Activists for Palestinian rights have long known that our universities are overwhelmingly-hostile environments where freedom of speech about, and critical inquiry into, Israel’s oppressive policies are heavily censored. The mainstreaming of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) and the growing support this grassroots movement is gaining have had the effect of increasing, rather than alleviating, university administrators’ clamping down on support for Palestinian rights.
Over the past few weeks, two separate and noteworthy incidents have illustrated this heavy-handed approach. And while these incidents are particularly outrageous, they are not exceptional, but rather indicative of the overall climate of political repression that continues to blanket the nation.
On Thursday, Feb. 23, in an egregious twist to a still-unfolding story, Fordham University student Sapphira Lurie received a “disciplinary reprimand” by Dean of Students Keith Eldredge, in what the advocacy organization Palestine Legal has described as a “pre-determined outcome.”
Lurie, a senior at Fordham, had been found in violation of her school’s “demonstration policy” when she participated in a Jan. 23 rally protesting the dean’s decision to deny her request to start a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine on her campus. That decision, as well as the charge, was condemned by civil rights groups as a violation of the school’s free speech and association policies.
Lurie had then been called in for a meeting with Dean Eldredge which had all the makings of a kangaroo court: he was the one charging her, yet she was to meet with him behind closed doors, with a “white noise” machine turned on so as to make their conversation inaudible to anyone outside the room, and she was not allowed to bring in her lawyer, Radhika Sainath of Palestine Legal, or a sympathetic professor. Earlier requests to have a third party mediator had been denied. Eldredge had explained that this was university policy, but when challenged on it by Sainath, he conceded there was no such policy, yet maintained that he would only meet with Lurie alone, behind closed doors. When Lurie refused that request, she received the reprimand.
“Although I only got a warning, this whole process was meant to intimidate students,” Lurie said, “It’s already scared a couple of students from getting involved in advocating for Palestinian freedom—they were worried that Fordham was going to go after them too.”
Meanwhile, another still unfolding instance of censorship involves Sa’ed Atshan, an Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore, who had been invited to speak at the Friends Central School, outside of Philadelphia. Atshan was later “disinvited” after parents of students at the school complained. Along with the rescinding of the invitation, the head of school, Craig Sellers, suspended the two young teachers who had invited Atshan. Intense activism within the Quaker community, along with letters and emails to the school president, resulted in an official apology to Atshan, as well as a reinstatement of the invitation, but the two school teachers remain indefinitely suspended as I write this.
A public announcement made by Sellers has since been taken down, but the discussion that the announcement fostered is still available on the school’s Facebook page and shows the ignorance and intolerance of members of a community, the Quakers, with an otherwise wonderful history of progressive activism. Some are defending the decision to disinvite Atshan by comparing him to white supremacists:
“So let me ask everyone a question… let’s say I wanted to start a group to learn about the civil rights movement in the ’60s. The supervisors of the group want to bring in a highly accomplished professor from an highly regarded institution to present….. all is going well until some parents discover that this speaker is/was involved with a white supremacist group… is anyone offended? Should the speaker come even though many students/parents would be aghast at the nerve of a QUAKER school bringing in a participant in white supremacy?”
Another writes a common false accusation against BDS, stating:
“The problem as I see it isn’t that a pro-Palestinian speaker was invited to the school. The issue is that he is a representative of BDS, an organization which is devoted to the annihilation of Israel. (This perspective is patently clear in the BDS mission statement.) Perhaps if the two teachers had found a speaker more interested in dialogue and peace than in the dissolution of the Jewish state, this brouhaha would not have surfaced.”
The vilification of BDS has, of course, traveled all the way up to the top political echelons, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s pledge to fight it when she was campaigning for the presidency and President Trump’s recent mention of it during his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But for now, it is felt most acutely at the local university and government levels.
In Washington state, for example, Senator Michael Baumgartner, a Tea Party Republican, had announced in late December 2016 that, as soon as the 2017 legislative session opens, he would be proposing a bill banning BDS advocacy on state universities. By late February, Baumgartner had not presented his bill yet, in what some believe is a desire to avoid defeat that would impact his chances of joining Trump’s government.
Another politician, Senator Mark Chelgren of Iowa, has what may well be the most inane proposal: a bill that would require universities to base faculty hires on applicants’ political affiliation.
In Oregon, Portland State University President Wim Wiewel signed on to a Jewish Federation statement condemning the city’s Human Rights Commission for endorsing Occupation-Free Portland’s divestment letter, thus weighing in on a city matter unrelated to the university. Wiewel also sided with the Federation on a divestment resolution from Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER) and even encouraged Jewish students to speak out against it when many Jewish students at PSU supported the resolution. With Wiewel about to end his presidency, the SUPER group at Portland State plans to ask the Board of Trustees to investigate Wiewel’s partisan behavior and lack of academic integrity, and demand that the next president accept no sponsored and one-sided trips to Israel, as Wiewel did, and commit to open and critical inquiry into Israel’s human rights abuses.
The list is long. As one recent article in Jezebel put it, over the past few years, “Free speech on college campuses has become a game of political football.” But even as the situation looks bleak, we must not overlook the power of public outcry and persistence. This was obvious earlier this academic year, when a course on Palestine that the University of California, Berkeley had abruptly canceled was restored, as a result of national mobilization. Atshan’s invitation to speak has been reinstated, and there is hope the two Friends Central teachers who invited him will also soon return to their classrooms. Palestine Legal attorney Radhika Sainath said she intends to appeal Dean Eldredge’s decision to reprimand Lurie. “This sends a chilling message at a time when the president is cracking down on dissent,” Sainath explained.
Indeed, as activists today are tying in various intersecting struggles, we must not forget the larger context of the wars being waged by campus administrators against their very own students and faculty. The struggle against censorship on campuses must be incorporated with the larger national struggle. Because, ultimately, we are fighting the same oppressive forces that seek to quash resistance to unbridled power by distorting the facts, censoring free speech, and thwarting critical inquiry.