California professors fight Palestine exception to free speech

Protesters holding signs

California college district removed a faculty letter mourning Shireen Abu Akleh after backlash.

Sue Dorfman ZUMA

Professors in southern California say they will be taking legal action after their district administration censored them over a statement mourning Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Abu Akleh, a US citizen, was killed by an Israeli sniper on 11 May in Jenin.

The US State Department cleared Israel of any responsibility this past week, despite numerous forensic analyses by local and international human rights organizations, publications and the United Nations proving Israel’s sole culpability in her murder.

The day after Abu Akleh was killed, members of the North Orange County Community College District’s South West Asian and North African (SWANA) faculty and staff association stated that “Shireen’s assassination is not an isolated event.”

Rather, they added, “it is part of a calculated strategy employed by Israel to silence those daring to shed light on its inhumane practices.”

The association also encouraged the support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

After the letter was posted on the Diversity and Compliance office’s webpage and emailed to the district listservs – which is standard practice for faculty statements on political and social issues – the district chancellor claimed its publication was done against protocol and apologized “to anyone who was negatively affected” by the faculty letter.

The chancellor referenced “prominent members of the Jewish community” who expressed “anger and dismay” over the faculty letter.

He did not clarify the specific accusations, but rather mentioned that comments on “anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism” were included in the responses to the letter.

It is a common trope promoted by Israel lobby groups to claim that supporting Palestinian rights is tantamount to anti-Jewish bigotry. The claim is solely aimed at silencing and disrupting activism.

Quoting the official rules, the top administrator suggested that SWANA had “proselytized” for a “political cause” and explained that the statement had subsequently been removed from the website.

In response to the chancellor’s statement, the faculty members said that “when the district uses vague policy claims to remove a letter that mourns the assassination of a Palestinian American journalist, we understand that this is only an extension of the racist, imperialist, western hegemony that seeks to silence any voices that dare expose the crimes of the Israeli occupation.”

The group demanded that the district uniformly apply the rules to all faculty and staff associations, by either re-publishing their letter or removing all the statements and letters authored by other associations from the website.

Courage

The director of the Diversity and Compliance Office, Arturo Ocampo, who vetted the faculty letter and signed off on its publication, resigned after the chancellor’s statement.

He told The Electronic Intifada that he had vetted statements from other faculty associations in the past that criticized political injustices – and which had “much stronger language than the SWANA statement.”

Ocampo said that when he looked at their statement on Abu Akleh’s killing, he made sure “that there wasn’t anything in there that was offensive to the Jewish religion or Jewish people. The only criticism I saw was toward the Israeli government and its military.”

The district, he added, “has taken positions on other matters of social justice in the past, and we’ve criticized our own government. It was very common for us to forward those statements, and I vetted them.”

Backlash over issues of social justice, he added, “is to be expected in [diversity, equity, inclusion and access] work, just as we received backlash when we forwarded statements on Black Lives Matter and white supremacy.”

He said he knew that there would be blowback to the SWANA faculty statement, “understanding how things function and the politics of institutions like ours, and as anyone who says anything about Palestine, knows.”

Ocampo explained that “it’s not uncommon for institutions to state that they’re for social justice and anti-racism, but then they don’t have the knowledge or courage to do the right thing.”

“I have a very good reputation in this field and I have to protect it,” he said.

“Without commenting on any particular institution, as a general matter I will not be associated with institutions that do not have a true commitment to diversity, equity and anti-racism.”

“Invisible and quiet”

“Palestinians are being killed every single day,” Maha Afra, chair of the dance department at Cypress College and the president of the SWANA faculty association, told The Electronic Intifada.

Abu Akleh, she added, “wasn’t an exception to the extermination, but because of what she represents, we felt compelled to write this statement to bring this out in the open when we are made to be invisible and quiet [about Palestine].”

Afra explained that after she and her colleagues drafted the letter and it was published on the website, “that’s where all the expected noise from the Zionists started happening.”

But, she noted, this is not the first time that members of Arab, Asian and North African communities in the district have been punished for their political beliefs.

Just last year, Cypress College failed to protect a professor from a deluge of racist and sexist attacks after she challenged a student over his pro-police views.

Afra said that when students and faculty challenge the status quo, they are met with retaliation and silencing.

The professor added that the district’s claims of valuing diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism is merely performative – especially when it comes to Palestine.

When the faculty association was founded last year, she said, “we were very clear [with district administrators] about what we were doing, and what our vision and mission is.”

In these meetings, “we did address the Palestine exception to free speech,” she said, referencing institutional suppression of Palestine rights advocacy due to pressure from Israel lobby organizations.

She explained that she and her colleagues are now exploring legal options against the district over violations of free speech rights and academic freedom.

“We are taking the necessary steps to litigate this because we’ve had enough,” she said. “We’ve given them an opportunity to correct and fix things, and they have failed to do so. Now they have to be held accountable for it.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Arab American Civic Council have published petitions calling on the district to protect free speech.

Faculty United, the union representing the community college professors, stated that it stands “in solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues and students who are grieving the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.”

Meanwhile, Afra said that students around the district have expressed their gratitude and support for the stand the faculty is making.

A Palestinian student, she said, wrote a letter to the SWANA faculty association saying that “she feels she’s not alone in this fight, finally, because of what we’re doing.”

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Yes, what a shame for these fragile Zionists who suffer such emotional trauma at any hint of criticism. They are akin to 18th century English ladies who collapsed in fits of the vapours at the sight of a table leg. And it's all factitious, as whipped up as candy floss, as empty as a meringue. These sensitive souls are the very ones who mock the "beautiful souls" who exhibit any conscience or compassion over the fate of the Palestinians. What a wonderful cover for absolute cynicism and viciousness, to wilt at a hint of chilly breeze. And this is replicated the world over. If a Zionist is within a hundred miles of the mildest call for justice for Palestine, they claim overwhelming offence, existential crisis, nervous breakdown. Tush. They are false to the core and exhibit the sensitive of concrete and the imagination of sludge.

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).