Any honest freelance journalist will admit that rejection is simply part of the job. Every story pitch is basically a swing at bat in which the odds of striking out may be higher or lower but are always present. Sometimes the story’s been done, sometimes it’s just too weak — and sometimes it ruffles the feathers of the publisher who is under investigation by the United States Department of Education (DOE) over allegations of supposed antisemitism.
That last circumstance recently happened to me. While it may sound rare, the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights currently has dozens of such investigations, which are effectively stifling criticism of Israel at schools across the U.S.
“Label Them Anti-Semitic”
The Smart Set is an online publication covering arts and culture published by Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University. I have been contributing to The Smart Set on and off since 2019, writing about everything from growing meat in test tubes to the politics of W.E.B. Du Bois, but focusing primarily on books.
In that vein, and in light of Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza, my most recent story for The Smart Set was about George Orwell’s perspective on colonization — that it dehumanizes the colonizer, as well as the colonized — and how that perspective endures in journalist Sylvain Cypel’s book, The State of Israel vs. the Jews. After initial interest from The Smart Set’s managing editor, Erica Levi Zelinger, my draft was summarily rejected by the dean of Pennoni Honors College, Paula Marantz Cohen — a first, coming after more than a dozen accepted submissions. By way of explanation, Zelinger directed me to a statement by Drexel’s president regarding an ongoing investigation by the DOE into the university for reported harassment of Jewish students.
Contacted for comment for this article, Drexel denied that there was any connection between the DOE investigation and the rejection of my story.
“[Cohen’s] feeling is not that we can’t publish a piece on the conflict, but that this piece does not present a fair and balanced view of this volatile and complex situation,” said Zelinger, who also serves as director of marketing and media for Pennoni Honors College. “As for the U.S. Department of Education’s investigation into the actions of Drexel University, that has nothing to do with our rejection of the piece and that email was shared with you merely to share a general response from Drexel University.”
Drexel’s denial aside, criticism of Israel being suppressed with allegations of “antisemitism” is so prevalent that it is, ironically, a theme of Cypel’s book: “Israel’s ideological influence has never seemed so visible,” writes Cypel. “It effectively silences its critics by threatening to label them anti-Semitic.”
“The University Tries to Suppress and Silence Us”
The episode above would be yet another mundane rejection in a career inevitably filled with them were it not a small example of a much broader trend in higher education.
“Just as young people were at the forefront of the protests against the Vietnam War and the movement to end South African apartheid, young people are once again on the right side of history in standing unequivocally for the freedom and dignity of the people of Palestine,” writes a spokesperson for Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which organizes against Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, at many US universities, in an email to Truthout. “Within the Jewish community, so many young people are challenging the Zionist propaganda that they were raised with and are choosing instead to organize for collective safety and liberation.”
Anti-Zionists of all stripes, including Jews like those with JVP, are increasingly being labeled antisemitic by defenders of Israel. Since at least 2019, the DOE has been considering a definition of antisemitism that includes all criticism of Israel, although that has yet to be formalized. Nevertheless, the DOE previously tried to use such a definition to shut down organizing related to Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a movement advocating nonviolent economic opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, at Rutgers University.
Following the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7, the DOE appears to once again be using the veneer of antisemitism to stifle criticism of Israel, opening at least 52 investigations into alleged “discrimination involving shared ancestry” at schools nationwide. In a press release, the department describes these “Title VI” investigations as covering both antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents but further suggests that the former outnumbers the latter more than two-to-one. A more in-depth review of three of the most high-profile schools — Harvard, Columbia and Cornell — also signals that, like Drexel, the respective investigations all relate specifically to alleged harassment of Jewish students.
The DOE refused to answer questions about the investigations. “The department does not comment further on pending investigations,” said Jim Bradshaw, press officer at the DOE.
Although investigations are just that — inquiries in which wrongdoing has yet to be determined — the DOE appears to already be having an impact on campuses, with everything from attempts at managing criticism of Israel to silencing it altogether in the wake of new DOE probes.
“The Zionist lobby has employed Title VI complaints as a tactic to disrupt pro-Palestinian student organizing on for many years, so the connection between DOE investigations and repression of pro-Palestinian organizing by school administrators is a well-documented phenomenon,” writes the Media and Messaging Committee of National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP), that has been organizing against Israel’s occupation of Palestine since 1993, in an email to Truthout. “A recent noteworthy example: Rutgers University-New Brunswick suspended their SJP chapter the same day that the DOE announced it had launched a Title VI investigation into the school.”
In November, Columbia University beat the DOE to the punch, suspending university chapters of both JVP and SJP days before the department opened two investigations into the school. Nevertheless, the administration followed up with a panel on misinformation, discussion on “constructive conversations,” task force on antisemitism and a series of “reinvestments” in values. Students, alumni and faculty responded with open letters and demonstrations condemning the administration’s censorship and continuing to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, where at least 24,285 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, as of this writing.
“The more the university tries to suppress us and silence us, the higher we will rise and the louder we will become,” Mohsen Mahdawi, a member of SJP at Columbia, told campus newspaper Columbia Spectator.
The DOE opened its investigation into Cornell on November 16, after which the administration organized a talk on racism and interfaith dinner. Far from being reassured, students critical of Israel, as well as those of Muslim and Arab backgrounds in general, continued to feel sidelined by the administration, both in regards to threats made against them and their calls for the university to divest from companies connected to Israel’s military.
“The university is still trying to silence any pro-Palestine movements on campus, which is definitely something we’re fighting against,” Sadeen Musa, vice president of SJP at Cornell, told campus newspaper The Cornell Daily Sun.
Nor have university administrators themselves been spared. The most prominent of such cases is undoubtedly that of Claudine Gay, Harvard’s first Black president. The DOE opened its investigation into Harvard in November. Gay was called to testify in front of Congress regarding alleged antisemitism on campus in December. She resigned her post in January.
Gay’s letter of resignation makes reference to the investigations into antisemitism, as well as accusations of plagiarism, which were widely seen as pretext for her ousting. “It has been distressing to have doubt cast on my commitments to confronting hate and to upholding scholarly rigor,” wrote Gay, “and frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus.”
“A Movement Starts at a Few Prestigious Universities”
Beyond the implications for First Amendment freedom of speech protections, the DOE stifling criticism of Israel at universities in the U.S. also has a material dimension. U.S. universities may appear disconnected from Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza, but that simply isn’t the case. Inspired by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, students are often the first to point out how their respective universities feed the Israeli war machine.
The connections between U.S. universities and Israel are economic, academic and social. The endowments of Ivy League schools are valued at billions of dollars each, and students at Harvard, Cornell and Columbia have been organizing to push their universities to divest from Israel since at least 2002, 2014 and 2016, respectively. U.S. universities also have academic relationships with Israeli counterparts, such as Cornell with Technion Israel Institute of Technology and Columbia with Tel Aviv University. Some student groups even offer free trips to Israel, which have been criticized for obscuring the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
In The State of Israel vs. the Jews, Cypel also notes the immense social power that U.S. universities, especially the most highly regarded, have over U.S. society. His discussion with J.J. Goldberg, former editor of progressive Jewish outlet The Forward, reveals why campuses have become increasingly important sites where Israel must be contested. “In the United States, the process is always the same,” Goldberg tells Cypel. “A movement starts at a few prestigious universities, and then spreads.”
Calls for a free Palestine have already spread well beyond the gates of a few prestigious universities, from City Hall in San Francisco to Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, and around the world. As long the Israeli genocide in Gaza, raids in the West Bank, and occupation of all Palestine persist, the student movements’ resilience should be an example for us all.