This article is published in Mondoweiss.
On 23 September 2014, Palestinian solidarity activists took part in the International Day of Action on College Campuses, calling for students and faculty around the world to pressure their academic institutions to support justice, human rights, and freedom for the Palestinian people.
The International Day of Action officially stated as its demands:
- No to Academic Complicity with Israeli Occupation
- No to Study Abroad Programs in Israel
- No Investments in Apartheid and Occupation Supporting Companies
- No to University Presidents’ Visits to Israel
- No Campus Police Training or Cooperation with Israeli Security
- No Joint Research or Conferences with Israeli Institutions
- No Cooperation with Hasbara Networks on College Campuses
- No to Targeting Faculty for Speaking Against Israeli Crimes
- No to Administrative Limits on Free Speech Rights of Palestine Activists
- No to University Coordination and Strategizing with the ADL, JCRC, AJC, Stand With US, ZOA, Israeli Consulate to Limit Students Pro-Palestine Constitutionally Protected Activities.
The call was spearheaded by Hatem Bazian, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. A large rally was held at this school, with over 300 attendees.
At the demonstration, Bazian stated that “this international day of solidarity is to highlight the BDS” (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement. Muslim Student Association activist Unis Barakat echoed the call, and explained that activists had gathered “to peacefully demand that Israeli universities and the Israeli state give academic freedom to all individuals” and recognize “the Palestinian people’s basic human rights.”
The rally concluded with a die-in. Later that evening, Bazian joined several other California professors for a teach-in.
Many university Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters tabled and held demonstrations on their campuses to raise awareness and to educate fellow students about Israel’s brutal occupation and oppression of Palestinians.
Stanford SJP activists chalked the center of their campus with the names and ages of Palestinian children killed in Gaza in Operation Protective Edge.
Similar demonstrations and events were held around the country.
Student organizing was by no means unencumbered, nonetheless. The day of action entered the spotlight in mid September when a leaked email showed that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was pressuring universities to crackdown on Palestinian solidarity activists. The ADL demonized the organization American Muslims for Palestine in particular, who helped organize the International Day of Action, falsely accusing it of attacking “Jewish communal organizations.” The chancellor of University of California, Davis was later publicly criticized for circulating the dishonest email with administrators.
Not soon after, the executive director of Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) sent a letter to 1,000s of members, defending “our strong historic ties to the State of Israel” and implying Palestinian solidarity activists were planning on engaging in “intimidation and acts of violence.” Leading Palestinian journalist Ali Abunimah condemned the message as an attempt “to stoke tensions between Jewish and other students in an effort to discredit criticism of Israel following the recent massacre in Gaza.” (Abunimah also noted the irony that such a directive would come from ZBT, a fraternity with “a long history of internal violence” and whose members steadfastly defended Israel in the summer of 2014, when the country killed over 1,500 Palestinian civilians, including approximately 500 children.)
Oberlin Students for a Free Palestine
Perhaps the highlight of student actions took place at Oberlin College, a small liberal arts college in Oberlin, Ohio. There, the organization Oberlin Students for a Free Palestine held a “2,133 black flags, 2,133 Palestinians dead, do not be silent” action, in which activists created an enormous installation, planting a small black flag for every Palestinian killed in Israel’s most recent massacre in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge.
In front of the 2,133 flags students hung a banner reading
These black flags honor the 2,133 Palestinians murdered by the Israeli Defense Forces over the 51 days of Operation Protective Edge. Israel receives more military assistance from the United States than any other country in the world at an annual rate of $3.1 billion dollars. Our tax dollars, and likely our tuition, funded this genocide.
This is not a vigil. This is a call to action. It is a recognition of our complicity in these acts of violence. It is a refusal to be silent.
The activists asked onlookers to sign their online petition, demanding an administrative response to an Oberlin student divestment resolution.
The flags remained up until the morning of the 27th.
