San Francisco State University is at the heart of a multipronged legal effort by Israel advocacy organizations seeking to silence students and faculty who stand for Palestinian rights.Read More
In November 2017, a New York City book store was compelled to hide copies of a children’s alphabet book, P is for Palestine, behind the cash register, and ultimately release a statement denouncing boycotts for Palestinian rights after local Israel supporters and a prominent local synagogue complained about the book.Read More
In spring 2017, a diverse coalition of student organizations at the University of Wisconsin – Madison launched a campus-wide campaign to pass a student government resolution urging the university to divest from companies complicit in environmental and human rights abuses including fossil fuels, private prisons, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights.
In the wake of the resolution’s passage, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law demanded that the university rescind the resolution and punish several students, including student government chairperson Carmen Gosey – who backed the resolution – and adopt a discredited definition of antisemitism that classifies virtually all Palestinian rights advocacy as inherently antisemitic.
Palestine Legal wrote the University demanding that the administration take action to protect students’ First Amendment right to advocate for Palestinian rights, and to protect students of color from a pattern of harassment and discrimination.
Pattern of Harassment and Discrimination Against Palestine Supporters
Several students of color involved in the divestment campaign, including Gosey, who is Black, and members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), faced a pattern of racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic harassment and discrimination from on- and off-campus groups, including online messages such as:
- “you fa***ts are f***ing gonna lose; Islam/Palestine is a terrorism communist f****”t state.”
- “you are the perfect example of affirmative action … no other way you could of [sic] made it to college…ghetto trash n****r.”
- “We need to completely eliminate all affirmative action for any group before our college goes down the drain due to your inferior quality types.”
Palestine Legal wrote the University Chancellor. The letter called on the university to take necessary steps to ensure that these students are afforded educational opportunities free of harassment and discrimination, including meeting with and providing support to the targeted students and rejecting Brandeis Center’s demand to adopt the discredited and overbroad definition of antisemitism. The university failed to take any steps to address the situation.
Kenneth Marcus’ Brandeis Center Sides with White Supremacy (and Zionism)
Gosey and SJP were singled out in the Brandeis Center letter, which chastised them for condemning white supremacy and Zionism, calling their statements “unacceptable.” The Brandeis Center urged university officials to specifically reprimand Gosey for saying “Fuck White Supremacy” at a student government meeting.
See Palestine Legal’s letter to UW-Madison Chancellor Blank here.
Select Media Coverage
- Palestine Legal calls on UW to recognize ‘harassment and discrimination’ against former ASM chair, Emilie Burditt, The Badger Herald, (November 9, 2017)
- Former ASM chair faced harassment, discrimination after divestment, letter says, Maggie Chandler, The Daily Cardinal, (November 9, 2017)
- An Advocate for Israel Draws Fire as he Nears Confirmation to Civil Rights Post, Erica L. Green, The New York Times, (January 18, 2018)
Palestine Legal, together with the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-counsel Alan Levine, filed a lawsuit in New York challenging Fordham University’s denial of club status to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
The decision to deny club status to SJP occurred in December 2016 – more than a year after Fordham students had applied to start an SJP club. The justification was that the group would create "polarization" on campus and "run contrary to the mission and values" embraced at Fordham.
Palestine Legal represents current and former Fordham students Ahmad Awad, Sofia Dadap, Sapphira Lurie and Julie Norris, who hoped to organize events on Palestinian history and raise awareness on the issue of Palestinian rights.
The case is being brought as a special proceeding under Article 78 of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules. Students are seeking a judgment compelling Fordham to officially recognize SJP and provide it the same rights enjoyed by all other clubs at Fordham. Without club status, the students may not hold events, obtain funding, flyer or invite guest speakers.
The lawsuit argues that Fordham, a private university, violated Article 78 by failing to follow its own rules and policies that bar it from restricting students’ expressive activities based on the positions being advocated. New York courts have ruled that even private universities may not arbitrarily and capriciously violate their own rules.
Jan. 3, 2018: Court hears oral arguments on Students’ preliminary injunction and Fordham’s motion to dismiss.
Dec. 22, 2017: Students file reply brief.
Dec. 15, 2017: Fordham files its brief opposing Students’ preliminary injunction and request for expedited discovery.
Nov. 2, 2017: Students file order to show cause why preliminary injunction should not be issued and expedited discovery granted against Fordham.
July 17, 2017: Fordham files its reply brief.
July 7, 2017: Students file brief opposing Fordham's motion to dismiss.
June 5, 2017: Fordham files motion to dismiss case.
Jan. 17, 2017: Palestine Legal and CCR send letter to Fordham expressing concern over SJP denial.
Dec. 22, 2016: Fordham dean overrules the student government’s decision and denies club status to SJP in an unprecedented decision.
Nov. 17, 2016: Fordham’s student government votes to approve SJP as a club at Fordham.
