Over 350 faculty members have signed a petition supporting Palestinian rights and declaring that they won’t be intimidated by the Trump administration’s recent targeting of Middle East studies programs on campus. The petition was circulated by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) in response to the Department of Education (DOE) carrying out an investigation over a campus conference on Gaza that occurred last year.
This past March, the Consortium for Middle East Studies (a joint program between the University of North Carolina and Duke University) held a conference called “Conflict over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities.” At the event, a Palestinian performed a satirical song about an Arab developing feelings for an IDF solider. A pro-Israel blogger posted about the song online without context, which prompted a local Republican Congressman to call for the DOE to investigate the program for potential antisemitism.
Last month the DOE released the results of its investigation in the form of a letter, which read as a direct threat to program and others like it. It demanded a specific breakdown of potential spending and effectively implied that any Title VI funding would be cut unless the program became more pro-Israel and less complimentary of Islam. “A considerable emphasis placed on the understanding the positive aspects of Islam, while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East,” explains the letter.
While the brazenness of this move might have surprised some, it certainly didn’t shock JVP or other organizations that fight for the rights of Palestinians. After Trump nominated the rabidly pro-Israel Kenneth Marcus as assistant secretary for civil rights last year, groups like JVP and Palestine Legal warned that Marcus would push the DOE to crack down on pro-Palestine advocacy on campus.
The JVP petition is titled “Trump Can’t Silence Us.” It reads:
As academics from across disciplines and universities, we are horrified and disturbed by the Trump administration’s attempt to promote a narrow, neoconservative view of Middle East studies.
We recognize the investigation into Duke/UNC Chapel Hill for what it is – a warning that, if campuses allow the open discussion of Palestinian human rights, they risk being federally investigated, publicly chastised, and de-funded.
We say no. Palestinian human rights are one of the most urgent and important issues of our time. Curtailing the academic discussion of this issue to appease the Trump administration goes against every principle of free speech and academic freedom.
We pledge to keep talking about Palestine — teaching Palestinian history, citing Palestinian scholarship, sponsoring Palestinian events, and inviting Palesintian speakers, cultural workers, and activists to our classrooms and campuses.
We won’t be intimidated.
Tallie Ben Daniel is the Research and Education Manager for Jewish Voice for Peace. She told Mondoweiss that the government’s issue isn’t with this specific conference, but rather finding a catalyst to pushing its agenda. “They were always waiting for something like this to happen,” she said “The longterm goal is to create a culture of fear and Kenneth Marcus has been working on this for decades. The situation on campus is already scary and now it’s worse.”
Daniel pointed out that the issue of campus free speech has been hijacked by the right-wing under Trump, but said she was also hopeful that debate about these issues had opened more space for pro-Palestine voices. “Palestine has become a central issue of progressive politics under Trump,” she said, “It’s become normalized, so in this sense I’m hopeful.”