Colleges serve genocide by punishing campaigners for Palestine

Protesters call for a ceasefire at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus on 28 October.

Jeremy Hogan ZUMAPRESS

Indiana University’s suspension of tenured faculty member Abdulkader Sinno provides a lesson on how powerful institutions are supporting Israel’s genocide in Gaza by suppressing pro-Palestinian speech.

When I co-founded the campus Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) as an undergraduate student in 2018, Professor Sinno was one of the most encouraging and helpful voices who helped to make it happen.

Since I returned for a doctoral program, he has been a mentor and a friend. In addition to being an associate professor of political science and Middle East studies – he received a teaching award from university trustees in 2020 – Sinno serves as faculty advisor for PSC, the Middle Eastern Student Association and the Muslim Student Association.

His removal is not only an attack on free speech and academic freedom, but it is designed to suppress pro-Palestine speech at a time when Palestinians are suffering one of the most devastating attacks in their history and it’s more important than ever for Americans to speak out against injustice in Palestine.

The university’s stated reason for the suspension grows out of an event PSC hosted in November featuring Israeli author Miko Peled, who defends Palestinian rights.

Sinno booked the room for the event through his department, but two days before Peled was scheduled to speak, the university pulled the reservation citing alleged mistakes on the submitted form. The university refused to provide another room for the organization due to what it said were security concerns.

The talk proceeded in a different space and was an enormous success. But university administration launched an investigation into Sinno over the “unauthorized event” and ultimately suspended him until Fall 2024.

There is good reason to suspect that Sinno’s targeting has less to do with minor bureaucratic formalities and more to do with his role in assisting movements for justice on campus.

Ironically, according to both Indiana University professors and Sinno’s lawyer, the investigation violated numerous campus procedures. The school was so eager to punish the professor that the vice provost in charge of the investigation violated university policy in order to remove him unilaterally.

Carrie Docherty, the vice provost for faculty and student affairs, has denied any wrongdoing and has doubled down on her decision. During her investigation, which included interviews with students like me, she told me that her chief priority was our safety and that she would immediately provide us with “resources” to ensure safe events in the future.

Since Sinno’s suspension, none of these “resources” have materialized. Nor, as far as I can tell, have the students mentored and advised by Sinno been contacted by the university about how to handle his absence.

Sinno’s removal is all the more disruptive because he was set to teach the university’s only course on Palestine this semester. The university has effectively subordinated its academic mission in their effort to suppress pro-Palestinian speech.

Longstanding hostility to pro-Palestine speech

While it has escalated during the Gaza genocide, the university’s hostility to pro-Palestinian speech is nothing new.

In 2018, the year I co-founded the campus PSC, the university was embroiled in a fight to have Jamil Dakwar of the American Civil Liberties Union speak about Palestinian rights on campus. Though the Israel lobby groups that sought to have the event canceled were overcome in that instance, the university has still maintained a callous disregard for Palestinian lives and pro-Palestinian voices.

In September last year, the university administration showed little concern for campus safety after student Hailey Toch made racist and threatening remarks against a Palestinian neighbor and fellow student in a video posted on TikTok. Ignoring calls to ensure the safety of Palestinians on campus, the university merely released a vague statement and washed its hands of the matter.

As Israel began its bombardment of Gaza in October and nearly a thousand Palestinians already lay dead, Indiana University President Pamela Whitten issued a statement “regarding the Middle East.” After pro-Israel voices on campus viciously attacked the president for the vagueness of her statement, Whitten released another one two days later recognizing only “the pain and fear that is affecting the Jewish community” to the exclusion of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims and any other community.

When students brought this concern directly to the administration, they were summarily dismissed.

The temperature on campus increased in mid-November after Jim Banks, a member of the US Congress, sent a letter to Indiana University demanding that it investigate anti-Semitism on campus.

The letter singled out the Palestine Solidarity Committee for holding a protest demanding a ceasefire. Banks was concerned that a protester held up a sign that read “Colonialism, Apartheid, Genecide [sic]” and that a student “smeared” Israelis by calling them “occupiers.”

Jeffery C. Issac, a professor of political science at Indiana University, links Banks’ letter to the current wave of repression on campus.

While PSC has not been banned from Indiana University – the administration has explicitly assured us this is not its intention, at least for now – Sinno’s suspension is no doubt a major escalation in the university’s attack on pro-Palestinian speech.

Palestinian artist’s show canceled

The university’s Eskenazi Museum of Art this month canceled the first American retrospective of Samia Halaby, an Indiana University alumna who The New York Times describes as “one of the most important living Palestinian artists.”

Months earlier, Halaby was hailed by museum director David Brennemen as having a “dynamic and innovative approach to art-making.” But shortly before her exhibition was set to open, Brennemen informed Halaby that employees had concerns about her social media posts.

A university spokesperson made the thin excuse to The Times that there were “concerns about guaranteeing the integrity of the exhibit for its duration.”

The crackdown at Indiana University is a familiar story across the country. A New York Times headline observes how this has had a “chilling effect on pro-Palestinian speech.”

The civil liberties organization Palestine Legal has since 7 October reported a tenfold increase in cases over the same period last year. Numerous universities have been the target of pro-Israel pressure campaigns aimed at rising the cost for supporting pro-Palestine speech.

Some university presidents have even been forced to resign. Schools like Columbia, Brandeis, George Washington and Rutgers have suspended pro-Palestinian student organizations on their campuses.

But the repression is being met with student and faculty resistance. And with each injustice, a new audience is being educated about how universities serve the empire that is backing Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

At Indiana University, Palestine solidarity organizing has only expanded and intensified since Sinno’s suspension.

Students and faculty have launched petitions denouncing the university’s decision. The Faculty for Palestine group formed to push back as an organized bloc.

The newly formed IU Alumni for Palestine are lending support to organizers on campus. Students sickened by the misappropriation of their faith in support of Israel’s monstrous campaign are starting a new Jewish Voice for Peace chapter here.

As bleak as it seems right now as Israel perpetrates massacres each day, this phase of the crisis will end. What comes next depends in part on the ability of organizers around the world – especially in the US – to build power.

To that end, the work will and must continue.

Free Palestine.

Bryce Greene is a writer and contributor to Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting. He is also pursuing a PhD. at Indiana University - Bloomington.