Nov. 19, 2015: Fordham students submit application to form an SJP club as per Fordham's rules.
Select Media Coverage
- Students of SJP Await Court Decision, Ruby Gara, The Fordham Observer (January 24, 2018
- Law and Disorder Radio: January 15, 2018, with co-counsel Maria LaHood
- Students Await Judgment in Suit Over Fordham University Banning of Pro-Palestine Club, Dina Sayedahmed, The Intercept (January 7, 2018)
- Fordham Students Sue over Free Speech Rights to Establish Students for Justice in Palestine Group, Democracy Now! (January 3, 2018)
- NJ students head to court in battle over Fordham University Palestinian club, Hannan Adely, The Record (January 3, 2018)
- Pro-Palestinian Group Banned on Political Grounds, Elizabeth Redden, Inside Higher Ed (January 18, 2017)
- Fordham flunks a free speech test, Ahmad Awad, New York Daily News (January 23, 2017)
Letters Supporting the Formation of SJP
- Catholic clergy and professors letter
- Fordham faculty letter
- Friends of Sabeel North America letter
- The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) letter and second letter
- Jewish Voice for Peace letter
- Middle East Studies Association letter
- US Campaign for Palestinian Rights statement
- US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel open letter
In September 2016, UC Berkeley suspended a course, titled, “Palestine: a Settler Colonial Analysis,” a week after it began, after Israel advocacy organizations and an Israeli government minister complained that the class was antisemitic. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks' office justified the suspension by erroneously stating the facilitator failed to follow procedures, and by citing concerns that the course “espoused a single political viewpoint and appeared to offer a forum for political organizing.”
After an outcry, the university reinstated the course. But UC Berkeley never accounted for the blatant violations of academic freedom and free speech.
Berkeley’s suspension of an academic course on Palestine stands in sharp contrast to the university’s defense of free speech for white supremacist visitors like Milo Yiannopolous and Ben Shapiro. The contrast provides a stark illustration of the “Palestine exception” to free speech.
The Course, "Palestine: A Settler Colonial Inquiry"
Paul Hadweh, a Palestinian-American and UC Berkeley senior majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies, spent eight months preparing to facilitate the student-led course, which set out to examine Palestinian history through the framework of settler colonialism. Hadweh designed the course in close consultation with his faculty sponsor, and followed all procedural requirements. The course was approved by Hadweh’s sponsor, the Ethnic Studies Department, and the faculty body charged with overseeing academic curriculum. The class met for the first time on September 6, 2016, and twenty-six students enrolled.
The syllabus included material from both Palestinian and Israeli scholars like Edward Said, Saree Makdisi, Eyal Weizman, and Ilan Pappe. The course description emphasized, “we will explore the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine, one in which justice is realized for all its peoples and equality is not only espoused, but practiced.”
The enrolled students included a diverse group, self-described as “Christians, Muslims, and Jews; we are white, Black, Latin@, Asian, North American indigenous, Middle Eastern, and more; we study Peace and Conflict Studies, Ethnic Studies and Middle Eastern Studies, Media Studies, Economics and Engineering.”
The accusation that the course would only tolerate a single viewpoint was false, as explained by the enrolled students: “We the students collaboratively designed and established community agreements to ensure that we would engage with course content and each other in a mature and respectful manner. Any and all participants were welcome to attend the course, irrespective of background or preconceived perspectives on the subject matter.”
Suspension Without Warning
Executive Dean of the College of Letters and Science Carla Hesse suspended the course on September 13, 2016, three weeks after the semester started and one week after the course began. Hesse made the decision without consulting the course facilitator, the faculty advisor, or the department. To support its decision, the university cited concerns that the course was one-sided, that it was a vehicle for political mobilization, and that Hadweh failed to follow proper procedures.
The university publicly announced its decision less than 30 minutes after informing the faculty advisor and department chair that the course was suspended. Administrators made no contact with Hadweh to discuss their concerns about the course or give him an opportunity to respond before publicly alleging that he failed to follow proper procedures and that his course was inappropriate for the university setting.
Nor did the university reach out to Hadweh to discuss how he may protect himself and stay focused on his studies while facing scrutiny in the international media.
Hadweh learned his course was in jeopardy when a friend alerted him on the morning of the suspension that he was in the Israeli media. This was only several hours before the university suspended it. That same day he began to receive a barrage of harassment emails and contacts from reporters.
Blatant Academic Freedom Violations
As Palestine Legal pointed out in multiple legal letters, the university’s reasoning for the suspension (that the course was politically one-sided) violated First Amendment protections and the university’s academic freedom policies. The procedural justification that “the facilitator for the course in question did not comply with policies and procedures” was also erroneous. No policies or procedures were cited to support this claim, and the university later conceded it was an error.
Palestine Legal demanded immediate reinstatement and an apology to the students. The suspension also caused an outcry among academic freedom advocates, faculty associations, the Berkeley Academic Senate, alumni, and students who also demanded the reinstatement of the course.
