Excerpted from Dawn (Democracy for the Arab World Now)
Israel’s total war on Gaza, following Hamas’s horrific terrorist attack on Oct. 7, has roiled higher education in the United States. The atrocities committed by Hamas in southern Israel two months ago have reverberated on many U.S. campuses, deeply traumatizing many Jewish students. But so too has Israel’s massive military response in Gaza, which has been equally shocking to Palestinian-American, Arab American and Muslim American students, among many others.
In the heated atmosphere prevailing since then, questions have arisen about the limits to free speech in the classroom, among student and faculty organizations, and on the social media accounts of university members, from professors to administrators. Often, these charged debates reflect the advent of significant numbers of minority students on university campuses, some from the post-1965 immigration wave, who view the Israel-Palestine conflict very differently than the white majority on many campuses, as a recent Gallup poll demonstrates. These controversies also reflect the efforts of special interest groups and outside organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, to discipline campus speech and brand some of it as support for terrorism.
Some of these campaigns have attempted to silence Palestinian-Americans and their perspectives outright. In October, Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis ordered all public universities in the state to derecognize Students for Justice in Palestine chapters on their campus. The move came after the organization issued a “toolkit” for understanding the context of the Oct. 7 attacks, in which they characterized Hamas as a resistance organization. The SJP insisted that its student members are part of the resistance, not merely in solidarity with it. DeSantis’s order immediately provoked threats of civil lawsuits that would personally name university officials participating in the shutdown. Emma Camp at Reason magazine reported that as a result, the Chancellor of the University of Florida system, Ray Rodrigues, announced that he was backing off any action against SJP, though he did hold out the possibility that the university would require the group to pledge nonviolence and disassociate itself from Hamas. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a civil liberties group, immediately pointed out that that requirement would also be unconstitutional.
But that did not stop the Anti-Defamation League and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law from taking up DeSantis’s program, writing a letter to university presidents pressuring them to close down SJP chapters on the grounds that the group gave material assistance to terrorism (a charge the letter does not substantiate). Under U.S. law, “material assistance” involves training, expert advice or assistance, service and personnel. Given that the SJP is not hosting training camps for Hamas fighters or actively advising the organization on tactics, the letter is nonsensical and, in a just world, would be found libelous.
Clearly, some pro-Israel and avowedly Zionist organizations would like to substitute pro-Palestinian sentiments today for the Communism of the 1940s and 1950s, and to tag any advocate of Palestinian rights as a terrorist.
– Juan Cole
Ironically, critics such as Emmaia Gelman, a scholar and longtime Jewish left activist, have argued that the ADL, despite representing itself as a force against bigotry, “has a long history of wielding its moral authority to attack Arabs, blacks, and queers.” The actual charge against the SJP is apparently that it makes an effective case for the liberation of Palestinians from Israeli occupation, a case the ADL brands a form of hate speech against Jews. Some of this controversy derives from a desire by Israeli nationalists and those who support its nationalist narrative to avoid granting to the Palestinians any legitimacy and to avoid any talk of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory—even though the term “occupation” is right out of international law.
The SJP has run into trouble from other university administrations. It and the campus chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace were suspended until the end of fall semester at Columbia University on the vague basis of “threatening rhetoric and intimidation,” in a an arbitrary decision-making process that does not appear to follow the university’s own guidelines, as the indispensable Committee on Academic Freedom at the Middle East Studies Association reported. Brandeis University, predictably, also banned SJP. One of its grounds was that SJP members chanted slogans such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which Brandeis administrators called antisemitic—even though it says nothing about Jews at all. As Yousef Munayyer has written, the phrase instead “encompasses the entire space in which Palestinian rights are denied” and “is a rejoinder to the fragmentation of Palestinian land and people by Israeli occupation and discrimination.” Why, anyway, would Israel want millions of Palestinians to be permanently unfree?