Podcast Ep 84: Students fight smears as universities back Israel’s genocidal attacks

Students across the US are facing relentless smears and doxxing attacks over their activism in support of Palestinian rights, as Israel continues its genocidal campaign in the Gaza Strip.

On episode 84, we speak with Palestine Legal’s senior staff attorney Radhika Sainath, who lays out the current repressive atmosphere on campuses across the US and gives advice to students who can protect themselves from these attacks.

Palestine Legal, a civil rights group, is asking students and activists to contact them immediately for legal help and for reporting of incidents of harassment, threats and assaults.

“It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before – we’ve been working around the clock,” she says.

“This surge for requests for legal help is in part due to the outpouring of support for Palestinian freedom that we’ve been seeing, and against Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza.”

Administrators have issued statements condemning Palestinian resistance to Israel’s slaughter while affirming support of Israel.

Israel’s supporters, meanwhile, have engaged in violence and hate crimes against students who protest.

At a rally at Brooklyn College in New York, a local councilmember showed up with a gun strapped to her hip, which was seen as an overt violent threat to supporters of Palestinian rights.
She was later arrested.

Meanwhile, Israel-backed donors are already pulling funds from elite institutions in order to pressure universities to crack down harder on Palestine solidarity protests.

At Harvard, for example, undergraduate and graduate students who signed a letter authored by the on-campus Palestine Solidarity Committee have been subjected to “a vicious condemnation campaign, including statements and social media posts from Harvard faculty, alumni, donors, and University administration,” according to the Harvard Graduate Students’ Union.

This backlash, they say, “has directly exposed students to ongoing harassment and doxxing attacks.” Doxxing refers to the release of personal identification information online.

Last week, Palestinian Harvard students “were forced to postpone a campus vigil for all civilian lives lost due to credible safety concerns and threats against student security,” the student union adds.

Students eventually held a large rally on 15 October.

Days before the rally, a billboard truck drove near campus “displaying the names and faces of affiliated students. The organization behind the truck has vowed to continue harassing students,” they say.

McCarthyite tactics

These kinds of tactics have been used by anti-Palestinian lobby groups at the University of California at Berkeley last year, when law students pledged not to host speakers who support Israeli apartheid.

This week in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, UC Berkeley law professor Steven Solomon smeared his students as anti-Jewish bigots and called on employers to investigate his graduates’ political positions before law firms hire them.

One major US law firm has already heeded Solomon’s McCarthyite call.

On Tuesday, the Davis Polk firm announced in an internal email “that it had rescinded letters of employment for three law students at Harvard and Columbia universities who signed on to organizational statements about Israel,” according to NBC News.

Corporate executives at salad chain Sweetgreen, medical startup EasyHealth and shopping site FabFitFun, have said they, too, will not hire students who have signed on to the letters condemning Israel for its attacks on Gaza.

At Columbia University in New York – where a major effort is already underway to try and oust professor Joseph Massad for an opinion piece he published on The Electronic Intifada on 8 October – an administration officer was interviewed at a campus protest on 13 October.

He tells the student reporter that he wants the Palestine solidarity protesters to be punished and shut down by the university, adding that “I’m Jewish. I’m a Zionist. I hope every one of those people die.”

“Moral responsibility”

But students are fighting back against the smears.

National Students for Justice in Palestine issued a statement this week condemning the escalating attacks on students while Israel escalates its genocide in Gaza.

“Our students have chosen to speak up against the Zionist regime and their allies that intend to commit a genocide of Palestinians,” they stated, adding that university administrations have the “moral responsibility and professional duty” to protect their students.

“While the Palestinian people are being unjustly massacred, we are expected to stay silent.”

Other student organizations, including the Jewish Law Students Association at CUNY Law School in New York, have issued statements that denounce administrative and Israel lobby pressure to silence their activism.

“As Jewish students of a school that claims the motto ‘law in the service of human needs,’ we will continue to pursue tikkun olam – the repairing of the world,” the Jewish law students say.