I contacted Oberlin SFP to inquire how the college and community responded to their action. They were pleased with how well the action went. They reported seeing a lot of support from the student body. On the evening of the 24th, approximately 60 people, representing a variety of student and local organizations, gathered to read statements of solidarity with Palestine. Many of these connected the struggle for justice in Palestine to those other oppressed peoples around the world, particularly those in Ferguson, MI—a parallel numerous Palestinian organizations have made since the murder of Michael Brown on 9 August 2014.
Not everyone was happy with their demonstration, however. SFP members noted “a lot of disapproval,” particularly with the fact that the demonstration also marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah. “We hold that this action was in accordance with the larger International Day of Action of September 23,” they insisted, adding “despite the provocative timing also assert that the mourning of Palestinian deaths and recognizing our own complicity in this violence should not be mutually exclusive from celebrating Rosh Hashanah.”
According to SFP members, the Zionist presence at Oberlin is much more of a liberal variety, as is increasingly common for today’s generation. A student told me that many Jewish students at Oberlin are in fact uncomfortable with more hardline Zionist organizations, namely Hillel, and “feel unwelcome in their spaces.” The Oberlin Hillel Facebook page has not been active in two years.
J Street U Oberlin did criticize SFP, writing on Facebook that it was “saddened by the polarization within our community and want to offer a productive path forward based on establishing conditions for a sustainable, real peace.” SFP members rejected such accusations, and lamented that J Street members “often try to conflate our messages while erasing the very obvious power dynamics that exist between Israel and Palestine.”
Oberlin SFP’s International Day of Action demonstration is just one part of its ongoing BDS campaign. A member told me that their “ultimate goal is to continue to push for true economic divestment from six corporations profiting from the occupation: Caterpillar, Veolia, G4S, SodaStream, Elbit Systems, and Hewlett-Packard.” The Oberlin Student Senate already passed a divestment resolution in May 2013, “but since then neither the administration nor the Board of Trustees have expressed any interest in moving forward.” The activist added, “Thus, while we wanted this action to be about mourning the tremendous loss of life, we are also firm in our insistence that this is not a vigil—it is a call to action.” SJP released a press release condemning the administration for being “unresponsive” and “demanding that the college divest from companies profiting from and perpetuating the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”
The Oberlin administration has yet to respond to the action or to the calls for accountability, and SFP members admitted that do not find it likely that it will.
University Crackdown on Palestinian Solidarity Activists
Oberlin Students for a Free Palestine did not encounter any trouble from their administration, as they registered the installation with Oberlin’s security and facilities departments beforehand. Other university administrations, however, have not been so kind.
In one of the more publicized recent controversies, in March 2014, Northeastern University banned its SJP branch, in what many characterized as a draconian act of censorship. Student activists had engaged in a harmless mock eviction action, distributing what were clearly fake notices in order to educate students about just one of the many fears Palestinians face on a daily basis—the very real possibility of an Israeli government official arriving to tell you that the home your family has lived in for generations is, without any kind of trial or due process, now going to be demolished.
Northeastern SJP member Max Geller stated that his “school was accusing us of an act of criminality for simply [an] act of leafleting,” and that “NYPD-style tactics were used against students” for handing out pieces of paper. The administration asked the Northeastern University Police Department to conduct an investigation. The authorities immediately went after any Arab and Muslim students involved. Two students were threatened with expulsion—both of whom happened to be women of color. Neither was an officer in the organization, just rank-and-file members.
Journalist Max Blumenthal uncovered big money and powerful leaders of Zionist organizations with close ties to the university. Geller bemoaned that Northeastern was “more interested in appeasing outside astroturfed Zionist groups than in fostering an environment where the vigorous exchange of ideas can take place.”
Fortunately, after “Weeks of protests, picket lines, petitions, phone calls, and emails,” the student organization was reinstated. ACLU attorney Sarah Wunsch called the branch’s reinstatement “a victory for freedom of expression, which is a crucial aspect to any quality university.” Staff attorney with Palestine Solidarity Legal Support and co-operating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights Radhika Sainath remarked that “What happened to SJP at Northeastern is just one part of the larger assault on speech supporting Palestinian rights in this country. There is no ‘Palestine Exception’ to free speech rights and the First Amendment.”