Pressure from Israel Advocacy Organizations
The suspension followed heavy pressure from Israel advocacy organizations and the Israeli government. Israeli news media claimed the course offered “practical tips for how to drive Jews out of Israel.” Israel Channel Ten also reported that Israeli Minister Erdan and the Association of University Heads had been trying covertly to prevent the course from taking place. Headlines in the American pro-Israel press claimed, “UC Berkeley Offers Class in Erasing Jews From Israel,” and “New Course At Berkeley University: How To Get Rid Of Israel.” The director of UC Berkeley Hillel wrote, "This course seems to be a matter of political indoctrination in the classroom and is a violation of the newly adopted principles by the U.C. regents on intolerance."
The Israel advocacy group AMCHA Initiative, along with 42 other Israel advocacy organizations, issued a public letter and commenced a letter-writing campaign to Chancellor Dirks about Hadweh’s class on September 13, claiming that it violated Regent’s Policy by allowing a classroom to be used for “political indoctrination” and “as an instrument for the advance of partisan interest.” AMCHA’s media statement called the course, a “classic example of antisemitic anti-Zionism.” The group Students Supporting Israel likened UC Berkeley to a “Hamas terror academy.”
Internal communications released to Palestine Legal through a public records request show UC Berkeley officials scrambling to respond to a high volume of email messages from pro-Israel alumni and donors claiming the course was antisemitic.
Student Facilitator Smeared in the Media
Following the sudden suspension, Hadweh was thrust into an international media storm amidst efforts to reinstate the course, and defend his name from false accusations. The controversy was covered in Israeli, Arab, European, national, and local media outlets. Hadweh was depicted falsely throughout the coverage as a student who violated university policies and attempted to indoctrinate his peers with antisemitic thinking. The university made no statements in his defense.
Reinstatement Without Remedy
On September 19, Dean Hesse announced that she was reinstating the course. The enrolled students met on Tuesday September 20, but Mr. Hadweh was unable to engage his students in the planned discussion of the course material because of questions about the university’s suspension of the course and its reinstatement. They fell two weeks behind on the course syllabus as a result of the suspension.
On Tuesday September 20, the Academic Senate released a statement condemning the university’s suspension of the course as a major infringement of academic freedom policies, and demanding that the university retract and apologize for false statements accusing Hadweh of failing to follow university procedures. The university issued no known response.
Palestine Legal wrote again on October 18th, 2016, because the university had taken no action after the reinstatement to remedy the harms to Hadweh or to remedy injuries to the free speech environment. The letter reiterated: “The absence of a valid justification for suspending the course, combined with the absence of similar scrutiny applied to any other [student-led “DeCal”] course, and the ample evidence of an international pressure campaign on the university to restrict Palestinian perspectives, all point to the conclusion that the university suspended the course in response to controversy over the perceived political viewpoints in the syllabus. This is a violation of the University’s obligation to uphold academic freedom and free speech under the California and U.S. Constitutions.” The university did not reply.
In November, Dean Carla Hesse who was directly responsible for the course suspension wrote to Hadweh to “offer our apology for the public misstatement made regarding your DeCal course” citing “confusion.” Hesse wrote, “We regret stating that you had not followed the appropriate procedures, when in fact you had.” She did not apologize for, or acknowledge, the violations of free speech and academic freedom, or the personal consequences on Hadweh. The university took no known further action on the case.
Consequences to Student Facilitator
For the weeks that followed the reinstatement, Mr. Hadweh was forced to devote himself full time to defending his reputation and responding to high interest from international and local media outlets. He fell irreparably behind in an intensive Hebrew language course, which he eventually had to drop. Hadweh lost sleep, had trouble concentrating, and was consumed with the anxiety of potential consequences to his future and his family.
In December 2016, following the suspension, the Israeli government denied Hadweh a permit to cross from the West Bank to Jerusalem for Christmas. The church applied on Hadweh's behalf, as it has in previous years successfully. This was the first time his permit was denied.
Hadweh, explained, “The university threw me under the bus, and publicly blamed me, without ever even contacting me. It seems that because I’m Palestinian studying Palestine, I’m guilty until proven innocent. To defend the course, we had to mobilize an international outcry of scholars and students to stand up for academic freedom. This never should have happened.”
