Pro-Israel groups are engaged in a “fighting retreat,” as one professor at Columbia College Chicago, who had his academic freedom violated, puts it. They are confronting vibrant activism from students calling attention to the suffering of Palestinian people under Israeli military occupation, and, in trying to overcome the challenge they present to their worldview, they are engaged in the suppression of freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of assembly on college or university campuses.
For example, in Illinois state senators voted on a resolution calling on college or university presidents in the state to condemn any academic boycotts organized to influence US foreign policy or any political situation in the world. The resolution explicitly targeted expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment, was condemned by the ACLU and, fortunately, it failed to get enough votes to pass.
In a special episode of the weekly “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast, Rania Khalek and I interview multiple guests, who are fighting against efforts to have their dissent stamped out and eliminated from campus.
Iymen Chehade, a professor who teaches a course on “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” at Columbia College Chicago, recounts how his academic freedom was violated by the college after he chose to screen the documentary 5 Broken Cameras to students. Farah and Suha, two University of Michigan students who are a part of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), discuss their struggle to get a divestment resolution passed and how the student government tried to silence and ignore them. And Tori Porell, a student at Northeastern University and president in exile for Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter, describes how the university banned SJP and targeted Arab or Muslim students they thought were associated with the group.
During the first interview, Chehade, whose background is Palestinian, shares how a student complained about “bias” after he showed 5 Broken Cameras in October of last year. He never had an opportunity to speak to the student about this allegation.
The chair of the Department of Humanities, History and Social Sciences had him come to his office for a meeting.
“When I asked why the student hadn’t come to me or why they hadn’t asked the student to come to me, the response was that when he was in college he had been intimidated by an African-American professor that apparently did not like the white students in the classroom,” Chehade adds. The student also wanted to see his “qualifications” for teaching the class.
The college canceled sections of the course that he had been scheduled to teach during the upcoming fall semester. He was counseled on being more “balanced” in his teaching.
“There has been a push on campus to try to stifle and try to muzzle and try to create at the minimum what has been called ‘balance,’ which is a word that has been thrown around a lot,” Chehade argues. “And it’s a word that can be misleading because on the surface it sounds pretty. Balance as a word sounds pretty. But the reality of it is you cannot balance the Israeli-Palestinian conflict especially when you are dealing with a nation state that has all the power that is derivative of a state occupying millions of people who do not have civil rights. It’s like presenting the civil rights movement and those who were against rights against human beings as balance. It’s like giving them a forum to counter why African-Americans, for example, shouldn’t have rights and dignity and so forth.”
Importantly, the Illinois chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) wrote a letter to Columbia College administrators indicating that it had found the college violated Chehade’s academic freedom.
In the second interview with University of Michigan students, Farah recalls, “We presented a divestment resolution to the central student government.”
“I think the day was March 18. We were really prepared. We had spoken to student government representatives beforehand and we held teach-ins and various different events to educate the campus community as well as the student government representatives about the issue of divestment.” And, “They were really overwhelmed because they didn’t expect it to be as big as it was. They didn’t expect us to have as many supporters as we did.”
Students were ready to present the divestment resolution when “a student government representative motioned to postpone the resolution indefinitely, which would mean they would table it and not discuss it and not take a vote on it.”
“This was really surprising to me at least because I didn’t know that was a thing that could have been done. And it all happened really fast so I think it was 21 student government representatives to postpone indefinitely and 15 that said no. So, they ended up postponing it indefinitely that Tuesday,” Farah says.
“We were all really frustrated because we came in there, ready to have the conversation, ready to have a discussion about divestment on our campus and we were just completely shut out. We were silenced by them and out of that frustration, out of that desire to hold them accountable we held a sit-in. And we had five different points of accountability that we wanted the student government representatives to address.”
Farah adds, “One of them, for example, was to repeal the indefinite postponement of the resolution. One of them was to extend community concerns so that students wouldn’t have a cap on how long they would be able to speak at the divestment resolution meeting because this is an opportunity to students to speak to their own representatives and to put a cap on that it’s pretty disappointing to me.”
The sit-in lasted for seven days. Both Farah and Suha believe it was successful. However, in the course of their protest, racist smears and allegations of anti-Semitism were lobbed at students. There was no response from university administrators against this vitriol. And, whether this has an effect on the number of freshmen who continue to engage in activism is a concern.
“We don’t want them to fear they are going to be called names like this. We don’t want them to fear that they are not going to be able to freely express themselves without fear of this type of backlash.”
And, in the final interview, Porell recounts, “On March 7, we received a letter from the administration saying that SJP had been suspended. We could no longer access any university resources, bookrooms and this was effective through the end of the year and then they would think about potentially reinstating us in the future with none of the same members. And this is a result of an action we did about a week before when we distributed mock eviction notices in student dorms. They said “Eviction Notice” and then went on to give statistics about Israeli home demolitions in the occupied West Bank.”
“It’s a little exercise in giving people a small tiny taste of what it might be like to come home one day and find your entire residence and entire existence criminalized arbitrarily.” The biggest text on the flyer indicated this was “not a real eviction notice.”
“Two days after we did this leafleting, those of us that were involved started getting calls on our private cell phones from the Northeastern police,” Porell states. “Several students were pulled in for interrogations and the police showed up at some people’s homes unannounced. And they just had all kinds of questions about SJP, mostly as an organization, not even necessarily regarding the flyers. The students who were interviewed first and actually the only students interviewed have very obviously-sounding Arab-Muslim names whereas students without Arab or Muslim-sounding names were not interviewed, even though some of us are on record with the university as being leaders in the group.”
Charges were leveled against the organization in a suspension notice. One of them was that the group had distributed an “unauthorized” flyer.