New attack on free speech: Pro-Israel groups wage war on campus freedom

Attacks on pro-Palestinian activists have grown increasingly vicious, but free-speech supporters are fighting back

Published September 24, 2016 2:45PM (EDT)

Pro-Israel demonstrators in Times Square,October 18, 2015.    (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
Pro-Israel demonstrators in Times Square,October 18, 2015. (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

College campuses traditionally have been the sites of social and political protest — the combination of youth, intellectual energy, free speech, and academic freedom is a powerful catalyst for vibrant and often heated debate. Given the strain this can sometimes place on the equilibrium of universities, it is not surprising to see limits placed on speech and action. What is unusual is for pressure to come from groups outside the university. That’s precisely what is happening today when it comes to the topic of Israel and Palestine, and the overreach of some pro-Israel organizations into campus free speech is such that even those who oppose an academic boycott of Israel have condemned their actions.

A number of recent cases have come onto the scene just as the academic year has begun. Not only have these cases continued previous trends regarding the stifling of speech and the retaliation against those who are critical of Israeli state policies toward the Palestinians, they have raised such efforts to a new level.

The Amcha Initiative, Canary Mission and other groups claim that they are fighting anti-Semitism on campus. But because they equate criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews as a people, any act or speech critical of Israel may be construed as anti-Semitic. These groups then exert political pressure on administrators to punish what they call anti-Semitism, and administrators will often bend to their will to avoid bad publicity, abrogating their responsibilities to protect free speech and academic freedom.

In October 2014, a group of prominent Jewish scholars issued a statement criticizing Amcha’s tactics:

It goes without saying that we, as students of antisemitism, are unequivocally opposed to any and all traces of this scourge. That said, we find the actions of AMCHA deplorable. Its technique of monitoring lectures, symposia and conferences strains the basic principle of academic freedom on which the American university is built. Moreover, its definition of antisemitism is so undiscriminating as to be meaningless. Instead of encouraging openness through its efforts, AMCHA’s approach closes off all but the most narrow intellectual directions and has a chilling effect on research and teaching.

Yet Amcha’s tactics pale before those of Canary Mission, which claims: “The Canary Mission database was created to document the people and groups that are promoting hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on college campuses in North America. Every individual and organization has been carefully researched and sourced.”

But Canary Mission is not just “documenting people and groups,” it is also contacting their employers and universities to smear reputations with distorted depictions of activities and opinions, endangering these activists’ careers both inside and outside the academy. Writing in the Academe Blog of the American Association of University Professors, Hank Reichman calls Canary Mission a “genuine blacklisting site … which is potentially far more dangerous [than Amcha] for academic freedom.”

Some who have been targeted are speaking out, describing what it’s like to be targeted by Canary Mission and how it has affected their lives.

Liliana, a junior majoring in international relations who did not want to be identified further, said, “Canary Mission gave me the worst anxiety. They launched a Twitter campaign to get me fired from my job. Luckily, my job's human resources called and were totally supportive. They recognized them as a hate group and were ultimately concerned about my safety. I was so thankful. However, the anxiety that doesn't seem to go away is the fact that I might not be able to enter Palestine. I have family there and my mother especially is worried about what we will endure at the border crossing next time we go. When my profile first got put up, I had trouble eating and sleeping. I would wake up with bad anxiety and start gagging as if I were going to vomit … I can handle grade-school bullying. What bothers me is the constant worry about what's going to happen to me because of it. I also feel uncomfortable having my pictures out there. It puts me at risk for sexual and/or physical violence.”

Shezza Abboushi Dallal, who graduated from Barnard College in May 2016 with a history degree, told me that she and about 15 other organizers with the campus groups Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia Jewish Voice for Peace woke up one day to find newly published profiles appearing on the first page of a Google search. These profiles featured “dozens of quotes, photographs, and videos that had been collected from an array of online platforms — including our private social media accounts,” Dallal said. “Pictures of me accompanied by humiliating and inciting captions were being tweeted and retweeted … It was incredibly shocking to have documentation of involvement of which I am resiliently proud be distorted and manipulated to appear as the exact opposite of what it is — an effort to stand for the human rights and dignity of a people in the face of occupation, oppression, and gross violation of international law. Equally shocking was the knowledge that countless individuals were being empowered to contribute to such an initiative, while having their acts of intimidation protected by the site's anonymity.”

