NEW YORK — Two new reports, issued Wednesday by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and the Center for Constitutional Rights with Palestine Legal, assert that Jewish Israel advocacy groups are “stifling dissent” and infringing on Israel critics’ right to free speech on college campuses.
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“As the movement for Palestinian rights has grown we’ve seen a sharp spike in tactics that attempt to muzzle criticism of Israel,” said Omar Shakir, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights and an author of that group’s report, which is titled “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S.”
The 124-page report details what its authors view as the “chilling and censoring of Palestine advocacy” using tactics which include “false and inflammatory accusations of anti-Semitism and support for terrorism.”
Their bulletin, as well as JVP’s 73-page publication, list Israel advocacy groups working on college campuses from Stand With Us and The David Project to the Zionist Organization of America, and detail their strategies.
According to the report, objectionable activities include filing complaints with university administrators and the federal government that anti-Israel speakers are creating hostile environments for Jewish students. The JVP report also rails against “blacklisting professors and launching public campaigns around faculty hires,” like the controversy that surrounded the the hiring and subsequent “un-hiring” of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois. JVP describes the Israel advocacy moves as “McCarthyite tactics.”
Shakir is one of the attorneys representing Steven Salaita, the virulently anti-Israel professor of American Indian studies who was hired in 2013 by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then had the offer revoked after administrators were inundated with letters from donors, alumni and others. They objected to some of the profanity-laden tweets Salaita had sent out during Israel’s Gaza war, which said “I wish all the f...king West Bank settlers would go missing,” among other things. Salaita is suing the university and its board of trustees to have his job offer reinstated and is seeking monetary damages.
College campuses have become the prime battleground for the fight for — and against — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS], pitching students affiliated with Israel advocacy organizations like Hillel and Stand With Us against those aligned with organizations that run campaigns against Israel, like members of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.
Each side’s reports on the other read like intelligence dossiers assembled by warring governments. And in a hall-of-mirrors way, each side accuses the other of precisely the same wrongdoings, like creating campus environments where their students don’t feel safe to speak out.
“The notion that there are pro-Israel groups speaking out against the messages and tactics of anti-Israel groups is true, but that’s also free speech,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
Segal noted that there was an increase, in the last academic year, of both anti-Israel and pro-Israel activity on campuses.
“We anticipate more activity on both sides this year, continued anti-Israel programming, and we’re still concerned about university departments sponsoring anti-Israel activity, which belies what reports say,” said Segal. “If there was really this unified strategy to shut them down they wouldn’t be able to have as many public events as they do.
“The notion that anyone is being stifled by the organized Jewish community seems a little hollow,” Segal said. “I wonder if it’s another tactic being used by Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine to present themselves as victims.”
Hillel, when asked to respond to the charges in the reports, provided this statement:
“Hillel is proud to be a pro-Israel organization committed to free speech on campus and robust and respectful discussions about Israel, whether they occur at Hillel or elsewhere,” said Matthew Berger, spokesman for Hillel International.
JVP’s report, “Stifling Dissent: How Israel’s Defenders Use False Charges of Anti-Semitism to Limit The Debate Over Israel on Campus” states: “For years, under the banner of defending Israel, advocacy organizations have launched attacks against those who advocate for Palestinian rights and express political criticism of Israel, often deploying spurious charges of anti-Jewish bigotry, shutting down conversations, and policing the boundaries of legitimate Jewish identity and acceptable debate. Seeing campuses as a ‘battleground,’ they have helped shape problematic definitions of anti-Semitism in order to limit open debate on college campuses, and intimidate students, faculty, and administrators. The intent of these silencing tactics is to shut down conversation before it can even begin, limiting the range of political inquiry, expression and debate on campuses.”
“We are hoping the report will be educational,” said Tallie Ben Daniel, JVP’s Academic Advisory Council coordinator. She told Haaretz that her group currently has a presence on over 100 college campuses. “Official Jewish communal organizations advocate for Israel to be a Jewish value so some Jewish students are being excluded. We see this as a way to stifle dissent.
“More and more Jewish college students are critical of Israel and question the official narrative Israel promotes. People are shutting down discussion of Israel and producing a kind of litmus test for Jewish students – either you’re advocating for Israel or you’re not part of the community. We find this offensive,” said Ben Daniel.
Decision makers like university administrators are “often presented with complaints and asked to silence or muzzle criticism of Israel and Palestinian rights organizing,” CCR’s Shakir told Haaretz. “We want those involved to understand that their activities are protected. The report’s purpose is to document an increasing trend of Israel advocacy organizations suppressing First Amendment speech,” Shakir said, meaning speech protected by the U.S. Constitution.
His organization, which spun off its Palestine-focused department 3 years ago into a separate organization now called Palestine Legal, lists Israel advocacy organizations and includes a 31-page appendix in which dozens of incidents from Brooklyn College to UCLA are catalogued.
Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, took issue with the claims that they are stifling free speech. “These accusations from fringe anti-Israel groups are patently false,” Baime told Haaretz. “The pro-Israel movement supports free speech for all and is working toward an equitable two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. If JVP and Palestine Legal had their way, the Jewish State of Israel would not exist. These claims represent the height of hypocrisy coming from groups that seek to silence pro-Israel speech and undermine efforts to promote coexistence.”
“This is just a pile of the same recycled rubbish we’ve seen from them over and over again,” said Kenneth Marcus, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington-based group. “Any time Jewish students try to assert their rights these groups come up and try to intimidate and silence them.”
The battle on law campuses
The organizations that have put out the reports “are obsessive about Israel, are well funded and have lawyered up,” said Marcus, who noted that anti-Israel groups, particularly Students for Justice in Palestine, have become active on law school campuses as well.
The Brandeis Center has just expanded its activities onto 16 law school campuses in response to SJP’s activity there, said Marcus, but there isn’t much other pro-Israel activity there. “Those who care about Jewish students have to catch up,” he said.
“The anti-Israel activists are already there and have a head start on some law school campuses. If we are not being forcefully pro-active, we will end up playing defense against these organizations, and it’s never good to be in a defensive posture.
“Some of these law students will become state legislators, judges and members of Congress,” Marcus added. “Law schools produce some of the most influential members of American society. If we win the battle on undergraduate campuses but lose in law schools, then we’re dead.”
Roz Rothstein, CEO of Stand With Us, an Israel advocacy organization based in L.A., said the reports amount to harassment of Jewish groups.
“They are harassing the pro-Israel community,” she told Haaretz. “These reports have a very manipulative undertone. These two reports are just hypocritical and typical of the standards of the BDS movement, which is a continuation of the Arab boycott against the Jewish state.
“They will invoke universal values when it suits their moral agenda but throw them out the window when it comes to protecting the rights of Israelis and Jews,” Rothstein said. “That hypocrisy is the standard for the BDS movement.”
“It’s a continuing battle of ideas. Most of the pro-Israel organizations out there just want to present Israel in a fair and balanced light,” said the ADL’s Segal. Segal said that the creation of the two reports — each of which took more than two years to produce, according to their organizations —“just speaks to the notion that we need more of that.”