Crackdowns of this kind are by no means limited to the US. In Israel itself, students are suffering huge consequences for criticizing their government. In the wake of Operation Protective Edge, Israeli scholar Amir Hetsroni wrote in Haaretz of “the undeniable attempts by academic management to prevent students and faculty from speaking their minds and punishing those who protest against the war.” He details extreme policies of Israeli universities, enumerating incidents in which students were were punished, fined, and even arrested simply for speaking their mind.
Before the massacre in Gaza, Hetsroni explains, he opposed the academic boycott of Israel. But when he saw the role Israeli universities played in stifling opposition, his position quickly shifted. “A college that prohibits students from taking part in political protest is not an academic institute. A university that vetoes its faculty’s right to publish non-Zionist (not to say anti-Zionist) scholarship is not a university. In such cases an academic boycott might be an acceptable response,” he confessed.
Academia as a Locus of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement
That International Day of Action for Palestine was organized by a scholar, to take place on college campuses. Many of the leading figures of the Palestine solidarity movement, and the organizers of the BDS movement, are scholars. Academe is, in many ways, today a locus of the struggle against Israeli apartheid—just as it was for the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the quite recent past.
In April 2004, numerous Palestinian scholars and intellectuals organized the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). The organization maintains that “all Israeli academic institutions, unless proven otherwise, are complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights.” In its guidelines for the international academic boycott of Israel, PACBI writes
Academic institutions are a key part of the ideological and institutional scaffolding of Israel’s regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid against the Palestinian people. Since its founding, the Israeli academy has cast its lot with the hegemonic political-military establishment in Israel, and notwithstanding the efforts of a handful of principled academics, the Israeli academy is profoundly implicated in supporting and perpetuating Israel’s systematic denial of Palestinian rights.
This is the reason institutions are cracking down so harshly on student activism. Much of the ground gained in the BDS movement has been in Academia, led by the PACBI. Israel’s own desperate attempts to manipulate public opinion demonstrate how much it fears the power of the BDS movement to end its decades-long process of colonization.
Israel pays students (and handsomely, at that) to spread government propaganda online. In recent years, as the momentum and strength of the BDS movement increases, Israel has even gone so far as to pressure foreign governments to crush Palestinian solidarity activism.
The recent firing, on incredibly suspect grounds, of Palestinian-American professor Steven Salaita for the “crime” of criticizing Israel is a more palpable and personal manifestation of this encroaching attack. In the words of Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill V. Mullen, the firing of Salaita “shows where Zionism meets neoliberalism at US universities.”
It is not mere happenstance that so much of this struggle has taken place in academia. Academe, of course, is where policies are researched and created that will later be implemented to capture the “hearts and minds” of citizens. Yet, even more simply, Israel deliberately decided to make the Academy an important center of struggle. During the Second Intifada, head of Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky visited a slew of North American colleges. Upon returning to Israel, he “said to [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon—the most important battleground for the future of the Jewish people is campuses.”
Sharansky’s rhetoric about college campuses—as with so much of the rhetoric in the hyper-militarized life of far-, far-right Israel—is extremely militaristic in character. He speaks of a “war” on campus, and insists “that one battle would finish and immediately the other would start on the campuses.”
Israel is well-prepared for this “war.” The Times of Israel boasts that, at “the height of this summer’s Gaza conflict [read: one-sided massacre], JAFI had already begun training its 2014 cohort of 66 campus Israel Fellows, which are based out of Hillel Houses on 111 campuses throughout North America (some fellows have a presence on multiple campuses).” All of these 66 fellows “have completed army service … and sign on for up to two years on campuses where they aim to ’empower student leadership and create Israel-engaged campuses.'” And the JAFI’s propaganda campaign on US college campuses doesn’t just adopt the rhetoric of militarism; it openly adopts the Israeli military’s tactics. The Times of Israel practically gloats:
Using this summer’s massive call-up of IDF reserves as a model, JAFI began to conscript its “reservists” and, with emergency funding from Jewish Federations of North America, pressed 20 former Israel Fellows back into its ranks. The reservists themselves are happy to serve and have taken off between two weeks and a month from their “civilian lives” to return to campuses in North America.
