How UC devalues Arab and Muslim student voices

UC’s behaviour with respect to Israel-related speech conflicts directly with notions of free speech, writes Salahi.

Arab Americans
Expressions about Israel are "singled out for special focus" in UC [GALLO/GETTY]

Los Angeles, CA – For years, University of California (UC) leaders have walked a fine line between complying with First Amendment limitations on their power and placating pro-Israel interest groups agitating against the growing clout of Palestinian solidarity activism.

Under pressure, UC President Mark Yudof in 2010 commissioned two committees to issue reports on the so-called “campus climate”. One focusing on Jewish students and the other on Arab and Muslim students, the new reports – which characterise criticism of Israel as an affront to Jewish students – have prompted many to believe that the UC intends to curb campus speech critical of Israel.

At their core, however, the reports demonstrate that UC not only has a free speech problem, but an equality problem.

Normalising support for Israel

The report about Jewish students is laden with ideological predispositions that undermine the credibility of its findings and recommendations regarding campus activism. One section of the report, for example, addresses what is called “The Anti-Zionism/Anti-Israel Movement and its Impact on Climate” (but which proponents of this movement call a movement for freedom, justice and equality). 

By framing the issue in this way, the authors presume that Palestinian solidarity has an “impact” on campus climate, as if, prior to this movement’s emergence, university campuses were characterised by some “normal” state of affairs in which all students felt welcome and equal. But that could not be further from the truth and the fact that this forms the starting point explains some of the report’s findings. 

 ‘Blackwashing’ and the Israel lobby

Although the report inquires into such matters as whether mock checkpoints and walls, die-ins and other demonstrations criticising human rights violations by Israel’s occupying army negatively affect Jewish students, there is no similar inquiry into the “impact” frequent celebrations of Israel’s creation and speeches by Israeli combatant soldiers and government officials might have on Jewish students who do not identify with Israel and its policies, or on Arab or Palestinian students whose families were killed or exiled as a result. 

There is similarly no inquiry into whether on-campus recruitment for Jewish-only Birthright trips has an impact on non-Jewish students who have attempted to apply. 

Instead, pro-Israel activities are described as such: “Israel advocacy organisations play an active role on each campus and have engaged outside agencies such as AIPAC, J Street, ADL, Stand With Us and many others in the effort to promote a deeper understanding for all students of the challenges which confront Israel, the Palestinians and the region as a whole.” 

Compare the way these movements are described – “Israel advocacy organisations” vs “Anti-Israel Movement” – and how their missions are understood, promoting a deeper understanding vs possibly creating a hostile climate. 

The silence about the “impact” of pro-Israel events reflects an attitude that pro-Israel expressions are simply a positive part of the normal, benign landscape of campus life. At the same time, events presenting a critical view of Israel are perceived to be anomalous and alien, or, worse, divisive, as if students were previously unified in their love and support for Israel.

There is no recognition that different groups of students might perceive these events very differently, or an explanation of why one group’s perceptions should trump the others’. 

Ignoring positive impact 

The report also assumes that whatever “impact” the Palestine solidarity movement has had, that it has uniformly been negative and that it has impacted all Jewish students in the same way. Significant numbers of Jewish students, however, have been impacted in a positive way, many joining its ranks, others provided with their first opportunity for interacting with people that hold different views from them on the matter. Others are simply indifferent. 

A letter by Jewish Voice for Peace charges that the authors of the report “develop and rely upon a narrative that represents the viewpoint of only one sector of students: those who support and advocate for Israeli policies”, at the expense of “Jewish students who are critical of Israel“. Even to the extent that some students – Jewish or otherwise – vigorously disagree with this movement, many would hold that exposure to different ideas comports with the purpose of attending a university. 

The movement has also had a positive impact on other communities on campus that is disregarded by the report. It is home for an underrepresented and often marginalised position in the general public. It has provided a vehicle for many students from underrepresented Arab, Muslim and Palestinian communities to engage in a vibrant campus debate and to learn the tools of activism. 

 Riz Khan – America versus free speech – Part 1

From organising speaking events and conferences, to staging protests and lobbying efforts, this movement is a formative part of many students’ lives, regardless of their ethnic background or religious views. The empowering aspect of this movement is completely eclipsed by the mischaracterisation of its purpose, aims and composition. 

Pernicious judgments 

The report also makes pernicious judgments that reflect the biases of the authors. For example, it states that “anti-Israel or anti-Zionism protests”… “describe alleged atrocities committed by Israelis devoid of context with the unmistakable message that Israelis/Jews are carrying out a unilateral campaign of violence directed against innocent Palestinians”. 

The authors explain that Jewish students were upset by sponsorship of “events [that] are very clearly designed to promote themes which are biased and unbalanced”. 

However, the authors do not explain what it means to be “devoid of context”, “biased” or “unbalanced”. Nor do they explain why it is the place of the university to dictate the appropriate scope of students’ messages in the first place, as they later recommend that the university withhold sponsorship of “biased” events. 

