For years, pro-Palestine groups on university campuses have fought to destigmatize support for Palestinian rights in America, and dismantle the notion that criticism of the Israeli state’s policies towards Palestinians is anti-Semitic.
Despite their efforts through nationwide actions like “Israeli Apartheid Week”, divestment campaigns, educational conferences, and direct actions, groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) are often met with intense criticism and pushback.
Every few months, a headline emerges in the media concerning these students and their organizations. And while reports highlighting wins for the campus divestment movement are becoming more frequent, it is more often than not that when groups such as SJP gain mainstream attention, the stories are focused on accusations of anti-semitism, university investigations, and community wide condemnation.
These students, many of them people of color, are on the front lines of pro-Palestine activism in the US, and have played an active role in advocating for a shift in public opinion and policy towards the state of Israel’s human rights violations.
But as they lead this movement, they face increasing harassment at the hands of other pro-Israel student groups and the wider Israel lobby. Many have been bullied, blacklisted, and some even threatened with expulsion on account of their political beliefs.
The latest salvo in the battle surrounding Palestinian advocacy came to a head on two university campuses this spring: the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and Emory University.
In the wake of two incidents at the universities, a “mock eviction notice” action at Emory and a conference on Gaza at UNC, individual students, faculty, and organizations associated with Palestine activism became the targets of what they told Mondoweiss was a “smear campaign” aimed at “intimidating” pro-Palestine voices on campus.
Following condemnations and investigations from their respective universities and communities, and endless accusations of anti-Semitism, Mondoweiss spoke to students and faculty involved in both incidents at Emory and UNC to understand, from their point of view, the events that took place, and the wider implications for pro-Palestine activism on their campuses, and on university campuses across America.
UNC: A music performance ‘misconstrued’
In late March, UNC co-sponsored a conference with the Middle East Studies departments at Duke University called “Conflict over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities,” which consisted of a series of panels, discussions, and speeches by academic and policy experts.
The star of the conference, as far as many students and those familiar with Palestinian pop culture were concerned, was Palestinian musician Tamer Nafar, of the rap group DAM — the pioneers of the hip-hop scene in Palestine.
The opening night of the conference featured a performance from Nafar, whose music is rife with satire, political commentary, and bold statements about Palestinian resistance and women’s rights in Arab society, among many others.
“This is my anti-Semitic song,” Nafar told the crowd, before launching into DAM’s hit song “Mama, I fell in love with a Jew,” a humorous song about a Palestinian man who falls in love with a female Israeli soldier while stuck in an elevator, with lyrics like “Was it meant to be? Could she be the one?/Her name is not Janie but she’s got a gun.”
“I know it might sound [like] R&B stuff, but don’t think of Rihanna when you sing it, don’t think of Beyonce,” he continued. “Think of Mel Gibson. Go that anti-Semitic. Let’s try it together because I need your help. I cannot be anti-Semitic alone.”
The conference went on, and featured little to no controversy. It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when a pro-Israeli blogger published a video of Nafar’s comments from that night, excluding any context or the actual singing portion of the night.
The video elicited condemnations from the university’s Hillel chapter, UNC’s chancellor, and UNC Global, one of the departments who sponsored the conference, who said it was “heartbroken and offended.”
“How could you honestly believe that someone was saying that seriously?” Elyse Crystall, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UNC, told Mondoweiss.
Crystall, a Jewish woman, is the faculty advisor for SJP at UNC Chapel Hill, and is widely involved in pro-Palestine activism outside of the university as well, including with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). She was in the crowd during Nafar’s performance.
“I thought it was brilliant, ironic, satirical and a critique,” Crystall said, as she recounted the events of that night, which she described as lighthearted and fun.
Everyone in the audience, she says, which included several Jewish activists like herself, were singing along. “I came home singing the song to my partner,” she said.
“It was completely obvious that he was being sarcastic, not only sarcastic, but he was making a pointed critique of the US,” she continued. “It’s like he was holding up a mirror to us Americans.”
“Here we are thinking, ‘oh here’s this Palestinian Arab man of course he hates Jews and Israelis, and it’s like we’re waiting for him to say something anti-Semitic. When in reality, we’ll watch Mel Gibson and no one calls him out for real anti-Semitism, but when we look at Palestinians we automatically think they hate Jews,” Crystall said.
From there, she said, things started “spiralling out of control.”
Departments at the university that sponsored the conference began asking for their money back, and a local congressional representative even wrote a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asking her to open an investigation into one of the UNC departments that sponsored the event, because that department receives funding from the Department of Education.
Crystall said that while she wasn’t sure if the Department of Education was launching an investigation, she “wouldn’t be surprised if they did,” given the fact they were essentially being accused of helping to fund an “anti-Semitic conference.”
