Movement, only to immediately limit it. They note the inscription at Sproul Plaza commemorating the FSM, which reads, “This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction,” but then they negate that: “Despite the myth surrounding the seal and its ring of soil, it is not — it cannot be — an absolute sanctuary for those who wish to abuse the right of free speech, because no such place exists … Both the rules of the larger society and the social norms of the campus require reasonable boundaries on what can be said. Perhaps the campus has fewer constraints, but safety and civility necessitate that some limits are imposed.”

The book then turns to focus specifically and exclusively on criticism of Israel, which it argues is exactly the same as anti-Semitism and hence deplorable and deserving of suppression:

This volume examines one particularly egregious and uncivil violation of public trust—the ideology and expression of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism in higher education.  We examine these two closely-related prejudices on college campuses, because the presence of anti-Semitism in a community has always been a reliable indicator of its ill health.

Now, a decade after the publication of this book, three groups — the Center for Constitutional Rights, Palestine Legal and Jewish Voice for Peace — have issued two substantial reports on how speech critical of Israel has increasingly been suppressed and voices silenced. What has happened in the 10 years since the publication of the first alarm in "The Uncivil University"?  In the same year that book appeared, so too came a call for solidarity from a massive group of organizations and individuals in Palestine: BDS.  Developing slowly at first, the movement has now grown exponentially, registering major successes in the academy, among religious organizations, with artists, writers, musicians, among the black activist community, in unions, and with the general public, both in the United States and internationally. Barghouti told me he felt the movement had reached a “South African moment,” referencing the global surge of support for the anti-apartheid movement. And this success has provoked a virulent attack.

Besides being targeted by the Netanyahu government as a “strategic threat” and attacked by leading presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who vowed to take the fight against BDS to college campuses herself, a number of pro-Israel organizations, as well as wealthy individuals like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, have joined ranks to persecute students and faculty on U.S. campuses in what can only be called a McCarthyite witch hunt.

Most recently, Glenn Greenwald has reported one of the most flagrant and egregious cases so far: U.C. Regent Richard Blum has suggested that students engaging in activities critical of Israel should be suspended or expelled. He backed up this threat by evoking the support of his wife, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.  Blum is quoted as saying to his fellow regents:

I should add that over the weekend my wife, your senior Senator, and I talked about this issue at length. She wants to stay out of the conversation publicly but if we do not do the right thing she will engage publicly and is prepared to be critical of this university if we don’t have the kind of not only statement but penalties for those who commit what you can call them crimes, call them whatever you want. Students that do the things that have been cited here today probably ought to have a dismissal or a suspension from school. I don’t know how many of you feel strongly that way but my wife does and so do I.

As Sarah McLaughlin of the campus free-speech group FIRE wrote: “Yes, a UC Regent flatly threatened the university with political consequences if it failed to craft a ‘tolerance’ policy that would punish — and even expel — its violators.”  To this, the Council of University of California Faculty Association and the American Association of University Professors shot back:

These remarks by Regent Blum explicitly invoke his wife, U.S. Senator from California Dianne Feinstein, and threaten negative political consequences for the University if the proposed Statement of Principles Against Intolerance is not revised so as to be agreeable to him and Senator Feinstein. As such, they violate the spirit, if not the letter, of Article IX, Section 9 of the California Constitution, which declares that “The university shall be entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence and kept free therefrom in the appointment of its regents and in the administration of its affairs.”

This combination of raw financial and political power, both from within the U.S. and from abroad, used to intimidate, silence and punish speech that is critical of Israel, is being fully exposed this week in two important documents. The report issued by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights, “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the US,” declares:

Fearful of a shift in domestic public opinion, Israel’s fiercest defenders in the United States—a network of advocacy organizations, public relations firms, and think-tanks—have intensified their efforts to stifle criticism 
of Israeli government policies. Rather than engage 
such criticism on its merits, these groups leverage their significant resources and lobbying power to pressure universities, government actors, and other institutions 
to censor or punish advocacy in support of Palestinian rights. … Such efforts intimidate activists for Palestinian human rights, chill criticism of Israeli government practices, and impede a fair-minded dialogue on the pressing question of Palestinian rights.

