University repression has a chilling effect on pro-Palestinian discourse


At the University of Pennsylvania, approval was denied for the screening of a documentary critical of Israel.

At Brandeis University, which expressed a public commitment to free speech, a pro-Palestinian student group was prohibited from making statements made by its national chapter.

At the University of Vermont, a Palestinian poet was scheduled to give a talk, but the school withdrew the meeting space after students complained that he was anti-Semitic.

There are growing signs that universities are beginning to clamp down on pro-Palestinian protests and events on campus, as institutions face pressure from donors, alumni and politicians who are furious about what they say is an anti-Semitic campaign against Jews.

Some schools simply canceled events or delayed them. A handful of schools have closed student groups and disciplined students. Some students have simply stopped participating in protests, worried about their own safety, scared by alumni who have started no-hire lists and by outside groups who have misled students.

The war in the Middle East is exposing the difficulties American universities face in navigating free expression. University leaders, who had already come under attack in recent years by conservatives for shutting down debate on other issues, are now struggling to balance open expression with the fears and complaints of some Jewish students that the language of the protest pro- Palestine demands violence against them.

As videos of some protests went viral, and some ended in physical altercations, University officials have been under increasing pressure to find a way to contain the demonstrations.

Radhika Sainath, a lawyer with Palestine Legal, a civil rights group, said her organization has received more than 450 requests for help for campus-related cases since the Hamas attack, more than ten times more than in the same period of the year. past. The cases include students who have had scholarships revoked or were cheated, teachers who have been disciplined and administrators who have been pressured by trustees.

“It's really like nothing we've seen before,” Ms. Sainath said. “We are living in a moment at the level of the 60s, both in terms of repression and massive student mobilization.”

In recent months, the most prominent pro-Palestinian campus group, Students for Justice in Palestine, has been suspended from at least four universities, including Columbia, Brandeis, George Washington and Rutgers. In some cases, universities accused the group of supporting Hamas, disrupting classes and intimidating other students.

The group, a loosely connected network of autonomous chapters founded about 30 years ago, has denied those allegations.

“These suspensions are a dangerous escalation of the repressive measures administrators have been taking to characterize anti-Zionist student organizers as a violent and existential threat,” the national group Students for Justice in Palestine said in a statement, adding that administrators “They have created the infrastructure for mass repression, censorship and intellectual manipulation.”

In Florida, the chancellor of the Florida State University System wrote a letter in late October to school presidents telling them that Students for Justice in Palestine chapters in the state should be “deactivated,” an order the groups say of civil rights, clearly violates the First Amendment.

School leaders are in a difficult position, said Burt Neuborne, a New York University law professor and founding legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice. Universities, he said, “will pay a price in intellectual openness if they are overly restrictive in the speech they allow on their campuses,” but “on the other hand, we have traumatized and scared young people; You don’t want to ignore them.”

Kenneth L. Marcus, director of the Brandeis Center, a Jewish civil rights group (not affiliated with Brandeis University), said administrators must take action when “Jewish students are assaulted, abused, intimidated and threatened.”

“What we are seeing is not only offensive speech but also outrageous conduct,” Marcus said. “What we need is not censorship or inaction. “Rather, universities need to enforce their existing rules vigorously, consistently and impartially.”

Arab and Muslim students say they have also faced intimidation and harassment, pointing to the killing of a 6-year-old Palestinian boy in Chicago, an attack that authorities say was motivated by hate.

University of Vermont administrators canceled an in-person event in late October featuring Palestinian poet Mohammed el-Kurd after some students said he was anti-Semitic. Mr. el-Kurd could not be reached for comment.

The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks anti-Semitism, describes El-Kurd on its website as displaying a “disturbing pattern of rhetoric and slander that goes far beyond reasoned criticism of Israel.”

Conference organizers rejected accusations of anti-Semitism. “The conflation of critics of Israel and anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is false and used to curb academic freedom,” said Helen Scott, a professor involved in planning the event, adding that many of the board members of the series conferences are Jewish.