Letters from Palestine Legal to University of California
- Palestine Legal letter to UC Berkeley challenging the suspension (Sep. 16, 2016)
- Palestine Legal letter to UC Berkeley demanding remedies after the course reinstatement (Oct. 18, 2016)
- Palestine Legal and other civil rights organizations letter to University of California warning of repeated First Amendment violations (Nov. 21, 2016)
Letters from Students, Professors, and Associations
- Open Letter to the UC Berkeley Administration Regarding Academic Freedom From Every Student of Ethnic Studies 198 (Sep. 15, 2016)
- Middle East Studies Association Letter to Chancellor Dirks, (Sep. 16, 2016)
- California Scholars for Academic Freedom, “Letter to Chancellor Dirks and Dean Hesse Re Cancelled Palestine class at UC Berkeley,” (Sep. 16, 2016)
- Berkeley Bans a Palestine Class, Academe Blog (Sep. 15, 2016)
- UC Berkeley’s ban on Palestine course ‘McCarthyist’, Al Jazeera (Sep. 18, 2016)
- Berkeley’s Choice To Nix Palestinian Course Disgusts Me as a Jewish Alum, The Forward (Sep. 18, 2016)
- UC Berkeley Suspends Class on Colonialism in Palestine, Chicago Monitor (Sep. 19, 2016)
- UC Berkeley reinstates Palestine course, but tried to change content, Electronic Intifada (Sep. 20, 2016)
- Why A Controversial Palestinian History Class At Berkeley Was Canceled, Then Reinstated, Newsweek (Oct. 5, 2016)
In spring 2016, two well-known leaders of City University of New York-Brooklyn College SJP were investigated, charged with student conduct violations and ultimately exonerated after they briefly protested during a faculty council meeting to voice concerns over tuition increases, faculty diversity, police surveillance and other topics.Read More
In October 2013, the Department of Homeland Security arrested Rasmea Odeh, a pillar of the Palestinian community in Chicago, and charged her with ‘unlawful procurement of naturalization’ for omitting mention of her arrest and conviction by an Israeli military court on her citizenship application.Read More
When students of color at Loyola University Chicago (LUC) organized a November 12, 2015 demonstration in solidarity with racial justice protests at the University of Missouri, over 700 students, faculty, and staff attended. Demonstration organizers did not fully comply with LUC’s draconian demonstration policy – full compliance would have precluded participation in a national day of solidarity with Mizzou.
But despite promises from senior administration officials that no student would be disciplined, LUC charged three organizers – all black students – with violating the demonstration policy. The students faced suspension. All three students were also members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at LUC, and Palestine Legal staff attorney Rahul Saksena acted as their adviser during their disciplinary hearing.
On December 8, LUC’s Interim President announced a moratorium on the school’s demonstration policy.
In January 2016, Palestine Legal and the NLG-Chicago wrote to LUC’s interim president, raising three demands: 1) end the draconian provision of the demonstration policy, including the requirement that students register demonstrations with the University; 2) adopt stronger due process measures during the student disciplinary process; and 3) apologize to SJP for unfair and selective enforcement of the demonstration policy in 2015. LUC responded to Palestine Legal with a standard letter (dated Jan. 19, 2016) reiterating its commitment to “fostering a vibrant and productive dialogue about important social issues regardless of viewpoint.”
In March, LUC revised the school’s demonstration policy. Students will no longer need to obtain approval to demonstrate.
In the Fall 2015, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace members at the University of Chicago faced harassment on campus and online. Much of the harassment targeted students based on their perceived sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity, including:
- On October 14, as part of the International Day of Action on University Campuses for Palestine, SJP put up posters at the University of Chicago in recognition of recent Palestinian victims of Israeli violence. Many posters were torn down or vandalized with Islamophobic and anti-Arab messages, including “stop venerating terror” and “TERRORIST.”
- On October 19, offensive posters using the SJP and University of Chicago logos were posted on campus. The posters replaced “Students for Justice in Palestine” with “Stabbing Jews for Peace.” SJP reported both incidents to Associate Dean Inabinet via email on Oct 20.
- On October 22, a fake Facebook user named “Rachel Corrie” posted harassing and intimidating comments about an SJP member on SJP’s Facebook page. The posts included homophobic, disparaging comments about the student’s sexual orientation, and threatened to expose sexually explicit photos of the student. One comment, for example, threatened to post flyers on campus with “graphic nude photos of [redacted] he’s been sharing on [gay mobile phone app] grindr.” Another comment stated, “I think most queers would agree that power bottom [redacted] needs to stop pinkwashing palestinian brutality against palestinian homosexuals, oh and stabbing jews too.” Members of SJP reported these Facebook posts to the Associate Dean Inabinet via email on October 22.
- On November 2 and 3, a University of Chicago student who identifies as non-binary and queer, received threatening transphobic and homophobic Facebook messages from the same “Rachel Corrie” referenced above, including “when are you going to get your boobies taken off?” and “i’m going to have lots of fun with you and your family.” The student is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace – UChicago and had posted publicly on Facebook in support of Palestinian human rights. The student reported these messages to the Administration via e-mail on November 3.
- On November 6, a Facebook user created a fake account using the name and photo of an SJP member. The fake account made several offensive, harassing, and intimidating comments on SJP Chicago’s Facebook page. The comments included disparaging statements about the student’s sexual orientation, and attributed to the student statements that could be construed as support for terrorism and anti-Semitism. In one post, for example, the fake profile commented, “I would love to join, but I’m more interested in murdering some jews, er… I mean zionists.” Another comment stated, “…How can I get arrested, I want to fulfill a prison rape fantasy, dying for some big black cock.” The student reported these Facebook comments to Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen via e-mail on November 6.