It notes that between January 2014 and June 2015 Palestine Legal was asked to investigate nearly 300 cases of intimidation and suppression, with over a third of those taking place in California.

Tactics include:

  • False and Inflammatory Accusations of Antisemitism and Support for Terrorism
  • Official Denunciation (For example, in late 2014 University of California president Janet Napolitano denounced a campaign which asked student government candidates to make an “ethics pledge” to refuse free trips from Israel advocacy groups as violating principles of “civility, respect, and inclusion.” Her predecessor, Mark Yudof, likened a peaceful protest against a talk by former Israeli soldiers to hanging nooses, drawing swastikas, and vandalizing a campus LGBTQIA center.)
  • Cancellations and Alterations of Academic and Cultural Events
  • Administrative Sanctions (Loyola University Chicago launched an investigation into the school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) in fall 2014, after students lined up at a Birthright Israel table to ask questions that highlighted the discriminatory nature of the program, which excludes non-Jews. After a lengthy investigation, university administrators ultimately suspended the SJP group
 for the remainder of the year for failing to register the “demonstration.” Yet the administration chose not to suspend the campus Hillel chapter for similarly failing to register its tabling event, instead merely requiring the chapter group to meet with administrators to review school policy. In spring 2014, Northeastern University in Boston suspended a student group after members distributed flyers describing Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes. Public outcry and the threat of legal action, however, forced the university to reverse course and reinstate the group.)
  • Threats to Academic Freedom  (Israel advocacy groups often target academics critical of Israeli policies or supportive of Palestinian rights. Campaigns against faculty — from Columbia University to the University of California at Los Angeles — sully reputations, instigate university investigations, and can even lead to termination of employment. For example,
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, succumbing to pressure from Israel advocacy groups and donors, summarily dismissed Professor Steven Salaita from a tenured faculty position at the outset of the fall 2014 semester because it deemed his personal tweets criticizing Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza to be “uncivil.”)
  • Lawsuits and Legal Threats (Israel advocates also initiate lawsuits, administrative civil rights complaints, and other legal threats that hamper and intimidate advocates for Palestinian rights. Israel advocacy groups have filed at least six complaints with the Department of Education (DOE) asserting that, merely by tolerating campus events and protests that criticize Israeli policies, universities violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by programs receiving federal funds. Each of these complaints was ultimately dismissed.)
  • Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions (For example, in spring 2014, police questioned three Northeastern University students in their homes after an affiliated student group distributed flyers about Israel’s home demolition policies under dorm room doors. Three years earlier, prosecutors in Orange County, California initiated a rare criminal prosecution of students for peacefully protesting a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the United States and obtained guilty verdicts against ten University of California, Irvine and Riverside students on the charge of disrupting a public meeting.)

The report from Jewish Voice for Peace, “Stifling Dissent: How Israel’s Defenders Use False Charges of Anti-Semitism to Limit the Debate over Israel on Campus,” specifically addresses the ways external organizations have moved to defame and stifle criticism of Israeli state policies:

Seeing campuses as a “battleground,” they have helped shape problematic definitions of anti-Semitism in order to limit open debate on college campuses, and intimidate students, faculty, and administrators. The intent of these silencing tactics is to shut down conversation before it can even begin, limiting the range of political inquiry, expression and debate on campuses. ..

Far right political organizations, like StandWithUs and the Zionist Organization of America, as well as many prominent Jewish organizations with much broader communal mandates, such as Hillel International, Jewish Federations (specifically their Israel on Campus Coalition), and the Anti-Defamation League, intervene on campuses in efforts to muzzle political criticisms of Israeli policies. As a result, constitutionally protected speech and academic freedom — essential to learning, teaching, and rigorous inquiry — are under increasing threat.

These groups use a variety of methods that include, but are not limited to: filing complaints with the federal government that campuses are “hostile environments” for Jewish students; conflating some Jewish students’ emotional discomfort with targeted harassment; contacting administrators in an effort to have events cancelled and speakers disinvited; blacklisting professors; and launching public campaigns around faculty hires.

