Administrators against justice in Palestine

March 18, 2014

Eric Ruder examines the anti-Palestine backlash orchestrated by pro-Israel groups.

THE WAR of campus administrators against students and faculty who speak in support of Palestinian rights and against Israeli apartheid reached a crescendo in mid-March at a number of universities.

To cite the three most prominent examples:

In Boston, Northeastern University officials banned the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and threatened two students with disciplinary action for a protest in which activists posted mock eviction notices designed to draw attention to the demolition of Palestinian homes by Israeli forces. Though SJP clearly marked the mock eviction notices so they couldn't be mistaken as the real thing, the university claims the notices targeted Jewish students and made them feel "unsafe."

In New York City, Barnard University administrators removed an SJP banner calling for solidarity with Palestine one day after it had been hung. The university had given prior approval for the banner to be displayed, but reversed itself, also after receiving complaints that it made Jewish students feel "unsafe."

Campus administrators crack down on Students for Justice in Palestine

In Chicago, Columbia College denied a grievance filed by instructor Iymen Chehade protesting the violation of his academic freedom. Chehade was instructed by his department chair to teach in a "more balanced" way after a student complained about Chehade's use of the Oscar-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras in class.

In one respect, this is nothing new. At each of these institutions, these attacks on free speech and academic freedom are the culmination of years-long campaigns, in which administrators have worked as accomplices to pro-Israel groups such as the David Project that spearheaded crusades against pro-Palestine student groups and faculty.

But such high-profile attacks come at a critical moment right now. At a time when the boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) movement against Israeli apartheid is enjoying its greatest prominence since its inception in 2005, pro-Israel groups are getting more desperate in their drive to silence it. And they are willing to use any measure, no matter how underhanded, to accomplish their ends.

Their bag of dirty tricks includes campaigns to disrupt and deny the right to free speech; baseless charges designed to undermine academic freedom and intimidate professors; and the phony claim that the frank discussion of Palestinian rights is tantamount to a violation of federal civil rights law.

Pro-Israel groups are using these methods to avoid a debate about legitimate issues that should concern all academics, intellectuals and students--namely, the long and well-documented record of Israel's violations of international law in its decades-long military occupation of Palestine; its use of ethnic cleansing by means of laws, violence, terror and home demolitions to drive Palestinians from their homes; and its denial of equal rights to Palestinians living inside the borders of Israel.

Understanding the strategies and tactics of pro-Israel groups is necessary for the developing movement for justice in Palestine to defend itself.

ONE OF the most prominent pro-Israel groups attempting to make American universities "Palestine-free" zones is the David Project, which was founded by notorious neocon and Islamophobe Charles Jacobs in 2002.

In 2012, the David Project published a report titled "A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America's Universities and Colleges" summarizing lessons learned over the years. One of the most revealing points the report makes is that anti-Semitism is actually quite rare on college campuses today:

Pro-Israel organizations have often cast the challenge on campus as an assault on Jewish students, rather than as a spreading pervasive negativity toward Israel. Casting the issue in these terms does not jive with the lived experience of many Jewish students, who know they can identify as Jews and largely not suffer repercussions...Racial anti-Semitism of the kind most associated with the Nazis is not likely a serious problem on any American college campus. Swastikas appearing on a dorm room door or other similar manifestations are often dealt with quickly and seriously.

Since outright claims of anti-Semitism don't work, according to the report, Israel apologists should try a different approach--such as accusing professors of pedagogical wrongdoing. Though that doesn't mean that pro-Israel groups never use the charge of "anti-Semitism" to silence their critics--as discussed below--other tactics may be more productive, according to "A Burning Campus?":

[A]ccusing faculty members who propagandize against Israel of "academic malpractice" is likely to be a much more effective strategy than challenging specific allegations or invoking anti-Jewish bigotry. Rightly or wrongly, the current campus atmosphere is much more sympathetic to charges that teachers are not satisfactorily teaching their subject than to complaints of anti-Jewish bias, and Israel supporters will likely have a greater practical impact by framing their concerns in this manner.

This is precisely the strategy that Zionist groups at Columbia College have used to target Iymen Chehade, but it's hardly the only or even the most visible example of this approach. For years, the David Project, which has offices in Boston, New York and Israel, made a special example of targeting Columbia University professor Joseph Massad, a respected scholar of modern Arab politics and intellectual history.

