During the year-long application process, students were questioned repeatedly about their personal political views, affiliations with outside human rights and Jewish organizations and their opinions about the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Lawyers say that the university has violated civil and free speech rights and has openly discriminated against students of color. All the students who applied for group status are people of color and three are Muslim.
The dean, Keith Eldredge, sent the students a letter in late December informing them he had “decided to deny the request to form a club known as Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham University.”
This ban overturned a November vote by the student government at the private university in New York approving the formation of the SJP chapter.
“My jaw just dropped,” said Ahmad Awad, a Palestinian American graduating student and one of the Fordham SJP co-founders. “I couldn’t believe this was happening.”
He told The Electronic Intifada that the intent was “to create an organization that advocates for Palestinian rights and equality. We thought it was going to be a very straightforward process.”
But from the start, Awad said he realized they were being treated differently. Legal experts agree.
“All evidence indicates that the denial was based on the viewpoint of students’ message and/or their national origin,” attorneys with Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights state in a 17 January letter to Fordham president Joseph McShane.
The attorneys also warn that the denial “could give rise to a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act” – US legislation meant to protect students from discriminatory acts at educational institutions.
Since November 2015, the students interested in starting the SJP chapter spent “dozens of hours” responding to the administration’s questions and were “interrogated, railroaded and ultimately censored,” the attorneys say.
“We were constantly being asked the same questions over and over again; we were being brought to meetings with members of the administration and of the student government,” Awad explained.
Denying the students’ request, the dean wrote that he “cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group and against a specific country.”
He also claims that SJP’s advocacy for Palestinians’ rights would lead to “polarization” on campus.
Eldredge resorts to talking points frequently used by Israel advocacy groups, asserting that BDS activism “presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding.”
The dean adds that he welcomes “alternative ways to promote awareness of this important conflict” but offers no suggestions.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous and frustrating,” Awad said. “When we were going through the approval process, at one point Dean Eldredge suggested that we name the group something else – ‘something a little less controversial.’ I said, ‘Dean, we’re students, looking for justice in Palestine. That’s what we’re trying to do.’”
On 6 January, Eldredge informed the students that there was no appeal and told them to contact the university’s senior vice presidents with their concerns.
Fordham University did not respond to The Electronic Intifada’s request for comment, however its spokesperson told Inside Higher Ed that SJP’s “political focus” is too “narrow,” and dismissed allegations that the university is discriminating on the basis of their country of origin.
Questioning of political views
In September, 10 months after they initially applied for recognition, and following several meetings with administrators, the students asked if they could begin planning educational events on Palestinian life, experience under occupation, politics and culture, according to the legal groups.
Administrators told students that the dean had further questions and requested more meetings.
In October, the dean and another administrator told students they were concerned about the group’s support for BDS, the lawyers say.
The administrator also told the students that she had spoken with Jewish members of faculty for their opinion on granting group status to SJP. Weeks later, the administration said it would inform the Jewish student group on campus so that they could “weigh in,” according to the lawyers.
“I was very offended when I heard that they were consulting with the Jewish student organization and Jewish professors on campus,” said Awad. He felt it meant “asking for their approval of my identity, and [approval] to promote my culture and human rights.”
In November, the group was brought in by the student government for a hearing. The student government asked the SJP petitioners if they support the Palestinian right of return and the “dismantling of the Israeli state,” the legal groups say.
The students were also questioned about previous direct actions by other SJP chapters and whether they would consider partnering with the campus Jewish group.
Despite the questioning – which Awad describes as “McCarthyist” – the SJP chapter was approved in a vote.
Awad and the other petitioners were relieved and looked forward to organizing events for the following semester.
However, in mid-December, the dean and a leading administrator summoned the students once more and questioned them about their political views and opinions on groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and the Israel lobby group J Street.
The administrators also asked the students why they use the term “apartheid” and inquired about their personal opinions on BDS.
About a week later, the dean informed the students that he vetoed the student government’s vote and denied SJP’s group status.
Violating civil rights
The legal groups say that this is a prime example of the “Palestine exception” to free speech.
Across the US, and specifically in New York, Israel advocacy groups are pressuring university administrations to smear SJP chapters and members, labeling Palestine solidarity activism and boycott campaigns as anti-Semitic while lawmakers introduce anti-BDS legislation meant to chill speech critical of Israel.
At Fordham, the drawn-out scrutiny applied to supporters of Palestinian rights is unilateral, lawyers say.
“Presumably, male professors and misogynists were not asked to opine on the formation of Women in STEM, and Christian professors and anti-marriage equality students did not hold veto power over the Rainbow Alliance club,” a group supporting LGBTQ rights, they say in their letter.
“Moreover, Dean Eldredge’s reasoning that polarizing student groups cannot be allowed to operate seems to be an exceptional rule applied only to controversy on Israel-Palestine,” they add.
Awad noted that campus groups such as the Democrat and Republican clubs, which are politically polarized and publicly advocate for specific political goals, are given free reign on campus and are “always arguing.”
In refusing Awad the ability to share his culture, history and experience as a Palestinian American as a member of a student group that would afford Palestinians a visible platform – as is afforded to other students of different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds – Fordham may be in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the lawyers say.
“At a time when colleges should be encouraging young people to seek new paths to peace and justice – especially in light of the incoming Trump administration’s comments against the establishment of a Palestinian state – Fordham is censoring debate,” Palestine Legal’s Radhika Sainath told The Electronic Intifada.
“This sends a chilling message: dissent will not be tolerated,” she added.
Ironically, Fordham, a Catholic University in the Jesuit tradition, operates the “Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice,” to encourage students to be more socially engaged.
It is named after Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement who was arrested and jailed repeatedly and used hunger strikes in protests for women’s suffrage, against war and for economic and social justice. In the 1930s, members of the Catholic Worker movement called for boycotts of businesses where low wages or poor working conditions existed.
Lawyers are demanding that Fordham immediately permit SJP and offer a thorough apology.
Meanwhile, students who support Palestinian rights say that they aren’t walking away defeated.
“We knew from the beginning that we were going to experience some difficulty … We’re staying active,” Awad said.
He explained that with the legal advocacy and support from across the US, students are mobilizing to demand – and win – justice from the Fordham administration.
Dozens of Palestine solidarity groups, along with professors and students at Fordham and from other universities, have signed an online petition to support Fordham SJP.
“We are asking that Fordham reverse their decision [to ban SJP] and come to grips with their mistake. And to admit they were wrong,” Awad said.
“We are not giving up.”