Two reports issued Wednesday by organizations that advocate for Palestinian rights ring alarm bells about what they characterize as organized and widespread efforts to suppress debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on American campuses.
The first of the two reports, “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S.,” jointly produced by two legal organizations, Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights, outlines a wide array of actions by universities, government bodies and Israel advocacy organizations to “censor, punish or otherwise burden advocacy for Palestinian rights.” Although the report is not limited to college and university campuses in its scope, Palestine Legal says that the overwhelming majority of requests it receives for legal assistance -- 89 percent in 2014 and 80 percent in the first half of 2015 -- involve students or scholars.
“The tactics used to silence advocacy for Palestinian rights frequently follow recognizable patterns,” the report states. “Activists and their protected speech are routinely maligned as uncivil, divisive, anti-Semitic or supportive of terrorism. Institutional actors -- primarily in response to pressure from Israel advocacy groups -- erect bureaucratic barriers that thwart efforts to discuss abuses of Palestinian rights and occasionally even cancel events or programs altogether. Sometimes the consequences are more severe: universities suspend student groups, deny tenure to faculty or fire them outright in response to their criticism of Israel. Meritless lawsuits and legal threats, which come from a variety of Israel advocacy groups identified in this report, burden Palestinian rights advocacy and chill speech even when dismissed by the courts. Campaigns by such groups have even resulted in legislation to curtail Palestine advocacy, criminal investigations and filing of charges against activists.”
The report is also critical of university presidents using their bully pulpits to issue “official denunciations” of pro-Palestinian activism on their campuses. “Official disparagement of advocacy for Palestinian rights -- both explicit and implicit -- marginalizes the individuals who hold these views and chills others from speaking out or taking part in activities that they understand to be officially disfavored,” the report argues.
The report’s appendix includes details on 62 different “incidents of suppression of Palestine advocacy on U.S. campuses, including attacks on student activism and on individual academics.” Some of these cases are in the public record, such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s 2014 decision to revoke a faculty job offer to Steven Salaita after he posted a series of strongly worded tweets critical of Israel’s military actions in Gaza (Salaita’s court challenge against Illinois based on First Amendment and breach of contract-related claims is ongoing). Another case study details how eight Israel advocacy groups publicly accused an ethnic studies professor at San Francisco State University of misrepresenting the purpose of a university-funded trip to Israel and the West Bank and of meeting with a “known terrorist” during that trip (the university issued a public statement in the professor’s defense, saying it had found the accusations to have “no merit”).
Dima Khalidi, the director of Palestine Legal, acknowledged that Israel advocacy organizations have the right to express their views. “This report doesn’t address the right of Israel advocacy organizations to do what they’re doing; what it does is expose both the intent behind it and the baselessness of many of the accusations that many of these groups are leveling against advocates for Palestinian rights,” she said.
“What we’re urging is that universities not accede to these pressure campaigns, that they not restrict student and faculty speech because of the fact these groups are pressuring them to do so based on false accusations of anti-Semitism or terrorism or what have you. That’s really the crux of what we’re trying to do in this report, is to say that universities and other institutions have an obligation to protect this environment that is supposed to be one of free expression and unfettered debate.”
The report identifies 18 different Israel advocacy groups that it accuses of being “engaged in suppression” via a variety of means.
A second report released Wednesday by Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish organization that supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, covers similar territory, arguing that outside groups use a variety of methods to “intervene on campuses in efforts to muzzle political criticisms of Israeli policies,” including “filing complaints with the federal government that campuses are ‘hostile environments’ for Jewish students, conflating some Jewish students’ emotional discomfort with targeted harassment, contacting administrators in an effort to have events canceled and speakers disinvited, blacklisting professors, and launching public campaigns around faculty hires.”
The CEO of StandWithUs, one the Israel advocacy groups singled out in the two reports, described the documents as “shockingly hypocritical.”
“They were not written to protect freedom of speech or academic inquiry. [Jewish Voice for Peace] and Palestine Legal are at the forefront of academic boycotts against Israelis, which have been widely denounced as violations of free expression and academic freedom. They invoke these universal values when it suits their immoral agenda, but throw them out the window when it comes to protecting the rights of Israelis and Jews,” Roz Rothstein, StandWithUs's CEO, said in a written statement.
“The reports cry ‘victim,’ by perpetrators of harassment against the pro-Israel community,” Rothstein said. “They are upset because they want to continue doing what they are doing. Students go to school to learn, and all the anti-Semitic BDS-related campaigns make it difficult for the pro-Israel community to focus on getting an education. And the campaigns qualify as anti-Semitism because they single out Israel and apply double standards to it, because they demonize Israel and its supporters, and because they delegitimize the one Jewish country in the world.”
“While not all advocates of BDS are anti-Semitic and some of them may be driven by perceived legitimate criticism of certain Israeli policies, many of the individuals engaged in the BDS campaigns are driven by opposition to Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state, and that’s anti-Semitism,” said Deborah Lauter, the civil rights director for the Anti-Defamation League, another of the pro-Israel organizations singled out in the reports.
“In the United States even anti-Semitism is protected speech, so they have the right to their ideology, and they have the right to spew it on campus,” Lauter said. “ADL’s position has been that we want responsible parties, including university administrators, to use their voice to say it’s anti-Semitism, or it’s not something that this university supports in terms of our value system. That’s not suppressing speech. That’s advancing free speech.”
The Jewish Voice for Peace report, titled “Stifling Dissent: How Israel’s Defenders Use False Charges of Anti-Semitism to Limit the Debate Over Israel on Campus,” argues against characterizations of the BDS movement as anti-Semitic, describing it as a “a rights-based movement that calls for respect for international law” and that opposes “all forms of bigotry, including anti-Jewish hatred” (and that, incidentally, counts many Jews among its supporters).
More generally the report argues that the “anti-Semitic” label is used too loosely. “By framing much activism on behalf of Palestinian rights and criticism of Israel as ‘anti-Semitic,’ these Israel advocates cause confusion over what is truly anti-Jewish bigotry versus political positions that cause discomfort to the Israeli government and its supporters,” the report argues.
Among the topics discussed in the Jewish Voice for Peace report is the ongoing debate at the University of California over whether the system should adopt the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which encompasses statements demonizing the state of Israel or denying its right to exist. Twenty-three pro-Israel organizations wrote to UC President Janet Napolitano in March calling on the university to adopt the State Department’s definition, citing recent incidents involving swastika graffiti at a Jewish fraternity house at the University of California at Davis and the “inappropriate questioning of a candidate for student judiciary board about her Jewishness and Jewish affiliations at UCLA.”
“What these recent anti-Semitic incidents have in common is that they are an inevitable consequence of pervasive anti-Israel activity, particularly Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaigns, being promoted on UC campuses,” the groups argued in their letter to Napolitano.