Are pro-Israel bullies on US campuses planning dirtier tactics?

Students are fighting to protect their right to exercise free speech, such as this mock Israeli checkpoint on a California campus meant to educate peers about the realities of military occupation.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

A member of the University of California’s governing body has called for the expulsion or suspension of students for expressing their views about Israel, under the guise of combating anti-Jewish bigotry.

This comes as Israel lobby groups, flush with huge new injections of cash, are stepping up their efforts to silence the Palestine solidarity movement on campuses nationwide.

During a 17 September meeting of the University of California (UC) Regents to discuss a “statement of principles against intolerance,” Richard Blum also threatened to have his wife, US Senator Dianne Feinstein, publicly criticize the university if it did not enforce penalties against perceived bigotry.

Feinstein’s criticism could put the university system under federal scrutiny.

Another regent, Hadi Makarechian, agreed, according to The San Francisco Chronicle, saying that without punishment, “we’re just stating a lot of stuff on paper.”

Blum and other regents, backed by Israel lobby groups, are pushing the university to adopt policies that free speech advocates warn could violate the First Amendment.

The Board of Regents had been due to vote on whether to adopt the US State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism as university policy at its meeting in July.

That definition is based on a “working definition” of anti-Semitism once considered by a European Union body but later dropped.

Palestine solidarity and free speech advocates point out that the government definition conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry. A key strategy of Israel advocates, they say, has been to urge university administrators to treat criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism as one and the same.

Failing free speech test

Despite efforts to suppress it, Palestine solidarity activism is becoming more mainstream across US campuses. In California alone, 7 of 9 UC undergraduate campuses have passed resolutions in recent years calling on administrators to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s violations of Palestinians’ rights.

Pro-Israel groups routinely claim that opposition to these well-documented violations is motivated by anti-Jewish prejudice.

During the summer, students, Jewish groups and free speech advocates warned that adopting the State Department definition could chill free expression.

Following the outcry, UC President Janet Napolitano announced that the definition had been dropped.

Instead, she said that the regents would this month consider a more general “statement of principles against intolerance, including, but not limited to anti-Semitism and other types of intolerance.” The new statement did not specifically mention anti-Semitism and emphasized the importance of free speech and academic freedom.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board expressed concern that even this statement could still “fail the free speech test” if there was no clear distinction between the expression of opinions and acts of discrimination and violence.

However, after sustained pressure by Israel advocacy groups both before and during the 17 September meeting, the revised policy was withdrawn.

The regents have instead tasked a working group with developing a new one, leading to fears that the State Department text could be revived.

Sarah McLaughlin of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) warned of the danger to free speech.

“If UC adopts the State Department definition of anti-Semitism (or any policy banning criticism or intolerance), and accedes to Blum’s demands, students could potentially face expulsion for any language a person subjectively believes is ‘intolerant,’” McLaughlin wrote.

Radhika Sainath, staff attorney at Palestine Legal and cooperating counsel at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told The Electronic Intifada that punishing students based on speech, as Blum proposed, would be unconstitutional.

“The US Supreme Court has been clear that the university is supposed to be the marketplace of ideas — and public universities cannot discriminate against students for their viewpoint of their expression, certainly not for speech deemed controversial, or because donors or administrators disagree with it,” Sainath said.

“Keep fighting”

David McCleary, a graduate student at UC Berkeley and member of Cal Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, attended the regents meeting along with a dozen students who oppose inclusion of the State Department definition.

McCleary said that at a previous regents meeting in San Francisco, Arab and Muslim students talked about receiving racist threats and intimidation. But student groups representing those communities, which are not as well funded as the Zionist advocacy organizations Amcha Initiative and StandWithUs, have routinely been ignored by university officials while Israel supporters are singled out for special protection.

“Not every group can afford to print booklets for the regents and buy lunch for people who came to speak for them,” McCleary added.

McCleary is also a head steward and executive board trustee of UAW 2865 — the union representing 13,000 graduate student workers which last year passed an historic resolution in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

He said that the union was not invited to join the working group and requests for inclusion by a representative of UAW 2865 have been ignored by the regents and the office of the UC president.

“We’re going to keep fighting and keep demanding this seat both publicly and privately,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “We will shame the regents publicly if they silence student voices like this.”

The Electronic Intifada asked UC spokesperson Rebecca Trounson if the university was concerned about potential violations to academic freedom and free speech if Israel is singled out for special protection.

“These are very contentious issues and the regents and the university are trying to deal with this very sensitive issue as sensitively as they can,” Trounson said.

She said she could not predict when the new statement would be ready, adding that the redrafting effort was only at the “beginning.”

Flow of cash

As the new academic year begins, university students in California and across the US are certain to face renewed public relations campaigns to denigrate the BDS movement and silence organizing in support of Palestinian rights.

Palestine Legal says many students involved in Palestine solidarity activism have been accused of anti-Semitism and terrorism, threatened with death and violence and targeted for their ethnic or religious background.

In the first four months of 2015 alone, the group documented 60 cases of false accusations of anti-Semitism “that were in fact incidents where students or faculty criticized policies of Israel.”

Of 102 requests for legal support from across the country, 67 were from California.

Earlier this year, Republican Party mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, along with Haim Saban, billionaire friend and contributor to Hillary Clinton, joined forces to pour millions of dollars into Israel advocacy groups working in American universities.

The Jewish Daily Forward reported that university-based Israel activists would be returning to campus this year “fueled by a large new flow of cash.”

One organization, the Campus Maccabees, backed by more than $50 million from Adelson and Saban, has “a declared aim to reshape the face of Israel advocacy in colleges nationwide.”

Israel lobby organizations on campus are especially alarmed by growing relationships between Palestine solidarity groups and students of color and marginalized communities, the Forward noted.

Back in Berkeley, McCleary said that although student activists are not backing down, they know they have to brace for a long fight.

“We have truth and justice on our side and they [anti-Palestinian groups] don’t,” he said.

“That said, they play for keeps — and we’re expecting this to get a lot dirtier and messier and for people to get hurt,” McCleary added.

“This is going to get a whole lot worse for activists before it gets any better. It’s not guaranteed that we’ll win this. We need people who support truth and justice to join this movement.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine.