The Battle for Palestine on US Campuses: a review of ‘We Will Not Be Silenced: The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics’

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WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED: The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics
Edited by William I. Robinson and Maryam S. Griffin
Forward by Cynthia McKinney and Preface by Richard Falk
280 pp. AK Press, 2017. $19.95.

There are many ways to try to silence people whose ideas you don’t like. You can bully, blackmail, violate, isolate, punish, and smear them until they shut up, back down, and/or lose the platform upon which they were speaking.

It’s not just autocratic despots or crooked attorneys who wield such strategies with tyrannical efficacy. The forces of the pro-Israel lobby have long carried out systematic campaigns of vilification and repression with a pugnacious energy that rivals even the mob’s. Anyone in the public eye who dares to level a critique of the State of Israel could find themselves targeted. And if you are a prominent and vocal Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) activist: fuggedaboutit.

 

This climate of censorship is especially hard felt on college and university campuses where a historic upsurge in successful pro-Palestine activism has led to a corollary increase in McCarthyist pressure by the dozens of Zionist organizations who have formed into a network called the Israel on Campus Coalition. Characterized by their shameless meddling in internal university proceedings, well-organized groups like the AMCHA Initiative, Stand With Us, Campus Watch, Canary Mission, and ADL are the most visible tip of a slander-industrial complex whose mission is to purge professors and students who challenge their own narrative.

“We Will Not Be Silenced: The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics,” Edited by William I. Robinson and Maryam S. Griffin. (Cover: AK Press)

When fear of reprisal has become the norm, speaking out becomes an act of courage and resistance. This is the premise of “We Will Not Be Silenced,” AK Press’s excellent new collection of first-hand testimonial accounts penned by pro-Palestinian scholars who have been targeted on U.S. campuses. With more than a dozen essays by some of the luminaries in the movement such as Richard Falk, Saree Makdisi, Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, Nadia Abu El-Haj, Steven Salaita, Joseph Massad, members of the Irvine 11, and many others—”We Will Not Be Silenced” serves as an instructive compendium of the pro-Israel lobby’s bag of underhanded tricks and an invaluable playbook for how to preempt and defeat them.

Across the breadth of these infuriating yet illuminating essays, a consistent pattern of tactics emerges. Most of these tactics are predicated on the lobby’s willingness to breach basic standards of academic freedom and common decency to achieve their aims.

In their helpful opening essay, David Theo Goldberg and Saree Makdisi discuss the alarming implications of the Hasbara Handbook that is distributed by organizations like StandWithUs to help train pro-Israel campus activists to be effective propagandists. The handbook explicitly encourages its acolytes to avoid legitimate argument and debate with pro-Palestinian activists in favor of deceitful strategies like point scoring, emotional manipulation, and name calling—to create negative connotations “without allowing a real examination of that person or idea.”

The direct and damaging results of these methods are on full display in the pages of “We Will Not Be Silenced” where victim after victim narrates the life-altering consequences they have faced for their criticism of Israel.

William Robinson, one of the co-editors of the book, was brought up on spurious charges at UCSB for circulating a photo-essay that juxtaposed images from Operation Cast Lead in Gaza with the images of the Warsaw ghetto, accompanied by a text condemning Israel’s human rights record. After a strenuous fight, Robinson was cleared of all charges, but at a steep cost to his research and reputation.

David Delgado Shorter, whose only “crime” was to offer his students the option of researching the BDS movement as a case study in his “Tribal Worldviews” course, survived a demoralizing ordeal at UCLA at the hands of AMCHA that included death threats and false accusations of anti-Semitism that damaged his professional and personal life.

David Klein, a math professor at Cal State, Northridge and prominent BDS activist, was subjected to a similar coordinated campaign of censorship that stretched out for years and may not even be over yet. Unlike most of the scholars in this collection, Klein was fortunate that Harry Hellenbrand, the president of CSUN at the time, was an outspoken supporter of Klein’s academic freedom.

Most of these political witch hunts have been instigated and/or vigorously pursued by outside lobbyists, powerful politicians, or alumni donors. While these forces hold no contractual or professional affiliation with the universities, they often interfere with impunity in internal governance procedures. In some cases they help pro-Israel students file official complaints against pro-Palestinian faculty members, but often dispense with even that “nicety.”

What is especially disturbing is the alacrity with which many upper administrators quickly cave and often collude with pressure groups who have no interest in research and knowledge production, but rather have a vested interest in censorship and knowledge suppression.

The Israel on Campus Coalition has shown few scruples about smearing its opponents as supporters of terror, self-hating Jews, or anti-Semites. Groups like AMCHA, Hillel, StandWithUs have worked with political allies around the clock to cement the erroneous notion that opposition to Zionism is tantamount to anti-Semitism, and that a hatred of Israel’s policies of racism, ethnic cleansing and dispossession is the same as hatred of Jews qua Jews.

