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Advocacy for Palestinians Has Been Outright Criminalized, Warns Academic

U.S. students and faculty are facing harsh reprisals for speaking out against Israel’s mass killing of Palestinians.

Students from New York University hold signs that read "Divest" and chant during a rally as students call for a ceasefire in Gaza, in New York, on October 25, 2023.

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Across U.S. universities and workplaces, a growing number of dissenting voices have faced swift reputational, career and personal backlash after speaking out against the Israeli government’s retributive mass killing of Palestinians. The October 7 Hamas attacks indiscriminately killed over a thousand Israelis, many of them civilians. Yet the IDF, clearly bent on revenge, has responded by killing at a disproportionate extreme: More than 9,000 Palestinians in Gaza, including more than 3,700 children, have now been murdered by their airstrikes. In the U.S., many individuals who have openly opposed this genocidal collective punishment have been swiftly punished by social consequences including harassment, slander, blacklisting and firings.

Students and academics, among many others, have protested this treatment with calls for solidarity and speech freedoms, including in a number of collective letters signed by major figures. These discursive struggles have reached the highest levels of government, with condemnations and censorship issuing from state leaders and the Senate.

For decades, there has been a long, slow massacre perpetrated as so many in the U.S. remained oblivious, pacified by propaganda. But each new horror further pulls the blinders from Western eyes. It comes as little surprise that U.S. universities, where radical student bodies are overseen by more conservative administrators, have been the sites of some of the most fevered rhetorical upsets — and the harshest punishments. The college campus, it seems, will be a key site of the increasingly desperate scramble to control the narrative. Nevertheless, far more consequential worldwide protests seem to indicate that, perhaps, the long denial is entering its last throes.

A State of Exception

“History didn’t start on October 7,” Palestinian literary critic Saree Makdisi wrote recently. It is that self-evident fact that has too often fallen to the wayside. The longtime imprisonment of Gazans and the steady colonization of the West Bank has meant a drumbeat of death and violence for Palestinians: death from IDF weapons and death from the slow violence of social murder, by the active denial of lifesaving necessities.

The aim of IDF propagandists in the discourse wars is to elide this wider context of subjugation, and to conflate even general support for Palestine with a blanket endorsement of the worst atrocities committed by Hamas. Their most enduring rhetorical ace-in-the-hole has been to falsely equate any criticism of the Israeli state, i.e. anti-Zionism, with antisemitism. The result has been automatic social censure, effectively a national gag order.

For decades, the grim truths of Palestinian suffering have been whitewashed for the U.S. population. The state of Israel has been effectively exempt from criticism in major news organs; in many ways, it is the sole subject that has remained totally anathema. So thoroughly has the U.S. public understanding of the Israeli occupation been manipulated that the effort represents perhaps the single greatest domestic triumph of manufactured consent.

The reliance on charges of antisemitism to enforce conformity is a tactic born of a deep cynicism: a willingness to instrumentalize real bigotry and real historical evils as a cudgel. The irony is that reflexively labeling all critics antisemitic debases the meaning of the term and undermines its efficacy against actual antisemites. No matter if dissenting voices are Jewish themselves, or if they spoke from a place of Jewish ethical values — or if the charges were leveled by evangelical Christian Zionists; that was immaterial. It remained an effective smear, and for a long time, a peremptory one.

Yet, despite Israeli propagandists’ success in implanting that correlation in the public mind, there have been undeniable signs that the lockstep ideological narrative is increasingly in disarray. The selective moral outrage cultivated by Israeli hasbara, or propaganda operations, has been diluted by new Western attentiveness to the truth of the occupation, which generates daily injustices that have become impossible to hide. There’s a sense of a qualitative shift; even just a handful of years ago, open criticism of Israel was off the table. Now, it’s arguably a liability for the incumbent in the next presidential election. The fact that referring to the Israeli occupation as a state of “apartheid” has more or less entered the mainstream bespeaks a remarkable reversal.

Still, IDF apologists will not cede any terrain without a fight. As Dylan Saba wrote in the publication n+1 (his article was first for The Guardian, but was tellingly pulled by editors at the last minute), support for Palestine has invited a distributed, stochastic reprisal, severe to the point that it can, without exaggeration, be compared to a “McCarthyite backlash.” Historian and n+1 editor Charles Petersen concurred, in a post that stated: “We are witnessing the largest number of politically motivated firings in at least fifty years. You have to go back to the Vietnam War or McCarthyism to see something on a greater scale.”

