Podcast: University of California’s direct role in “disparaging” campus Palestine activists

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Palestinian schoolgirls in Gaza inspect a classroom which was damaged by Israeli bombings last month. 

Eyad Al Baba APA images

“…The University [of California] had a direct role in smearing and disparaging students on campus who want to express political views in support of Palestinian human rights.” - Liz Jackson, Cooperating Counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights 

This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:

Rush transcript - Liz Jackson, Cooperating Counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights (and the National Lawyer’s Guild Free Palestine Sub-Committee)

Liz Jackson: (Introduction of herself) … We also have on the team a working group of different civil rights organizations and individuals called the Student Speech Working Group — and the mission of that group is to defend student speech rights, Palestinian human rights activists on campus, and also Muslim groups on campus.

The Electronic Intifada: Liz, if you could talk about the letter that this coalition of civil rights groups issued, what it talks about and why it was issued now.

LJ: We wrote to the University of California president, Mark Yudof, to inform him about the concerted effort by Israel-aligned groups organizations to silence and smear pro-Palestinian speech on campus, and to intimidate Muslim students, and Palestinian students, or Arab students, or anyone involved in Palestinian human rights activism. So to explain to President Yudof what the concerted effort is, where it’s coming from, and what the major events and elements of the effort to silence speech has been, and then specifically to point out to him the University’s direct role in contributing to the climate of intimidation and fear for Arab and Muslim and pro-Palestinian students.

Efforts have been escalating. This has been going on for years, and for the past couple of years it’s been escalating. And right now is a key moment of decision-making for what’s called the President’s Advisory Council on the Campus Climate, which is a UC-initiated process, system-wide, California-wide, supposedly to evaluate the climate for minority groups, the climate of discrimination, whether or not students from different racial or ethnic backgrounds or LGBT students, whether or not they feel welcome, whether or not the campus is a safe space for them.

Looking into the process and some of the statements that the [UC] president has made, we suspect that this whole process was initiated as part of the effort to silence Palestine solidarity activism on campus, and that the whole effort is likely a sham, or a coverup as another mechanism to silence pro-Palestinian speech.

Why we wrote this letter now is because it’s a key moment in that process, and the advisory council was meeting last week, and we want to make sure that the president and the members of the advisory council understand the broader context. It’s not just the campus climate process, it’s also the lawsuits filed in Federal court, it’s the Title VI complaints filed with the Department of Education, lots of statements made by the president and the chancellors and other high-level administrators in the UC system who disparage pro-Palestinian speech as “anti-Semitic,” that “creates a hostile environment for Jewish students on campus.”

And that is belied by significant data which shows that the campus is actually a welcoming environment for Jewish students, and that Jewish students report feeling welcomed and respected on campus at a higher rate than other students. So the reality is that there is a rich and welcoming environment for [Jewish] students on campus, but that Israel-aligned organizations and their representatives on campus are trying to manufacture a different story — that pro-Palestinian activism creates a hostile climate for them. And that’s simply not true.

So we want the [UC] president to see what’s going on, and make sure that he and other University officials take affirmative steps to ensure that students who are speaking out about Palestinian human rights, or who are questioning the issue, wanting to express diverse viewpoints on Israel and Palestine, so that they feel that their speech is legitimate and that they are equal members of the campus community, and that their contributions to one of the foremost human rights issues of our time is not only permissible, but is considered a valued contribution to the political discourse on campus, just like any other political expression.

EI: Give us a couple of examples where Arab and Muslim students, or students involved in Palestine solidarity activism, are being harassed or intimidated on campus because of these Israel-aligned organizations? And the overall climate of intimidation at the University of California — give us a few examples of what these students are dealing with.

LJ: First, Israel-aligned organizations have filed — which you guys [The Electronic Intifada] has covered — they’ve filed a lawsuit in Federal court accusing the University of failing to protect Jewish students from a hostile climate, and specifically accusing Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Students’ Association of being “pro-terrorist,” “aligned and funneling money to Hamas” — so essentially, allegations, in the post-9/11 era, that are extremely dangerous because it threatens them with the possibility of criminal charges of material support for terrorism. The complaints don’t make that accusation explicitly, but they suggest it. The complaint in Federal court also explicitly accuses these students of being “anti-Semitic” and “trying to paint all Jews as bloodthirsty barbarians.”

So [these are] really damaging accusations for students, especially students who dedicate all of their time, in their studies and in their personal lives, to ending all forms of racial oppression — really dedicated anti-racists students are all of a sudden being smeared as anti-Semites.

The complaint in Federal court is one example. Then that complaint was dismissed by the judge because it had no factual legal merit. And then they [the Israel-aligned groups] turned around and filed a Title VI complaint with the Department of Education, based on the exact same false allegations, and the same theories — that pro-Palestine activism creates an anti-Semitic, hostile climate. So that complaint, even though it also is baseless and full of misrepresentations of what the students actually do, and based on a totally bogus theory that any criticism of the Israeli state is anti-Semitic — so these same ideas, even though it was dismissed in Federal court, was then re-filed in this other forum, and even though it has no basis, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is now investigating that complaint.

So that provides a whole other opportunity for the press to cover this as if it’s a legitimate concern, or a legitimate accusation. Even though none of it is true, the students’ reputations are on the line, their professional interests, and simply the time it takes for them to correct the factual record and correct their reputations, is time they can’t spend on their studies, they can’t spend on work, they can’t spend on their human rights activism, because they need to spend it defending their reputations and defending their right to speak.

The third piece is the campus climate report, which I had just spoke about a minute ago, but basically this process to evaluate the campus climate of discrimination. A task force called the Jewish Student Task Force which was led by Richard Barton, the chief education chair for the ADL [Anti-Defamation League] — [he] chaired this committee, and they came out with this report which is full of the exact same exaggerations and fabrications about the activity of Students for Justice in Palestine … and it paints a totally false picture about the campus climate for Jewish students.

So according to University officials, this was meant to be just a preliminary step in the process of evaluating the campus climate. But instead … Israel-aligned organizations are using it as the conclusive, factual truth about the campus climate. And we’ve seen articles all over in the national press, including one article in the local Jewish press decrying “the anti-Semitic fervor” on California campuses — which, again, is false. This report came out, which is bogus, and despite our protests that its methodology was flawed, the chair of this committee very clearly had a political agenda, and though the findings are false, this report was published everywhere in the press.

And then the California state assembly, even though they have no reason to be addressing this issue at all, passed a resolution [HR35] in the dark of night at the end of the last legislative session endorsing this campus climate report and urging the University of California to adopt the recommendations in this report — which are plainly unconstitutional and basically support banning anti-Semitic speech [but] the text of the resolution makes it very clear that any pro-Palestine advocacy is considered anti-Semitic, and would be banned under their recommendations.

We know that [UC] President Yudof had a role in drafting and supporting this resolution. Officially, the University did not support or oppose the resolution, except that President Yudof himself was in contact with Assemblywoman Halderman, who drafted and proposed the resolution. And he helped draft it. So in that sense, the University had a direct role in smearing and disparaging students on campus who want to express political views in support of Palestinian human rights.

EI: If people want to learn more about the work that the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers’ Guild and this coalition of civil rights groups do, especially on this issue, and especially for students who want to learn more about their rights right now on campus, where can they go?

LJ: People can go to the Center for Constitutional Rights’ website and click on the Inside CCR link to see a copy of our letter, and we are setting up a helpline for people who can call in and get information about efforts to repress Palestine solidarity activism — you can reach us at 312-212-0448.


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).