Pro-Israel groups are engaging in a nationwide campaign to silence U.S. university activists critical of Israeli policy including Jewish students, according to two separate reports released Wednesday by a legal group and Jewish social justice organization.
“We’re calling this the Palestine exception to free speech,” said Dima Khalidi, the director of Palestine Legal (PL), an organization that provides legal aid to pro-Palestine activists.
Palestinian solidarity activism has been on the rise in the United States for over a decade, with activists arguing the Israel/Palestine conflict is being prolonged by Israeli policy, including the occupation of Palestinian territories and siege of Gaza. A sizable chunk of the movement is comprised of students and academics, and today there are Palestinian solidarity groups on almost all major university campuses in the United States.
However, these groups are now being targeted by “heavy handed tactics” from pro-Israel groups, according to a newly released joint report by PL and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The report warned some of these tactics include “monitoring the speech and activities of Palestinian rights advocates and falsely accusing them of antisemitism, based solely on their criticism of Israeli policy, in order to undermine their advocacy.”
PL says over the past 18 months it has responded to close to 300 cases of “censorship, punishment or other burdening of advocacy for Palestinian rights.”
Nearly half those cases were in the first six months of this year alone, with 85 percent targeting “students and scholars.”
Speaking to teleSUR English, PL’s Khalidi said one of the most glaring incidents included in the report was Northeastern University’s temporary suspension of the campus group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
According to PL, campus police went as far as showing up on the doorsteps of two students affiliated with SJP to question them at their homes. The students were later hit with disciplinary measures by the university for distributing mock eviction notices to dormitories in 2014, aimed at imitating Israeli eviction notices served to Palestinian families. SJP says the action was intended to draw attention to the than 24,000 Palestinian homes demolished by Israel since 1967 – often to make way for illegal settlements or as collective punishment exacted on families of suicide bombers. The suspension of SJP has since been lifted.
In another example of suppression of Palestinian solidarity, Khalidi pointed to the case of university professor Steven Salaita, whose appointment at the University of Illinois was effectively revoked in August 2014, after he used a personal social media account to criticize the seven week long Israeli offensive against Gaza in July-August of that year. While the university argued the tweets written by Salaita were excessively inflammatory, Khalidi said the case contributed to a chilling atmosphere that is increasingly making it difficult for academics to speak freely about Israeli policy.
“This was an enormous consequence for a tenured professor,” Khalidi said, slamming the incident as the “disgraceful” result of a campaign against Salaita.
At the time of Salaita’s tweets, social media was abuz with allegations Salaita’s tweets were offensive. In September 2014, Fox News went as far as labeling the tweets “antisemitic.”
Salaita’s tweets included comments such as, “Only Israel can murder around 300 children in the span of a few weeks and insist that it is the victim.”
By the end of the seven week conflict in Gaza, over 2,000 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, including close to 500 children.
Earlier this year, the American Association of University Professors voted to censure the University of Illinois over its treatment of Salaita. The association had previously issued a report alleging the university had violated the principle of academic freedom by booting Salaita.
According to Khalidi, the University of Illinois’ treatment of Salaita was in lock step with a consistent theme linking many of PL’s cases – allegations of antisemitism or support of terrorism, the former of which she said is “lodged against virtually any criticism of Israel’s policies.”
“When we can’t distinguish between a hatred of Jewish people and criticism of the state of Israel and its policies, that really is the crux of the problem,” she said.
Khalidi continued by stating these accusations against activists “really can’t be taken lightly, especially accusations related to terrorism or antisemitism.”
“We live in a time when a Muslim teenager can be arrested for bringing a clock to school. When students – especially Muslim students – are accused of supporting terrorism just because they’re advocating for human rights, the impact can be substantial,” she said.
Khalidi continued, “It can harm their reputation, it can harm their employment prospects, it can lead to bullying, racial attacks and even law enforcement scrutiny.”
However, Muslim and other non-Jewish students and academics aren’t the only ones being targeted by pro-Israel groups, according to a separate report also released Wednesday that warned Jewish students and academics are likewise facing dire consequences for criticizing Israeli policy.
Israel Advocates Target Jewish Critics
“I think for many Jewish students its hard to find a (Jewish) community if you are critical of Israel,” Tallie Ben-Daniel from Jewish Voice for Pace (JVP) told teleSUR English.
JVP is a Jewish social justice organization critical of Israeli policy towards Palestinians. However, in its latest report “Stifling Dissent,” JVP has warned Jewish individuals and organizations are under massive pressure to unconditionally support Israeli policy – even if it goes against their conscience.