A wealth of examples bears out this charge. Saba, who works at law services nonprofit Palestine Legal, wrote, “Since 2014, we’ve handled thousands of such incidents — suppression of speech supporting Palestinian rights is nothing new — but it’s never been this bad.” Indeed, Palestine Legal has already fielded over 200 reports of repression in the U.S. since October 7.

“Students on our campus are being harassed — physically assaulted, in some cases — and a lot of the times, the university has just watched.”

In a letter also signed by “over 600 legal organizations and professionals,” the organization included a litany of infringements on the rights of Palestine supporters: censorship on social media and news, doxxing, harassment online and on campus, firings and demotions, discrimination and bullying, organizing activities banned or disrupted, racist legislative initiatives on visas and immigration, calls for action to instate surveillance, law enforcement investigations and outright violence. In this most recent crisis, examples of these kinds of suppressions first reared their heads at universities.

On-Campus Reaction

After the Hamas attack on October 7, school administrations and various academic leaders released a volley of statements (as did other entities, from corporate brands to sports teams). Generic at best, other declarations were misleadingly pat, condemning Hamas violence without contextualizing it in the brutalities of the occupation. The oversight is revealing; it obscures the essential aspect of the problem and delegitimizes Palestinian suffering. But implicit support for Israel is uncontroversial — that’s why it’s perceived as the safe bet for organizations looking for something milquetoast to churn out, to inoffensive effect. (Why every corporation now sees fit to declare a stance on sociopolitical issues at all is another matter.)

Student groups and various left-leaning campus voices, of course, put out oppositional statements of their own — which invited immediate backlash. One of the more reported-on examples was that of Ryna Workman, a New York University (NYU) law student and former president of the (now-disbanded) student bar association. Workman was harassed online, attacked on right-wing media and condemned by her dean. She also lost a job offer at the law firm Winston & Strawn for posting a statement that ascribed responsibility to Israel for the violence. (A stance, it’s worth noting, that was not meaningfully distinct from an op-ed on the front page of Israel’s leading newspaper, Haaretz — in other words, not an absurd or extreme fringe view, except in a public discourse so warped as ours.)

Winston & Strawn, on top of rebuking Workman, was joined by the firm Davis Polk & Wardwell in declaring that any student signatories of similar statements will be persona non grata at their offices. Similarly, in what seems like a low point in teacher-student trust, a corporate law professor at UC Berkeley expressed his wish to sabotage his own students’ futures in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “Don’t Hire My Anti-Semitic Law Students.”

A statement written and signed by Harvard student groups, like Workman’s, attributed the violence’s origin to Israel. They were, almost immediately, met with a startling reprisal: not only doxxing and harassment of themselves and their family members, but also more inventive punishments. Executives at Wall Street firms “demanded a list of student names to ban their hiring,” reported The New York Times. Most absurd was “a truck with a digital billboard — paid for by a conservative group — [that] circled Harvard Square, flashing student photos and names, under the headline, ‘Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.’” On October 25, the Columbia University student newspaper reported that the tactic had resurfaced on their campus: Another “doxxing truck” singled out pro-Palestine Columbia students, adorned with their pictures and personal information. (As the students themselves would later comment, most of the doxxed students were people of color, at least in Harvard’s case; there were intimations of a racist aspect to the threat.)

Black Studies professor Russell Rickford faced outrage and death threats after he made some initial remarks as the Hamas attack was unfolding that some perceived as lauding the later violence. (Rickford clarified in Cornell’s student paper that what he was “referring to is in those first few hours, when they broke through the apartheid wall, that it seemed to be a symbol of resistance”; rather than cheering the “horrifying realities” of Hamas’s cruelties toward civilians, which later came to light.) Columbia professor Joseph Massad is also facing death threats and calls for his firing after he published an article in the Electronic Intifada that some interpreted as vaguely celebratory of the attack. (Hundreds of students and scholars have since come to the defense of Massad’s academic freedom, noting that his statements have been misrepresented in mainstream media.)

A source at Boston University, who requested anonymity out of concern for reprisals, told Truthout that, after students walked out in protest, silence was implicitly demanded of the faculty: “The administration [made it] clear that we were expected to follow a particular political line, neither condemning it nor punishing students for participating, but rather talking about it as ‘a complex issue’.… All of the faculty recognized [this as] a contravention of academic freedom.”

Even a small sign of dissent, the source continued, incurred consequences. “I stuck my neck out in a staff meeting over the statement and supported the students who walked out.” As a result, he was brought in by administrators more than once for questioning about his loyalties and activities. “Since we don’t yet have a union contract,” he added, “all of us generally have felt extraordinarily precarious.”

