Florida officials, Israeli government app bully Palestinian student

A man hugs a woman

Lawmakers are pushing Florida State University to punish student leader Ahmad Daraldik. (Courtesy of Ahmad Daraldik)

In an egregious display of anti-Palestinian racism and micromanagement by state lawmakers, Florida officials and Israel advocates are pushing to have a 20-year-old removed as a student senate president.

Their efforts are being amplified by an Israeli government-funded app that purports to be a hub for grassroots activism.

Ahmad Daraldik was elected to lead the student senate at Florida State University in June. Immediately after, his opponents dug through his social media history and found posts he made as a child when he lived in the occupied West Bank with his family and experienced the daily trauma of Israeli occupation.

Those attacking him claimed that Daraldik’s posts were anti-Semitic. These include a post showing Daraldik at a statue of South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela in the West Bank city of Ramallah, with the caption “Iconic. #fucktheoccupation #fuckisrael.”

Another post he shared when he was 12 years old showed a photo of what appeared to be an Israeli soldier with his foot on a Palestinian child’s neck, “with a comment that was anti-Semitic,” according to Palestine Legal, a civil rights organization whose attorneys represent Daraldik.

Daraldik has publicly apologized for the post and any harm that it caused.

“When I made that post in 2013 I was a child in Palestine witnessing death on a daily basis,” Daraldik explained.

He added that the caption was “not directed to the Jewish community as a whole or at FSU. It was directed to an armed soldier who was abusing a child.”

In an open letter to the campus community, Daraldik said that he has since realized that the comments were “wrong and offensive.”

He pointed to his voting record as a student senate member in which he consistently protected Jewish students on campus and pushed for anti-discrimination resolutions.

“Like all people, Ahmad has grown and learned since he was a child and should not be punished for a post he made nearly a decade ago as a child living under a brutal occupation,” stated Palestine Legal.

Shortly after he was elected as senate president, the student senate also publicly reviewed Daraldik’s voting record and took a vote on his leadership. He was found to have no anti-Semitic bias, and the vote of no confidence failed.

But the attacks have not stopped.

“Dissatisfied with this result, pro-Israel groups, right-wing media and bad-faith actors have continued to escalate calls for his removal and continue to single out other Palestinian students for condemnation and demands for disciplinary action,” stated Students for Justice in Palestine at FSU.

“It’s been dehumanizing, to say the least,” Daraldik told The Electronic Intifada. “I feel like everything I do is incorrect, no matter what I do.”

Bipartisan witch-hunt

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps Florida, plunging it into a public health crisis, state and local officials – both Democrats and Republicans – have used their time to push for Daraldik’s removal from the student senate.

These lawmakers “are more focused on what a 20-year-old said when he was 12 than they are on the pandemic and making sure people get tested, wear masks and are actually safe and healthy,” Daraldik said.

Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat and the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management – an agency tasked with managing relief funds – accused Daraldik of Holocaust denial and smeared him as an anti-Semite over the student’s comparison of conditions in Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto.

“It really shows the priorities of the state,” Palestine Legal’s Amira Mattar told The Electronic Intifada. “How much does he value healthcare when he’s spending his time attacking Ahmad?”

In mid-July, the city council of Aventura, nearly 500 miles south of FSU’s Tallahassee campus and inside the regional epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, adopted a resolution calling on the university president to remove Daraldik and condemn his social media posts.

Two Republican lawmakers, state representative and congressional candidate Byron Donalds and Congressman Gus Bilirakis, also smeared Daraldik as an anti-Semite and called on the university to take action.

Bilirakis, a staunch Israel supporter, further attacked the BDS movement and conflated it with anti-Semitism, a common smear used by Israel lobby groups.

Democratic congressional members of the Jewish Legislative Caucus, Richard Stark and Emily Slosberg, issued similar statements.

Last month, Stark and Slosberg also attended and demanded to speak at a virtual student senate meeting to push for the campus adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

This misleading and politically motivated definition promoted by the Israeli government and its lobby conflates criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-Jewish bigotry.

According to the IHRA definition, it is anti-Semitic to compare Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews.

Daraldik told The Electronic Intifada that he was not notified beforehand of the lawmakers’ intent to speak. As student senate president, Daraldik has the authority to prevent non-members from speaking during internal discussions.

“I was under fire for about 35 minutes for saying that I would not allow them to speak,” he said. “It’s my discretion. These people are state legislators. I didn’t feel comfortable with them coming in and trying to influence senators.”

The president of FSU’s student government – an executive body separate from the student senate – then entered the meeting and demanded Daraldik allow them to speak as his own guests.

Despite intense debate and widespread, student-led criticisms of the IHRA definition based on its curtailing of academic inquiry and free speech, the student senate ended up adopting it on 15 July.

“Draconian measures”

Shelby Shoup, president of Students for Justice in Palestine at FSU, said that Israel advocates are using the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism to “prove that he is, in fact, anti-Semitic” based on his comparison between contemporary Israeli policy and the Nazi regime.

These accusations are being used to push the senate to hold another vote of no confidence.

“The last few weeks have shown how the IHRA is being used to browbeat people on campus,” she told The Electronic Intifada, adding that it has created a hostile climate throughout the student body.

SJP has issued several calls to action in support of Daraldik and the right of students to organize for Palestinian rights.

Hundreds of individuals and more than a dozen student groups signed a statement supporting Daraldik, and warning that disciplinary action against him would legitimize “anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia.”

Shoup said she is worried that Students for Justice in Palestine could be denied funds, and that complaints could be filed against professors and students who even examine Israeli policies.

“The university has already been bound to the IHRA definition because of Florida legislation,” Shoup noted.

In addition to policies against BDS, Florida recently passed legislation aiming to censor and criminalize advocacy for Palestinian rights.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill last year re-defining anti-Semitism and making it illegal to speak out in public institutions against Israel’s human rights violations.

This means that someone advocating for a single democratic state in which Israeli Jews, Palestinians and all others have full, equal rights could fall afoul of the law on the basis that this is “denying Israel the right to exist.”

“The goal is to end any kind of actions for Palestinian rights through these draconian measures,” said Palestine Legal’s Mattar.

Bullying by Israeli government app

Joining Florida lawmakers, an Israeli government-funded app meant to “influence foreign publics” and “battle BDS” – the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign for Palestinian rights – is also waging a bullying campaign against Daraldik.

Act.IL has encouraged its users to send emails to the Florida State University administration to demand that Daraldik be punished and removed from his senate position.

In an attempt to portray emails to the Florida State University administration as “personal and authentic,” the app urged users not to copy its talking points verbatim.

In addition, an online petition calling for Daraldik’s removal, created by someone claiming to be an FSU student, has gathered more than 10,000 signatures.

Students say that the petition is astroturfing – a fake “grassroots” campaign – attempting to undermine and obscure the actual broad student support for Daraldik’s leadership.

“For every Palestinian in the US”

Daraldik said that despite the attacks and pressure to step down, he will keep fighting.

“I love representing students,” he said.

“I’m the first Palestinian Muslim at FSU to serve in this position,” he added. “This is for every Palestinian in the US who wants to be involved and be in a position of leadership and not be accused of anti-Semitism for something they said when they were 12.”

He implored other student leaders to stay strong against similar smear campaigns.

“When you have a seat at the table and are able to represent your community, you finally allow for more people like you to come in,” Daraldik said.

“If you allow that fear to creep in, you’re allowing the people who think that you’re not worth it to win.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.