“We talk about anti-Semitism as something that is real, and it is a very real threat,” Crystall remarked. “But this wasn’t it,” she said, referencing Nafar’s performance and the conference as a whole.
‘Flyer-gate’ at Emory
Around the same time that backlash was erupting against the students and conference organizers at UNC, a similar situation was unfolding just a few hours south at Emory University in Atlanta.
During the first week of April, the school’s chapter of SJP was participating in the nationwide “Israeli Apartheid Week” on campus, in which they held a series of actions and demonstrations meant to highlight the ongoing human and civil rights abuses of the Israeli occupation in Palestine.
One of the actions was passing out “mock eviction flyers” in campus dorms, a popular action used by SJP’s across the country, meant to draw attention to Israel’s practice of forcible home demolitions and evictions in the occupied Palestinian territory.
The backlash was instantaneous. Students involved in SJP woke up the next day to an onslaught of criticisms, condemnations, and accusations of anti-Semitism. They were accused of deliberately targeting Jewish students with the flyers, claims the SJP said were false.
“There was absolutely nothing wrong with those fliers,” Atta Hindi, a Palestinian-American law student at Emory told Mondoweiss. “The students were simply raising issues concerning Palestinian human rights, there was nothing anti-Jewish about it,” he said, highlighting the fact that the fliers were clearly marked as fake.
Despite SJP’s best efforts to combat what they called the “bigoted smear campaign” against them, and an opinion letter by the Emory University Senate Standing Committee for Open Expression finding that SJP did not target Jewish students, the condemnations continued to roll in.
The director of the Emory Hillel sent an email to students, parents, and alumni that the group was working with the university to ensure “the safety our students deserve to feel in their homes on campus.”
The Jewish Federation of greater Atlanta released a statement saying “the nature and the language in the notices was threatening, potentially violating students’ fundamental sense of safety” and that “[t]he content is unambiguously hateful with clear anti-Semitic overtones.”
Yard signs began popping up in communities around the university saying “We Stand With Emory’s Jewish Students.” Pro-Israel groups on campus began calling for “serious consequences” for anyone involved in the incident.
The pro-Israel Anti Defamation League (ADL) released a statement condemning the university for its “slow and inadequate response.”
But the university did respond, apologizing, condemning the action, and swiftly calling for investigations into the incident in a series of student-wide emails, Hindi told Mondoweiss.
“They apologized for something they didn’t need to apologize for,” Hindi said. “And that’s really upsetting for us.”
Double standards and ‘disproportionate’ reactions
In both the Emory and UNC cases, students and professors told Mondoweiss that they felt the university administrations exercised disproportionate reactions towards the SJP incidents, versus other “scandals” or incidents on campus.
In the case of UNC, the video that sparked the controversy was put together by right-wing filmmaker Ami Horowitz, known for going undercover to record and misrepresent the views of activists and people on the left.
Posing under a false identity, Horowitz secretly recorded students at the conference as he asked them questions about Ilhan Omar, Jewish influence on American politics, and other topics meant to elicit, what he hoped, were anti-Semitic responses.
“He started asking clearly loaded questions that seemed intended to get me to agree to anti-Semitic ideas, like ‘I don’t think it should be wrong to ask how Jewish money influences the US, do you?’, to which he would add ‘don’t worry, I’m Jewish and I think that’s not anti-Semitic’,” Aman Aberra, a PhD candidate at Duke University, told Mondoweiss.
After their conversation, Aberra said he began warning other students at the conference about Horowitz. Many of the students he spoke to, most of them Palestinian and students of color, said they had already been approached by Horowitz in a similar manner.
“After the video was released and parts were covered in local media, UNC administration and members of the NC state legislature responded by painting the entire conference as an anti-semitic, anti-Israel event based on heavily edited video clips,” Aberra said.
Despite one department, UNC Global, releasing a statement pointing to the fact that the content “was heavily edited, out of context, and didn’t capture the nature of the actual conference,” Aberra said, other administrators and departments went on to call Nafar an “anti-Semitic musician” and demand their sponsorship money back.
“These reactions were clearly disproportionate and ignored any nuance or context to the obviously satirical song and performance,” Aberra said, adding that he found the conference to be relatively moderate, and would not even classify it as anti-Zionist.
For Crystall, “the biggest disappointment” was that those who were “quick to judgement” on the conference and Nafar’s performance, were not actually in attendance that night.
“Lots of faculty were the main people in that audience, and none of us were asked what were thinking when that was happening,” she told Mondoweiss.
An even bigger outrage, she said, was the fact that the administration was “disproportionately reacting” to accusations of anti-Semitism surrounding SJP, when in the past, the same administration has failed to address actual instances of anti-Semitism on campus and in the local community.
