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(Jeff Haynes / Agence France Presse)

Anti-Palestinian groups’ advice to campus activists raises serious ethical, legal concerns

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Are anti-Palestinian organizations going too far in their tactics to build support for Israeli policies on college campuses?

(UC Berkeley SJP)

Israel Campus Beat, a joint publication of the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has raised
some eyebrows with its latest lead feature.

In a column entitled “Relationships Matter,” Adam Maslia offers the following advice to anti-Palestinian activists in universities:

As an ICC Grinspoon-MZ (now Grinspoon-Morningstar) intern during the 2010-2011 academic year, one of the first lessons I learned was that I should constantly try to build relationships with “campus influentials,” or people who otherwise affect change within the community…

Over the past year, I have come to realize that establishing these relationships is necessary, but not sufficient when it comes to advocating for Israel, and it has become apparent to me that many pro-Israel college activists realize this as well…

Students have become experts in forming a relationship; now they are starting to understand what it takes to become a fully active participant within that relationship. Student activists are no longer satisfied with just grabbing coffee with a student senate member and talking to them about Israel. They now help them campaign for higher offices, bring them to speak at their fraternity or sorority chapter meetings, and even contribute to their endeavors financially.

What does it mean to “contribute financially” to the “endeavors” of a student government member whom one seeks to influence?

City University of New York Professor Angus Johnston, a noted scholar of student activism and student governance in the US, offered three possible types of contributions to which Maslia could be referring: funding of student government projects, campaign donations, or “personal financial support outside the context of campaign funding.”

Are any of these problematic?

On the subject of funding of student government projects, Johnton said, “I’ve never encountered a situation in which donations to student governments became a matter of scandal or controversy, though I can imagine it happening.”

On campaign donations, Johnston pointed out that “some student governments underwrite candidates’ campaign expenses and some set pretty strict limits on spending, but at other schools candidates pay their own way and the cost of successful campaigns can grow quite high. Some student governments require disclosure of campaign donations, others do not.”

Personal financial support other than campaign funding, however, would be extremely problematic: “I’d expect that to be treated as [at a minimum] a serious ethical violation by just about any student government,” Johnston stated.

UPDATE:

Following publication of this blog post, Maslia’s article was edited to remove the language advising activists to “contribute financially” to the “endeavors” of student senators. A screenshot of Maslia’s original column can be seen here.

AIPAC’s plan

As an example of campus activists who have applied his suggested approach to relationship building, Maslia noted “the students I work with who are involved with AIPAC.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is known for its aggressive and controversial efforts to cultivate support for Israeli policies on college campuses. In 2010, Jonathan Kessler, who oversees AIPAC’s campus programs, ominously stated, “we’re going to make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government…This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capital. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”

Among the tactics employed by AIPAC to influence or “take over” student governments is to ply their members with free trips. Earlier this month, AIPAC provided a record 242 student council members from colleges across the US with such a free trip to Washington to attend its annual policy conference. Among the participants was Erica Arbetter, student body president at Maslia’s own alma mater, the College of Charleston. Tablet Magazine noted an increase in AIPAC conference participation by Charleston students, with four students attending this year’s gathering in comparison to only one delegate the year before.

Arbetter should be keenly aware of the ethical responsibilities entailed by her position: in 2011, her predecessor Ross Kressel was nearly impeached after posting a series of offensive tweets, including remarks about a “big tits freshman,” as well as fellow student government members. During the impeachment proceedings, investigators sought to learn if Kressel had posted the tweets while “on the clock” in his official capacity. According to a Charleston City Paper article on the matter, “the student body president receives hourly payment from the college” which “often comes to about $10,000 a year.”

Members of the College of Charleston community might similarly be interested to know if Arbetter has engaged in any of her activities with AIPAC while logging hours as student body president.

An influential strategy

Maslia’s advice is best understood within the context of a strategy promoted in recent years by anti-Palestininan advocacy groups in American universities. This strategy is largely summarized a heavily-promoted “white paper” authored by the Boston-based David Project. The document — titled “A Burning Campus: Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges” — advocates a reduced emphasis on directly responding to the activities of Israel critics, in favor of a greater focus on working behind-the-scenes, building personal relationships with influential figures on campus to grow support for anti-Palestinian policies.

The David Project has subsidized the practical implementation of its model on college campuses through what it calls the “Latte Initiative.”  Initially taking the form of distributing gift cards to student supporters, the organization is now offering to reimburse anti-Palestinian activists for expenses incurred in treating influential figures to coffee and conversation. The program is currently being implemented at universities such as Rutgers and Penn State.

A pattern of problematic advice

Clearly aligned with their dominant strategy, Maslia’s suggestions, which the Israel on Campus Coalition saw fit to promote, do not represent the first time that anti-Palestinian groups have encouraged their supporters to utilize ethically questionable tactics in the course of their dealings with influential figures.

