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Palestinian activism grows at US universities

Despite heavy backlashes, academic institutions are increasingly endorsing boycotts against Israel's occupation.

Last updated: 09 Dec 2013 08:47
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Over the last couple of years there has been an upsurge in pro-Palestinian activism on college campuses across the US [EPA]

By the third evening of the American Studies Association’s national conference, a petition calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions had garnered some 850 signatures. An opposing petition had just over 50.

Still, there was quite a bit of controversy when on December 4, the National Council of the American Studies Association (ASA) endorsed a boycott condemning the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians. In American academia, criticising Israel has often come with a heavy backlash, including lawsuits and claims of anti-Semitism. Yet American professors and students are increasingly critical of what many have called Israeli apartheid, comparing the current segregation of Palestinians to that faced by black South Africans prior to 1995.

Recognising the divisiveness of the issue, the Association held a town hall attended by several hundred members on November 22 . During the open question-and-answer section, Lena Ibrahim, a first-generation Palestinian American student living in Virginia, took the microphone. Ibrahim had recently returned from a trip to visit family and friends in Palestine.

"I went to Palestine and looked around, and I was so depressed, thinking peace will never come." But she was heartened by the scholarly discussion. "This is how peace will come," she told the audience. The ASA’s membership now has until December 15 to vote on whether the organisation will adopt the resolution.

The boycott that the ASA’s council signed off on includes all Israeli academic institutions, and follows a similar move last April by the Association for Asian American Studies. Some ASA members took to the organisation’s website to criticise the move (one threatened to cancel his membership), and 50-some scholars, most of whom did not attend November’s conference, signed a counter-petition rejecting the boycott.

Opponents were chiefly concerned with the question of why single out Israel rather than other countries with records of human rights abuses, such as the United States. Claire Potter, a history professor at New York’s New School who blogs under the name "Tenured Radical" wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that "putting the question of why Israel’s human rights violations are being singled out as especially gruesome, given US complicity in the repression of many peoples across the globe, the ASA also runs the risk of isolating progressive colleagues in Israel by passing this resolution."

Proponents responded by pointing out that the boycott targets institutions, not individual professors, and to the fact that the US government is the number one foreign funder of Israel’s military, bestowing more than $3b annually. More than 170 Palestinian groups have signed on to an appeal asking the international community to join the boycott.

Fighting back

"As much as people are trying to prevent students from acting by scaring them or by arresting them, it doesn’t help them. The more that you stifle the voices of students on campus, the more they end up uniting and fighting back," said Hannan Seirafi, a fourth-year economics major at the University of California at Irvine (UCI), speaking over the phone from her home in Southern California. Seirafi joined the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine in 2010, a year after a now famous incident in which 11 Muslim students, in an attempt to call attention to the Israeli government’s actions, interrupted a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren.

The fallout was substantial. The students, who came to be known on campus and in media reports as the "Irvine 11", were later sued on free speech charges, and University of California President Mark Yudof followed up by sending a series of university-wide announcements condemning UCI’s Muslim Student Union, which was soon suspended.

The California State Assembly went so far as to pass a resolution, HR 35, which critics say wrongly equates criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish racism. "These are all attempts to scare students into thinking, if you are criticising Israeli policies on campus, you are being anti-Semitic, and therefore you are discriminating and you should not have the right to speak out.

The thing we’ve come to realise is these things aren’t actually scaring students," says Seirafi, explaining that even the risk of a backlash did not prevent her from joining Students for Justice in Palestine. The group’s annual meeting in late October at Stanford University drew between 300 to 400 representatives from colleges around the country, according to conference organisers.

Now, a sort of backlash to the backlash is gaining momentum. Over the past couple years there has been an upsurge in pro-Palestinian human rights activism on college campuses across the US. In November 2012, UCI’s student council unanimously-and defiantly-voted in favor of the college pulling its investments from Israeli companies. In a matter of months, student councils at UC Berkeley, Riverside, and San Diego had done the same, and a bill that would have thwarted student action at UCLA, by placing a blanket ban on divestment measures at the school, failed.