Crucially, the report goes on to provide resources with which to fight back against such tactics.  Indeed, a counter-offensive is well underway among both faculty and students.

Sunaina Maira, a professor at the University of California, Davis, and a member of Faculty for Justice in Palestine-Davis, notes that “In defense of the growing academic boycott movement as well as the attacks on BDS campaigns nationwide, the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel launched an Academic Defense Committee to help support boycott advocacy and campus activism. This emerged from our work in coordinating the academic boycott campaign in the American Studies Association (ASA) and responding to the subsequent backlash and the realization that academics needed to be able to have easy access to resources and information, including legal analysis, to challenge the obfuscating and intimidating tactics of the anti-BDS campaign. USACBI is also now part of a new coalition of organizations, Campus Defense of Palestine Coalition, which also indicates the increasing coordination and readiness of academics, attorneys, and activists to stand by BDS activists and to provide them with organized support and solidarity."

On the student front, Students for Justice in Palestine at U.C. Berkeley is planning the Second International Day of Action on University Campuses on Oct. 14, a call for activists and organizations on campuses across the world to organize massive protests on every college and university campus. Make this call of action part of campus education by holding teach-ins, rallies, sit-ins, civil disobedience, and push for BDS activities.”  

David McCleary, a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley and a member of Cal Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace Bay Area who helped organize the event, spoke with me about its origins and intents, and what the climate on campus is today.

He said the purpose of the event is twofold: “To draw attention to the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government, and to draw attention to the repression of college campus activism aimed at seeking justice for Palestinians.”  So far, a number of campuses are involved, including UCLA, the University of California at Davis, Stanford and the University of Illinois, Chicago.

I asked McCleary to speak specifically about what he sees as changing on college campuses today. He felt that while the situation for protest has improved in terms of the reaction of administrators, it has gotten worse in terms of external organizations exerting pressure on university administrators—in other words, exactly the kinds of actions described in the CCR-PL and JVP documents just released. Nonetheless, he spoke powerfully of the resilience and growing strength of campus movements today:

The campus paper went from publishing an op-ed last year by David Horowitz titled "Reasons to Target Students for Justice in Palestine" to this year coming out strongly against the State Department definition as an editorial board. This year we had Omar Barghouti speak, sponsored by nine campus departments, whereas last year we couldn't get a single departmental sponsor for Rania Khalek when she visited.

That said, while campus institutions are less hostile toward us, that gap has been filled by outside groups like AMCHA, Stand With Us, and Canary Mission working overtime to target and harass groups and individuals involved in Palestinian solidarity activism on college campuses.

At the July Regents Meeting, many students from SJP spoke to complain about Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism on campuses, relaying examples of harassment, death threats, and even a bomb threat at Berkeley that UCPD thought was credible. We were ignored.

But while those in power like the UC Regents still feel they can ignore SJP, they are finding it increasingly difficult to ignore broad-based coalitions coming together and speaking with one voice on this issue. Stanford divestment was a great example of this, where you had 19 vastly different student groups coming together. "In the fight in the California legislature over SCR35, you have diverse groups including SJP, JVP, UAW 2865, National Lawyers Guild, Palestine Legal, the California Faculty Association and many others speaking with one voice on this issue." The debate can no longer be framed as a Jews vs. Muslims, or Israelis vs. Palestinians, or, bafflingly, Jews vs. Palestinians, when our side has support that cuts across all demographics. Groups like AMCHA and Stand With Us can lay as much astroturf as they want using Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson's $50 million slush-fund, but even a child can tell the difference between astroturf and actual grass. We will continue to build unshakable, unstoppable grassroots support, aided by truth and justice, and do our best to ignore the attacks of far-right-wing pro-Israel groups.

It is exactly the kinds of well-organized, proactive efforts described by Maira and McCleary that are attracting more and more people, combined with the involvement of organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights, Palestine Legal, and Jewish Voice for Peace, which add their resources to the struggle for Palestinian rights, and show the power of popular resistance to wealthy, state-supported efforts to suppress democratic voices.


By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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