- On November 14, a Facebook user created a fake account using the name and profile photograph of a Palestinian student at the University of Chicago, who is also a member of SJP. The imposter account left a series of harassing, threatening, sexual, and misogynistic comments on SJP’s Facebook page, including “you don’t have to rape me, i’ll make you touch my genitals.” The Palestinian student reported these comments to Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen and other administrators via email on November 16.
Each time students reported incidents to administrators, the responses expressed sympathy and referred the student(s) to Title IX coordinator. These responses were insufficient.
On November 19, Palestine Legal sent a letter to the University. The letter called on the University to investigate who was behind the harassment and issue a public statement affirming the right to speak out in support of Palestine. The University responded to Palestine Legal’s letter, stating that they had investigated and were unable to identify the sources of online harassment. But the University failed to address the students’ other demands, including publicly affirming and protecting the rights of students to speak out in favor of Palestinian human rights.
Nearly a year later, in October 2016, a number of defamatory, hateful posters made by the David Horowitz Freedom Center were found around campus targeting students due to their support for Palestinian rights. That year, students were also profiled on blacklisting site Canary Mission. Palestine Legal again sent a legal letter to administrators documenting the incidents and demanding that the university take immediate action to support the targeted students.
Palestine Legal continued to work with University of Chicago students throughout 2016 and 2017 to build pressure on the university to take action. In the summer of 2017, the University announced it was considering action to support students targeted by Horowitz and Canary Mission.
On April 4, 2016, St. Louis University student Christopher Winston attended a campus event entitled “Israel: First Responders to World Crisis.” During the question-and-answer portion of the event, Mr. Winston asked questions critical of Israeli ambulance service policies towards Palestinians. His questions were met with hostility by the event hosts, who at one point threatened to call campus security to remove Mr. Winston, the only black person in the room. In response, Mr. Winston said, “[t]hank you, your Zionist fascism is on full display today” as he left the event.
On May 11 an SLU administrator informed Mr. Winston that he had been found to engage in a “bias related incident.” Not once did the university consult Mr. Winston or give him the opportunity to state his side of the story. Mr. Winston was also found to have violated university policy prohibiting “disruptive behavior” due to the “manner in which he presented himself” at the April 4 event.
On May 23, Palestine Legal wrote to the president of St. Louis University to express outrage over the school’s decision to discipline Mr. Winston for simply expressing his political viewpoints at a student-organized event. Mr. Winston appealed the case, stating that he was not provided an opportunity to refute the allegations. In a June 9 letter, the University’s appeal board upheld the sanctions.
- Palestine Legal letter to SLU
- Video of Mr. Winston’s questioning at the event
- Electronic Intifada article: “Black student censured in St. Louis for challenging Israeli spin”
- Alternet article: “African American student accused of ‘Bias Incident’ by St. Louis University for Condemning Israeli Human Rights Abuses”
After a five-month long investigation, Boston University’s (BU) Equal Opportunity Office found that students who had been ejected from a January 2016 BU Hillel event on “combatting BDS” should not have been removed, and had done nothing disruptive.
Nine students, seven of whom were students of color, were ejected from the “All Students, All Israel Think Tank” event on January 28, 2016. When the students asked why they weren’t allowed to attend the event, campus police told them “you’re not welcome” and threatened them with criminal trespass. Three of the nine ejected students are of Palestinian origin, six are Muslim, and seven were members of SJP.
In its determination letter, the Equal Opportunity Office stated that the event “should have been open to all BU students.” It noted that a non-Hillel affiliate asked campus police to eject the students based on a vague assumption that they would be disruptive. While the Office determined that there was not sufficient evidence to conclude the students’ exclusion was due to discriminatory motives, it did recommend “appropriate management of future events at Hillel House so that Boston University students are not treated disrespectfully, or put in a position to conclude that they are being targeted because of national origin, color, religion, or any other protected characteristic.”
Palestine Legal, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) Massachusetts Chapter wrote Boston University in May 2016 demanding that the university apologize to the nine students who were removed from the BU Hillel event and issue a statement to the campus community affirming that all students are welcome at open campus events, including Palestinian-American students, Muslim students and students active with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
The letter, written on behalf of BU students Marlene Kalb, Ibraheem Samirah and Negin Taleb notes:
It is clear, as reflected by comments from the police officer, that these students were removed from the event because Boston University Hillel complained about their presence, based on assumptions relating to the students’ national origins and religions or because they disagree with their viewpoints supporting Palestinian rights.
