Free speech for all on campus! Unless you’re criticizing Israel, that is – David Palumbo-Liu/Salon.com
Speech critical of Israel is increasingly being suppressed, voices silenced — along with charges of anti-Semitism
On Sept. 18 I had coffee with Omar Barghouti, one of the two founders of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, the nonviolent movement leading the struggle for Palestinian rights under international law. As we were to meet on the University of California, Berkeley, campus, I felt it was fitting that we rendezvous at the Free Speech Café, which memorialized another great movement — the Free Speech Movement led by Mario Savio.
Logically, there should be absolutely no contradiction between advocating for free speech in general and supporting the free speech rights of critics of Israel. An abstract principle for freedom usually does not come accompanied by “except in the case of.” And yet that has been the case when it comes to discussions of Israel-Palestine.
Indeed, Gary Tobin, Aryeh Weinberg and Jenna Ferer begin their 2005 book, “The Uncivil University: Intolerance on College Campuses,” by evoking the Free Speech Movement, only to immediately limit it. They note the inscription at Sproul Plaza commemorating the FSM, which reads, “This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction,” but then they negate that: “Despite the myth surrounding the seal and its ring of soil, it is not — it cannot be — an absolute sanctuary for those who wish to abuse the right of free speech, because no such place exists … Both the rules of the larger society and the social norms of the campus require reasonable boundaries on what can be said. Perhaps the campus has fewer constraints, but safety and civility necessitate that some limits are imposed.”
The book then turns to focus specifically and exclusively on criticism of Israel, which it argues is exactly the same as anti-Semitism and hence deplorable and deserving of suppression:
This volume examines one particularly egregious and uncivil violation of public trust—the ideology and expression of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism in higher education. We examine these two closely-related prejudices on college campuses, because the presence of anti-Semitism in a community has always been a reliable indicator of its ill health.
Now, a decade after the publication of this book, three groups — the Center for Constitutional Rights, Palestine Legal and Jewish Voice for Peace — have issued two substantial reports on how speech critical of Israel has increasingly been suppressed and voices silenced. What has happened in the 10 years since the publication of the first alarm in “The Uncivil University”? In the same year that book appeared, so too came a call for solidarity from a massive group of organizations and individuals in Palestine: BDS. Developing slowly at first, the movement has now grown exponentially, registering major successes in the academy, among religious organizations, with artists, writers, musicians, among the black activist community, in unions, and with the general public, both in the United States and internationally. Barghouti told me he felt the movement had reached a “South African moment,” referencing the global surge of support for the anti-apartheid movement. And this success has provoked a virulent attack.
Besides being targeted by the Netanyahu government as a “strategic threat” and attacked by leading presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who vowed to take the fight against BDS to college campuses herself, a number of pro-Israel organizations, as well as wealthy individuals like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, have joined ranks to persecute students and faculty on U.S. campuses in what can only be called a McCarthyite witch hunt.
Most recently, Glenn Greenwald has reported one of the most flagrant and egregious cases so far: U.C. Regent Richard Blum has suggested that students engaging in activities critical of Israel should be suspended or expelled. He backed up this threat by evoking the support of his wife, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Blum is quoted as saying to his fellow regents:
I should add that over the weekend my wife, your senior Senator, and I talked about this issue at length. She wants to stay out of the conversation publicly but if we do not do the right thing she will engage publicly and is prepared to be critical of this university if we don’t have the kind of not only statement but penalties for those who commit what you can call them crimes, call them whatever you want. Students that do the things that have been cited here today probably ought to have a dismissal or a suspension from school. I don’t know how many of you feel strongly that way but my wife does and so do I.
As Sarah McLaughlin of the campus free-speech group FIRE wrote: “Yes, a UC Regent flatly threatened the university with political consequences if it failed to craft a ‘tolerance’ policy that would punish — and even expel — its violators.” To this, the Council of University of California Faculty Association and the American Association of University Professors shot back:
These remarks by Regent Blum explicitly invoke his wife, U.S. Senator from California Dianne Feinstein, and threaten negative political consequences for the University if the proposed Statement of Principles Against Intolerance is not revised so as to be agreeable to him and Senator Feinstein. As such, they violate the spirit, if not the letter, of Article IX, Section 9 of the California Constitution, which declares that “The university shall be entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence and kept free therefrom in the appointment of its regents and in the administration of its affairs.”
This combination of raw financial and political power, both from within the U.S. and from abroad, used to intimidate, silence and punish speech that is critical of Israel, is being fully exposed this week in two important documents. The report issued by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights, “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the US,” declares:
Fearful of a shift in domestic public opinion, Israel’s fiercest defenders in the United States—a network of advocacy organizations, public relations firms, and think-tanks—have intensified their efforts to stifle criticism of Israeli government policies. Rather than engage such criticism on its merits, these groups leverage their significant resources and lobbying power to pressure universities, government actors, and other institutions to censor or punish advocacy in support of Palestinian rights. … Such efforts intimidate activists for Palestinian human rights, chill criticism of Israeli government practices, and impede a fair-minded dialogue on the pressing question of Palestinian rights.
It notes that between January 2014 and June 2015 Palestine Legal was asked to investigate nearly 300 cases of intimidation and suppression, with over a third of those taking place in California.
- False and Inflammatory Accusations of Antisemitism and Support for Terrorism
- Official Denunciation (For example, in late 2014 University of California president Janet Napolitano denounced a campaign which asked student government candidates to make an “ethics pledge” to refuse free trips from Israel advocacy groups as violating principles of “civility, respect, and inclusion.” Her predecessor, Mark Yudof, likened a peaceful protest against a talk by former Israeli soldiers to hanging nooses, drawing swastikas, and vandalizing a campus LGBTQIA center.)
- Cancellations and Alterations of Academic and Cultural Events
- Administrative Sanctions (Loyola University Chicago launched an investigation into the school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) in fall 2014, after students lined up at a Birthright Israel table to ask questions that highlighted the discriminatory nature of the program, which excludes non-Jews. After a lengthy investigation, university administrators ultimately suspended the SJP group for the remainder of the year for failing to register the “demonstration.” Yet the administration chose not to suspend the campus Hillel chapter for similarly failing to register its tabling event, instead merely requiring the chapter group to meet with administrators to review school policy. In spring 2014, Northeastern University in Boston suspended a student group after members distributed flyers describing Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes. Public outcry and the threat of legal action, however, forced the university to reverse course and reinstate the group.)
- Threats to Academic Freedom (Israel advocacy groups often target academics critical of Israeli policies or supportive of Palestinian rights. Campaigns against faculty — from Columbia University to the University of California at Los Angeles — sully reputations, instigate university investigations, and can even lead to termination of employment. For example, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, succumbing to pressure from Israel advocacy groups and donors, summarily dismissed Professor Steven Salaita from a tenured faculty position at the outset of the fall 2014 semester because it deemed his personal tweets criticizing Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza to be “uncivil.”)