Given the horrific history of anti-Semitism, and the deplorable reality of its continued existence, even among some who identify as “supporters” of Palestinian rights, the grave charge of anti-Semitism is not to be taken lightly. As several of the essayists in this book point out, this highly fraught context gives the lobbying groups the perfect straw-man weapon to combat its opponents; and they wield it with a vengeance, in reckless disregard of the lives and livelihoods ruined in the process, and in reckless disregard of the important task of defanging the real anti-Semites.

The question becomes why—why are these extra-academic interests given such wide berth to operate on U.S. campuses? The answer, in part, has to do with the rise of the neoliberal university and the decline of faculty protections across the board. Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton, a doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, situates his own persecution within the broader context in higher education—the increasing reliance on vulnerable adjunct labor, the steady elimination of tenure, and a prevalent “boardroom mentality” where administrators have become chiefly concerned with protecting “carefully cultivated brands.”

Lisa Rofel and Steven Salaita both draw pointed and sustained attention to the decline of the public university and its traditional commitment to the common good. In an era of “neoliberal graft,” where students are viewed as consumers, adjunct labor is exploited, and administrators command exorbitant salaries, we see a sharp increase in the profit-motives of upper management. In such a climate, wealthy donors, lobby groups, and board members are able to sway and even dictate hiring decisions and curriculum.

Though the death knell of academic freedom is tolling, all is not lost. The apt title of this book “We Will Not Be Silenced” indicates that the tables are beginning to turn. Despite cause for anger and outrage, these stories are leavened with encouraging lessons. In nearly every case, some small victory has been snatched from the jaws of defeat. With the unwavering support from scores national and international progressive and civil rights organizations, most of these scholars were eventually vindicated.

Despite appearances, the pro-Israel lobby is not winning these campus skirmishes. All of us who work for social justice should take heart and fight smart. We should embolden ourselves to speak out and assert our rights. We should donate and build stronger alliances with the organizations like the AAUP, the National Lawyers Guild, the ACLU, FIRE, Palestine Legal, and many others that have been steadfast in support of civil rights. We should denounce anti-Semitism where we find it, and strenuously educate on the immense difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

Those of us working in academia should purchase the book, read it, and lend it our colleagues and administrators so they too can strengthen their resolve to defend our campuses from these unseemly and costly attacks. Rather than squelching discourse and avoiding “controversy,” campus leaders—whether students, faculty, staff, or administrators—should help cultivate an atmosphere of intellectual debate based on time-tested principles of academic freedom.

Professors and students have a right to engage in research and to disseminate that research, even it challenges long-cherished dogma. Colleges and universities are sites traditionally dedicated to the dialogical process of learning where ideas are put forth, tested, and debated, then accepted or rejected on the merit of the arguments. The misuse of money and power to warp this process is not just damaging to the brave individuals who refuse to be silent, but to the entire project of participatory democracy.

About Kim Jensen

Kim Jensen (www.kimjensen.org) is a Baltimore-based writer, poet, and educator who spends a great deal of time in historic Palestine. Her books include a novel, The Woman I Left Behind, and two collections of poems, Bread Alone and The Only Thing that Matters.

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18 Responses

  1. Citizen
    July 6, 2017, 2:52 pm

    I’m so old I remember when universities prided themselves on being the arena for the free flow of ideas. That was way back in the days of college deferments and conscription. Now, there’s no conscription and no free flow of ideas for the college crowd. Instead, we have endless war fought by a paltry few from the mostly rural, working class, paid for by all, and less privacy, along with a fake Fourth Estate, a class of stenographers, not journalists–fake on Israel issues, long before Trump noticed it was fake on so many other issues.

  2. Emory Riddle
    July 6, 2017, 7:52 pm

    “..Given the horrific history of anti-Semitism..” In America? Really? Any details on this?

    • Donald Johnson
      July 6, 2017, 9:39 pm

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_antisemitism_in_the_United_States

      The post doesn’t say antisemitism was particularly horrific in America as compared to other places or compared to other forms of hatred in the good old USA. You can read the Wikipedia article and make your own judgement about relative degrees of horribleness.

      • YoniFalic
        July 7, 2017, 3:29 am

        It’s a moronically stupid article.

        Is it anti-Semitism if Stuyvesant treats Jews, Quakers, Catholics, and Lutherans equally badly? (In truth, he seems to have treated Quakers worse than Jews.)

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Stuyvesant#Religious_freedom

        Commonly believed nonsense about anti-Semitism is a reason to inject modern critical comparative historical methods into discussions of anti-Semitism.

      • Donald Johnson
        July 7, 2017, 9:06 am

        Yes, it is antisemitism if someone dislikes Jews as Jews, even if he might dislike some other groups more. In a normal environment I wouldn’t have to point out something so obvious. But yes, in the US other groups were hated far more than Jews. At the same time, there has been antisemitism. It is possible to hold two or more thoughts in one’s head at the same time. So your objection to the article is not to facts. Your objection is that it is wrong to call dislike of Jews antisemitism if, for example, Quakers were hated more. This might be a valid objection if you argue exclusively with people who think antisemitism is some unique form of hatred or prejudice which has some metaphysical significance above and beyond all other hatreds. But if you treat it as one form of bigotry among others, you can read the Wikipedia article without kneejerk responses. And you don’t have to let the bad faith of others dictate how you respond.