The letter also states:
Fearful of being arrested, Ms. Kalb, Mr. Samirah, Ms. Taleb and their two remaining friends exited the room, under police escort. The experience left Ms. Kalb, Mr. Samirah and Ms. Taleb feeling humiliated, scared and like outsiders on their own campus. Ms. Samirah felt like he didn’t belong on BU’s campus, and that he wasn’t allowed to be part of a discussion because he was Palestinian, that his identity was viewed by BU and BU Hillel “as a negative” and that BU and BU Hillel “made me feel bad as a Palestinian.”
Former Federal Prosecutor and Former Federal Judge Vindicate Students for Justice in Palestine
After a six-month investigation, an independent task force concluded that alleged instances of anti-Semitism on CUNY's campuses were not attributable to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
The investigation, conducted by Paul Shechtman, a former federal prosecutor, and Barbara Jones, a former federal judge, was commissioned after the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) called for SJP to be banned from over twenty CUNY campuses. Subsequently, 35 New York legislators responded by calling for SJP's suspension, newspaper editorial boards demanded action against the student group, the New York State Senate threatened to cut CUNY's funding and the New York City council considered legislation in response.
In their 24-page report, the “Task Force” emphasized that student conduct supporting Palestinian rights such as die-ins, mock checkpoints and banners is constitutionally-protected speech. The report also described a "tendency to blame SJP for any act of anti-Semitism on any CUNY campus," which it called a "mistake."
The report focused on four CUNY campuses with active SJP chapters: Brooklyn College, CUNY Staten Island, Hunter College, and John Jay College. It concluded that:
- Calls for boycotts and divestment in response to Israel’s human rights abuses “should not be tarred as anti-Semitic”
- SJP was not to blame for genuine incidents of anti-Semitism, such as swastika graffiti or threatening comments at a rally
- Banners with depictions of a keffiyeh (Palestinian scarf) are protected speech and should not be removed.
The findings also describe incidents of Islamophobia and censorship targeting SJP students, including cyber harassment and vandalism. In one case of censorship, an administrator told John Jay SJP students not to use sheets with red paint to depict Palestinian lives lost in Gaza because they “would make people uncomfortable.”
Citing the Supreme Court, the report emphasized that: “Political speech is often provocative and challenging, but that is why it is vital to university life. If college students are not exposed to views with which they may disagree, their college has short-changed them.”
The ZOA said they were “worse than disappointed” with the outcome which they thought “did the opposite of what it was supposed to do.”
University then apologizes to student publicly, promises equal application of policy
Inspired by the many flags he had seen hung outside residential hall windows during his three years at George Washington University (GW), Mr. Abounaja, a junior biomedical engineering major, hung a Palestinian flag out his dorm window in October 2015. On October 26, a campus police officer came to Mr. Abounaja’s door, instructed him to remove his flag because of complaints the department had received, and filed a police report. The following week, Mr. Abounaja received a ‘Warning Letter’ from GW threatening future sanctions should he be named in a “subsequent report.”
In the following weeks, Mr. Abounaja attempted to discern what policy he violated, writing the university, calling, and emailing several times. “I felt like I was being singled-out, because of my heritage and the viewpoint of my speech, for something I’ve seen dozens of students, fraternities and other student groups do in my three years at GW. . . ,” Mr. Abounaja wrote.
“The events of the last week have left me feeling humiliated, upset and like I can’t even feel safe in my own dorm room. I’ve had finals this week and have found it very hard to study or to think about anything else.”
For weeks, Mr. Abounaja received no communication from GW explaining what rule he had allegedly broken. GW failed to provide him with a hearing or any opportunity to respond to the allegations against him.
On December 7, Palestine Legal wrote GW, explaining that the university’s actions appeared to be based on complaints by other students who disagreed with the viewpoint of Mr. Abounaja’s message. In its letter, Palestine Legal requested that the ‘Warning Letter’ be removed from Mr. Abounaja’s file, that GW issue an apology and clarify that its policies would not be discriminatorily enforced against students based on the viewpoint of their message or their national origin.
On December 10, after a large public outcry, GW President Knapp called Mr. Abounaja and apologized for GW’s treatment of Mr. Abounaja. Later that evening, the apology was posted on GW’s website, along with a statement that GW would revise its policies so that they were applied evenly.
The ‘Warning Letter’ issued by GW to Mr. Abounaja has been rescinded and removed from his file.
Drawing near the border is not a crime
On December 2 2015, Palestinian-American artist and author of the graphic novel Baddawi, Leila Abdelrazaq, and two friends were detained and interrogated near the Mexico border because Ms. Abdelrazaq's notebook sketches and Arabic writing apparently raised red flags.
The incident took place in Nogales, Arizona, where Ms. Abdelrazaq was researching her next art project. Ms. Abdelrazaq and her friends were near the border for only a few minutes, soaking in the surroundings and sketching the scenery in a notebook, when several Customs and Border Patrol Officers (CBPOs) approached. The officers asked them to leave, and they complied.
