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(Wissam Nassar / Maan Images)

Climate of fear silencing Palestinian, Muslim students at University of California, rights groups warn

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Students face a climate of intimidation on several California campuses

(UC Berkeley SJP)

Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students are frequently too frightened to express their political opinions or join Palestine solidarity and other groups at University of California (UC) campuses because of fear that they will suffer harm, a coalition of civil rights groups has warned.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, and four other civil rights organizations wrote to UC President Mark Yudof on 3 December to “express our collective alarm about developments at University of California (UC) campuses that threaten students’ civil rights and forsake the University’s responsibility to make the campus welcoming for a range of political viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The letter came in advance of a meeting today of the “Advisory Council on Campus Climate” which the University created in response to complaints from Zionist groups. The other groups signing on to the letter are the Asian Law Caucus of San Francisco, American Muslims for Palestine, National Lawyers Guild, San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Chapters and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, San Francisco Bay Area.

According to a press release from the groups:

the letter points to the rash of baseless legal complaints that have increased scrutiny of student activism on Palestine, to a UC-initiated “campus climate” report that labels Palestinian rights advocacy as anti-Semitic and threatening to Jewish students, and to numerous public statements by UC officials that disparage such activism as “bad speech” and compare it to truly anti-Semtic and racist incidents on campus, such as noose-hangings and graffiti disparaging Jews, Muslims and the LGBTQ community.

UC “exacerbates” climate of fear, harrassment

The letter itself [PDF] details alarming examples of how the climate of fear tolerated or fostered by the UC administration and instigated by outside groups, have had a real, chilling effect on students exercising their rights.

These include examples of Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian rights activists on campus being subject to violent threats and racist language, bogus complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act designed to restrict Palestinian rights activism on campuses. The letter charges:

While the UC administration is not behind the legal claims and violent threats targeting Arab, Muslim and pro-Palestine students at UC, it has an obligation to recognize the harm, and take steps to protect the targeted students where possible. Instead, the University has exacerbated the situation for these students.

The Electronic Intifada has previously reported extensively on the climate of fear and intimidation on campuses in California, and Dalia Almarina, a recent alumnus of Cal Students for Justice in Palestine, has accused Yudof of double standards in his dealings with speech and activism related to Palestine and the Israelis.

Students scared away from activism, feel unsafe

The civil rights groups’ letter also notes these alarming specific instances of how political activity and free speech is being suppressed at the University of California:

  • A PhD student active with Cal SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] was told by his adviser that his public status as a Palestinian rights activist would be detrimental to his career, as it has been to many academics that express pro-Palestinian views.

  • A Muslim student of Arab descent stated that he would not get involved with Cal MSA’s political activities, for fear that it would jeopardize his chances of getting into graduate school.

  • Muslim and Arab students at Berkeley Law are reluctant to join Law Students for Justice in Palestine because they fear their reputational interests would be at risk if such membership were public.

  • Palestinian students often decline to join Cal SJP because they “don’t want to risk anything.” Although more than 20 students participate actively in Cal SJP, there are only two or three Palestinian members.

  • A recent transfer student of Arab heritage was warned by her mother not to get involved with Cal SJP. Her father told her, “If you get involved in these things you won’t be able to advance academically or professionally.”

  • Many students decline to express their political views about Israel and Palestine. For example, when a European immigrant student active with Cal SJP tried to discuss Palestinian rights with a friend who is also a foreign student, her friend told her that she no longer expresses her pro-Palestinian views to people in high places because it previously affected her opportunities, and she warned that such activism could affect her opportunities as well.

  • Students frequently express anxiety about being falsely branded as anti-Semites at SJP meetings, in small group discussions and in private.

  • A Cal SJP member sought advice from an immigration attorney, fearing that her participation in Cal SJP and the allegations in the Felber litigation would jeopardize her citizenship application.

  • A Pakistani international student says he was told that he should not get involved in Cal MSA, because if he did, his visa status would be at risk.

  • A Saudi international student declined his nomination for the Cal MSA board for fear that his student visa would be jeopardized if he were associated in any way with Cal MSA.

  • Students understand that their liberty is at stake. They are aware that the FBI infiltrates and monitors Arab, Muslim and pro-Palestine student groups.

  • Cal SJP students are routinely subject to video surveillance by Israel-aligned activists who attend Cal SJP events. Counter protestors from Israel-aligned organizations – both on and off-campus groups – frequently attend SJP events and take close-up videos. Students feel physically unsafe after being videoed at events because they do not know how Israel-aligned organizations will use data collected against them.

University has a responsibility to act

“It is the duty of university leaders to foster an educational environment where students of all racial backgrounds, national origins and political persuasions are free to voice their political viewpoints without fear of reprisal,” the letter tells Yudof. Among its demands:

we implore President Yudof and the University to publicly affirm that robust speech and activism on these issues, whether critical or supportive of Israel or Palestinian entities or causes, is welcome at UC.

It also urges him to “to make a public statement clarifying that criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic, nor is it repugnant.”

While Yudof has spoken publicly about his ardent support for Israel, even he has previously denied civil rights complaints by Zionist groups that it is Jewish students on campus who face a climate of hostility because of Palestine solidarity activism.

It remains to be seen whether Yudof, despite his personal biases toward Israel, will act to protect the rights of all students to free speech and association, or continue to collude with those seeking to selectively suppress them.

Comments

Not only on college campuses does one fear retribution; as a high school English teacher, I have had to teach Cry, the Beloved Country, which is about apartheid in South Africa, and other great works without mentioning parallels to Palestine. It is very inhibiting.

It's difficult for me to imagine that young people in this day and age would be afraid to voice their opinions out of fear. I come from the 60's generation and i ask, "where has all the courage gone?"

One needs to read Paul Findley's They Dare To Speak Out in order to understand how people's livelihoods in education, politics, government, etc., were terminated because they were sympathetic to Palestinians. In the past whenever I related the Palestinian situation to a book I was teaching in class, I was always called in by the school's administration and questioned. I was a member of National Education Association's Diversity and Social Justice Cadre and was wary of linking issues in regard to social justice to Palestine. Even though every other member of the cadre could provide anecdotes about their ethnic group, I knew that I was on thin ice if I brought up Palestine. Why? Because every time an issue about Palestine comes up at the largest democratic assembly in the world (the National Education Association's Representative Assembly) it is voted on by 2/3 of the 10,000 delegates "not to consider." That means that anything to do with Palestine may not be discussed by the body. I understand that the students' fears are very real. No one in the sixties was even thinking about Palestine so I don't think it's an appropriate analogy.