Sumaya Awad of Williams College wrote: “My future was threatened by this ominous and libelous website labeling me a ‘terrorist threat.’ Canary Mission was created to make students like me feel atomized and threatened, to push us away from activism and to erode the rights of Palestine activists to mobilize.”

Students and faculty being profiled by Canary Mission are proud of their actions and have no desire to disavow them. What they object to is the way they say Canary Mission has taken fragments of statements and recontextualized them, distorting their original meaning, broadcasting them all over the Internet and then contacting employers, future employers and universities, all while operating under the cloak of anonymity.

An open letter opposing Canary Mission's tactics will be released this week, signed by more than 1,000 scholars including Robin D.G. Kelley, Daniel Boyarin, James Schamus and Joan Scott. [Full disclosure: I am also a signatory.]

The letter reads in part:

As faculty who serve, have served, or are likely to serve on an admissions committee at graduate and undergraduate university programs across the country, we unequivocally assert that the Canary Mission website should not be trusted as a resource to evaluate students’ qualifications for admission. We condemn Canary Mission as an effort to intimidate and blacklist students and faculty who stand for justice for Palestinians…

Although, as individual faculty, we hold a range of viewpoints on Israel-Palestine, we recognize that student advocacy for Palestinian human rights is not inherently anti-Semitic, and that such advocacy represents a cherished and protected form of free speech that is welcome on college campuses. We reject the McCarthyist tactics used by Canary Mission. Canary Mission’s aim is to damage these students’ futures, and to punish them for their principled human rights activism. We urge our fellow admissions faculty, as well as university administrators, prospective employers and all others, to join us in signing below and standing against such bullying and attempts to shut down civic engagement and freedom of speech.

In the case of faculty who are employed at public universities, another tactic used to harass activists has been to delve into their personnel records, as in the case of Simona Sharoni. As reported in Inside Higher Education, Sharoni, a professor of gender and women’s studies at SUNY Plattsburgh who was raised in Israel and previously taught there, is a strong proponent of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS). Recently her university informed her that a series of public records requests had been made to gather information on her “hiring, continued employment and conferences attended while at Plattsburgh.”

IHE goes on to note a strongly worded letter written on Sharoni’s behalf by the Middle East Studies Association, which reads in part: “It appears to us that these [open-records] requests are part of the continuing campaign to harass and intimidate Sharoni because she has expressed certain political views … We therefore call upon university officials to exercise extreme caution and responsible judgment in reviewing and approving [such] requests for records pertaining to Sharoni, so as not to be complicit in furthering the campaign of harassment being waged against her.” It also urges the university to “publicly and vigorously affirm its commitment to the principles of free speech and academic freedom as well as its intention to defend Sharoni and other faculty members against harassment and threats by politically motivated individuals and groups based outside the university community.”

Another case among many is that of Prof. Rabab Abdulhadi of San Francisco State University, who has long been the target of harassment due to her work as the director of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities Diaspora program there. Outside groups have pressed administrators to investigate how she carries our her duties — building research and study opportunities for her campus with colleagues abroad is construed by such groups as association with “terrorists.” Recently Abdulhadi negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding between SFSU and An-Najah University in the West Bank. In this and other ventures she has gone through the proper procedures and secured the requisite authorization. SFSU's administration has defended Abdulhadi, finding that she acted in accord with its rules and in order to fulfill her job.

In 2014 SFSU president Leslie Wong stated, in response to Amcha’s continued attacks on Abdulhadi, “Faculty can and do communicate with others relevant to their research, communicating by various methods that can involve travel. Professor Abdulhadi’s academic work in race and resistance studies requires examination of some of the world’s most challenging and controversial issues. San Francisco State University will continue to respect academic freedom, and we will not censor our scholars nor condone censorship by others.”

But Amcha and other organizations are not satisfied with leaving universities to manage their own affairs. Besides these acts of intimidation against students and faculty, sometimes reaching into their personal lives, organizations are also trying to influence what kinds of courses can be taught at the university.

At the University of California, Berkeley, a course on Palestine was criticized by Jewish groups, who — in a campaign organized by Amcha — wrote to the U.C. administration urging that the course be censored. A thorough report on this episode by John K. Wilson in Academe Blog explains how administrators suspended the course in midsession, a highly unusual act, especially given the fact that the groups protesting the course had not even asked for such a radical move. This can be seen as yet another instance where university administrators react defensively in ways that violate proper procedure and faculty governance.

