The video opens with a familiar scene: a passionate argument over Israel/Palestine at a protest on campus. But a few minutes in, it takes a turn towards what activists and lawyers are calling an “assault.” One student forcibly takes a cell phone from another student who is arguing that Israeli forces shouldn’t have left a thirteen-year-old, who had reportedly stabbed an Israeli, to bleed in the street.
The video then cuts out [at 4:48], but Daniel Mogtaderi, the student criticizing Israel, says that the pro-Israel student went on to shove him multiple times. Mogtaderi says the assailant strained his back, forcing him to go to the hospital.
“I was recording when this guy came up, saying this thirteen-year-old is a terrorist and deserves to die,” said Mogtaderi. “He grabbed my hand and yanked my arm and yanked the phone out of it…I reached for the phone and he shoved me.” (Mogtaderi eventually got his phone back.) Mogtaderi is unsure of who the person who pushed him is.
The protest and shoving incident took place at the University of California, Santa Barbara on October 15. The demonstration was part of a number of protests in the United States in support of Palestinians as violence has spread from Jerusalem to the West Bank and Gaza. Chafing under a decades-old military occupation, Palestinians have stabbed dozens of Israelis, killing eleven, while Israeli forces have killed 62 Palestinians, including 35 armed assailants and 27 others, many of them protesters.
In a statement, the press office of the college said: “UC Santa Barbara takes these concerns very seriously. The matter is being investigated by the UCSB Police Department, and while we can’t comment on the investigation, we can tell you that the UCSB Office of Student Affairs has reached out to the student who filed the report.”
But Mogtaderi says he is not satisfied with the university’s response so far. He told me there has not been a strong statement from the university condemning the assault.
Palestine Legal, a group that defends Palestinian rights activists in the U.S., said the UC Santa Barbara incident is part of a larger campaign against student activists.
Liz Jackson, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, called the incident a “classic example of the pattern of suppression, intimidation” on campus.
“I also think it reflects an escalation–I hope not, but I do think that as emotions run high in response to the surge of violence in Palestine, and as Israel defenders are less and less able to have real debates about the actual issues, it results in this kind of explosion,” said Jackson.
In September, Palestine Legal released a report documenting the barriers and threats Palestinian rights activists on campus face. Last year, Palestine Legal handled “152 incidents of censorship, punishment, or other burdening of advocacy for Palestinian rights,” according to the report.
At the college campus level, the report focuses on the bureaucratic barriers, administrative sanctions and cancellations of lectures that those involved in Students for Justice in Palestine face. But there have also been physical acts of violence directed at some of these students, and there are common reports of students receiving death threats and being spat on at demonstrations.
In addition to the UC Santa Barbara incident, a member of SJP was attacked at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2013.
Students have also complained of a general atmosphere of intimidation on campus. Last year, the right-wing activist David Horowitz made posters that called SJP anti-Semitic and akin to Hamas. They were placed on a number of college campuses. The Canary Mission, a separate group tied to pro-Israel activists, creates lists of college activists and compiles information about them in an effort to harm career prospects.
Jackson told Mondoweiss she is fearful that “those who are trying to silence debate will become more and more desperate.”
Jackson said she’s also disappointed in the response from UC Santa Barbara to the incident involving Mogtaderi.
“If anything like that happened to an Israel activist on campus, we’d all express our solidarity and support and condemn violence, and of course the university would bend over backwards to make sure the student felt supported,” she said. “But of course we don’t see that here. No one seems to care.”