Students and faculty push back on pro-Palestine censorship

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In recent weeks, the chancellors at two universities have targeted pro-Palestinian voices on their respective campuses. The moves come amidst a wider crackdown on such perspectives which is being fueled by the Trump administration’s Department of Education.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

On October 9, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign chancellor Robert Jones sent out a mass email titled “Addressing Anti-Semitism.” The email referenced swastika graffiti that had been found in a university building, but also condemned a September 25 presentation to residence-hall advisers titled “Palestine & Great Return March: Palestinian Resistance to 70 Years of Israeli Terror.” Jones claimed that the presentation contained “anti-Semitic content” that could potentially create an unsafe environment for students.

A Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (SJP UIUC) member (who asked to remain anonymous) told Mondoweiss that Jones had previously neglected to inform students about the swastika, claiming that providing information about every such incident would desensitized students to real threats.

Upset over Jones’ condemnation of the event and his conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, members of SJP UIUC met with the chancellor to express their concerns. At that meeting, Jones admitted that it wasn’t the content of the presentation that inspired his remarks, but the concerns of one student who attended the event. SJP UIUC says that the student who attacked the presentation also used racist language while referencing a black university resident and that their credibility on this issue is questionable. Jones said that the section of the presentation that ignited the concerns related to one slide on Palestinian “martyrdom.” According to Jones, this part of the event equated all Israelis with terrorists.

However, Professor Bruce Rosenstock, who teaches a course on anti-Semitism at the school and had the student who made the presentation in one of this classes, has pointed out that the presentation only used the term “martyrs” to describe Palestinians murdered in the Gaza Freedom March, not suicide bombers who have killed innocent people. At the meeting, SJP UIUC president and University of Illinois student Dumia Ghanimah told Jones that her cousin was killed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and that the term “martyrs” was an alternative to simply referring to murdered Palestinians as “victims.”

On October 15th, SJP UIUC called on Jones to correct his mistakes in a new mass email and on October 17 they held a teach-in explaining their demands. On October 18, the group held protests at the school’s homecoming parade demanding action.

On October 23rd, the Illinois Student Government passed a resolution titled “Condemning Ignorance of Racism and Equating Anti-Zionism with Anti-Semitism” (PDF) via a vote of 29-4. The resolution condemned Jones for the email and lack of subsequent action, and for his conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism with the resolution says, “[slandered] many students’ image and their cause.” The resolution also reads in part:

WHEREAS, Zionism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a political stance whose object is “the assured settlement of [Jewish people’s] race upon a national basis in Palestine,” while Anti-Semitism is defined as “Prejudice, hostility, or discrimination towards Jewish people;”

and,  WHEREAS, the administration has had a history of equating Anti-Zionism with Anti-Semitism; as with the 2018 Divest campaign, and;

WHEREAS, this false equivalence has gained national prominence as a method for cloaking legitimate anti-Semitism behind attacks on political ideologies opposed to religious violence; and;

WHEREAS, this false equivalence has been used as a scare tactic against students and workers in the Palestine movement, and it is rooted in a false understanding of what the  movement advocates for;

“As the Chancellor prides himself in being a leader of a higher education institution, he failed in making a fundamental distinction, putting students lives and education at risk, leaving students with no choice but to take matters into their own hands,” said the SJP UIUC in a statement.

University of Massachusetts Amherst

On October 21, University of Massachusetts Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy also put out a statement condemning a pro-Palestine event, although this one is forthcoming. On November 12, the school is scheduled to host a panel titled “Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS & Pro-Palestinian Speech.” The event will feature Cornel West, Shaun King, Tim Wise, Dima Khalidi of Palestine Legal, Linda Sarsour, and remarks  from Omar Barghouti via Skype, as the Trump administration has banned the BDS co-founder from entering the United States. The event was organized by UMass communications professor Sut Jhally, who has long been a target of pro-Israel groups as a result of his advocacy for Palestinian rights.

“It is troubling that such a one-dimensional, polarizing event should take place on our campus,” reads Subbaswamy’s statement, “A panel discussion where only one perspective is shared does little to increase the understanding of such a complex topic like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Furthermore, because the BDS position in general fails to acknowledge the humanity on the Israeli side of the conflict and is considered by many as anti-Semitic, the upcoming event could very well alienate many of our Jewish students and other members of our campus community.”

