Stephan Savoia / AP Photo

Report: Anti-Semitism charges used to curb pro-Palestinian campus speech

A new report documents US universities capitulating to pro-Israel pressure to limit Palestinian activism

The most common tactic used to suppress pro-Palestinian speech on U.S. college campuses is to use false accusations of anti-Semitism, according to a report released Wednesday by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights. The report is the first of its kind to document concerted efforts to silence Palestinian solidarity activism.

Of the 152 incidents targeting pro-Palestinian speech to which Palestine Legal responded in 2014, half of them involved accusations of anti-Semitism “based solely on speech critical of Israeli policy,” the report states. From Jan. 1 to June 30, 2015, 59 percent of the incidents involved accusations of anti-Semitism.

Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, an advocacy group for pro-Palestinian activists, told Al Jazeera that conflating criticism of Israeli policies or support for Palestinian human rights with anti-Semitism is wrong and dangerous.

“What we’re saying is that no state should be above criticism, whether it is the United States or Saudi Arabia or France or Israel,” she said. “So this idea that criticizing Israel or supporting Palestinian human rights is anti-Semitism — that’s what we’re saying is false.”

Roz Rothstein, the CEO of pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, disagrees. She believes that criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism but said there is no concerted effort to suppress free speech.

“There’s no strategy. There’s just a response to being harassed and to a greater number of anti-Semitic incidents,” she said. “The students are themselves not happy about it.”

The report also documents pro-Israel groups and university donors employing other tactics — including false accusations of support for terrorism, bureaucratic barriers, official denunciations and threats of criminal investigations — to silence criticism of Israel.

Such tactics have often led to immediate and punitive measures against those who speak out, organize events or write critically of Israel’s policies. The effect is to “chill criticism of Israeli government practices and impede a fair-minded dialogue on the pressing question of Palestinian rights,” the report says.

One of the highest-profile cases occurred in 2014, when the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign withdrew an offer to Steven Salaita, a professor of American Indian studies. He resigned from his previous post at Virginia Tech and moved to Chicago for the tenured position. Pro-Israel groups allegedly pressured the university to withdraw its offer after he tweeted criticism of Israel during that summer’s war in Gaza.

Steve Salaita, who had an offer of a tenured position withdrawn by the University of Illinois at Champaign, at a news conference in Champaign in 2014.
Seth Perlman / AP Photo

Salaita, who is suing the university for violating his First Amendment rights, told Al Jazeera that the termination “dramatically” affected his life.

“I live and work in Beirut now, which is a direct consequence of being fired,” he said. “My reputation has been badly damaged. My name will forever be associated with scurrilous accusations.”

In his tweets, he said on July 19, 2014, “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” The comment was made in reference to the large number of Palestinian children killed in last year’s war, which was directed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

During the war, more than 500 children in Gaza were killed and over 3,000 injured. The conflict left hundreds of children permanently disabled and psychologically damaged.

The University of Illinois defended its decision to withdraw the job offer to Salaita on Jan. 29, 2015, saying in a press release, “These statements [his tweets] and many more like them demonstrate that Dr. Salaita lacks the judgment, temperament and thoughtfulness to serve as a member of our faculty in any capacity, but particularly to teach courses related to the Middle East.”

“The board’s decision concerning Dr. Salaita was not reached hastily. Nor was it the result of external pressures. Indeed, the committee on academic freedom and tenure concurred that ‘donor influence’ was not a basis for the decision,” it continued.

But Salaita said he believes it is “reasonable to infer that outside pressure was decisive.”

“As the discovery process in the lawsuit moves forward, we’ll get an even clearer picture of the extent of outside involvement,” he said. 

Pressure on universities to silence pro-Palestinian speech and activities has sometimes led to administrators hastily changing campus policies, the report says.

In 2014, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a national student group, got approval to hang a banner at Barnard College reading “Stand for justice. Stand for Palestine,” with a silhouette of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip without internal borders, on a building that faces the main gate of the campus.

Within hours of hanging the banner, campus administrators removed it in response to an influx of complaints that it made “students, their parents and alumni feel uncomfortable and unsafe in the space,” Shezza Dallal of the college’s SJP chapter told Al Jazeera.

Student groups have used the space for decades to advertise events and campaigns with university approval, but after the SJP banner caused a stir, students “received notification that that space will no longer be used for student banners,” Dallal said.

The dean of Barnard, Avis Hinkson, released a statement addressing the banner controversy, saying the college has “begun to re-examine our policy.”

“It has been a long-standing tradition to allow any recognized Barnard or Columbia student group to reserve a space and hang a banner promoting their event. However, we understand that in hanging banners next to the official Barnard College banner, we may have inadvertently given the impression that the college supports these events,” she said.

Dallal said the banner incident reflects an overall trend of “repression and backlash and hostility” the SJP chapter faces on Barnard’s campus, “no matter how small our events are or how big.”

Palestine Legal documented 292 incidents of suppression of pro-Palestinian speech on campuses from 2014 to the end of June 2015, but Izzaddine Mustafa, a national SJP ad hoc steering committee member, said the actual number of such incidents is likely higher.

“Students are often unaware of their rights or maybe afraid to report an incident because of intimidation,” Mustafa told Al Jazeera. “Tactics we have seen include suspension and sanction of SJP chapters, students being forced to pay security fees that no other organization is subject to, baseless lawsuits filed against student organizers and university censorship of student banners and political speech.”

The number of incidents will likely increase in the next few months after billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson organized a summit in June 2015 to raise millions of dollars to combat the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on campuses.

The BDS movement, launched in 2005 by 171 Palestinian civil society groups promoting nonviolent resistance to Israel’s military occupation, has gained momentum in recent years — with artistsunions and churches all disassociating from Israel. The movement has encouraged student governments to vote that their universities divest from Israel and their faculties boycott collaboration with Israeli schools.

Adelson’s closed-door Las Vegas event, the Campus Maccabees Summit, reportedly raised $50 million toward countering BDS efforts on campuses.

“We do expect to see Israel advocacy groups increase attempts to silence speech supporting Palestinian rights in the 2015–16 academic year,” Sainath said. “Adelson has made it clear that he will try to use lawsuits and legal threats to chill speech critical of Israel.”

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