The university cited security reasons, but a university lawyer later acknowledged to professors that there were no threats to the venue or the speaker, according to a video reviewed by The New York Times. Instead, the event was held online. University officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

“This is a climate in which it is OK to cancel a talk at the last minute by a prominent Palestinian poet,” Professor Scott said, noting that three students of Palestinian descent attending other universities were gunned down in the city last month. (Authorities arrested a 48-year-old man in the shooting and were investigating whether it was a hate crime.) “What message does that send?”

William Youmans, an associate professor at George Washington University, where administrators this semester suspended the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, said that while tactics by university officials sometimes chilled student activism, pressure from outside forces ( with doxxings and warnings to potential employers) were having greater consequences.

“In many ways, I feel like that strategy is a little more effective for silencing,” said Dr. Youmans, who was a member of the SJP chapter at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 2000s. “If administrators suppress speech, it's counterproductive because they're clearly not supposed to.”

But Dr Youmans said the universities' responses still had consequences.

“Part of this is to indicate, 'Hey, we're doing things,'” Dr. Youmans said. “The easiest thing is to publish statements that please donors.” But he added: “Of course, many of them have the informal effect of stigmatizing types of groups, stigmatizing types of speech.”

Scholars who study and write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have always tread lightly, but the atmosphere has deteriorated since October 7, according to a biannual survey conducted last month. The survey, from the University of Maryland and George Washington University, found that 66 percent of respondents reported self-censorship in the Middle East overall, up from 57 percent in fall 2022.

In mid-November, the board of directors of the Harvard Law Review voted not to publish an article by Rabea Eghbariah, a Palestinian academic and human rights lawyer, whose article argued that events in Gaza should be evaluated within and beyond the legal framework of the genocide. as defined by the United Nations.

In a statement issued after the decision, Harvard Law Review said the journal had “rigorous editorial processes that govern how it solicits, evaluates, and determines when and whether to publish an article.”

In an online statement, several of the Review's dissenting editors condemned the decision to withdraw the article in the face of “a public campaign of intimidation and harassment.”

In a statement to the Times, Eghbariah called the decision “appalling and alarming” and said it “is not only discriminatory but also reveals the Palestinian exception to freedom of expression.”

The article was published in La Nación.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Jack Starobin, a member of Penn Chavurah, said the progressive Jewish student group had been planning a screening of the film “Israelism” since July, but postponed the screening scheduled for Oct. 24 because it was too close to Hamas. stroke.

The film, a documentary made by American Jews who reconsider their beliefs about Israel after visiting the country and seeing its treatment of Palestinians, has polarized college campuses. Hunter College canceled a screening of the film last month.

When they tried to reschedule the event for late November, Starobin said, the university denied the request. The students went to the school's Middle East Center, which received approval to have a meeting space on campus to show a film, Starobin said. When campus administrators learned the film was “Israelism,” students were told they could be disciplined if the screening went ahead, Starobin said.

A Penn spokesperson declined to comment on student discipline, but said the university decided to postpone the display until February “because our first responsibility is the safety of our university community.” The spokesman said organizers “ignored” the school's wishes to screen the film in February. Starobin said the university committed until February only after he went public with the space denial.

This month, University of Pennsylvania President M. Elizabeth Magill resigned after a disastrous appearance before Congress during which she gave a legal response to a question about whether, under the school's code of conduct, she would punish students who called for the genocide of the Jews.

However, Erin Axelman, co-director of “Israelism,” said most universities resisted the pressure campaigns and screened the film. And some students have said they were more committed to speaking out.

Chisato Kimura, a 23-year-old Yale law student who is a member of Yalies4Palestine, said she has not been deterred and will continue to protest on behalf of Palestinians.

He said schools talk a lot about diversity “and love to put our faces on posters and promotional materials,” but they must accept that “if you have diverse faces on campus, you will also have diverse voices and opinions.”

At Harvard, an undergraduate organizer for the school's Palestinian Solidarity Committee said students were concerned about the consequences of speaking out for Palestinians. She did not want to be named out of fear for her physical safety and possible repercussions for her at the university. Concern about being disciplined by his school makes some students think twice before speaking openly about their views in class, he said.

But ultimately, the student said, given the brutal deaths of thousands of civilians in Gaza, she feels there is no choice but to continue protesting and speaking out on campus, whatever the consequences. The stakes in Gaza, she said, “are too great to remain silent at a time like this.”

Alan Blinder contributed reports

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