An Escalating Backlash

The crackdown on pro-Palestine activism in the United States has reached a fever pitch. Early last month, New York Governor Cuomo signed an executive order calling for the creation of a blacklist of institutions and individuals that support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, and the denial of state funding to organizations that have participated in and/or support BDS activity. Though they may seem extreme, Cuomo’s actions actually converge with the introduction  of similar legislation in state legislatures across the country. As recently reported by the Electronic Intifada, the spate of anti-BDS legislation in the U.S. and the United Kingdom (U.K.) is the result of a concerted effort by the Israeli foreign ministry and sympathetic lobbying groups, constituting the latest strategy to counter the spread of international support for BDS.

In addition to increasingly intervening in U.S. politics, Israeli officials and domestic Zionist organizations are also turning  their focus to American university campuses, even as university administrations display increasing hostility towards pro-Palestine activism. Amidst this escalating backlash, student activists now more than ever are in vital need of support, a reality with which several years with Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA has made me all too familiar.

Student Activists Especially Vulnerable

Two recent cases in particular show that students who dare to engage in direct action decrying Israeli settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing are especially vulnerable to the rising opposition to Palestine activism.

On April 6th, along with a coalition of other student groups, the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) protested a speech given by Nir Barakat, the mayor of occupied Jerusalem. The event was hosted by San Francisco State’s Hillel. Following the action, San Francisco State president Les Wong sent out a statement expressing concern for the “state of civil discourse” on the San Francisco State campus and promising an investigation. Many media outlets were swift to cast the protest in a negative light, often mirroring Wong’s tone in describing it as an assault on free speech.SF State Hillel similarly claimed in a blog entry that Barakat was “shouted down” by the protesters and “prevented from speaking,” despite the fact that even articles condemning the demonstration observe that Barakat continued his talk, even if he needed to adjust accordingly.

“We protested Mayor Barkat because of his role as an Israeli official, who enforces violence and occupation against our communities on a daily basis…Providing a platform for Barkat on our campus erases the violent and brutal realities faced by Palestinians,” GUPS wrote in a statement.

GUPS’ statement goes on to enumerate several examples of policies supported or implemented by Barakat that amount to ethnic cleansing and apartheid, including the demolition of Palestinian homes, continued expansion of settlements (or, as some of us more accurately term them, colonies) in East Jerusalem, denial of Palestinian access to education and the right to own property, and measures taken to ensure that the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem does not exceed 30 percent of the total population by the year 2020. As GUPS’ statement makes clear, for Palestinian students and all who acted in solidarity, Barakat’s appearance was not simply about a distasteful perspective—it was about the presence of a figure whose actions are part of the cause of ongoing and systematic violence and dispossession of Palestinians. Framing the issue as simply a matter of challenged speech erases the disparity in power between Barakat and Palestinian students, whose families and communities suffer constantly under the violent and racist practices of the Israeli state.     

Similarly, on May 18th, a coalition of student organizations at University of California Irvine (UCI) made up of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the Black Student Union (BSU), the Muslim Student Union (MSU), Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MeCHa), La Resilencia Trans/Queer de UCI, American Indian Student Association (AISA), Asian Pacific Student Association (APSA), and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) protested a film screening put on by UCI’s Students Supporting Israel that included a panel of IDF soldiers. The purpose of the demonstration was both to express outrage at the normalized violence perpetrated by the Israeli military against Palestinians as well as to denounce the exporting of Israeli military technology and surveillance and suppression tactics honed in the occupied territories to U.S. police forces and foreign governments.

“The connections between the Israeli Defense Forces and military, colonial, and genocidal regimes all over the world are numerous. Not only do police departments in the U.S. send police delegations to train in Israel, but weapons trade and marketing–especially after the siege on Gaza in 2014–allows Israel to demonstrate the ‘effectiveness’ of its violent military technologies in order to market it to other nations/regimes. … For opposing students to claim to feel unsafe at the presence of protesters is incomparable to the fear and vulnerability of Palestinians who face violence at gunpoint by [Israeli Occupation Forces] and who are facing systematic genocide, ethnic cleansing and erasure as a part of their colonization of Palestinian land,” UC Irvine’s Students for Justice in Palestine wrote in a statement following the protest.       

In what Palestine Legal has described as a “predictable pattern,” Zionist organizations made false accusations against the protesters, calling for disciplinary action and criminal investigation and the media mischaracterized the demonstration. Administration has referred the case to the District Attorney—a measure UCI administration had previously pursued against the 11 Muslim students who challenged a speech by then-Israeli ambassador Michael Oren—and are considering banning Students for Justice in Palestine. As with SF State President Les Wong, UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman issued a statement claiming that the protest had “crossed the lines of civility.” Gilman’s statement reiterated the false charges raised by Zionist organizations, including that student protesters had blocked exits, though these charges were disputed by legal observers working with the National Lawyers Guild who were present at the demonstration.

The outcome in both  situations remains uncertain.  