        Getting back to the post, the writer is making a simple point, but you have to hold several thoughts in your head simultaneously. Here they are– antisemitism is bad, it should be denounced and yet at the same time false accusations of antisemitism are constantly used as a propaganda weapon to suppress truthtelling about Israeli apartheid.

      • Mooser
        July 7, 2017, 11:29 am

        The post doesn’t say antisemitism was particularly horrific in America as compared to other places or compared to other forms of hatred in the good old USA.”

        The long disgraceful record of Constitutional Anti-Semitism in the United States is as long as it is disgraceful! to wit (well, I can only get about half of it in, so it’ll be to half-wit):

        1) absolute refusal to recognize Jews as a people. First President Washington wrote a nasty letter to a Rhode Island synagogue telling the Jews they would never, ever be anything but American citizens!
        The US recognized African-Americans as a separate people, the Native Americans as a separate peoples, but the Jews? No way!

        2) The US legal system refuses to recognize or incorporate Jewish law.

        3) The US government refuses, obstinately refuses, in fact, does whatever it can to destroy the Jewish people through marriage. It refuses to do anything to prevent the Silent Holocaust! They absolutely refused to extend miscegenation laws to protect Jews.

        4) The US government can fund an EPA, and an FDA, but will not spend a penny to ensure that Jews eat a proper diet. Couldn’t care less if we eat tref.

        I could go on, but I am already crying into my keyboard.

      • Talkback
        July 8, 2017, 7:38 am

        @ Mooser:

        5.) The fact that the US calls Kiryas Joel (Orange Country) not being part of Israel allthough 99% of its residents are Jewish and have strong religious ties.

    • Keith
      July 7, 2017, 6:33 pm

      EMORY RIDDLE- “..Given the horrific history of anti-Semitism..” In America? Really? Any details on this?”

      Emory, on Mondoweiss, even suggesting that the world isn’t one big hotbed of anti-Semitism is frowned upon by the moderators, something I cannot comment on.

      • Keith
        July 7, 2017, 7:09 pm

        EMORY RIDDLE- “Any details on this?”

        Encouraged by my last comment passing moderation, I shall attempt to provide you with some details. Now, without comment, I link to David Lee Roth discussing his personal experience. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP4NeA6LFFw

      • Mooser
        July 7, 2017, 8:08 pm

        ,” on Mondoweiss, even suggesting that the world isn’t one big hotbed of anti-Semitism is frowned upon by the moderators”

        My comment proving antisemitism is inherent in the US made it through.

      • Keith
        July 8, 2017, 1:22 am

        MOOSER- “My comment proving antisemitism is inherent in the US made it through.”

        Who would dare trash the Moose? Getting back to the Howard Stern/David Lee Roth interview, who could doubt that Jews have had it worse than Blacks? Just look around. It’s not as if AIPAC and the neocons have any influence. Or that Howard and Dave and Sheldon and Haim don’t suffer day in and day out. How much sex,drugs, rock and roll, fame and fortune can atone for being called a Jew? If anyone had called Mick Jagger a Presbyterian there would have been heck to pay!

      • Mooser
        July 8, 2017, 11:56 am

        “How much sex,drugs, rock and roll, fame and fortune can atone for being called a Jew?”

        I wouldn’t know. How much celibacy, sobriety, obscurity and poverty can atone for being called a Jew? I hope it’s not a lot, or I’ll have to declare bankruptcy.

  3. RoHa
    July 7, 2017, 6:10 am

    Typo: “willingness to breech basic standards of academic freedom…”.

    That should be “breach”, as in “once more unto the”.

    • Mooser
      July 7, 2017, 11:07 am

      “That should be “breach”, as in “once more unto the”.

      Every morning. Out of the PJs and once more into the breeches, dear friends.

  4. RoHa
    July 7, 2017, 6:13 am

    I presume there is a full account of the Finkelstein case.

  5. Ronald Johnson
    July 7, 2017, 10:40 am

    I heard lectures delivered by Professor Alan Charles Kors, European History at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered in Rochester NY last winter on the subject of freedom of speech on campus. The series was excellent; I commend his writings: https://www.thefire.org/?s=alan+charles+kors He is a founder of the referenced “FIRE” – Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a well-focused effort to allow even the most controversial viewpoints to contribute to critical thinking – a suppressed feature of “higher education”.

    • Mooser
      July 7, 2017, 11:49 am

      ““FIRE” – Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a well-focused effort to allow even the most controversial viewpoints to contribute to critical thinking”

      Yes, it is getting a lot of media coverage, too. Saw an article about it yesterday. I don ‘t have a link, but the headline was “The Shape of the Earth? Expert opinions differ!”

      • Mooser
        July 7, 2017, 1:26 pm

        “well-focused effort”

        Oh, I bet it is. After all, when the “most controversial viewpoints” correspond to popular superstitions and bigotries, or coincide with ‘boughten speech’ you got a better chance of getting them into “critical thinking”.

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