Bending toward Justice
In spite of the ferocity of the clampdown on dissent, and in spite of the prodigious political capital of the Zionist establishment, the truth of Israel’s crimes in Palestine has been increasingly difficult for the average American to ignore. The victory of Northeastern SJP, the calls for divestment by student activists at schools like Oberlin College, and the immense push-back against the attack on Salaita’s academic freedom all show that the Palestinian solidarity movement is really taking off in the US. To call the US Academy the “battleground” for Palestinian liberation is of course hyperbolic—and even downright insulting, considering the actual live battleground the Palestinian people live in, and their valiant and multifarious forms of resistance against oppression. At the end of the day, the struggle in the US is only one of solidarity with the Palestinians as they themselves fight to liberate themselves. Yet the fact that Americans, the citizens of the superpower whose economic and political support has allowed Israel to continue its egregious crimes with complete impunity for so many years, are now questioning their country’s relationship with Israel is an exceedingly important step in this long haul.
In April 2013, the Association for Asian American Studies voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Months later, in December, the American Studies Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association did as well. Similar boycotts of Israeli academic institutions have been declared by prominent organizations in the UK, Australia, South Africa, and many more countries around the world.
In May 2013, Stephen Hawking, a scientist with celebrity status in the scholarly world, joined the academic boycott of Israel. Renowned philosopher Judith Butler, herself an anti-Zionist of Jewish descent, has also become a leading figure in the BDS movement. Of her support for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, she explains
I have no problem collaborating with Israeli scholars and artists as long as we do not participate in any Israeli institution or have Israeli state monies support our collaborative work. The reason, of course, is that the academic and cultural boycott seeks to put pressure on all those cultural institutions that have failed to oppose the occupation and struggle for equal rights and the rights of the dispossessed, all those cultural institutions that think it is not their place to criticize their government for these practices, all of them that understand themselves to be above or beyond this intractable political condition. In this sense, they do contribute to an unacceptable status quo.
Butler’s distinguishing individual Israeli scholars (and artists) from Israeli institutions is incredibly important. It is an aspect often overlooked and ignored by critics of the BDS movement. The PACBI has been very careful to honor this distinction. The BDS movement is “Anchored in precepts of international law and universal human rights,” it explains, and rejects “boycotts of individuals based on their identity (such as citizenship, race, gender, or religion) or opinion.” The only circumstances in which it advocates boycotting in individuals is when they are “representing the state of Israel or a complicit Israeli institution (such as a dean, rector, or president), or is commissioned/recruited to participate in Israel’s efforts to ‘rebrand’ itself. … Mere affiliation of Israeli scholars to an Israeli academic institution is therefore not grounds for applying the boycott.”
Today, distinguished Israeli scholars such as Ilan Pappé, Shlomo Sand, Neve Gordon, Oren Yiftachel, Anat Biletzki, and more have supported academic and cultural boycotts of their own state. Their calls for justice, in fact, have been some of the most vociferous. People from all walks of life, around the world, are calling for human rights and dignity for the Palestinians, and the university has served as the rallying point for these calls.
In his canonical August 1967 speech “Where Do We Go From Here?” Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased 19th-century American abolitionist Theodore Parker, proclaiming “The arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends toward Justice!”
The “war” for hearts and minds, as Sharansky fancies it, is indeed being waged on the “battleground” of the US university campus. But, despite the enormous and formidable forces rising against them, those seeking justice and freedom for the Palestinian people are winning. The arc of the Moral Universe is indeed slowly, and painfully, but surely, bending toward Justice.