Last week, I was asked to speak in a classroom alongside someone from StandWithUs. Apparently, the professor was going by a recommendation to have me as a discussant, to possibly provide the “other side.” Without getting into a discussion of what those two sides are (pro-apartheid and pro-justice, of course), or why I will not be party to normalizing, (setting up the illusion that “both sides” are equal, rather than oppressor and oppressed, occupier and occupied), I sent this response, which I tried to keep short and to the point.
“Thank you for the request, which I must decline. I must also say that I find it quite worrisome that you would have representatives of this group talk to our students. StandWithUs is a right-wing propaganda organization which actively stifles free speech and critical thinking, by equating any and all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism. This is extremely intimidating for students attempting to formulate their own thoughts about the topic, and distracts from the real anti-Semitism that targets all Jews, regardless of their political ideology. Jewish Voice for Peace mentions StandWithUs among the more aggressive organizations stifling dissent on campuses and in various political circles, in their extremely valuable report, which you can access here.
“I trust you agree with me that we are living in troubling times. The current national climate, indeed, the global climate in which the Trump and Netanyahu administrations are working hand in hand, should impress us with the need to critically disentangle anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism–the latter being criticism of and opposition to a political worldview, albeit one held by many Jews. (Of course, you must also be aware of the fact that, numerically speaking, there are millions more Christian Zionists than Jewish Zionists). The distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is one that activists for Palestinian rights have long been arguing, yet one that keeps getting blurred by organizations such as StandWithUs, which persist in their claim that criticism of Israel’s policies is a thinly disguised form of Jew hatred.
“I hope you can present the students with the appropriate context for having representatives of this group talk to them in your class.
As I considered this request, which coincided with the National Students for Justice in Palestine annual conference, which both the city of Los Angeles and the host school, the University of California in Los Angeles, tried to ban, and in light of the numerous violations of the academic freedom of anti-Zionist faculty and students across the country, I couldn’t help but marvel at how some administrators bend over backwards to accommodate any representatives and requests from Zionist organizations, while also bending over backwards to censor and criminalize any representatives and requests from pro-Palestine rights organizations (justice for Palestine? OMG, what a heinous crime!).
UCLA even sought a cease and desist against NSJP for using a bear in their poster, for fear the image would be viewed as the school’s mascot, and thus interpreted as official endorsement of the conference. In their cease and desist letter to NSJP, UCLA administrators also demanded that the poster advertising the conference not show the bear flying kites, as this could be viewed as an incitement to violence. As NSJP wrote in their statement, UCLA’s action “demonstrates how out of touch they are with the facts, and how quickly they are willing to associate the Palestinian rights movement with harmful, broad-sweeping stereotypes and caricatures.”
That knee-jerk response from such university administrators is similar to that of law enforcement officers, who can somehow take mass killers alive if they are white (think Dylann Roof, who was even offered a burger and fries when he complained he was hungry and, more recently, Tree of Life synagogue mass killer Robert Bowers, even though he had actually shot at three cops) but kill African American children in their sleep, on the playground, and outside their homes, or shoot adult African Americans for, let’s see, driving? crossing a street? entering their apartment? And over and over again, we find out that these African Americans were innocent, unarmed, or legally armed, and not misusing their guns. The last murder by a law enforcement officer of an African American male that made national headlines was the killing of a security guard who was doing his job, holding down a killer and protecting the patrons. The whites who were taken alive (as indeed everyone should be) were mass murderers.
Maybe if we present the situation in that way, some university administrators will get it? Maybe we can start a campaign, responding to every university attempt at censorship with: “Stop, Think, are you being a racist cop?” Would that give them pause, would they reconsider their knee-jerk “censor them first, fire them if they will not be silenced?”
Seriously, if administrators now consider a cuddly bear flying a kite, albeit with a Palestinian flag, as a possible endorsement of incitement to violence, how are they different from the most viciously racist cops?
This is happening as Jewish students and faculty on many campuses are also expressing their frustration with administrators and staff’s cracking down on criticism of Israel from within the Jewish community, while providing a platform for Israeli propagandists. Jewish Voice for Peace’s report, Stifling Dissent, provides solid analysis of the divide within the Jewish American community over Palestine advocacy. At Northeastern University, for example, Hillel alienated and excommunicated students who established relationships with members of Students for Justice in Palestine, pushing both students and faculty to the margins, or even off campus, while inviting Israeli activist Itamar Marcus to speak on campus and using that speech as a fundraiser for Hillel. Marcus is former president of the Central Fund of Israel, an organization highlighted in a New York Times article for using its tax exemption to fund settlement projects in the West Bank. Marcus himself lives in the Efrat settlement.
The struggle to speak truth to power, the “permission to narrate,” as Edward Said put it, has been going on for decades, but has recently shifted from isolated individual cases to a national issue, thanks to the visibility of faculty who openly challenged their censorship and unfair treatment, and the support of a few legal and civil rights organizations (Palestine Legal and the ACLU have done much needed work to stem the assault on Palestine advocacy).
It is time to elevate it one step further. Let’s ask our administrators to “stop, and think, before you censor.” Or be academia’s racist cops.