There are clear incentives motivating private universities to condemn their own students and faculty: First and foremost, they have little choice but to try and placate powerful donors. Some examples that The New York Times listed:

At Harvard, a billionaire couple quit an executive board. Another donor pulled money for fellowships. And Lawrence Summers, a former Harvard president and Treasury secretary, criticized the leadership for a “delayed” response to the Hamas attack and the student letter.

Wall Street billionaire Kenneth Griffin has lavished Harvard with half a billion dollars; he “urged the university to come out forcefully in defense of Israel,” as another The New York Times piece reported. The Wexner Foundation, aghast, cut professional ties with Harvard; elsewhere at the University of Pennsylvania, NYU, Stanford and Cornell, donors withdrew financial support.

Dylan Kupsh is a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at UCLA and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. He described ongoing Students for Justice in Palestine activities: walkouts, teach-ins, vigils and marches across greater Los Angeles, which have drawn thousands. The events’ success has, naturally, attracted opponents’ attention as well: “We’ve been facing a lot of repression,” Kupsh said to Truthout. “Students on our campus are being harassed — physically assaulted, in some cases — and a lot of the times, the university has just watched.”

It’s certainly not the first time Students for Justice in Palestine has been targeted at UCLA (or at other schools, in other circumstances). But Kupsh has been disquieted by the escalation. “We were getting threats around a teach-in, so it went online. But people still showed up in person — and they were assaulted. A Zionist came in and threw people’s computers in the trash.” Kupsh says the university was made aware of this — but “nothing ever came [of it].”

Zionist speech has been manifestly well-protected, while advocacy for Palestinians has been outright criminalized.

“I think the university has been tacitly condoning a lot of this by lack of action,” said Kupsh, who also said that counterprotesters have regularly become violent at Palestinian solidarity rallies: “We’re concerned about the safety when people are getting really physically aggressive and escalating the situation.” In addition, he alleges that the university explicitly refused to publish an announcement of a solidarity gathering for Muslim students, despite sharing a similar one for a Zionist group.

Students for Justice in Palestine has been a focal point of reprisal: The City University of New York chancellor indirectly condemned the organization, and on October 24, rather disturbingly, the Florida State University system banned Students for Justice in Palestine on its campuses outright after “consulting with Governor DeSantis.” The statement claimed the group’s activism was tantamount to “material support” of a “foreign terrorist organization.”

DeSantis and his censorious “anti-woke” acolytes were soon joined in their retributive ban by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) itself, which concurred with their assessment of Students for Justice in Palestine and released a letter on October 25 urging top administrators at over 200 colleges to expand the DeSantis ban. (This alliance is perhaps not as surprising as it may seem because though DeSantis’s far right is certainly antisemitic, it also maintains deep Zionist sympathies.)

Things escalated further still: As reported by The Intercept, the U.S. Senate, a day after mass student walkouts, passed “a unanimous resolution condemning what it called ‘anti-Israel, pro-Hamas student groups’ across the country” — namely, the organizing groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. Such are the true heights attainable in this overzealous stifling of all dissent — the impulse to ideological chastising runs all the way to the top.

Faculty Dissent and Public Universities

Blanca Missé is an associate professor of French at San Francisco State University (SFSU), a union member at the California Faculty Association (CFA) and an organizer in the union’s Palestinian, Arab and Muslim (PAM) Caucus. “For several years we’ve been organizing for justice in Palestine and against Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism,” Missé told Truthout. “Now that we’re getting a true stigma, we’re getting all the constituents of the union to support it. That’s been very reinvigorating.”

Joint action by faculty, especially unionized faculty, represents one means of pushing back against the dominant narrative and the restriction of academic freedoms. Truthout reviewed a response letter addressed to the UC Board of Regents, in which the UC Ethnic Studies Faculty Council, comprising over 300 teachers, “call[ed] on the UC administrative leadership to retract its charges of terrorism … and to stand against Israel’s war crimes.”

Elsewhere, other groups of scholars and educators have been organizing collective efforts to put out joint statements pushing back against this repression, including an open letter from faculty at Columbia University and Barnard College; a “Black for Palestine” statement signed by over 3,500 Black scholars, activists, artists and students, and over 100 organizations; a collective letter signed by scholars in feminist, queer and trans studies; another from Jewish writers published in n+1 and more.