Daniel Narvy, president of a pro-Israel campus group named after UCI’s mascot, Anteaters for Israel, believes most criticism about Israel on his campus "is rooted in misinformation, bigotry, and distortion of history…the history of wars is ignored, and the call for another Jewish holocaust has become acceptable for speakers on the anti-Israel perspective," he said, referring to Amir Abdul Malik Ali, a Muslim imam from Oakland, California, who has spoken several times at UCI, and has called for an Islamic, one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"My personal opinion is the student body should focus on matters pertaining to the school itself-the school newspaper, sports teams, tuition hikes… However, our student body decided to pass a symbolic piece of legislation to single out Israel in legislation riddled with lies and distortions of history."

And yet, the list of academic institutions across the US opting to stand with Palestinians is growing. The largest pension provider for US professors, TIAA-CREF, pulled out nearly $73m in investments from Caterpillar, which produces construction equipment such as weaponised bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian villages; Missouri’s Earlham College stopped stocking the Israel-based hummus brand Sabra in its cafeteria; and New York City’s Brooklyn College refused to cancel a panel dealing with boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, despite threats by city officials saying they’d move to defund the college if the event went forward as planned.

All of this is a response to a 2005 open call by Palestinian organisations for international boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, inspired by a similar push in South Africa during apartheid. For their part, South Africa’s government has officially endorsed the Palestinian call; the chairperson of South Africa’s ruling party went so far as to call Israel "far worse than Apartheid South Africa." 

Morally obliged

Steven Salaita, an associate English professor at Virginia Tech whose Palestinian grandmother lost her home in Jerusalem when Israel was established in 1948, says it’s important for universities to take a stand on the issue "because of their obligation to improve the conditions of the world through education. It goes against their very identities to be complicit in acts such as military occupation and ethnic cleansing, [not to mention] their deep investment with military industries."

Salaita, who sits on the organizing committee for the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (UCACBI), argues that "there’s plenty in university mission statements that talks about creating a better and more dynamic, and more ethical, world, and it’s those obligations that they need to remain focused on rather than running themselves as corporations interested in making profit or accruing status."

Fellow UCACBI organiser Sunaina Maira is a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis, who left the US last year to spend time working as a teacher in a Palestinian refugee camp. "Although I had watched so many documentary films on Palestine, and heard talks from people who were reporting on their visits," nothing prepared Maira for "this feeling of being caged."

Traveling by taxi-bus through some of the more than 500 Israeli army checkpoints, "not knowing whether it was going to take one hour, or if it was going to take two hours, or [much longer]," Maira befriended Palestinian students who told her of the hardships they underwent in their pursuit of an education.

"Something as simple as getting books is very difficult in Palestine," and Palestinian students who manage to get into Israeli universities "experience all this intense surveillance and repression, and banning of their public events, cultural events, and lectures," she says, pointing to the work of the group Academic Watch, which documents the special obstacles that Palestinian students face.

For example, its website details how at one Israeli college, Palestinians are banned from running for student council.

Likewise, in the US, says Maira, "There is a network of powerful, partisan, pro-Israel organisations and lobby groups, and there’s a kind of line that’s enforced: to be supportive of Israel is identical to being supportive of the US. This situation also shapes the academic climate." She says that within academia, speaking critically about Israel comes with "a fear that one may not get tenure; that one may not get a fellowship if you’re a graduate student. If you’re an undergraduate it might affect your course grade-there is this really heavy apparatus of repression that people are dealing with on a day to day basis."

Her fears are far from unfounded. Responses from university chancellors and regents have generally been hostile, as at the University of California. At Massachusetts’ small, private Hampshire College, in 2009 students collected 800 signatures from students, staff, alumni, and parents of students calling for divestment from Israeli companies.

