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Controversy at GWU

Another week, another campus controversy involving Palestine. This time it’s George Washington University (GWU), where anthropology professor Ilana Feldman was appointed interim dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs.

“Dr. Feldman brings to the interim dean role more than a decade of teaching and administrative experience at GW, most recently as vice dean at Elliott,” said GWU Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Brian Blake after the move was announced on May 8, “As an expert in her field with close working relationships with faculty, students and staff, she is an excellent choice to serve in this role. We are excited and pleased that she will lead Elliott during this challenging time.”

Feldman (who is Jewish) has studied Palestinian displacement for years, so it’s no great surprise that she’s supported BDS efforts. She voted for an American Anthropological Association boycott of Israeli academic institutions in 2016 and defended the move in a video.

This information predictably caused an uproar among pro-Israel campus organizations. GW for Israel acknowledged that it’s important to have different viewpoints at a school, but declared that “the outwardly anti-Israel sentiment Professor Feldman has repeatedly demonstrated will prevent from doing so while simultaneously targeting Israeli and Jewish students who have already faced harsh discrimination and hatred.”

So, Blake released a second statement. The school is sticking with Feldman, but they’d like to make it clear that they completely oppose BDS:

We have listened and heard the concerns from some members of our community about the appointment of Dr. Ilana Feldman as interim Dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs and personal views she has expressed about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The university’s policy on the BDS movement is very clear – GW does not support divestment or other actions called for by BDS. While the University supports academic freedom for all, members of the administration – including those in an acting or interim capacity – are required to comply with all University policies or actions, including those on BDS, and foster an atmosphere that allows all voices to be equally heard.  As vice dean, and now as interim dean, Dr. Feldman has and will adhere to all of our policies and specifically committed to adhering to GWU’s policy regarding freedom of expression.

The University also prioritizes the safety and security of everyone in our community. We do not tolerate discrimination in any form, including anti-Semitism and racism. We believe in an inclusive and robust community that respects all points of view.  These values are intrinsic to the GW community.

This wasn’t strong enough for the group AMCHA Initiative. “They don’t address the main problem — academic BDS differs from BDS in the very real harms it causes to campus community members,” said its director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, “GW’s statement further does not provide assurances that Feldman or any other faculty member won’t be permitted to carry out the actions of an academic boycott. Without these assurances, there is no stopping faculty from bringing their political activism onto campus and depriving students of their rights. GW can and must do better here with a clearer and more specific statement.”

Jewish Insider obtained a letter that was sent to GWU President Thomas LeBlanc from Hillel International President Adam Lehman. It warns that Feldman’s appointment will “have a chilling effect on faculty and students who wish to engage in scholarly activity in Israel and freely express and act on their support for Israel.” 

Newsweek ran an unhinged column by Asaf Romirowsky (executive director of something called Scholars for Peace in the Middle East!) arguing that postcolonial theory adds up to nothing more than an anti-Jewish conspiracy. “Feldman is a byproduct of the growth of academic specialization that has directly helped the Palestinian cause,” he writes, “The creation of academic sub-disciplines, and then journals, in areas such as refugee studies, human rights and international law has provided venues to generate a new, large literature on Palestinian-Arab refugees and UNRWA, the internationally funded welfare organization purportedly aimed at helping Palestinians.”

Peace in the Middle East, indeed.

Biden and Palestine

The Biden campaign published something on their website called “Joe Biden and the Jewish Community: A Record and a Plan of Friendship, Support and Action.” It highlights some policy objectives and the presumptive nominee’s “unstinting support for Israel.” It also declares that a Biden administration would “firmly reject the BDS movement, which singles out Israel — home to millions of Jews — and too often veers into anti-Semitism, while letting Palestinians off the hook for their choices.”

It’s unclear what these choices are.

Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) released a statement condemning Biden’s BDS stance:

Joe Biden “firmly” rejects the BDS movement, shamefully opposing the global nonviolent struggle for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality. Cutting US military aid to Israel is vital to the progressive agenda of #HealthcareNotWarfare and social, racial, climate and gender justice.

By rejecting BDS, Joe Biden endorses US complicity in Israel’s decades-old regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid, and supports depriving Palestinians of our fundamental human rights.

As Israel threatens de jure annexation, Biden advertises US military funding to Israel as “the best $3 billion investment we make.” Yet this “investment” enables Israel’s war crimes and crimes against humanity – massacres, ethnic cleansing, home demolitions and the siege of Gaza. Most Democratic voters now endorse sanctions on Israel, including conditioning military aid.