As they were leaving, the CBPOs apparently became suspicious of Ms. Abdelrazaq's drawings and detained and questioned Ms. Abdelrazaq and her friends for nearly four hours. When they ordered her to hand over her sketchbook, Ms. Abdelrazaq initially objected for personal and privacy reasons, though she ultimately complied. The CBPOs looked through the book, noting Arabic writing among the sketches. CBPO returned the sketchbook and ultimately let Ms. Abdelrazaq and her friends go.
“I had never seen the US-Mexico border before, and since my next project is about immigration and borders, I just wanted to see it for myself,” Ms. Abdelrazaq said. “Alongside my sketches, I included notes in both Arabic and English that poke fun at my choppy Arabic. I didn’t realize self-deprecation would get me in trouble.”
New York University: SJP Investigated for Distributing "Mock Eviction Notices"
On April 24, 2014, NYU SJP distributed “mock eviction notices” to two NYU residence halls with a sentence informing the students that their suite was scheduled for demolition in three days, several paragraphs on Israel’s home demolition policies, and the statement that “[t]his is not a real eviction notice . . . This is intended to draw attention to the reality that Palestinians confront on a regular basis.”
Later that day, the Times of Israel published an article by the president of NYU’s pro-Israel advocacy group, TorchPac, falsely claiming that that SJP had targeted a dorm with a “high concentration” of Jewish students (because one of the two residence halls had a Sabbath elevator), and that the action constituted “anti-Semitic fear mongering.” Several news outlets repeated the baseless claims, and SJP was summoned to speak with the administration and forced to defend itself against the false and inflammatory charges in the media.
NYU spokesperson John Beckman later rebuked the charges of anti-Semitism, explaining that “we don’t believe there is perception of [these dorms] being home to a higher percentage of Jewish students (the presence of a Sabbath elevator in one of them is the result of a stairway that empties to the street and cannot be entered through the lobby behind the security desk, not because of a large presence of Jewish students in the building). . . .” Likewise, SJP stated that it chose these two particular dorm rooms because they were NYU’s largest and the most accessible to SJP members.
Palestine Legal advised SJP. No disciplinary action was taken.
Ohio University Student Senate President Received Death Threats After Pro-BDS video
In August 2014, Ohio University president Roderick McDavis took the “ice bucket challenge,” a campaign to raise money for research on Lou Gehrig’s disease, where participants pledge a donation, make videos of themselves dumping buckets of ice water on their heads, and then challenge others to do the same. McDavis asked student senate president Megan Marzec to take the challenge.
Marzec responded by making a video of herself taking a “blood bucket challenge,” in which she dumped fake blood on her head to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and in support of BDS. Marzec soon received thousands of hate messages, including death and rape threats. The University informed Marzec that President McDavis had also received death threats, and Marzec was advised to go into protective housing, to not walk alone and to accept a police escort.
On September 4, two days after Marzec posted the video, President McDavis issued a statement distancing the university from Marzec’s message and emphasized the need for “civility” in discussions about Israel/Palestine.
Students active with Hillel and Bobcats for Israel (a campus Israel-advocacy group), along with other national and international pro-Israel groups, called for Marzec’s resignation, and four students with Bobcats for Israel were arrested by campus police after they interrupted a student senate hearing and called for Marzec’s resignation. In February 2015, all four students were charged with fourth degree misdemeanor four disturbing a lawful meeting after they refused to plead guilty to lesser charges.
Dozens of OU faculty signed a statement supporting Marzec and raising concerns that OU’s invocation of “civility” “too often . . . functions to silence dissent and debate on issues of current concern.” Palestine Legal wrote to Ohio University administrators, advising them of their obligation to protect Marzec and others who speak out for Palestinian rights against groups that claim anti-Semitism and call for punishment of free speech activities.
Professor Steven Salaita Fired by University of Illinois for Gaza Tweets
In August 2014, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) terminated the tenured appointment of Steven Salaita, a professor hired by the American Indian Studies department. Salaita was fired after he published angry and sarcastic twitter messages regarding the brutality of Israel’s assault on Gaza. The termination occurred a mere two weeks before he was scheduled to begin teaching and after both parties had announced the appointment; Salaita and his wife had resigned from their previous jobs and prepared to move.
In a letter to the Chancellor and the Board, Palestine Legal, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights and other civil rights advocates, argued that UIUC’s action not only ignored the university’s obligation to protect the academic freedom of its faculty, but also threatened to chill academic speech on matters of public concern across the country.
Records obtained by journalists indicate that the Chancellor was responding to the concerns of big donors, including one who has given hundreds of thousands to the university and is on the board of Hillel. Other evidence points to the involvement of large Israel advocacy organizations like the Jewish Federation in drumming up complaints against Salaita.
Outrage from the academic community at this utter disregard for the free speech rights of appointed faculty led more than 5,000 academics to boycott UIUC, over sixteen UIUC departments to take votes of no confidence in the Chancellor, and students to campaign to get Salaita reinstated.