“There is a dominant voice in the Jewish community that insists that Jews advocate for and identify with Israel … (and) many of these official Jewish institutions really insist their members tow the line,” Ben-Daniel said.
Ben-Daniel pointed to two cases in the JVP report she argued illustrated the extent pro-Israel groups are targeting Jewish critics.
“The one that I think of immediately is Swarthmore,” she said, referring to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
The college’s on-campus Jewish group Swarthmore Kehilah officially broke ties with the larger Jewish student organization Hillel International earlier this year. Hillel is the world’s largest Jewish campus group, and has branches in more than 500 universities and communities globally.
The dispute between the Swarthmore campus group and Hillel was sparked by the former’s decision to invite a group of civil-rights era Jewish activists to speak at a community event. The event was set to focus around the prominent role played by Jewish activists during pivotal moments of the struggle for equal rights for African Americans in the 1960s. By some estimates, Jews accounted for close to half of solidarity activists who traveled from northern states to rally alongside African Americans fighting segregation in the south.
However, Hillel opposed the Swarthmore event, arguing at least one of the civil rights veterans set to speak supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign – an international Palestine solidarity movement modeled on the campaign to boycott apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and 80s.
“If the students or speakers intend for this program to be a discussion in which the speakers present or proselytize their known anti-Israel and pro BDS agenda … this would cross the clear line for programs that violate Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership,” Hillel’s legal counsel Tracy Turoff wrote in a letter to the Swarthmore group earlier this year, according to the Huffington Post.
Ben-Daniel explained, “(Hillel) held that line so much … that the Swarthmore group disaffiliated from the Hillel International and started a whole new group.”
“I think this is a good example because there are several assumptions that work here: Hillel is assuming that sponsoring an event is agreeing with whatever happens at the event … (and) is also disallowing a Jewish student group to listen to Jewish speakers because they don’t like the way that Israel is being talked about,” she said.
Hillel was contacted to clarify its position on Jewish groups and organizations critical of Israeli policy, but didn’t reply by the time of publication.
However, in a January blog post for the Times of Israel’s website, Hillel CEO and President Eric Fingerhut argued, “It is unfortunate – but necessary – that Hillel professionals and pro-Israel students need to invest time and energy defending Israel against the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of BDS supporters.”
“… (W)e will continue to spend time defeating BDS and addressing challenges that arise. Doing so is central to our mission of connecting Jewish college students to Jewish life, Jewish learning and the Jewish State,” he wrote.
The second case Ben-Daniel pointed to was an April 2014 attempt by a group of Jewish students at the University of California, Los Angeles to affiliate their JVP chapter with Hillel. According to the JVP’s report, the chapter’s members were presented with a list of 42 questions by Hillel, including, “Is (BDS co-founder) Omar Barghouti an anti-Semite?” and, “Did Israel sterilize Ethiopians?”
The chapter was eventually rejected from affiliation with Hillel, and described in the JVP report as “clear evidence of the political litmus test Jewish students are expected to undergo in order to be
considered part of the organized Jewish community on campuses.”
While the JVP report noted Muslim and Arab student activists “bear the brunt of intimidation and demonization,” Ben-Daniel said the pressure heaped on Jewish students can nonetheless be “alienating, and heartbreaking.”
“Speaking to my own experience, I am Jewish, and I went to the University of California right after 9/11 … and I did not have Jewish friends that entire time – unless they were Jewish friends who were also (opposed to) the occupation,” she said.
Ben-Daniel continued, “I didn’t join any of the Jewish groups, I didn’t go to any community events for Jewish students, because the political litmus test was so clear to me that I would be excluded.”
She explained she encountered students who “who took any criticism of Israel – even the most gentle (criticism) as a personal affront to their Judaism.”
“(They) called anyone who didn’t agree with them a self hating Jew,” she lamented.
It was only after discovering JVP that Ben-Daniel said she found a sense of Jewish community beyond her immediate family where she wouldn’t feel excluded. Concluding, Ben-Daniel arguing the hardline culture created by many of the dominant Jewish community groups has made a backlash against the status quo inevitable, and opened the door to groups like JVP to offer an alternative.
“They are dominant, but there is a groundswell of critique happening on college campuses,” she said.
“In some ways its difficult, but in other ways for Jewish voice for peace we find it really incredible to build community with other Jewish people who also take a moral stance on Israel and feel like the state of Israel does not represent all Jews,” she said.
First published by teleSUR English.