Brooklyn College has refused to retract accusations of anti-Semitism against Palestine solidarity activists who took part in an on-campus protest, even though they have been cleared of wrongdoing.
Following a three-month investigation by a City University of New York disclipinary committee, all bar one of the charges against two students who disrupted a faculty council meeting in February were dropped.
The only penalty imposed on the two, Sarah Aly and Thomas DeAngelis, was that they were admonished for “failure to comply with lawful directions.”
But soon after the protest had taken place, the school’s president rushed to indict its participants in a campus-wide email.
Both Aly and DeAngelis were prominent members of Students for Justice in Palestine at the college when the demonstration took place. Although they have subsequently graduated, they fear that the politically motivated probe against them could have lasting repercussions.
“The language in the general public to this day surrounding this case assumes that Tom and I are hateful and anti-Jewish, even though the three-month long, taxing investigation found no evidence of this,” Aly told The Electronic Intifada.
On 16 February, an ad hoc group of students interrupted a faculty meeting with a call-and-response style protest in which they raised a variety of student concerns, including tuition spikes, undercover police on campus and the university’s investment in private prisons.
The scripted protest did not include any reference to Palestine, but as the faculty council cut their meeting short, one of the students shouted “Zionists out of CUNY” and “Zionism out of CUNY.”
The same day, the Jewish Telegraph Agency quoted an anonymous source claiming that a protester called the chair of the faculty council, Yedidyah Langsam, a “Zionist pig.”
In March, the school launched an investigation into the incident, which resulted in no charges of hate speech.
One female student, who is unrelated to Students for Justice in Palestine, admitted to shouting “Zionists off campus” off-script from the planned protest, but her charges were still not related to the content of her speech, but to violating the school’s rules of conduct, according to a statement from the university.
She settled with the school and agreed to attend a training that will supposedly teach students to express their political views within the rules of conduct.
Throughout the investigation, no witness, including Langsam, ever corroborated the media’s allegations that a student shouted “Zionist pig.”
Sarah Aly and Thomas DeAngelis, the former president and secretary of SJP at the college, refused to settle. While they were never accused of making the derogatory or anti-Zionist statements, they were the most prominent students at the protest.
Aly said that a large photograph of the protesters was published in the school’s newspaper, and she and DeAngelis were singled out. The media’s unverified allegations in conjunction with the university’s premature condemnation left them in the spotlight.
Aly, who wears a headscarf, told The Electronic Intifada that following Gould’s email she endured a stream of online attacks and Islamophobic slurs. A picture of her on a poster advertising a study abroad program was vandalized, her eyes blacked out and an inverted cross drawn on her forehead.
“On a personal level, as a poor Muslim woman of color, the impact is much deeper,” Aly told The Electronic Intifada. “I’ve already had much difficulty overcoming my personal obstacles in order to focus on school, and this added stress has made it all the more difficult.”
Aly added that she has suffered a spike in anxiety attacks and gets increasingly frequent migraines.
After the investigation cleared the protesters of making anti-Jewish comments, Aly and DeAngelis requested that Gould retract her original email. So far, Gould has refused to do so.
“These official proceedings, which were long and stressful, including a nine-hour hearing policed by armed security, for some reason have not been enough to counter the president’s rush to judgment e-mail,” Aly said.
Gould did not respond to a request for comment.
Radhika Sainath, Aly and DeAngelis’ attorney from the organization Palestine Legal, believes Gould’s email was a result of mounting pressure from the Zionist Organization of America and Brooklyn assemblyman Dov Hikind to take a stand against Brooklyn College’s SJP chapter.
Hikind, who has raged against the college’s SJP chapter since 2013, has been linked to acts of terrorism as a former member of the Jewish Defense League, which the FBI listed as a “violent extremist Jewish organization.”
On 17 February, the same day Gould released her email, Hikind issued a statement that claimed administrators told him they “feared for their safety” during the protest. Focusing on the alleged support among the faculty for the protesters, Hikind wrote that one faculty member told him the protest was “reminiscent of 1930s Nazi Germany.”
In January, the month before the protest, the ZOA announced that after urging Gould to take “remedial steps” against members of SJP, the college had instructed security personnel on campus to closely monitor “tensions” and would be requiring all students to receive “diversity training.”
Over the years, the ZOA has pressured the Brooklyn College administration to punish or shut out speech critical of Israel, by threatening lawsuits and filing a complaint under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that was ultimately settled with the university administration.
The letter triggered an ongoing investigation into alleged discrimination on campus.
Crossing the line?
In the wake of Brooklyn College’s investigation, two more university heads have rushed to publicly condemn students protesting Israeli military or government officials on campus before an investigation into their actions even began.
Short of criminalizing speech critical of Israel, Zionist groups have instead secured summary judgements by schools’ leaderships.
When students at San Francisco State University disrupted an event with Nir Barkat, the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, on 7 April, President Les Wong immediately issued a statement condemning the protest and announcing an investigation.
The Jewish Weekly reported that Wong’s statement came after he had a telephone conversation with Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a pro-Israel lobby group in Los Angeles, and Garrett Ashley, vice chancellor of the California State University system.
A month later, Wong wrote an editorial in The Jewish Weekly bemoaning the state of “civil discourse” on campus.
The protest was staged by a coalition of groups representing Black, Latino, Asian and Muslim students, who were protesting the presence of military personnel on campus.
Following a similar order of events as Brooklyn College, the next day UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman sent an email to the entire student body, condemning the protest for “crossing the line of civility” and asserting unverified allegations about the nature of the protest.
Gillman announced that an investigation had been launched in order to determine if disciplinary action would be necessary.
The ZOA is pressuring administrators at UC Irvine to punish the student protesters.
And while numerous groups organized the protest, the administration focused its investigation solely on the campus SJP group, which will attend a hearing on Thursday.
Though media reports claimed the protesters blocked the entrance to the event, disrupted the film and required police to escort Jewish students out, legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild provide a very different account.
In a letter to Gillman, NLG writes, “The observers worked cooperatively with law enforcement and the students throughout the protest to make sure that everyone present understood when they might be crossing any line that might put them outside UCI policy or the law more broadly.”
“When the police explained that a certain action would be considered a violation of the law and lead to arrest, the students listened and altered their actions accordingly.”
Daniel Carnie, a student member of the campus SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace, participated in the protest and told The Electronic Intifada, “We brought them [NLG observers] because we were expecting libel and slander and we knew we needed some backup.”
Carnie said they staged the protest cautiously, chanting slogans without amplified sound and keeping the entrance to the event cear.
“We were operating within the guidelines on campus, throughout,” Carnie said.
Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco. Twitter: @CharESilver
- Brooklyn College
- Karen Gould
- Sarah Aly
- Thomas DeAngelis
- Yedidyah Langsam
- Students for Justice in Palestine
- Radhika Sainath
- Palestine Legal
- Zionist Organization of America
- Dov Hikind
- Jewish Defense League
- Title VI of the Civil Rights Act
- San Francisco State University
- Nir Barkat
- Marvin Hier
- Simon Wiesenthal Center
- California State University
- Garrett Ashley
- Michael Oren
- Les Wong
- UC Irvine
- Howard Gillman
- Irvine 11
- National Lawyers Guild
- Daniel Carnie
- Jewish Voice for Peace