As Ali Abunimah recounts in his chapter entitled "The War on Campus" in his new book The Battle for Justice in Palestine:

A major component of the vilification campaign against Columbia faculty was a 2004 documentary produced by the David Project, Columbia Unbecoming, in which students alleged that Massad and other faculty had intimidated and abused those who disagreed with their critical views on Israel and had made anti-Semitic remarks in class. The campaign had high-level support from Congressman Anthony Weiner, then still a rising star before his eventual fall from grace in a lewd-photo scandal.

After a three-month investigation by a faculty investigative committee, Columbia University concluded that the allegations against Massad were unfounded. According to a New York Times editorial:

There is no evidence that anyone's grade suffered for challenging the pro-Palestinian views of any teacher or that any professors made anti-Semitic statements. The professors who were targeted have legitimate complaints themselves. Their classes were infiltrated by hecklers and surreptitious monitors, and they received hate mail and death threats.

AT NORTHEASTERN, however, apologists for Israeli apartheid have resorted to outright claims of anti-Semitism--even though they are just as baseless as the false allegations made at Columbia/Barnard.

Last July, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) wrote a letter threatening Northeastern University that its federal funding could be at risk if the university didn't address the "hostile environment" faced by Jewish students on campus. The ZOA said it was considering filing a lawsuit alleging that the university was in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that protects students from racial and ethnic discrimination at federally funded educational institutions.

According to a report that first aired on local television, an anonymous group of Jewish students at Northeastern accused Northeastern administrators of "an atmosphere of intimidation of those who are supportive of Israel, or an official indulgence of anti-Semitism."

Such frivolous accusations might be amusing if they weren't obscuring that there truly is a threat of ethnic and racial discrimination against Northeastern students, namely those who openly speak out for Palestinian rights.

The campaign against pro-Palestine voices at Northeastern has targeted professors and SJP members alike, and Americans for Peace and Tolerance--in reality, a Zionist organization known for extreme vitriol--has posted a Facebook page called "Exposing Islamic Extremism at Northeastern University" where commenters have made death threats against pro-Palestine activists by name.

According to a report at

Jewish Students for Justice in Palestine member Max Geller (no relation to Pamela) has received a litany of violent threats [in early November], along with accusations of being a "self-hating Jew" and a "terrorist sympathizer." One commenter on the page who identified himself as a former marine, for instance, wrote of Geller, "I would seriously introduce that kid to the inside of an ambulance." Geller told The Electronic Intifada that private messages were even more explicit and included death threats.

This same dynamic is repeated on campus after campus. While the David Project acknowledges that instances of discrimination against Jewish students are rare, the charge of "anti-Semitism" and "creating a climate of intolerance" is used to silence pro-Palestine organizations. In the process, both Palestinian and Jewish students who openly advocate solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for justice are subjected to smear campaigns, violations of their rights and even threats of violence.

Consider this statement by the Columbia SJP after university administrators, in close consultation with pro-Israel groups, removed their banner, but didn't even notify SJP members of their decision:

The fact that our banner has been taken down now is a direct violation of our freedom of expression. The removal of our banner this morning has left members of Columbia SJP, Palestinian students on campus and other students that are often marginalized and silenced, feeling that Barnard College does not follow its own anti-discrimination policies. We are alarmed to know that "Palestine" and "justice" are not acceptable in Barnard's educational space and that certain voices are discriminated against by the College.

Likewise, Louise Love, the interim provost at Columbia College in Chicago, signed the letter rejecting Iymen Chehade's grievance that his academic freedom had been violated. But in 2005, as associate provost at Chicago's Roosevelt University, Love supported the decision of a department chair to fire adjunct professor Douglas Giles for his refusal to bar students in his World Religions class from asking whatever questions they wanted and/or discussing Zionism or anything related to Palestinian views about Jerusalem.

Love even defended the department chair as "defending her position passionately" when she called Palestinians "animals" and "not civilized," according to Giles' account of his dealings with Love. And stealing a page from the David Project's playbook, Love said that the department chair's demand that Giles restrict the content of his course "is not an issue of academic freedom but a pedagogical one."

REFLECTING ON the recent flurry of attacks against SJP chapters, former New York Times columnist Chris Hedges shook his head at the betrayal of the traditional Jewish values of solidarity and social justice. His article, "Israel's War on American Universities," notes that the Israeli government is directing its network of spies and pro-Zionist groups to use infiltration and subterfuge to link the BDS movement to "Islamic extremism."

