Ohio University: Student President Receives Death Threats

Ohio University Student Senate President Received Death Threats After Pro-BDS video

Credit: athens news

Credit: athens news

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. 

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Steven Salaita: Professor Fired for Gaza Tweets

Professor Steven Salaita Fired by University of Illinois for Gaza Tweets

Credit: Jeffrey putney

Credit: Jeffrey putney

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.  

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UCLA: Students Falsely Accused of Anti-Semitism

Backlash for challenging influence of Israel Lobby on campus 

Credit: SJP UCLA

Credit: SJP UCLA

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.  

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Northeastern University: SJP Suspended for Human Rights Flyers

Northeastern University: Student Group Suspended for Distributing "Mock Eviction Notices"

On March 7, 2014, Northeastern University suspended its Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter after SJP distributed mock eviction notices raising awareness of Israel’s policies of demolishing Palestinian homes.

Campus police interrogated two SJP students in their homes, approached two students in class and called four other students on their phones. The two students who were interrogated were charged with violating dorm policies.

Palestine Legal, along with CCR, the NLG and the ACLU of Massachusetts called on Northeastern to lift SJP’s suspension, arguing that the group’s suspension constituted viewpoint discrimination in violation of Massachusetts law. The students mobilized a community campaign to protest Northeastern’s decision, organizing mass demonstrations and call-in campaigns that received media attention. On April 23, 2014, SJP announced that the administration had reinstated SJP.

Northeastern’s history of discriminatory treatment

A year before, in April 2013, SJP was punished with probation and required to write a “civility statement” after staging a walkout at a campus event featuring an IDF soldier. Campus officials had warned students by email before the event not to hold signs or engage in "vocal disruption." The students instead taped the names of children killed by the IDF to their shirts and staged a mostly silent walkout.  The university charged SJP with failing to comply with school officials’ directions and violating the demonstration policy because they did not register their demonstration at least one week in advance. They were found responsible for the second charge. 

Other student groups had previously staged similarly unregistered demonstrations for which they were neither charged, nor punished, most prominently Zionist students’ protest of a lecture by Norman Finkelstein, which involved repeated vocal disruptions of the speaker.

The suspension of 2014 and the probation of 2013 occurred in the context of significant external pressure on the university to restrict SJP’s activity. In July 2013, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) complained to Northeastern in July 2013 of a hostile, anti-Semitic environment, threatened a Title VI complaint, cc’ing Robert Shillman, a major university donor affiliated with ZOA. A right-wing group, Americans for Peace and Tolerance, released a documentary film targeting SJP’s faculty advisor, two other professors, and SJP as a whole. The films included footage secretly recorded at SJP events and the professors’ classes. Professors and SJP students subsequently reported receiving death threats.

Students reported a pattern of discriminatory treatment, which likely occurred in response to this external pressure. For example, in the spring of 2013, the administration notified SJP that its mock checkpoint event was cancelled the day before it was to take place, supposedly because SJP had not followed proper procedures. Students complained that campus police were present at all SJP events, against SJP’s express wishes. Finally, students reported that the administration revoked SJP’s status as a student group for failure to properly sign a form, but reinstated it when the students quickly responded. Palestine Legal, through CCR Cooperating Counsel, complained to Northeastern that these bureaucratic obstacles created a pattern of apparent discriminatory treatment.

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