Campus activism under pressure

This article was originally published August 2016 in Palestine in America’s second annual print issue.

Students experience harassment, receive little support from universities when it comes to pro-Palestine advocacy

While repression of student activism is certainly not a new phenomenon, in recent years the targeting of students engaged in pro-Palestine work on campus has steadily increased.

Perhaps this is due to increased visibility of the issue, making it easier for those opposed to such activism to assess and attack their targets. However, it may be correlated to a greater movement to codify and criminalize  Palestine-related advocacy, and the increase in Islamophobic rhetoric and legislation nationwide.

Most recently, New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order in June creating a blacklist of entities that boycott or divest from Israel, and consequently banning such entities from receiving funding from the state. According to Palestine Legal, more than 20 other states have introduced similar legislation in an attempt to target Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns.

Ben Lorber, Campus Coordinator at Jewish Voice for Peace, said that campus repression around Palestine has escalated over the past year.

“Across the country, we’re seeing opposition groups working directly with high-level campus administrators to try to restrict the work [Students for Justice in Palestine] can do, or even to shut down SJPs entirely,” he said. “Pro-Israel groups on campus shut down student speech with false claims that BDS is anti-Semitic, or that it creates a ‘hostile campus climate’ for Jewish students.”

SJP and other Palestinian rights groups continue to face administrative repression, hostile media scrutiny, and other pressures, according to Lorber. The presence of groups like Canary Mission and the David Horowitz Freedom Center, whose mission is to seek out and defame pro-Palestine activists, are now choosing to attack student activists directly, by name, online and on posters across some campuses.

In April, a Muslim student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and a board member of SJP, reported being repeatedly harassed and falsely accused of supporting terrorism via blog posts, posters and phone calls. Students in the SJP chapter at Brooklyn College were also accused of making anti-Semitic comments after disrupting a faculty council meeting by shouting“Zionists out of CUNY,” according to an article published by the Electronic Intifada.

Nazia Kazi, a professor of anthropology at Stockton University, believes that while repression is a difficult thing to measure, she definitely notes that there are overtly repressive actions that demonize pro-Palestine activist students, specifically “being blacklisted by student organizations, having funding withdrawn, or having pro-Palestinian speech labeled hateful or anti-democratic,” she said.

“Knowing that being vocal on this matter might jeopardize your career path is a real deterrent for students who, perhaps just beginning their activism and organizing work, might opt for a ‘safer’ topic. They may even step back from engaging around social justice entirely,” Kazi said.

Nashiha Alam, a recent graduate of Loyola University Chicago, believes repression of Palestine solidarity organizing on campuses has increased tenfold. 

Alam cited her own experience while a student at Loyola in dealing with multiple attempts of repression related to her organizing through SJP. 

“In 2014, SJP Loyola was temporarily suspended and put on probation for a Birthright demonstration that Palestinian students organized on campus, attempting to register at a table for Birthright, a trip that takes Jewish teenagers to Israel for free.  We faced various charges from the university, ranging from harassment to bullying to anti-Semitism, but we were ultimately found guilty of violating the school’s demonstration policies, even though we as an organization did not plan the action,” she recalled.

For Alam, it was evident that administration had used insignificant logistical reasons to justify the repression of pro-Palestine speech on campus. 

“SJP members were forced to sit through multiple FBI style interrogations in the dean’s office, while many of us had no part in the organization of the demonstration.  This kind of repression works as an attempt to silence students who were in fear of their future career, immigration status, entry into Palestine, etc,” Alam added.

She also recounted receiving multiple threats on social media platforms, including death threats and threats reported to the Department of Homeland Security.  Alam said that although she had reported the threats to her university, she was not given the protection she deemed necessary to ensure her safety while organizing on campus. 

Unfortunately, Alam’s experience in not unique. Amal Ali, a Palestinian recent graduate of UC Riverside and former SJP and Muslim Students Association board member has experienced such harassment as well.

While Ali said that most threats she has received were online, she remembers a time when she came under fire and had several threats made to her safety by other UC students from other campuses after raising alerts about a pro-Israel elected student government official on another campus who had laundered campaign funds from a noted Islamophobe.

Kazi also noted the connection between various forms of student repression.

“For those student activists working on Palestine, it’s important to note that all movements that have tackled imperialist and racialized violence have been repressed,” added Kazi. “Whether it was the FBI infiltration and destruction of the Black Panther Party or the ways the Nixon administration fabricated information about how damaging drugs are in order to destabilize the anti-war movement, know that repression is a hallmark around movements that serve to liberate the most marginalized among us.”

Many, if not most, of the students facing repression for their pro-Palestine speech are Muslims,from working class backgrounds, or people of color, according to Alam. 

“The lack of protection that students are given on campuses directly relate to whether or not they are of a marginalized background, meaning Muslim students are often not protected from hate speech targeted towards SJPs,” Alam said.

Lorber and Ali echoed these sentiments. “There’s an undeniable connection between growing Islamophobic sentiment and repression of student activism, because the same people who aim to propagate the former have interest in facilitating the latter,” Ali said.

Lorber also believes campus repression fuels Islamophobia on campuses and around the country, and vice versa.

“Time and again, it is Muslim, Arab and Palestinian student activists who are targeted and slandered by outside groups and the media as ‘terrorists’ and ‘Jew haters’. They are constantly on the receiving end of unjust administrative discipline, media harassment, false charges of anti-Semitism, hate speech, suppression of free speech, and more. When Muslim or Arab students are attacked, threatened or targeted on campus, administration often does little to protect them,”he said.

Kazi also highlighted an “attempt to ‘capitalize’ on anti-Muslim sentiment in order to legitimize settler-apartheid in Israel. What this misses is the fact that Palestine is not a narrowly-defined ‘Muslim’ issue.” Kazi said when the Israel-Palestine issue is presented as a religious conflict, “we miss making critical connections between it and other instances of imperialism, racialized militarism, and settler colonialism.”

Kazi emphasizes the necessity of evaluating how various oppressive structures relate to each other—from the neo-liberalization of higher education, to the school-to-prison pipeline and the growth of the prison industrial complex.  All of these factors negatively impact students of color and working class students, while inhibiting the academic freedom of educators.

“As activists and scholars, we need to think of these forms of oppression as interlocking and inseparable. They are all connected to structures of white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy. So is the occupation of Palestine,” Kazi said.

Deanna Othman

Deanna Othman is a journalist and educator who has a religion column on the Huffington Post. She's also been published in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Daily Herald, Salon.com, Patheos, AlterNet and Mondoweiss. Othman writes on issues related to Muslim Americans, as well as on media coverage of issues affecting Muslim Americans and Palestinians as well. She also served as the assistant editor of Islamic Horizons magazine.

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