University of Chicago: Students Harassed on Campus and Online

CREDIT:  LUIZ GADELHA JR.

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.

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San Francisco State University Students Accused of Religious Discrimination

San Francisco State University Students Accused of Religious Discrimination

Students were falsely accused of discrimination against San Francisco Hillel when they declined to offer the organization a platform at a Know Your Rights Fair.

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CUNY: Independent Investigators Clear SJP

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).

Credit: Bonnie Natko

Credit: Bonnie Natko

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
  • Criticism of Zionism should not be equated with anti-Semitism

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.”

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Border Officials Detain and Interrogate Palestinian-American Artist for Sketching and Writing

Drawing near the border is not a crime

BADDAWI BY LEILA ABDELRAZAQ

BADDAWI BY LEILA ABDELRAZAQ

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.”

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NYU: SJP Investigated Over Human Rights Flyers

New York University: SJP Investigated for Distributing "Mock Eviction Notices"

credit: scott Beale

credit: scott Beale

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.

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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UC Student Union Boycott Challenged

University of California: Graduate Student Union’s Right to Boycott Challenged 

In December 2014, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865 – a union representing 13,000 graduate student instructors at the University of California - voted to support the movement for boycott and divestment of Israel, becoming the first major labor union in the U.S. to support BDS. The previous July, the union leadership had passed a general statement in support of BDS. The final statewide membership vote favored a resolution that called on the UC to divest, and called on the International UAW to divest. 65% of voting members supported the resolution for divestment. The resolution also asked members to take an individual anonymous pledge to support the academic boycott, for which 52% of voting members (1136 individual graduate students) voted yes. The vote triggered significant backlash and legal threats.

Political opponents raised false accusations that the resolution would constitute unlawful discrimination and would violate university policy. An opposition website argued, “BDS is potentially illegal,” and claimed the union would be subject to a lawsuit, citing legal threats made against the American Studies Association. The same opposition group circulated a letter to the President of the International UAW falsely claiming that the union’s support for the academic boycott “bars people with Israeli citizenship from joining the union.” These accusations mischaracterized the resolution, ignored the union’s emphatic statement of opposition to all forms of discrimination, and ignored the union’s clear explanation that the boycott targets institutions, not individuals. In response to legal threats, Palestine Legal explained that the union was clearly engaging in First Amendment protected speech and that the boycott did not call for discriminatory action against individuals.

Shortly before the vote, the American Center for Law and Justice sent a letter threatening legal action to the local union leadership, the UAW international, and the University of California alleging the same violations of discrimination law, union law, and university policy. The letter threatened union leaders with “individual liability.” Palestine Legal again confirmed that these claims were baseless because there was no unlawful action, no possibility of individual liability, and the First Amendment protects the union’s action.

In addition to the direct threats against the union and union officials, off-campus organizations like the AMCHA Initiative and the Brandeis Center targeted the statewide UC administration with demands that the university prohibit graduate-student instructors from discussing BDS in the classroom. The AMCHA Initiative generated “over a hundred emails,” according to a letter from the University of California, complaining that the union's activity supporting boycott and divestment violates UC policy on what can be discussed in the classroom.

The university responded to external pressure in September 2014, on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, by forwarding AMCHA’s letter to the chancellors of all nine UC campuses. The message from the UC President’s office was vague – it listed policies that govern the conduct of graduate student instructors in the classroom. But given that the university forwarded AMCHA’s call for censorship, the university’s letter could be reasonably construed as a direction to chancellors to monitor and suppress discussion of boycott and divestment. At least one graduate student reported changing course material to avoid relevant content related to Israel/Palestine due to ambiguity over whether the university would prohibit teaching the subject.

Palestine Legal continues to advocate within the UC system to mitigate the chilling effect of attacks on Palestine advocacy and to protect the rights of faculty and students to engage in critical discussion.