He laments:

The launching of campus-wide defamation campaigns from supposedly religious houses is a sacrilege to the Jewish religion. In seminary, I read enough of the great Hebrew prophets, whose singular concern was for the oppressed and the poor, to know that they would not be found today in Hillel centers but would instead be protesting with SJP activists. The campus Hillel centers, with lavish budgets and gleaming buildings on campuses often situated in centers of urban blight, offer running events, lectures and programs to promote official Israeli policy. They arrange free trips to Israel for Jewish students as part of the "Taglit Birthright" program, functioning as an Israeli government travel agency. While Jewish students, often with no familial connection to Israel, are escorted in these well-choreographed propaganda tours of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who remain trapped in squalid refugee camps cannot go home although their families may have lived for centuries on what is now Israeli land.

Hedges cites his conversation with Max Blumenthal, currently touring to discuss his book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, making a similar point:

On numerous occasions, Israel lobby groups and pro-Israel activists have attempted to pressure organizations into canceling my events before they took place. I have been slandered by teenage pro-Israel students, prominent magazine columnists and even Alan Dershowitz as an anti-Semite, and my family has been attacked in right-wing media simply for hosting a book party for me. The absurd lengths pro-Israel activists have gone to to stop my journalism and analysis from reaching a wide audience perfectly illustrate their intellectual exhaustion and moral poverty. All they have left is loads of money to buy off politicians and the unlimited will to defend the only nuclearized apartheid state in the Middle East. As young Arabs and Muslims assert their presence on campuses across the country and Jewish Americans reel in disgust at Netanyahu's Israel, we are witnessing pro-Israel forces wage a fighting retreat. The question is not whether they will win or lose, but how much damage they can do to free-speech rights on their way towards a reckoning with justice.

It would be heartening if prominent liberal intellectuals would agree with all of my conclusions, or would accept the legitimacy of BDS...But the only reasonable expectation we can hold for them is that they speak up in defense of those whose free-speech rights and rights to organize are being crushed by powerful forces. Unfortunately, when those forces are arrayed in defense of Israel, too many liberal intellectuals are silent or, as in the case of Michael Kazin, Eric Alterman, Cary Nelson and a who's who of major university presidents, they actively collaborate with fellow elites determined to crush Palestine solidarity activism through anti-democratic means.

BUT IT'S essential to understand that pro-Israel groups are indeed on the defensive. Each time the BDS movement chalks up a victory, such as the recent vote by the American Studies Association (ASA) to honor the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, the attempts by Zionist groups to fight back further expose the bankruptcy of their position.

For instance, the backlash against the ASA vote led an impressive array of progressive civil rights organizations, including the National Lawyers Guild, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, to issue a muscular statement in defense of academic boycotts as a constitutionally legitimate and historically proven strategy for taking a stand:

Contrary to the positions taken by some university administrators, the significant threat to academic freedom and to free speech and association rights does not come from the ASA's nonbinding academic boycott resolution. It comes from official university responses that communicate intolerance for and in some cases an intent to quash controversial views on the human rights issues underlying the boycott resolution and to expressions of support for principled protests against widely documented human rights abuses by the Israeli government. In a rush to dissociate themselves from the boycott resolution, some schools have trampled academic freedom, while purportedly defending it...

[S]tudents and faculty who express support for BDS, or merely criticize Israeli policies and practices, are being branded as anti-Semites, and official student organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Students Association are being maligned as potentially disloyal to U.S. interests and laws. These accusations, and fearful anticipation of them, chill activism by students and faculty as well as faculty guidance. Foreshadowing the rise of a new McCarthyism, they are the real threats to campus free speech, free association, and academic freedom.

What's more, our movement has three crucial advantages that Zionists lack. First, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. So long as we continue to stand in opposition to any and all instances of racism, including racism against both Palestinians and Jews and for the self-determination of people living under occupation, no one can deny that we stand on the side of justice.

Second, solidarity is a powerful force, and it's abundantly clear that a new generation of Palestine activists understand the need to build solidarity with gay and lesbian groups, with African American organizations and with the immigrant rights movement, and that those groups likewise identify with the Palestinian struggle for liberation.

Third, and finally, history shows that grassroots struggles with the capacity to mobilize masses of people in a sustained manner can win remarkable victories--even in face of the decades-long "special relationship" between the world's only superpower and the Middle East's only apartheid state. U.S. diplomatic and military support for Israel cannot obscure the historical fact of what has occurred and is occurring in Palestine: the ethnic cleansing of an indigenous people. And after far too long, we are now witnessing the beginning of an anti-apartheid movement for the 21st century.

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