“This necessarily includes our unwavering support for the Palestinian people in their decades-long resistance against Zionist brutality, as well as for our classmates who are courageously advancing that struggle.”

“You never have to talk to the cops”

National Students for Justice in Palestine released a comprehensive guide for students worried about their physical and online safety.

And civil rights organizations around the country are stepping in to provide legal support and advocacy.

Abed Ayoub of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) reported that Palestinians in the US have been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as the FBI.
Sainath explains that it is imperative to know what you can say to law enforcement in order to protect yourself and your activist groups.

“You never have to talk to the cops. You have the right to remain silent. If you’re confused about whether you are free to go, you can say, ‘am I free to go?,’” says Sainath.

“If the police ask you questions, you can just say ‘I don’t want to talk,” she adds.

Watch the full interview above, or listen via Soundcloud below.

Full transcript

Lightly edited for clarity.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast. I’m Nora Barrows-Friedman. And we thought that we would do a special episode on how students are fighting back against relentless smear campaigns at this time when their protests, their petitions, even just their presence on campuses are eliciting some of the most draconian smear campaigns and harassment campaigns, not just by Israel lobby groups on campus or outside but by administrations themselves. So, I wanted to bring on our good friend, Radhika Sainath, from Palestine Legal. She’s a senior staff attorney there. And Palestine Legal has been, of course, at the forefront of defense for students and faculty and activists, but also in educating students, especially about their constitutional rights, especially during times like these.

So, Radhika, I’ve been getting all of these emails in the past week from students saying that they’ve been doxed, that their personal information has been put online, and that they’re getting death threats, harassment around the clock. What are you seeing, from your perspective? As these intake forms come in at Palestine Legal, how can you assess the situation right now for students?

Radhika Sainath: Sure. Well, first off, thanks for having me on, Nora. And thank you for all of your critical reporting at this time and getting the word out about what’s happening in Gaza at a time when mainstream media is not covering Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people in Gaza right now. So thank you for that. At Palestine Legal, we have been seeing an exponential surge in requests for legal help, and for reporting of incidents in the past week. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before; we’ve been working around the clock.

And, before I get into some of the things that we’ve been seeing, I just want to step back and take a moment to say that the surge for requests for legal help is in part due to the outpouring of support for Palestinian freedom that we’ve been seeing and against Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza. So, you know, students are out on the street, they are speaking up on their campuses. And, for those people who are out there, we just want to say, please do keep on doing this. And I want to give you some tips today. But, by no means, do we want to chill your speech supporting Palestinian rights; it’s, you know, more important than ever.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Indeed. So let’s talk about what students are facing. I mean, right now, I’m going to put this up on the screen, there are just a cascade of instances where even the ADC has said that the FBI has been showing up on people’s doorsteps. I mean, this is like, we’re just seeing this again, and again, here we are. I mean, this is like very, you know, post-9/11. It has those echoes. So Abed Ayoub of the ADC says that we’ve received multiple calls today regarding Palestinian nationals detained by ICE and/or visited by the FBI. The FBI has also visited multiple mosques today in different states as well as Arab inmates. And this is a troubling trend. Can you talk a little bit about what we’re seeing and what to do if you are encountered by the FBI or any other state police force?

Radhika Sainath: Absolutely. So, some of the trends that we’re seeing – and I will say the comparison to the post 9/11 environment is exactly spot on, unfortunately. We are really seeing a rise in Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian hate. So just to give you a little bit of an overview of what we’re seeing in Palestine Legal, we’re seeing Students for Justice in Palestine and Palestinian students threatened with violence, and anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic messages, who are unable to get support from their schools and basically being treated differently because they’re Palestinian. So for example, today, you know, students at UMass Amherst reported to us how they were being told by fellow students that they’re, quote unquote, Islamic barbarism supporters who quote love raping and killing, and even a student told them in person at a protest that all Arabs should be killed. And the school has refused to put out statements supporting the students, as it has with other student groups of different national origins when they’ve been the recipients of such hate. We’ve seen students being smeared as supporting terrorists removed from positions or being investigated by their schools for making statements that are pretty much the same as the one that the Haaretz editorial board made. We’re seeing professors at universities being questioned, their classes canceled, being locked out of their email all of a sudden, over statements made supporting Palestinian rights.