Salaita filed a lawsuit against the University on January 29, 2015, for violations of his First Amendment and due process rights, breach of contract, and other tort claims. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Loevy and Loevy represent Salaita in the litigation.
Detailed information about the case, including court documents, letters from academic and civil rights organizations, an can be found at CCR’s case page.
Backlash for challenging influence of Israel Lobby on campus
In the spring of 2014, following a campus divestment debate, UCLA students raised concerns about the influence of Israel lobby organizations on campus. A coalition of student groups organized an “ethics pledge” asking student government candidates not to accept free trips sponsored by organizations that promote discriminatory and Islamophobic positions. This request included trips sponsored by organizations such as the ADL, AIPAC, and Hasbara Fellowships. SJP also filed charges with student judicial council, asking it to consider whether accepting such trips to Israel should be considered a material conflict of interest under UCLA student bylaws.
Zionist organizations on and off campus characterized the ethics pledge and the judicial council case as “intolerance,” “harassment,” and “bullying” of Jewish students, claiming they made Jewish students feel unsafe on campus. The AMCHA Initiative issued a letter and action alert, and had a personal meeting with Chancellor Block, demanding that SJP be investigated and sanctioned.
The students advocating for the ethics pledge and the judicial council case extensively explained that their efforts were motivated by their experiences of racial bias and discrimination and concern about Israeli state practices. But UCLA Chancellor Gene Block ignored SJP’s concerns and responded to the heavy off-campus pressure by issuing a statement “on civil discourse” that characterized SJP’s advocacy as unwise intimidation, even if protected by the First Amendment. UC system-wide President Janet Napolitano also condemned the student campaign as violating principles of “civility, respect, and inclusion.”
Targeted by the LA City Council
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles City Council responded over the summer by proposing a resolution to condemn student advocacy against the Israeli lobby on campus. It mischaracterized student advocacy as “bullying” and “harassment,” and urged the University of California to restrict their speech activity. The resolution also urged the UC to refer cases of “intimidation or harassment” (and by clear implication, the advocacy activities of SJP) to “the proper law enforcement agencies.”
Palestine Legal wrote to the Council warning that “if passed, this Resolution would violate the LA City Council’s obligations under the First Amendment … by directing the UC to censor political debate on campus on a specific issue. The Resolution casts exactly the “pall of orthodoxy” over the UC on matters of public concern that the Supreme Court has proscribed.” The ACLU of Southern California, the National Lawyers Guild of LA and other civil rights organizations signed-on to the letter. The resolution did not move forward in the City Council.
Throughout the campaign of legal bullying, SJP continued organizing for Palestinian rights on campus, and the following semester, they succeeded in passing a divestment resolution in their student government.
Falsely accused of creating an anti-Semitic climate
A few months after passing divestment, in February 2015, student government council members wrongly questioned Rachel Beyda, a nominee for the student judicial board, about whether she could maintain objectivity given her Jewish identity. The campus community roundly condemned the questioning, including Students for Justice in Palestine, and the council members themselves.
The incident set off a media frenzy of concern over anti-Semitism on campuses, allegedly caused by criticism of Israel and divestment debates on campus. The New York Times covered the story on the front page, claiming that it reflects “a surge of hostile sentiment directed against Jews at many campuses in the country, often a byproduct of animosity toward the policies of Israel” and noting that “this is one of many campuses where the student council passed, on a second try and after fierce debate, a resolution supporting the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement aimed at pressuring Israel.” Haaretz ran a headline, “On-campus BDS is feeding anti-Semitism: UCLA is case in point.”
Despite SJP’s efforts, very little mainstream media coverage included their perspective, or questioned the narrative that advocacy for Palestinian rights causes anti-Semitism on campus.
Resolution re-defined anti-Semitism to include criticism of Israel
Following the anti-Semitic questioning of the judicial board nominee, on March 10, 2015 the undergraduate council passed a “Resolution Condemning Anti-Semitism” that re-defined anti-Semitism to encompass almost any criticism of Israeli policies.
The re-definition included what’s called the “3 Ds” – “demonization, delegitimization and applying a double-standard” to the state of Israel – a formulation that brands advocates for Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic by blurring the important distinction between criticism of Israel as a nation-state and anti-Semitism. Jewish Voice for Peace wrote that the re-definition “further enshrines long-standing political efforts to silence legitimate criticism of the state of Israel by codifying its inclusion in the definition of anti-Semitism.”
Palestine Legal published, “What to Know About Efforts to Re-define Anti-Semitism to Silence Criticism of Israel” explaining that what is termed the “State Department definition of anti-Semitism” or the “3 Ds” has dubious legal authority and chilling consequences for open debate.
- Palestine Legal Letter to LA City Council
- Student "Ethics Pledge"
- UCLA SJP Case Page on Judicial Council Charges
- Palestine Legal FAQ on Re-Definition of Anti-Semitism