But administrators refused to single out Israel, leading student activists to release a statement: "Divestment from Apartheid South Africa did not prove politically popular in 1977 when Hampshire became the first college in the US to take a stand. It is to be expected that the first of any movement faces great pressure and criticism. [Students for Justice in Palestine] is disappointed that the college is choosing to shy away from the political implications of its action rather than embrace this moment."

At Florida Atlantic University, student activists received probation and were forced to attend diversity classes produced by the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League after interrupting a lecture by an Israeli soldier. Maira notes that the very concept of an Israeli military campus tour is "extremely provocative, and in any other situation of occupation or war would be considered really inflammatory…while the war is going on."

The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Lawyers’ Guild came to the students’ side, sending a letter expressing concern regarding "the apparently biased manner in which these disciplinary proceedings were undertaken, and in the unwarranted severity of the agreements’ conditions. The University’s actions in this matter establish a chilling precedent for student campus speech on controversial issues, especially concerning Palestinian rights."

Early efforts to get academia involved were largely student-led-the student council of Michigan’s Wayne State University was the first to adopt a resolution supporting divestment, as early as 2003-but faculty members have begun speaking up as well.

In the American Association of University Professors’  (AAUP) Journal of Academic Freedom published in October, editor Ashley Dawson wondered if it was time for the organisation and its 48,000 members to take a stand on the Israel-Palestine issue. "Several incidents that unfolded around the time that the [journal opened to submissions] suggested that the time was ripe for such a discussion," Dawson wrote.

The association had recently expressed concern over academic repression in Latin America and Singapore. But the organisation hadn’t yet addressed a problem with similar circumstances in Israel: an Israeli governmental organisation recommended closing the political science department at one of Israel’s largest academic institutions, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, criticizing the department’s "lack of balance" and emphasis on "community activism". University staff had previously been accused of anti-Zionism by right-wing groups.

No longer taboo

"This appeared to be a clear and grievous violation of academic freedom, and the AAUP’s sister organisation, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, responded with a letter to the Israeli Minister of Education," wrote Dawson, who also voiced his support in person for the ASA’s boycott at its conference’s open forum.

"The AAUP’s silence on this matter suggests that the organisation urgently needs to develop policies on how to respond to such incidents." US. Professors famous outside the academic world, including Judith Butler, Angela Davis, Stephen Hawking, and Cornel West have already lent their names to the BDS cause.

Many professors and students are linking Palestine to other colonial struggles. "I’m from India, and I’m deeply shaped by the question of colonialism and anti-imperial struggle," says Maira. "It just seemed like an obvious issue that one needed to take a progressive stand on."

At her campus, UC Davis, she says, "The Chicano and Latino students have been amazing allies of the Palestinian students," connecting colonial struggles in Latin America to the situation of Palestinians. Wesleyan University professor J. Kehaulani Kauanui, who has written extensively on Native American and Hawaiian struggles against European colonialism, was part of a delegation of professors from five US universities who visited Palestine in 2012.

"American Studies scholars well know the persistent legacy of apartheid, both legal and de facto in this country," she said. "US settler colonialism, occupation, and apartheid all point to why the US administration never condemns Israel, besides its geopolitical interests in the Middle East. To do so would call into question the entire US-American project."

Days after the ASA conference, UC Riverside English professor David Lloyd wrote in the Electronic Intifada blog that what happened at the ASA signaled an end to what he calls "the blockade on debate". A new climate was forming, he wrote, "in which critical discussion of Israel’s policies towards Palestine will no longer be taboo".

Maira agrees. "What is remarkable about this campaign is you realise there are so many, many people who are actually in support of this, but they haven’t had an opportunity to come forth and demonstrate that support publicly." She recognises that the movement will have to grow far beyond the world of academia in order for the Palestinian story to have a happier ending, but says the boycott is symbolic of something bigger. "The point around the boycott and divestment is actually just to rupture-to interrupt-that lockdown on the Palestine issue. Fifty percent of the work, I feel, is really around opening up space to talk about these issues."

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