And some of these statements are public statements on social media, but others have been just private communications over personal email, again, taking a principled stance against genocide and ethnic cleansing. We’ve seen massive doxing efforts, naming students who have signed statements in solidarity with Palestinians, calling these lists quote unquote college terror lists. And these students have faced severe harassment, death threats and threats to target their careers. It’s McCarthyite, to say the least. We’ve also seen universities and K through 12 administrators make statements only supporting Israeli students, and basically ignoring Palestinian students who have experienced loss. This is particularly troubling, of course, given the skyrocketing number of Palestinian deaths in Gaza right now.

We’ve also seen blanket statements supporting Israel, or condemning, quote, unquote, Hamas terror by school administrators, which of course fuels this Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian environment, which led to the death of a six-year-old child in Illinois just yesterday, which I’m sure people saw reports of in the news. And again, we’re also seeing universities monitoring Palestinian students and groups supporting Palestinian rights, investigating them under the flimsiest of excuses. Students also have been contacting us, they’re really worried that they’re going to be kicked out of school for just signing statements, again, that are protected by the First Amendment, expressing solidarity for Palestinians. So the list goes on and on. But the bottom line is that we’re really seeing a McCarthyite repression where people are being blacklisted, fired, doxxed and criminally targeted, again, for taking a principled stance for Palestinian freedom.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: So, what are the material ways that students should be fighting back at this at this point, protecting themselves? You know, when I get these emails or these texts from students all over the country, my first response is, call Palestine Legal, and reach out to ADC, reach out to the Center for Constitutional Rights. After they’ve done that, what would be the next steps for them?

Radhika Sainath: Sure. So I would say, absolutely, call us. And actually, the best way to contact us is through our web form on our website. We are checking that multiple times throughout the day. And trust me, if you’ve, if you’ve sent us a message through that webform, we have seen it. We are triaging, though. So if you don’t hear from us immediately, go to our website, or Instagram, and we have just posted resources. And those are the resources, the best resources we have on hand for the issues that are most coming to us. So those include: What do you do if you’re doxxed? What if the police or FBI visit me, what should I do? Short answer: Don’t talk to the police. But, go there, look at those resources, and we will get back to you.

As far as other steps that you can take, I want to say that one of the most important things right now, if you feel that if you’re getting harassed – this is on campus – if you’re getting harassed, if you’re getting death threats, if there’s any, you know, issue that you’re facing of harassment or anti-Palestinian discrimination, report it to your school. I know a lot of students think, oh, my school is not going to do anything, they’re not gonna take it seriously, they know what’s going on. All of that might be true, but it’s really important that the school has a record of it. So you know, just go to your schools like Title Nine just Google Title Nine your school or DEI your school or even, if there’s a dean of students or an administrator that you know, tell them what’s happened in a written communication so that they are on notice about what’s happening. And I think they really do need to hear over and over and over and over again, what is happening to you, and it’s their duty to respond.

This is really important, not just because we do hope that they respond, but also because, if they don’t, later, if we need to, you know, file a lawsuit or file a Title Six complaint, we can tell the university: You are on notice. Palestinian students or students speaking out for Palestinian rights or who are perceived to be Palestinian, told you multiple times that they were getting these death threats, that they were getting these harassing messages, and you did nothing and you ignored them. So please do just let your school know, over and over and over again, you cannot do this too much. It’s really important. And I just want to say, thirdly, there are administrators out there who are trying to do the right thing, and are being told by their supervisors and by their higher ups: No, you cannot do this. And by that, I mean: No, you cannot say the word “Palestine” or “Palestinian” in your email to support students. And so by being able to share those stories, you’re helping your administrators who want to do the right thing be able to do the right thing as well.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Exactly. And, you know, it was about a month ago, that we did the story on what was happening to students at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And how the administration was working hand in glove to suppress their free speech. And I remember it was really indicative of the way that these students had self organized and had been educated beforehand to know that they did not have to talk to the police, the campus police who came to harass them. And that is only possible because they knew their rights beforehand. Can you talk about what to do if you are forced, you know, if the if the university is trying to force you to talk to the police? Or if you’re being harassed, intimidated by campus administrators or campus police forces? Do you have to talk to the cops?

