American universities pride themselves on fostering free speech and protecting their communities’ academic freedom. But for Palestinian students, faculty, and their supporters, both freedoms have been sharply limited.
A small army of pro-Israeli watchdog organizations keeps a close eye on everything Palestinian academics do and say, every Tweet they post and group they join. Those who go too far in criticizing Israel or standing up for Palestine may pay with their jobs, their academic standing, their future admission and employment opportunities.
All these groups claim they are defending Jewish students from anti-Semitism. In reality, the watchdogs rarely address anti-Jewish incidents – there aren’t many to address — but they will be all over anyone who calls out Israeli crimes.
Israel’s army includes Canary Mission, which “documents people and groups that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses,” making their names and pictures available to potential employers and grad schools. According to Professor Juan Cole, “Canary Mission’s profiles are filled with inflammatory accusations, falsehoods, misrepresentations and errors.”
Stand With Us (tagline “Supporting Israel around the World”) attacks criticism of Israel as “the new anti-Semitism.” The army includes AMCHA, CampusWatch (a project of the right-wing Middle East Forum), the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC,) the David Horowitz Freedom Center, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL,) Simon Wiesenthal Center, Zionist Organization of America (ZOA,) The American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), the David Project, who seek to “shape the campus discussion on Israel,”, the student group Hillel, the Lawfare Project, whose leader has said their purpose is “to inflict massive damage on enemies of Israel,” and many more.
Most of these groups are small but well-connected. In 2016, Israel’s education minister Naftali Bennet launched a $66 million campaign called Mosaic United to “combat critical discourse around Israel on American campuses.” Hillel International has collaborated with Mosaic to the tune of $22 million.
Having a dozen well-funded enemies watching their every move can chill Palestinians’ academic lives. According to Palestine Legal attorney Liz Jackson, many Palestinian academics “have become afraid to engage in activism or critical scholarship about Israel-Palestine, for fear of the inevitable blacklisting and threats that follow. There are courses that are not offered, dissertations that are not written, faculty who are denied positions, students who won’t join activist groups or attend lectures — all because they are afraid of the likely consequences.”
One professor facing this hostile army is Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi at San Francisco State University (SFSU.) Hired in 2007 to start a program in Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) studies, she has been under attack ever since.
AMED was promised two additional professorships and administrative support, positions the university has never filled. Dr. Abdulhadi and her students have been targeted three times in hate posters pasted on campus by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. These posters name and picture AMED faculty and students, calling them supporters of terrorism and anti-Semitic.
She has been censured, with administrators asking her to take down her personal Facebook page that criticized Zionism. Campus Watch has tweeted attacks on her for setting up a ‘sister school’ relationship with an-Najah National University in Palestine. She has received warnings for ‘misuse of funds’ for purchases that had been previously approved.
In June 2017, the Lawfare Project filed a suit against SFSU, some administrators, and Professor Abdulhadi alleging widespread anti-Semitism and a “hostile environment for Jewish students” on campus.
The complaint has been submitted twice, but a District Court judge dismissed it as insufficient to go to trial. The plaintiffs would have a stronger case if they did not target Professor Abdulhadi, who is, after all, one professor with two or three classes, hardly in a position to “foster a hostile environment” for thousands of Jewish students. She has never been cited with any unfavorable conduct toward Jewish students, nor have Jewish students (outside of Hillel) reported experiencing anti-Semitism on campus, according to studies and surveys.
Dr. Abdulhadi has not been fired but many others have. In 2014, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign conditionally offered a faculty position to Steven Salaita, a Palestinian American English professor and noted scholar in Native American studies. Salaita was to start teaching in August, 2014.
Shortly before the term opened, Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise abruptly withdrew the job offer, citing Salaita’s angry tweets about Israel’s invasion and bombing of Gaza. Salaita’s qualifications were not questioned, but Chancellor Wise said his presence would be “too disruptive of the University.”
Why? The University had received over 100 letters from donors threatening withdrawal of support, along with attacks from Jewish organizations calling Salaita anti-Semitic. Although many students and faculty protested the decision, Salaita is still tweeting but is currently out of academia.
So is Professor Norman Finkelstein. Finkelstein was denied tenure at De Paul University in 2007 for his writings critical of Israel, despite the university calling him a “prolific scholar and outstanding teacher.” He has never been offered another teaching job in the United States. When professors at Cal State University Northridge tried to have Finkelstein hired temporarily, the university refused. They had received messages attacking Finkelstein from JDL, Stand with Us, and Hillel, and Jewish alumni threatened to withdraw donations.
David Klein, one of the professors who invited Finkelstein to Northridge, said, “Academic freedom protects critics of the national policies of the U.S., France, England, and every other country in the world, save one: Israel. Norman Finkelstein violated this axiom. Had he not been Jewish he would have been vilified as anti-Semitic, and that slur alone would have isolated him from supporters. As it is, his detractors smear him as a ‘Holocaust denier,’ knowing full well that Finkelstein is the son of two Holocaust survivors, and that the remainder of his family died in the Nazi death camps.”
Sometimes pro-Israeli opposition prevents subject matter from being taught. In 2016, California State University at Fresno began soliciting applicants for a newly created Professorship in Middle East Studies. In May 2017, they stopped the hiring process.
In an article in The Intercept, Vida Samiian, longtime dean of Fresno State’s College of Arts and Humanities, said that a pressure campaign from Canary Mission, among others had targeted the search committee, and that the school had balked at having four Arab-American finalists for the role. Although the University denies that outside pressure or candidates’ ethnicity had anything to do with stopping the search, the search has not been restarted and the position has not been filled.
Suppression of pro-Palestinian voices happens constantly. Over 250 cases of discrimination against Palestinian faculty and students were reported to Palestine Legal in 2016 alone. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu was canceled as a speaker at Minnesota’s University of St. Thomas after the Zionist Organization of America and JCRC complained he was anti-Israel.
Universities are vulnerable to this kind of pressure because money is getting tighter. They can’t afford to offend pro-Israel donors.
Along with donor pressure, Israel’s army can call on powerful political friends and wage intimidating media campaigns. In the months before Lawfare’s suit against SFSU was filed, JWeekly, northern California’s largest Jewish publication, ran a long series of articles with titles like “SFSU Marginalize Jews,” and “SF State’s Jewish Problem,” alleging widespread anti-Semitism on campus.
Some of these stories were picked up by mainstream media, and California state senators started calling for investigations of SFSU. Meanwhile JCRC, Hillel, and the ADL met with SFSU President Leslie Wong and other administrators to “educate” them about the feelings of Jewish students (by which they mean Zionist students, since no one else has complained). He has not met with AMED or Muslim students to get their side of the story.
The tide may be turning, though. More Jewish students are turning away from Israel, telling administrators that they are not Zionists. Professor Abdulhadi has not gone away. She is preparing her defense for Round 3 against Lawfare. Although still without paid support staff, AMED classes are overbooked, and she gets support from Arab, Black, Filipino, and other communities and academics including Women’s Studies professors. Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews Against Zionism, and If Not Now are speaking out for Palestinian rights. People are losing their fear of Israel’s watchdog army, so we will see if academic freedom can be restored to Palestinians and protected for everyone.