The U.C. administration first explained that its decision to suspend the class was because the instructors had not received the proper authorization to offer it. Yet as Wilson’s article documents, the instructors had indeed gathered all the proper authorizations. It was apparently the administration that had erred in not being aware of the necessary procedures in the first place. Of course, there’s a decent chance that the administration’s rationale for suspending the course was simply a pretext for bending to the will of outside organizations.

As Wilson writes:

If there was a breakdown in bureaucratic procedures (and there is no evidence of it), then it is the obligation of the university to fix those procedures in the future, not to ban a course and punish a facilitator and his students who reasonably followed every written rule.

This decision sends a clear message to the campus: controversial speech will be punished, especially if it is critical of Israel.

This course suspension is absolutely indefensible, completely unacceptable and purely motivated by politics and public relations. It is a violation of academic freedom, shared governance, U.C. Berkeley’s guidelines, the Regents Policies, and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

A letter from students in the class, written to the administrators who authorized the suspension, points out the irony of something like this happening at Berkeley:

The decision to suspend Ethnic Studies 198: Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis is a violation of our academic freedom. This is an alarming development to have transpire on the same campus that not only hosted the Free Speech Movement, but which also routinely claims and utilizes the same Movement’s legacy to market itself as a world-class institution, a bastion of tolerance and diversity, and the site of intellectual inquiry — inquiry that is sometimes discomforting, but always enriching. Your decision constitutes nothing less than an act of discrimination against students who wanted to debate and discuss this contentious issue in a spirit of genuine sincerity, mutual respect and open-minded curiosity.

Again: the decision to suspend our course is both discriminatory and a violation of our academic freedom. We demand the reinstatement of the course.

As a result of protests from both students and faculty at Berkeley, as well as elsewhere, on Sept. 19 the administration relented and, in a letter to the instructors, reinstated the course. As John K. Wilson noted in a followup piece, the U.C. dean involved in this case may not have had the authority to suspend the course in the first place, or to insist that instructors alter the course's content as a condition of its reinstatement. This sets a dangerous precedent, when an outside group can exert such influence as to change the content of a course, bypassing the rights and responsibilities of faculty and interfering with what students can learn and how they can learn it.

Much of this overreach by anti-boycott groups turns out to be unwarranted and unnecessary. When challenged, as in the Berkeley case just mentioned, complaints against pro-Palestinian education and activism as “anti-Semitic” are often shown to be unfounded. The vast majority of the charges anti-boycott organizations have leveled against pro-Palestinian activism has failed to stick. At the University of California at Irvine, as reported by Palestine Legal:

After interviewing witnesses and reviewing extensive video footage, UCI’s Office of Student Conduct released a 58-page report finding that SJP students arrived peacefully at the event but were locked out by its organizers ... Members of SJP, joined by students from other student groups, began demonstrating outside the event when they were locked out. The report confirms SJP’s account that their protest was peaceful, and found claims made by attendees of the event that protesters blocked the exits and threatened attendees to be unsubstantiated.

At San Francisco State, a study concluded that contrary to charges brought against demonstrators, a protest against Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s visit was not anti-Semitic: “On September 1, San Francisco State University (SFSU) released a report examining a protest of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat who visited the campus in April. After interviewing 20 witnesses and reviewing extensive documentation, the impartial investigator concluded that the protest was disruptive, but that it posed no safety risks and focused on the mayor for the policies he promotes.” As Palestine Legal reports, “Student protestors were accused of threatening Jewish students with violent and anti-Semitic messages. SFSU singled out the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) for discipline despite the participation of many students from diverse groups. GUPS members were also targeted with death threats, rape threats, online profiling and in-person harassment following the protest.”

Despite the failure of these charges, such actions will continue, largely because part of their purpose is to tie up resources and energy, and make administrators act preemptively to disallow events that might pose a problem.

Those not involved in the debate over Israel-Palestine may not be concerned about Canary Mission and its methods. But these tactics can be used by any group. Especially in educational institutions, it is essential to recognize outside organizations whose goal is to interfere with the mission and ethos of education, and who seek to silence, smear and intimidate those with whom they disagree.

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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