Their judgment about the “unmistakable message” of the protests is offered without allowing readers to judge for themselves by providing detailed accounts of the protests. And the authors sneakily equivocate between “Israelis/Jews” in order to make the protests seem more threatening, although campus activists take great care – more than the authors, apparently – to make a distinction. 

The one-sidedness of the inquiry and recommendations is blatant. Events that emphasise criticism of Israel are assumed to be “devoid of context” or “biased”, but by the same measure, should not support for Israel also be understood as “devoid of context” or “biased”? 

Should the University forbid campus Hillel groups from hosting celebrations of Israel Independence Day unless they also integrate material about the Nakba into the programming? Why should one set of measures be supported but not the other, except out of a preference for one set of views? 

By characterising criticism of Israel as “biased”, the authors treat an inherently debatable judgment – such as whether a particular criticism of Israel is fair, balanced or unbiased – as an objective one of which there is only one legitimate point of view. 

While a university official who has responsibilities to the institution and to all students might be fairly criticised for bias, it hardly makes sense to criticise partisan activists for the same, especially if the goal of the charge is to compel them to modify their speech. 

Narrow inquiries

The most problematic aspect of this report is that it is clearly viewpoint-based. It would be difficult to envision in today’s political climate a report addressing “The Pro-Israel Movement and its Impact on Climate”. As such, UC is singling out support for Israel for special protection while singling out criticism of Israel for special scrutiny. 

The inquiries are also unjustifiably narrow because there is no effort by the University to address the connection between speech about other nation-states and the potential impact of that speech on students who identify with or oppose those states. 

Should campus political groups curb their criticism of Iran or China because it makes Iranian or Chinese students feel unwelcome? Should criticism of Saudi Arabia be discouraged because it might upset Muslim students? 

Should events highlighting the Armenian Genocide be banned because they might make Turkish students unhappy? Should celebrations of Turkey’s founding be banned because they might understandably alienate Kurdish students? 

 Riz Khan – America versus free speech – Part 2

If not, then why are comparable expressions about Israel singled out for special focus? 

I do not mean to suggest that expressions of support for Israel by students should be curbed in any way; I only intend to point out the one-sidedness of the inquiry. Without a doubt, it is better to have both types of speech, more speech, than to attempt to stifle one set of ideas. 

Treating students differently 

In contrast to the report on Jewish students, the report on Arab and Muslim students takes great care to distinguish between claims about reality and claims about Arab and Muslim students’ “perceptions”. The latter report refers to “real or perceived double-standards”, “the actual and perceived handling of the Irvine 11”, “perceived harassment”, “real and perceived harm”, “perceived lack of follow-up”, “letters… perceived as inaccurate” and the like. 

Although at times, the authors of the report on Jewish students distinguish between perception and objective truth, at crucial moments they also internalise and reproduce a number of those students’ perceptions as truth, as demonstrated above. 

The problem here is not with the methodology applied to Arab and Muslim students, but the fact that it differs from the methodology applied to Jewish students. The effect of this difference is that the first report elevates the subjective views of some Jewish students to objective truth, while the latter report downplays the experiences of Arab and Muslim students to subjective points of view. 

Perception and reality might be equally important to administrators, but a claim of reality might carry more weight for them. 

Free speech debate 

Taken together, these differences demonstrate that free speech interests alone do not fully capture everything that is at play in the UC’s campus climate activities. No doubt, free speech is a powerful way to frame the issue precisely because the First Amendment’s guarantees are so potent and because it avoids pigeonholing the issue as one that is solely of interest to Arab, Muslim and Jewish students. Moreover, it seems apt because the reports are based on political speech. 

But the downside of this framing is that it does not capture the full story. UC’s behaviour with respect to Israel-related speech conflicts directly with notions of free speech. But it is important to recognise that the entire debate about distinguishing legitimate and illegitimate speech about Israel already takes place within the context of an unequal playing field, where certain actors’ opinions are treated as more authoritative than others. 

Issued in tandem, the reports re-affirm the disproportionate influence wielded by pro-Israel groups over UC policies, a fact that causes widespread alienation amongst Arab and Muslim students. From the way they were commissioned to their framing and conclusions, the reports signal a gap between the way the University conceives of its Arab/Muslim students  (as well as students who criticise Israel) and the way it conceives of Jewish students (as well as students who support Israel). It also reflects the varying degrees of influence wielded by different communities. 

Pro-Israel Jewish organisations can prompt the UC to move a mile by pushing an inch. In contrast, Arab and Muslim community organisations and dissenting Jewish organisations must push a mile in order to move the UC an inch. 

Although the report about Arab and Muslim students draws attention to how UC’s stigmatisation of criticism of Israel engenders feelings of marginalisation, it is quite likely the other report’s findings will play a more serious role in UC policymaking.

Until this pattern of preference and exclusion is addressed, it is unlikely that UC will be able to competently, fairly and effectively deal with complaints from students and community organisations on this issue. 

Yaman Salahi follows developments impacting the free speech rights of Arab and Muslim students, particularly with respect to Israel/Palestine activism. He recently graduated from Yale Law School and is also an alumnus of the University of California, Berkeley and Cal Students for Justice in Palestine.