Subbaswamy’s remarks also come in response a coordinated campaign of pressure from the pro-Israel group Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA.) On October 11, CAMERA’s Dexter Van Zile published an op-ed in the Algemeiner Journal claiming that Jhally abuses academic freedom. “It’s a violation of the social contract between tenured professors at publicly-funded institutions, the students they serve, and the taxpayers,” reads the piece, “…Chancellor Dr. Kumble R. Subbaswamy, can’t or won’t act.”

A week later Van Zile published an op-ed titled, “The Scandal Continues at UMass Amherst”, that attacks and calls out Subbaswamy directly over the subject of Jhally. “Kumble Subbaswamy, the chancellor of UMass Amherst, made $579,000 last year, and his boss, Marty Meehan, president of the UMass system, made more than $659,000,” writes Van Zile, “Between the two of them, they made more than $1.2 million in 2018. And still, neither one of them will do their jobs when it comes to ensuring that professors don’t use college classrooms to coerce students into affirming their personal political agendas.”

Earlier this year, an anonymous pro-Israel students tried to censor a panel that took place at UMass titled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights” by suing the school. The lawsuit was unsuccessful and the event took place on May 4th. The following month, a Boston judge ruled that the lawsuit would not be able to proceed if the students remained anonymous.

UMass Amherst faculty members have sent Subbaswamy an open letter criticizing his statement. It reads in part:

We are not naïve and understand the pressure being brought to bear on the campus administration over events like this one. But it is precisely our awareness of the political context that makes us so alarmed by the chancellor’s statement. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill condemning BDS, and 27 states have already passed laws punishing advocates of BDS (a Massachusetts bill of this sort will be the subject of a hearing at the statehouse on November 19). These facts make clear that there is a nationwide, well-funded, and well-coordinated attack on public criticism of Israel. What we expect from our administrators is a robust defense of our academic freedom and especially the integrity and good name of our faculty, students, and staff. Swamy, you can do better than this.

UMass SJP has also sent the chancellor an open letter over the statement. The group points out that multiple university departments are sponsoring an October 29 talk on campus by Israeli historian Benny Morris, despite the fact that Morris has a history of Islamophobic comments and has aimed to justify the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. “The lack of concern you have shown for this event and your failure to prioritize the safety and security of students has disillusioned many of us, including Palestinian students, Muslim students and those in solidarity on our campus; and has made the double standards very clear- we will not be silent about them,” reads the letter.


“I have been a long-standing target of CAMERA mostly as a result of the films I have been involved in,” Jhally told Mondoweiss in a statement:

They have filed formal complaints to the university and have written long exposes about my “shameless propaganda.” Most recently they have been putting pressure on the university administration to do something about my teaching. (When I say “they”, it is actually one sorry individual, Dexter van Zile, who has written every piece and filed every complaint.) Finally they got what they wanted when the Chancellor caved to the pressure and echoing right-wing talking points…CAMERA’s aim is to chill the environment for any discussion of Palestinian human rights. In this they have been spectacularly unsuccessful as my faculty colleagues have rallied, against the Chancellor’s capitulation, to protect the intellectual independence of the campus. As such, I expect we will have another full-house, with incredible speakers, focusing on the suppression of free speech when it comes to any discussion of BDS. I am incredibly proud to work at an institution where the faculty, if not the administration, refuse to be bullied into submission by reactionary forces.

These developments come in a year that the Trump administration’s Department of Education has launched a crack down on university Middle East programs. Last month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos effectively threatened to cut funding to a University of North Carolina and Duke University Middle East consortium unless the program embraced pro-Israel views and developed a more critical tone on the subject of Islam. “This administration goes out of the way to show that it sees Muslims as second-class citizens,” tweeted Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar in response to the move, “There’s no place for Trump’s Islamophobic agenda in schools or anywhere else.”

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Pro-Palestinian censorship is proving to be an ever increasing impetus for pro-Palestinian advocacy. No surprise!!!

What’s with these people – academics, who are expected to have a minimum level of intelligence and knowledge – who claim that the other side, i.e. the Zionists, are being silenced? They can’t really believe it. They’re b-s-ing.

As a resident of Champaign and somebody who has closely followed such goings-on on this campus for 20 years, this is a serviceable account. Nevertheless, in the post-Salaita (2014) era, both the SJP on this campus, as well as the never-really-real JVP chapter, have been quiescent regarding these issues. Maybe this signals a change, but I doubt it. In the context of campus identity politics, the Palestinian issue has been folded into various other identity-based… Read more »

As far as Amherst, one can only hope that Linda Sarsour doesn’t completely discredit everything that is going on there. She is way bad news for those who care about the Palestinians.