Americans should deplore US complicity in Israel’s oppression, especially at a time of heightened repression under the cover of COVID-19. #SpreadSolidarity

“This is the same failed US policy that’s gotten us to where we are,” tweeted JVP Action, “Joe Biden promises to do absolutely nothing to get Israel to change its actions. Instead committing to unconditional military funding & attacks against a social justice boycott, BDS.”

During a Zoom fundraiser this week, Biden reiterated his opposition to annexation. “I do not support annexation,” he said, “Israel needs to stop the threat of annexation and stop settlement activity, because it will choke off any hope for peace.” During a call with the lobbying group Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), Biden foreign policy adviser Anthony Blinken reiterated Biden’s opposition to conditioning military aid to Israel: “He completely opposes it, he would not tie military assistance to Israel to any political decisions Israel makes.”

Why Israel would halt its annexation plans or settlement expansion if it’s continuing to rake in over $3 billion a year from the U.S. government is also unclear.

Speaking of annexation, +972 Magazine editor Natasha Roth-Rowland tweeted out a 1984 article about Biden speaking at a Herut Zionists of America conference. Their “logo was literally an outline map of territory on both sides of the River Jordan.”

Maybe someone can ask the presumptive nominee if his position on annexation has changed, as his position on moving the embassy did.

Odds & Ends

🇺🇸 With a pandemic gripping the nation, lawmakers in Missouri and Oklahoma prioritized…passing anti-BDS bills. Both bills are expected to be signed into law by the Republican Governors of the states. “In the midst of a global pandemic, it is dismaying that state lawmakers in Missouri and Oklahoma have prioritized passing bills that punish those who boycott for justice,” Palestine Legal Senior Staff Attorney Meera Shah told me, “Year after year, activists in these states successfully fought back against anti-boycott bills. This year, while legislative sessions were truncated due to COVID-19, and people sheltering in place were unable to fight back, lawmakers made the time to pass bills aiming to silence constitutionally protected speech in support of Palestinian rights. These laws will be challenged.”

🇮🇱 It’s been a decade since Israel attacked a flotilla of ships trying to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza. The Israeli Navy killed nine activists on the Mavi Marmara, which was the flagship of the flotilla. Cultures of Resistance and the Gaza Freedom Flotilla Coalition are holding a May 30 webinar with documentary filmmaker Iara Lee, author and speaker Dr. Norman Finkelstein and passengers from the Mavi Marmara. You can sign up for the event here. Capacity is limited to 500 people and everyone who signs up will receive a free digital copy of Finkelstein book I ACCUSE!

⚖️ From a National Lawyers Guild press release: “Anti-Palestinian activist and serial litigant David Abrams has voluntarily agreed to dismiss a lawsuit against the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) filed after NLG refused to publish Abrams’ advertisement indicating that Gush Etzion is part of Israel. In fact, Gush Etzion is an illegal settlement on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank.”

🇵🇸 Palestine Legal and eight other civil rights groups have filed a complaint with the inspector general for the Department of Education. They want Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus to be investigated over his handling of a case at Rutgers University where he potentially broke federal laws. In 2011 the right-wing, pro-Israel group Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) filed a complaint against the university, claiming that a Nakba event had created a hostile environment for Jewish students.

The DOE dismissed the case over a lack of evidence, but shortly after taking office Marcus reopened it. “The investigation has cast a shadow over our organizing. We were already facing Zionist intimidation as well as repressive policies for protest on campus,” Rutgers Students for Justice in Palestine has said, “The investigation has added to that, especially for younger students who hadn’t been part of SJP before all this. People are afraid to rock the boat. Everyone has been very cautious about how we do things.”

✉️ There’s a Dear Colleague letter condemning settler violence against Palestinians (which has spiked during the COVID-19 crisis) that’s moving around DC. It’s led by Jared Huffman (D-CA), Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), and John Yarmuth (D-KY). The letter is addressed to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. “We believe the United States must condemn all acts of violence that pull us further away from peace and should make its condemnation clear whether the victim is Israeli or Palestinian,” it reads, “We therefore urge you to urgently and publicly speak out against settler violence and work with relevant Israeli authorities.”

Take care of one another, wash your hands, and wear a mask,

Michael