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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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.  

Relevant Documents

 

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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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