How US Colleges Have Become Ground Zero for Suppression of Palestine Solidarity

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How US Colleges Have Become Ground Zero for Suppression of Palestine Solidarity

Two new reports highlight the systematic intimidation, harassment, and censorship that is silencing free speech critical of Israel

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign community rallies in support of Professor Stephen Salaita, who was terminated from his tenured faculty position for criticizing Israel on social media. (Photo: Jeffrey Putney/flickr/cc)

Crackdowns on the movement for Palestinian rights are becoming increasingly severe in college and university communities across the United States, where young campaigners and the scholars who educate them are systematically intimidated, harassed, and punished for exercising free speech that is critical of Israel, two new studies find.

These educational institutions are being targeted precisely because students are organizing dynamic and effective direct actions, protests, and boycotts to address Israel's human rights violations, charge the reports, whose summaries were obtained by Common Dreams ahead of their Wednesday release. The resulting suppression is doing untold harm to rigorous and open debate, campus communities, and social justice more broadly.

"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," reads the report, The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S., released by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Palestine Legal.

In addition, the study continues, "high-level Israeli government figures, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and wealthy benefactors such as Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban have reportedly participated in strategic meetings to oppose Palestine activism, particularly boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns."

The repression, the report charges, is a "reaction to the increasingly central role universities play in the movement for Palestinian rights."

"They can frighten, intimidate, and wear you down"

The result is a coordinated attack that turns schools into battlefields—and extends far beyond campus borders.

The report states that, in 2014 alone, Palestine Legal responded to 152 incidents of "censorship, punishment, or other burdening of advocacy for Palestinian rights and received 68 additional requests for legal assistance in anticipation of such actions." Just halfway through 2015, the organization had responded to 140 such incidents, marking a considerable increase.

The vast majority of these cases—89 percent in 2014 and 80 percent in the first six months of 2015—impacted students and scholars. The most widely-reported tactics are false accusations of anti-Semitism and terrorism, bureaucratic barriers, official denunciation, legislation, threats to academic freedom, and criminal investigations.

For example, the anonymous website Canary Mission has published a list of predominantly Muslim, Arab, and non-white students it claims—without evidence—are terrorists due to their Palestine solidarity activism.

"Even if they fail to shut down your activism, they can frighten, intimidate, and wear you down," Rahim Kurwa, a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Los Angeles, told researchers. "It often feels like anti-Palestinian groups try to make an example out of us in order to discourage other students from joining the movement."

The crackdown also extends to the legislative front. In 2014, 11 pieces of legislation aimed at rebuking or restricting Palestinian advocacy, including BDS, were introduced—and that number jumped to 16 in the first half of 2015. Also in 2015, Illinois became the first state to implement an anti-BDS law.

This targeting is having a real impact, as exemplified in the high-profile case of Professor Steven Salaita, who was terminated from his tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014 for criticizing Israel on social media.

"When I got that email I was just destroyed. I was crushed," Salaita told CCR and Palestine Legal researchers. "Everything had been arranged for our move. Our son...had been enrolled in a daycare in Urbana, on campus in fact.... We were left without health insurance.... and so we were constantly worried about what would happen if the need for medical attention arose."

False charges of anti-Semitism

According to another report released Wednesday by Jewish Voice for Peace, entitled Stifling Dissent: How Israel's Defenders Use False Charges of anti-Semitism to Limit the Debate Over Israel on Campus, these campaigns are also doing profound damage to Jewish communities across the country.

"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," the report states.

The study highlights the common tactic of conflating anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel, and equating all Jews with the Israeli state, in an effort to shut down debate. In practice, this often takes the form of bullying within Jewish communities, JVP states, as well as claims that the emotional discomfort of Israel supporters amounts to targeted harassment.

"The effect is marginalization of Jewish students from Jewish communities, exclusion of Palestinian, Muslim, Arab and other students who support Palestinian rights from Jewish spaces, and restrictions on programming relating to Israel," the report charges.

For example, a Jewish organization at Swarthmore faced legal threats from the Jewish campus organization Hillel International after declaring themselves an "Open Hillel" and hosting an event featuring 1960s civil rights organizers who now do Palestine solidarity work.

"With Hillel International, what has happened is that, even if you're Jewish, you can't bring your full political views into the organization," Josh Wolfsun, Swarthmore student and member of the group—which has since changed its name to Kehilah—told Common Dreams. "There are a whole host of Jewish advocates and intellectuals who can't walk through the doors of the Hillel house in any official capacity. Students are told you can only bring part of yourself."

Such use of anti-Semitism to gain political leverage, or inflict censorship of legitimate speech, "threatens to void the term of any meaning," the report argues. "Put simply, not all Jews are Israeli nor do they always support the policies of the Israeli government (and furthermore, not all Israelis are Jewish–over 20% of Israeli citizens are of Palestinian descent)."

What's more, the report notes, "students who are particularly vulnerable to surveillance, censorship and intimidation are deliberately targeted by Israel-aligned organizations," particularly Palestinians, Muslims, and Arabs.

And finally, the report urges, debate must be permitted because "the decades-old Israeli military occupation, the refugee status of millions of Palestinians, and the expansion of Israeli control over Palestinian life and land are among the most urgent social and political issues of our time."

Both studies underscore that, despite the repression, movements on U.S. campuses, and across the world, continue to grow.

"Even in the face of a variety of repressive measures, the movement for Palestinian rights continues to draw strength from the force of its ideas and the real prospect that changes to U.S. public opinion—and one day access to justice for the Palestinian people—are indeed possible," Palestine Legal and CCR concluded. "Legal, political, and educational institutions should permit this important debate to continue freely, lest they find themselves on the wrong side of history."

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