Radhika Sainath: You do not have to talk to the police, you never have to talk to the cops, you have the right to remain silent. If you’re confused for any reason, you can just politely ask, you know, if you’re confused about whether you are free to go, you can say, Am I free to go? If the police ask you questions, you can just say, I don’t want to talk. And sometimes, sometimes they will actually be very friendly in order to trick you. So, it’s not always like in the cop shows. They might just be like, I want to have a friendly chat. Can I come in? And you can just politely say, No, I’ll have my attorney call you, and if it’s the FBI, you can just ask them for their card. And, just repeat it over and over again, I don’t want to talk, please leave me your card, I’ll have my attorney call you. It’s critically important because sometimes people feel like they will look bad if they don’t talk to the police. They are trained to trick you. They can lie to you. But it can be a crime to lie to a police officer or a federal agent.

So it’s just better that you don’t do that. And I would just also add, tell your roommates. If you have a roommate, sometimes a roommate will let the police in, right? And then, all of a sudden, I remember this case from for many years ago, someone was studying like Lebanese history, and there was something like a book open on Hezbollah. And, you know, that was enough. So, if you have a concern about letting the police in, you can always just ask, Do you have a search warrant? If they do have a search warrant, you know, look at it and you can say, is that your address? Is it correct? Is it your apartment number? It should list the places to be searched. If it says like, your roommate’s room, that means they can search that room, but they can’t search yours. There are more tips on our website where you can take a look at those but the short of it is is that you never have to talk to the police.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Perfect. Thank you for that. And finally, remind us how students can get in touch with Palestine Legal, and what what you hope that university administrations are, you know, I don’t even know like how to describe how unbelievably pro-genocide some of these university administrations are revealing themselves to be when they’re saying that, basically, painting all Palestinians, including the Palestinian students on campus, of course, as bloodthirsty terrorists, subhuman, and Palestinian students can’t have a protest against the genocide of their people. What do you hope comes out of this, at least when we look at the legal context on what’s happening on campuses.

Radhika Sainath: It’s appalling, the statements, some of the statements that the administrators are making And I will say to students, if you’re a public university, you can FOIA these questions or these statements. And that means you can file Public Records Act requests, you can Google it. You had mentioned the University of Illinois, Chicago students, Nora, and that’s what they did. And they found all kinds of interesting stuff about what happened behind the scenes, what the school was doing that was unconstitutional, or deeply problematic, or violative of civil rights laws, because they wanted to stop Palestinian students from entering an event on study abroad in Israel. So, students, and this is supposed to be a way for regular people to do right. So you can just Google Public Records Act requests my state, and you can get form letters. And you can just find out like, what is happening behind the scenes? What is the donor pressure that’s going on that is causing universities to condemn a group of people that’s been living under military occupation, that is currently being ethnically cleansed from Gaza as we speak, instead of being on the side of justice? And beyond that, you know, even if you’re you don’t want to do that. You do have a duty to support your Palestinian students, to provide them resources. You cannot, ethically as a university administrator, just say that you are providing mental health services to one subset of people and exclude another subset of people just because you don’t like them. The law does not allow for that here. And that’s what we’re seeing that’s going on. And that’s one thing I think students can do right now to find out what the university is saying or doing behind the scenes that violates Palestinian students’ rights.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: I’ve put the website for Palestine Legal, palestinelegal.org, here on the bottom. So be sure to check out Palestine Legal and fill out that intake form if you are experiencing harassment and discrimination at your university or community center, wherever you are. You have a defense. And I’m just so grateful for the work that you’re doing. Radhika. Thank you so much for being with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Radhika Sainath: Thank you for having me on.


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).