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Barnard College: Palestine Justice Banner Censored

Barnard College: ‘Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine’ Banner Removed 

credit: BWOG

credit: BWOG

On March 10, 2014, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (which consists of students from Barnard College and Columbia University) installed their hand-painted banner with the message “Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine.” They followed the standard procedure for student groups wishing to advertise an event in front of Barnard Hall. The banner also contained a hand-drawn map of historic Palestine and the hashtag #IAW, a shorthand for Israel Apartheid Week.

Within hours of the C-SJP banner’s installation, an email campaign opposing the banner was started by the former president of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel. A Facebook post from the former Hillel president called Israeli Apartheid Week an “attempt to perpetuate the pernicious lie that Israel is an apartheid state” and an “anti-Semitic” display.

Without notice, and within hours, Barnard removed SJP’s banner. On March 11, Barnard Dean Avis Hinkson announced the College’s decision to reexamine its “long-standing” tradition of installing banners promoting student events alongside the official Barnard banner, stating that “until we have had time as a community to discuss the banner placements on Barnard Hall and better define a policy, [the College] will not be hanging student banners on Barnard Hall.”

Palestine Legal, as co-counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights, wrote Barnard College, asking the College to reaffirm its commitment to free speech principles. The letters stated that Barnard’s explanation for the banner’s removal—that it wanted to avoid the perception that the university was endorsing the banner’s content—was disingenuous, given that student banners had hung in the same place for many decades without any confusion as to whether the university was endorsing their messages.

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Loyola: Students Punished for "Birthright" Demonstration

Loyola University: Students Unfairly Punished for Demonstration of “Birthright Israel” 

In September 2014, several students at Loyola University—Chicago (LUC) learned of a tabling event happening on campus the next day publicizing Birthright Israel, a program that takes Jewish youth from around the world on free trips to Israel. According to a statement by LUC SJP, the SJP chapter decided not to endorse any actions, but individual Palestinian and other students later decided to line up at the table to attempt to register for a Birthright trip. The purpose of the protest was to highlight the discriminatory nature of the program because as protestors explained, “Any Jewish student worldwide can register for the program, while indigenous non-Jewish Palestinians are not only ineligible for the program, but often are denied the right to live in or even visit their homeland freely.” About fifteen students lined up quietly at the Birthright table, and the students at the front of the line engaged in a conversation with the tablers about why they were not allowed to register for Birthright, even though their ancestral villages are located in present-day Israel. As Palestine Legal explained to the administration, several individuals hosting the table told the protestors to leave, after which the Palestinian students in line took a picture together and then dispersed.

One article claimed that the protestors blocked the Birthright table, insulted and threatened the tabling students, and violated multiple school policies. The article was based on statements from Hillel affiliated organizers of the tabling event.

The university began an investigation of the students for alleged misconduct, at first suspending SJP’s status as a student group while the investigation was pending and later reinstating the group.

In a letter to Loyola administrators, Palestine Legal, together with the Council on American-Islamic Relations and attorney Rima Kapitan, raised concerns that the university’s investigation threatened peaceful speech activities. The letter highlighted the inflammatory and unfounded nature of the accusations made against SJP and the individual students, which the letter stated fit in with a pattern of such complaints across the country.

After a month-long investigation, Loyola charged SJP with six disciplinary violations, including bias-motivated misconduct, harassment and bullying, disruptive conduct, and violating the demonstration policy by failing to register their event. Loyola’s Hillel chapter, which sponsored the Birthright Israel tabling, was also charged with failing to register its own tabling event.  After a four-hour long hearing Loyola found SJP responsible for only one of the six charges – failing to register their “demonstration.”  Hillel was also found responsible for a similar charge.  The sanctions, however, were strikingly disproportionate.  While Hillel was required to meet with LUC administrators to clarify school policies, SJP Loyola was suspended for the remainder of the academic year – depriving it from any additional funding for its activities and putting the group at risk of more severe sanctions for any other infractions. The group was also required to undergo intergroup dialogue training.  SJP Loyola’s appeal was denied.

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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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