On US Campuses, Pro-Israel Groups Target Supporters of Palestinian Rights

Students for Justice in Palestine demonstrating at UC Berkeley, September 23, 2014.Students for Justice in Palestine demonstrating at UC Berkeley, September 23, 2014. (Photo: Ariel Hayat / Flickr)

As a Palestinian uprising across the West Bank, Israel and the Gaza Strip stretches into its third bloody month, Palestinian and solidarity activists say a quieter struggle is taking places on campuses and in communities across the United States as Israel supporters seek to silence them.

They point to experiences like that of Ramie Abounaja, a Palestinian-American junior studying biomedical engineering at Washington, DC’s George Washington University.

On October 26, a campus police officer arrived at Abounaja’s room in the university’s Mark Shenkman Hall and demanded that he remove a Palestinian flag hung from his dorm window. According to Palestine Legal, a public interest law firm that advises and represents activists whose rights are challenged, “The officer explained that the department had received numerous complaints about the flag and declared that he would leave only after the flag was removed.” Minutes after leaving, the officer returned, saying his supervisor had asked for a report. On November 3, university administrators sent Abounaja a letter “warning” him about the incident.

“It’s been reported that Israeli officials from Netanyahu down are dedicating resources to countering advocacy for Palestinian rights.”

The next day Abounaja responded, asking that they retract their letter and clarify the university’s policy. “I was motivated to do this after I had seen dozens of different banners and flags hung outside other residential campus living spaces throughout my three years here at GW,” he wrote. “I felt like I was being singled-out, because of my heritage and the viewpoint of my speech, for something I’ve seen dozens of students, fraternities and other student groups do in my three years at GW.”

After a brief reply acknowledging his letter, the university went quiet. For over a month, its administrators failed to respond to Abounaja’s telephone calls and emails. An assistant director at its Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities canceled a meeting, citing a scheduling conflict. Only after Palestine Legal contacted the university on December 7, citing a potential violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, did it finally respond.

In a public “university statement regarding flags on campus,” the university’s Office of Media Relations wrote, “GW has not banned any flags from its campus; however, the university’s Residential Community Conduct Guidelines prohibit the hanging of any object outside of a residence hall window (Section III. 7), and this is enforced when reported to the GW Police Department.”

But Abounaja and his supporters quickly responded that the university was selectively enforcing a rule it typically ignored, citing other flags hung from windows across the campus. Some even posted albums of them on Facebook. “GW’s practice of allowing students to hang some flags out of windows while censoring others, creates a double standard and violates the free speech principles to which the university claims to adhere,” Palestine Legal said in a statement.

Another student told the Jewish newspaper the Forward that the university had never penalized him for hanging an Israeli flag from his window. “If the university is not going to enforce it on everyone, why is it fair to just use the fire code to further a specific agenda?” Jared Stevens said.

On Thursday, with attention from the media growing, the university buckled. Its president, Steven Knapp, released a public statement saying, “I have personally apologized to the student for this unfortunate incident and assured him that the university’s actions were in no way a response to his expression of his beliefs or opinions.”

Earlier in the day, Palestine Legal said the university’s own justification of its conduct was discriminatory. “According to a December 7th statement from GW, flags will only be removed when complaints are made to the GW police department,” it said in a press release. “In other words, GW will continue to treat different messages in a disparate manner based on how much controversy they provoke.”

“A Few Patterns Have Emerged”

Palestine advocates say the university’s attempt to selectively restrict Palestinian speech fits into a broader pattern unfolding throughout the country.

Two reports issued in late September described the various methods pro-Israel groups, including some with direct ties to the Israeli government, use to discourage support for Palestinian rights. “It’s been reported that Israeli officials from [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu down are dedicating resources to countering advocacy for Palestinian rights in general and the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement in particular all over the world, and that some of these resources would involve using baseless lawsuits and legal threats,” said Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal and cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

“Muslim and Arab students are particularly susceptible to false charges of anti-Semitism in part because of existing Islamophobic tropes.”

The two organizations released The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the US,” which details strategies ranging from legal threats, to monitoring and surveillance of activists by secretive groups, to bureaucratic obstacles and sanctions by university administrations. A separate report from Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Stifling Dissent: How Israel’s Defenders Use False Charges of Anti-Semitism to Limit the Debate Over Israel on Campus,” focuses specifically on baseless accusations of bias against college activists.

The documents covered considerable ground. In 2014 alone, Palestine Legal responded to 152 “incidents of suppression,” all but 16 of them campus-related. By June 30, it had responded to 140 in 2015, including 112 on campuses, an increase of almost 50 percent. For each year, the largest categories by far were false accusations of anti-Semitism and support for terrorism.

Along with other tactics described by the documents, these claims are often carefully deployed against specific targets, researchers say.

“In our work on campuses, we’ve noticed that Muslim and Arab students are particularly susceptible to false charges of anti-Semitism in part because of existing Islamophobic tropes,” JVP media coordinator Naomi Dann told Truthout. “Campus administrators and others sometimes lean into those tropes in their treatment of [Students for Justice in Palestine groups], as seen through things like requiring extra security for SJP events, [and] canceling or restricting events because of civility standards or fear of ‘militancy.’ The Islamophobia that already exists in mainstream US political discourse is amplified when the issue of Palestine comes up, and Arab and Muslim students are often falsely pitted against Jewish students in campus discourse.” Sainath agreed, adding that other groups face specific kinds of threats as well.

