In the heated debate over Israel raging on college campuses, both sides are claiming the mantle of victimhood.
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Two recent reports published by pro-Palestinian groups that support the use of boycott, divestment and sanctions measures against Israel portray a troubling picture of students being intimidated by pro-Israel activists and of an organized effort to stifle debate on Middle East politics.
These claims, supported by testimonies from students and faculty, and cases represented by Palestine Legal, a law center representing pro-Palestinian students, are, in many cases, a mirror image of those raised in recent years by pro-Israel Jewish students. Both sides have taken offense to actions and words of the other side, reflecting not only the escalating environment on campus, but also a growing sensitivity among students to critical speech.
“We’ve seen similar complaints from both sides, and we’ve noticed that both sides are willing to use institutional power to limit the debate,” said Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that works to increase open speech on campus. According to Shibley, debate on college campuses has always been vibrant and aggressive, but in recent years students have become more sensitive to these types of expression. “They’ve learned to expect that they’ll never feel challenged and that feeling challenged is unsafe,” he said.
The two reports detailing the difficulties of pro-Palestinian students on campus were released simultaneously September 30, one by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights and the other by Jewish Voice for Peace, arguing that the rights of pro-Palestinian students and faculty members to express their views on campus are consistently under attack. The first report, according to Omar Shakir of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who co-wrote it, documents real-life abuses of free speech, not merely a sense of discomfort felt by oversensitive students.
“It alleges that institutes of power are taking actions that restrict the free speech of people,” Shakir said. As examples he gives the case of his client Steven Salaita, whose job offer from the University of Illinois was withdrawn following strong anti-Israel tweets he published, and cases of pro-BDS students who faced significant bureaucratic difficulties when trying to organize clubs on campus. In one case, a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter in Northeastern University was suspended after distributing mock eviction notices in dorms to protest Israeli measures toward Palestinians in the West Bank.
“These are real concrete steps, while pro-Israel groups, by contrast, complain that criticism of Israel creates an uncomfortable environment,” said Shakir.
Pro-Israel students, by and large, charge university administrations not with acting to suppress their speech but with failing to act — or at least, speak out — when speech or conduct from their opponents crosses into the territory of anti-Semitism or intimidation. Jewish students in George Washington University complained that campus authorities were late to address safety concerns after swastikas were drawn on walls of a dorm building. Others, in San Diego State University, took issue with administrators for refusing to take action after an anti-Semitic post by a student on social media.
Pro-Israel advocates have been pointing for years to a decline of discourse on campus. A list compiled by the AMCHA Initiative contains more than 100 public statements of students from colleges across the country describing a sense of insecurity, lack of safety on campus, encounters with anti-Semitism and use of abusive words. “When BDS comes to campus, the environment deteriorates,” said Kenneth Marcus, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center, which works to protect the speech of pro-Israel students on college campuses. Marcus argued that the claims put forward by pro-Palestinian activists are “completely manufactured” and are now being advanced because supporters of BDS recognize that these types of arguments carry weight among college administrators.
While neither side is willing to acknowledge the sincerity of the other side’s complaints, a look at some of the grievances expressed publicly reveals that pro and anti-Israel activists share much more than they are willing to acknowledge.