“We have had issues over the last few years with neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, heir to the confederacy, and actual hateful, anti-Semitic organizations being active on campus on a regular basis,” she said, referencing an instance where one such group passed out anti-Semitic flyers on campus.
“But in those cases, there was never been any condemnation of white supremacy by any administrators or campus organizations, but they were all quick to jump on SJP.”
At Emory, similar circumstances led students to make almost identical claims against their school administrators in the wake of the flyer scandal.
Around the same time that “flyergate” was happening, the school’s ablution room, a space used by Muslims for cleansing rituals before prayer, was found desecrated.
University President Claire E. Sterk reportedly sent an email saying “sacred places on our campuses deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,”and that “it breaks my heart to learn that one of Emory’s sacred spaces, used especially by Muslim members of our community, has been violated.”
According to The Emory Wheel, the email was not sent as a student-wide message — unlike the three student-wide emails sent regarding the flyers — leading to more anger amongst students who felt the issue wasn’t being treated with the necessary gravity.
“If you were to compare the two reactions, yes absolutely, there was a gap in how the university responded,” Hindi told Mondoweiss. “There’s a fundamental difference in the way they reacted to one versus the other.”
Harassment and intimidation
In the wake of the events at Emory and Duke, the most worrying outcome for those who spoke to Mondoweiss was the fear among students who became the targets of intense online and in-person harassment.
“This whole experience has been terribly chilling,” Crystall told Mondoweiss. “People are of course afraid of being called racists and anti-Semites, Arab students even more so.”
“It’s going to affect the Palestinian and Arab-American students more than the non-Arab students who are apart of SJP,” she said.
Some families of students, she continued, have already started pressuring their kids to drop out of SJP for fear of future consequences in their professional careers.
“It’s not easy in a political climate like this, it’s scary. There is going to be a change in how much people feel they can talk about the occupation,” Crystall said.
Aberra expressed similar concerns to Mondoweiss, saying he believed students are becoming “more wary of being outspoken and visible in their advocacy for justice and equality for Palestinians.”
“Supporters of Israel have become more brazen in painting almost any critique of Israel as anti-semitic while discarding free speech and academic freedom,” he said. “This produces a chilling effect, where students are less willing to wade into this issue, since it’s perceived as dangerous to their reputations or careers.”
In a public statement following the uproar surrounding the flyers, Emory SJP condemned what they called the “racist harassment campaign against Palestinian rights advocates.”
According to the group, alt-right blogs, anti-Muslim hate sites, and pro-Israel lobbying groups committed the following acts against students involved with SJP: intimidated students with frivolous legal actions; engaged in cyber-bullying; sent death threats and threats of violence; destroyed and removed advocacy materials/flyers; disrupted events; stalked individual students, including documenting them at their places of work; and called police officers on black students who were involved in leafleting for events.
“The University, rather than also lending support to its student activists over the harassment they are facing, instead provided extra psychological support to students who were ‘offended’ by activism, lending credibility to frivolous attacks,” Emory SJP (ESJP) said in the statement.
“The lack of similar support towards the student organizers of ESJP is particularly appalling, given the recorded amount of threats, cyber-bullying, and mocking that these concerned student activists have endured over the past week.”
A wider trend
For many of those involved, the events that transpired in April on the UNC and Emory campuses are much more than traumatic personal experiences.
What happened on those campuses, the sweeping accusations of anti-Semitism, the biased and heavy-handed response from university administrators, and the subsequent smear campaigns that took place in the media, were all indicative of a worrying, and longstanding trend in Palestinian activist circles in the US.
In their statement at the time, ESJP noted that the “bogus accusations” that they had purposefully targeted Jewish students with the “anti-Semitic flyers” were also used against other SJP groups at five other universities in the US when they handed out similar mock eviction notices. The group highlighted the cases of New York University, Harvard, Northeastern, Rutgers, and Florida Atlantic University. In each case, “all available evidence and further investigations subsequently indicate that the allegations of targeting Jews are baseless,” ESJP said. Despite this, the harassment continued.
“Student activism that challenges the Israeli occupation has been controversial and strongly resisted by university administrations, and the US government at various levels, from the beginning, but in recent times, the climate has become even more heated and difficult,” Aberra told Mondoweiss.
That being said, Aberra sees “the intensified attacks on free speech and student activism against the Israeli occupation as indicative of the effectiveness and impact of our work in changing public opinion, both on campus and in the broader American public.”
He continued, “The way this video was so easily instrumentalized to denounce an entire conference, ignoring all nuance and context, is just another example of how defenders of Israeli apartheid are more fearful of, and reactive to, the growing mass of critical voices demanding an end to our support for these injustices.”