“In interviewing hundreds of activists, a few patterns have emerged,” she said. “Israel advocacy groups frequently falsely accuse Muslims and Arabs in particular of violence, supporting Hamas, or being militant – simply for engaging in speech activity critical of Israeli policies – basically Islamophobic and xenophobic tropes that can have real consequences in a post 9/11 climate, where a Muslim kid can get arrested for bringing a clock to school. Another pattern we’ve noticed is Jewish students or professors being called ‘self-hating Jews,’ having their Jewish identity questioned – and even being called the k-word – simply for supporting Palestinian rights. A third pattern we’ve seen is LGTBQIA students being singled out for questioning by pro-Israel groups and told they shouldn’t support Palestinian rights because Palestinians would attack and kill them. And there are numerous examples of women being targeted with misogynistic attacks and rape threats.”

“The Wrong Side of History”

These different strategies to silence opposition take shape in the pages of the reports, which detail how various Palestine supporters face very different kinds of challenges. For example, “Stifling Dissent” includes six accounts of Jewish students and campus groups excluded from community activities over their criticism of Israel.

“I think it is harmful to have a political litmus test for spaces that are supposed to be welcoming for all Jewish students,” Gabriel Levine, a member of JVP’s chapter at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Truthout.

After forming in April 2014, the group applied for membership in UCLA’s Hillel, an umbrella organization for Jewish students.

Following a series of meetings with Hillel’s leading rabbi, the organization asked JVP’s representatives to complete a bizarre questionnaire, including queries like “What’s your position on BDS?”; “What’s your position on refugees?”; “What is your relationship with SJP?”; and “Is Zionism racism? Please explain.”

Despite the document’s conclusion, a series of platitudes on “dialogue” and “debate,” the JVP members later learned that Hillel had rejected their application.

“The takeaway from JVP’s experience at UCLA Hillel is that Hillel is not the home for all Jewish students on campus,” Levine said “It is only a welcome space for those who are Zionist and anti-BDS. And as such, Hillel should not be seen as a legitimate voice for all Jewish voices on campus, as they themselves have silenced and excluded Jewish voices based on political opinion.”

Despite the likely intentions of Hillel chapters and their global network, Hillel International, to marginalize Palestine supporters, these polices of exclusion will probably have the effect of self-isolation as Palestine emerges as an increasingly popular issue and its supporters solidify relationships with activists from Black, Indigenous, Latino and other communities, said JVP’s Dann.

“The refusal of Hillel to engage with BDS and BDS supporters and its active opposition to divestment clearly is isolating them from progressive coalitions and people of color-led groups on campuses, who see them as being on the wrong side of history,” Dann added.

“Tomorrow’s Employees”

While Israel supporters target Jewish activists with isolation from local communities, others are more likely to face direct threats, including to their livelihoods.

“While there’s a particular acrimony for Jewish anti-Zionists, the ‘self-hating traitors,’ the Arabs and Muslims who criticize Israel validate the colonial logic of their barbarity,” Steven Salaita told Truthout. “Anything we say in criticism of Israel, then, necessarily reflects our acrimonious relationship to modernity.”

The University of Illinois fired Salaita, a scholar of Native American studies, in 2014 when its board of trustees refused to confirm his appointment to a tenured position in the American Indian studies program at the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus. Their decision followed pressure from donors when Salaita posted a number of tweets critical of Israel during its 2014 offensive against the Gaza Strip.

After a firestorm of public criticism and academic boycotts and censure, embarrassing revelations of a cover-up that led to the resignation of the University of Illinois chancellor, Phyllis Wise, and preliminary losses in a lawsuit filed by Salaita, the university settled the case in November 2015, agreeing to pay him $875,000.

Other Israel supporters have sought to expand this model, denying Palestine activists employment on a broad scale. The website Canary Mission collates information on their identities and activities. “It is your duty to ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees,” a promotional video narrates.

When investigative journalists Julia Carmel and Max Blumenthal researched the anonymous project, they found neoconservative leader and Middle East Forum founder Daniel Pipes, who runs a similar website called Campus Watch, eager to speak on its operators’ behalf.

While Campus Watch targets academics, Canary Mission focuses squarely on students, mainly young undergraduates. Pipes told Blumenthal and Carmel that “collecting information on students has particular value because it signals [to] them that calumnying [sic] Israel is serious business, not some inconsequential collegiate prank; and that their actions can damage both Israel and their future careers.”

“Just Racist as Hell”

Carmel and Blumenthal also traced a number of ties apparently connecting Canary Mission to the Aish World Center, a global enterprise with modern Orthodox religious programming and pro-West Bank settlement activities that receive direct funding from the Israeli government. Carmel said the site targets specific demographics. “In researching the operatives behind Canary Mission, I’ve found that these groups have disproportionately targeted female activists and minority demographics,” she said. “It’s important to consider the fact that people of color – including activists who identify as Arabs, non-Ashkenazi Jews etc. – consistently tend to empathize more with oppressed groups. As a result, those of us who have been targeted are part of a more diverse group.”

“But this alone doesn’t account for how pro-Israel groups seem to be targeting minority demographics more frequently than not,” Carmel added. “Out of 159 activists currently profiled by Canary Mission, 92 of them are women – substantially more than the number of men targeted – and even more remarkably, at least 103 of them are Arab-American or people of color.”

In several of the cases Blumenthal and Carmel examined, these profiles, which include links to their targets’ personal social media accounts, have led to graphic threats of death, rape and other violence, particularly against women.

Reflecting on the repressive apparatus facing Palestine activists and his own experience with it, Salaita concluded, “A lot of people are just racist as hell.”