The David Project’s own “white paper” explicitly encourages activists to exploit personal relationships in order to “co-opt” campus groups into supporting anti-Palestinian positions:

Campus Israel advocates often overlook the importance of emerging groups with great potential to shape the campus conversation. Many of these groups also have the potential to be co-opted into the anti-Israel coalition on campus. Preventing them from allying themselves with the anti-Israel effort or even co-opting them into pro-Israel efforts is an opportunity for a significant “win” by Israel advocates on many campuses.

The document goes on to examine the potential of numerous student minority communities to be “co-opted,” recommending particular strategies for each group, including Latino, Indian, Chinese, and Korean students, evangelical Christians, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

The “white paper” also suggests a manipulative strategy for seeking disciplinary action against faculty members critical of Israeli policies:

Accusing faculty members who propagandize against Israel of “academic malpractice” is likely to be a much more effective strategy than challenging specific allegations or invoking anti-Jewish bigotry. Rightly or wrongly, the current campus atmosphere is much more sympathetic to charges that teachers are not satisfactorily teaching their subject than to complaints of anti-Jewish bias and Israel supporters will likely have a greater practical impact by framing their concerns in this manner.

Beyond suggesting the use of administrative mechanisms to suppress academic freedom, anti-Palestinian advocacy groups have encouraged activists, including full-time campus-based professionals, to cultivate relationships of an extremely questionable nature with campus administrators, and even with campus police.

In 2010, the Israel on Campus Coalition participated in developing a document entitled “Israel: A Playbook for Hillel” — a guide to best practices in campus anti-Palestinian advocacy created for distribution to “every Hillel campus professional.” Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which created the Israel on Campus Coalition in 2002 (it became a formally independent organization in 2010), boasts over 550 chapters at colleges and universities worldwide. Ostensibly focused on cultural and religious enrichment for Jewish students, the organization has long been a dominant venue for mobilizing anti-Palestinian advocacy efforts on college campuses.

In a section on how Hillel staff should deal with “pro-Palestinian groups” on campus, the “Playbook” states:

It is essential that the executive director maintain a relationship with relevant campus administrators and police. Information…should flow in both directions.

What type of information should be flowing? The document elaborates:

The relationships you build with campus leadership can be most advantageous when faced with anti-Israel activity on campus. Having the administration in your corner can help you…receive inside information you can give to your donors and community.

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Campus police guard a meeting of the University of California's Board of Regents in 2010

Campus police guard a meeting of the University of California’s Board of Regents in 2010

(flickrrey / Flickr)

The divulging of “inside information” by campus administrators or police to representatives of a political advocacy group can not only lead to disciplinary and/or legal action against the officials responsible, but may pose serious legal risks for colleges and universities themselves. In the United States, legislation such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects many types of educational records from disclosure to unauthorized persons. Consequences of a disclosure violation can include criminal prosecution, and even a loss of federal funding to the institution.

A broken campus

From the Israel on Campus Coalition’s advice to offer “financial support” to student government members and AIPAC’s use of free trips and other tactics to “take over” student governments entirely, to the David Project’s recommendations on how to “co-opt” campus minority groups and manipulate academic review mechanisms to censure faculty critical of Israel, to Hillel’s directive that its staff should seek “inside information” from campus administration and police, anti-Palestinian advocacy groups are encouraging extremely problematic conduct.

Following the advice described here has the potential to land anti-Palestinian organizers, as well as other parties, in serious trouble: ethically, legally, and otherwise. More importantly, the implementation of such recommendations contributes to the development of a dysfunctional campus climate in which minority students are tokenized, governance mechanisms undermined and corrupted, student rights violated, and academic freedom suppressed.

These practices, and the organizations which encourage them, have no place on our college and university campuses.

Comments

Our Jewish Federation brags that "The University of Oregon is now a model for Israel Advocacy on the West Coast, and has been recognized as one of the most pro-Israel campuses in the United States" and that "More students from the University of Oregon attended the AIPAC Policy Conference in March in Washington DC than from any other West Coast campus. Their attendance and commitment was rewarded as the University of Oregon was nominated for, and won, the "Activists of the Year" Award, something the school had never won previously."

Recently the ASUO Senate passed a UO Iran Resolution by a vote of 17-0-0 and the University of Oregon became one of the first universities that makes a statement condemning an Iran with nuclear weapons (http://tinyurl.com/bszakhf). How about one condemning Israel for their nukes, torture, ongoing land grab and ethnic cleansing?

I expect this from anti-Palestinian groups - it is no secret that they use dirty tricks and twist the truth to Israel's advantage. But what strikes me, is how open they are about this. I would've thought that they would keep these kinds of things a secret, an insider thing..