Podcast: War On Palestine Activism Threatens Free Speech On Campuses Across The Country
This week’s episode of Unauthorized Disclosure is devoted exclusively to the intensifying war on college campuses against Palestine solidarity activism, where pro-Israel groups are using their vast resources and influence to curtail free speech and academic freedom of those advocating for equal rights for Palestinians. (You can listen to the episode here or you can subscribe for free on iTunes here.)
Kevin Gosztola and I spoke with several people on the frontlines of this battle, beginning with Iymen Chehade, a professor at Columbia College.
Chehade teaches a popular course on the Israel-Palestine conflict that has predictably attracted outrage from Zionist students. One of these students complained anonymously to the school that Chehade’s course was biased because he screened the Academy Award-nominated Palestinian film 5 Broken Cameras.
“When I asked why the student hadn’t come to me or why they hadn’t asked the student to come to me, the response was that when he was in college he had been intimidated by an African-American professor that apparently did not like the white students in the classroom,” explained Chehade, who is Palestinian-American.
The administration responded by canceling one of Chehade’s courses and schooling him in the need to be more “balanced.”
“There has been a push on campus to try to stifle and try to muzzle and try to create at the minimum what has been called ‘balance,’ which is a word that has been thrown around a lot,” Chehade told us. “And it’s a word that can be misleading because on the surface it sounds pretty. Balance as a word sounds pretty. But the reality of it is you cannot balance the Israeli-Palestinian conflict especially when you are dealing with a nation state that has all the power that is derivative of a state occupying millions of people who do not have civil rights. It’s like presenting the civil rights movement and those who were against rights against human beings as balance. It’s like giving them a forum to counter why African-Americans, for example, shouldn’t have rights and dignity and so forth.”
After investigating the incident, the Illinois chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) determined that Chehade’s academic freedom had been violated and in a letter implored Columbia College to reverse course.
Next we spoke with Farah Erzouki and Suha Najjar, co-chairs of the University of Michigan Students Allied For Equality (SAFE). Last month, SAFE introduced a resolution for divestment from US companies profiting from Israeli occupation to the central student government but a well-coordinated campaign by Zionist groups managed to derail the vote indefinitely.
“We were all really frustrated because we came in there, ready to have the conversation, ready to have a discussion about divestment on our campus and we were just completely shut out. We were silenced by them and out of that frustration, out of that desire to hold them accountable we held a sit-in,” explained Erzouki.
The sit-in lasted a week until the student government agreed to vote on the resolution. In the end the resolution failed to pass but it was still a success for bringing attention to Israel’s horrific and decades long colonization of Palestine.
Journalist Max Blumenthal was at UM the night the resolution was being voted on and gave a powerful speech in favor of divestment. He later wrote about the racist smears and baseless allegations of anti-Semitism that SAFE students were forced to endure throughout the ordeal.
This did not deter Erzouki and Najjar from engaging in their activism but they are concerned by the lack of response from university administrators against the racist vitriol directed at them from Zionist students, one of whom was recently elected student government president. They also worry about the effect this could have on younger student activists.
“We don’t want [freshmen] to fear they are going to be called names like this,” said Erzouki. “We don’t want them to fear that they are not going to be able to freely express themselves without fear of this type of backlash.”
In our final interview, we spoke with Tori Porell, President of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Northeastern University, where the most intense suppression efforts against Palestine activism have taken place.
At the behest of Northeastern’s Hillel, the university suspended SJP last month for distributing mock eviction notices in student dorms with information and statistics about Palestinian home demolitions routinely carried out by Israel.
“It’s a little exercise in giving people a small tiny taste of what it might be like to come home one day and find your entire residence and entire existence criminalized arbitrarily,” explained Porell, noting that the biggest text on the flyer specified that the notice was not real.
About a week later, SJP received a letter from the university informing them that they were suspended. “We could no longer access any university resources, bookrooms and this was effective through the end of the year and then they would think about potentially reinstating us in the future with none of the same members.”
SJP students faced police harassment as well.
“Two days after we did this leafleting, those of us that were involved started getting calls on our private cell phones from the Northeastern police,” said Porell. “Several students were pulled in for interrogations and the police showed up at some people’s homes unannounced. And they just had all kinds of questions about SJP, mostly as an organization, not even necessarily regarding the flyers. The students who were interviewed first and actually the only students interviewed have very obviously-sounding Arab-Muslim names whereas students without Arab or Muslim-sounding names were not interviewed, even though some of us are on record with the university as being leaders in the group.”
Suppression of Palestine solidarity activism isn’t necessarily working but that doesn’t mean it won’t have a lasting impact on academic freedom and free speech that goes beyond the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Bills have surfaced in state legislatures across the country (Illinois, New York, Maryland) seeking to punish university organizations that support the academic boycott of Israel. There is a similar bill in the US Congress.
So as you listen to this episode, consider the damage to free speech that the pro-Israel forces behind these efforts will leave in their wake if they have their way.