“Civility”

As most recently evidenced by the Steven Salaita affair, “civility,” a colonial and racializing concept that privileges tone over content and establishes a rubric for etiquette by creating a contrast with a savage and non-white Other, has become a very popular framework for administrators in an increasingly corporatized university system to use in taking issue with student and faculty dissent. “Civility” allows for proponents of an allegedly all-encompassing freedom of speech to conveniently falter in their enthusiasm when the object of criticism is considered off-limits—in this case, Palestinian oppression and dispossession, and the entrenchment of Israeli military and surveillance strategies in globalizing systems of racialized state violence, surveillance and white supremacy. “Civility” can magically transform groups of vulnerable black, brown, undocumented, queer and trans students standing up to powerful politicians and soldiers responsible for the implementation of violent and racist policies of military occupation and ethnic cleansing into an “angry mob,” and divert what should be righteous indignation at the brutality endured by a colonized population into patronizing tut-tutting about the means of protest.

The framework of “civility” also obscures the way  (as both GUPS and SJP UCI demonstrate in their statements) that “ideas” put forward by Barakat and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) are actually  extensions of violent acts of systemic erasure. For Palestinian students, every word spoken carried with it the weight of further harm to their families and communities.

A Familiar Tactic

Charlotte Silver documented how President Wong’s response followed a phone conversation with Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a pro-Israel lobbying group, and that the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), another lobbying group that recently called for SJP to be investigated and banned from CUNY campuses on false accusations of anti-Semitism, is now urging administration at UC Irvine to take action against SJP. And, in a breakthrough report, Ali Abunimah reveals how admissions from Brooke Goldstein of the Lawfare Project at an anti-BDS conference in early June “[cast] the latest attacks by pro-Israel groups on Palestine solidarity activists at UC Irvine and San Francisco State University in a new light . . . Goldstein said her group was encouraging Jewish students on those campuses to file police complaints against Palestine solidarity activists, ‘so we can pressure the [district attorney] to bring criminal charges against those students, just like was done with Michael Oren’s speech.’” These revelations should quell any serious doubt of a coordinated and far-reaching effort to shut down campus activism for Palestine. Sadly, as already revealed in the cases of San Francisco State and UC Irvine, it will be students who bear the brunt of this repressive campaign.   

Nearly four years of involvement with SJP UCLA has allowed me to see first-hand that this state of affairs is far from anomalous: consistent outside pressure from Zionist groups can often lead to serious ramifications for students who engage in Palestine activism. In June 2014, in collaboration with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and the Armenian Student Association (ASA), SJP at UCLA circulated a non-binding ethics pledge for student politicians to sign promising on good faith not to accept free or sponsored trips from lobbying groups with a history of discriminatory behavior. Working with six other pro-Israel organizations, the AMCHA Initiative initiated a campaign to pressure UCLA administration to take action against SJP UCLA and casting the impetus for the ethics pledge (as well as earlier Judicial Board charges filed by SJP against student representatives we believed had a conflict of interest when voting for a divestment resolution presented in February of that year) as rooted in anti-Semitism and terrorist sympathies. The ethics pledge garnered condemnation from both UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and UC President (and former Head of Homeland Security) Janet Napolitano, and the Los Angeles City Council even considered a resolution criticizing the ethics pledge and calling on the UC Regents to intervene more directly in campus affairs by instituting harsher punishments for actions such as the ethics pledge, which included consulting law enforcement “where appropriate.” Though this resolution was ultimately tabled, the chilling effect of having a legislative body consider taking action against your campus activist group by calling on administration to refer you to the police cannot be overstated.

More recently, the AMCHA Initiative pushed for the UC Regents to adopt the State Department Definition of anti-Semitism, a move that would have stigmatized virtually all student organizing for Palestine as this definition does not distinguish between criticism of Israeli policy and genuine anti-Semitism. The UC Regents abandoned the State Department definition following considerable criticism. However, they later drafted a “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance” that in its earliest stages directly linked anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism (a conflation that would have been just as damaging as the adoption of the State Department definition), but which was later amended following further outcry to condemn instead “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.” Yet this change has not stopped the racist and Islamophobic AMCHA Initiative co-founder Tammi Rossman-Benjamin from citing the Regents’ “Statement of Principles” in a recent letter to Chancellor Gillman making false and inciting allegations about UCI SJP and asking for him to make clear how he “intends to implement” the Regents’ statement—not so subtle code for sanctioning SJP.

Means of Support

As my own experiences with SJP UCLA taught me, what has befallen protesters at SF State and UC Irvine is not exceptional: Zionist organizations are aggressively intervening in campus affairs in an ongoing attempt to stamp out pro-Palestine activity.

Given that Palestine activism is often grassroots, it is all the more imperative for all who advocate for Palestinian freedom and self-determination to come together in lending our support to the student activists who put themselves at great personal risk to denounce Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. Two simple yet nevertheless crucial displays of such support would be to sign the action alert circulated by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) urging the Orange County District Attorney not to  prosecute the student activists at UC Irvine, as well as contacting both SF State President Les Wong and UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman and calling on them to end the proceedings against members of GUPS and SJP, respectively. “Civility” should not be a binding criterion for circumscribing political activism, and pressure from external organizations should not determine students’ ability to advocate for a just cause.

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