At public universities like SFSU, Missé noted, different incentives predominate: “I think for private universities of course, there’s the pressure of the donors. [But] public universities are terrified of having to get into legal battles [with] Zionist organizations that file frivolous lawsuits.… They call it lawfare, because it treats law as a form of warfare. And they say that themselves.”

Missé meant it literally — last year, SFSU settled a lawsuit filed by two students and attorneys with the Zionist “Lawfare Project” over charges “that school administrators acted with specific intent to suppress pro-Israel speech or exclude Jewish student groups from on-campus events.” Initially deemed baseless and thrown out of court, the suit was settled on appeal. The university agreed “to publish a statement that Zionism is an important part of Jewish identity” as well as “a sweeping set of changes, including the creation of an on-campus mural that will feature Zionist views and a major investment in ‘viewpoint diversity.’”

Insistence on “viewpoint diversity” is one means of introjecting pro-Israel counterclaims into dissent, analogous to “both sides” rhetoric. Of course, academic and speech freedoms must cut both ways. The issue is that Zionist speech has been manifestly well-protected, while advocacy for Palestinians has been outright criminalized.

“Repression and ‘cancel culture,’ what they call the ‘progressive except Palestine’ exception — that has been going on for the last 20 years,” Missé pointed out. The ideological character and strategy behind these counternarratives have shifted over time. But there is a detectable correspondence with the success of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has in part attained popularity by fostering cross-group solidarity, bringing together “immigrant organizations, Black organizations, Indigenous organizations. That became very threatening,” Missé said. That BDS is successful in challenging the dominant narrative seems to be corroborated by the intensity of repression: Bills that criminalize or otherwise punish BDS support can be found in 35 states. These rather extreme infringements upon free expression are largely the result of the inordinately powerful Israel lobby.

Political consequences do not end there, though they do come in more petty varieties: At present, New York Councilman Robert Holden (D-Queens) is attempting to defund an entire women’s services nonprofit to the tune of millions of dollars because its communication manager attended a protest against the killing of Gazan civilians.

Consensus Fails

The reach of the Israel lobby and its legal, media and advocacy infrastructure mean that the recriminations extend far beyond academia. Blacklists are not a thing of the past, to be sure. On social media, commentators have been tracking first-person accounts of people that have suffered career consequences and firings in the last few weeks — a range that includes professions from subway drivers to sportswriters to talent agents to tech executives. Major conferences have been cancelled, publications and media interviews pulled, and bomb threats called into a Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) banquet, as The Guardian would eventually document. (That particular publication was, as noted above, a bit late to the subject.)

There are certainly extremist voices that can be found reveling in the deaths of Israeli innocents. But to a large extent, what makes the backlash so remarkable is that it has not only spanned a wide front of industries and income levels, but also that its punishments have been brought down for statements that are so mild — like approvingly sharing an article from The Onion.

It’s an outrage that people are facing dramatic reprisals for having advocated for the basic human rights of Palestinians, called for an end to an apartheid system and demanded a halt to the revenge killings of thousands. Yet these kinds of reactions are a testament to how warped the discursive space around Palestine still remains. Decades of effective propaganda produced by the Israeli government’s hasbara organs and amplified by the evangelical chorus in the United States have drowned out dissent for so long that the struggle toward a corrective shift will necessarily be long and, as is clearly apparent, rather grueling.

Despite progress, a reversal may still be a long time coming. After all, the reason the domestic echoes resound so loudly is because the U.S. military and foreign policy blob have an enormous strategic-economic interest in propping up, vindicating and rearming their Israeli client. And the mainstream U.S. media, those noble watchdogs of the fourth estate, still react much more like the kind of dog that prefers the lap.

We can at least be certain that center and far right mainstream media channels (that is to say, all of them) will continue to play eager host to fawning praise of Israel, and to tut-tut about the real threat to campus free speech. Their claims of “woke” repression and Orwellian pronoun enforcement are, of course, totally fraudulent. The actual repression, which goes unreported, is the glaring “Palestine exception.” Though free-speech warriors will never deign to mention it, there is a cancel culture, as activist and cartoonist Eli Valley reminded us in a social media post. It’s just not the type that the anti-woke charlatans have concocted.

The real infringement of rights consists in these punishments that are meted out for free expression — all part of an ideological apparatus that has, in the U.S., held Israel above reproach. The consensus is at long last shifting. Until it does, Palestinians and their supporters, from U.S. campuses to Gaza and the West Bank, are left demanding a kind of change that is far more sweeping than any rhetoric, far more consequential than any campus dust-up. Before all else, the genocidal IDF bombardment of the Gaza Strip must be halted before countless more are killed.

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