How Israel lobby pressured a Pittsburgh university

University administrators feel more pressure than ever to respond to the demands of Israel lobby groups. (Point Park University)

Activists around the US are calling on the president of a small university in Pennsylvania to retract his recent statements equating anti-Semitism with the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

The assertions were made in an op-ed published in response to a lawsuit filed against the university by a professor who claims that she is a target of anti-Semitism due to her Zionist beliefs.

The harsh condemnation and mischaracterization of the BDS movement by Paul Hennigan, the president of Point Park University in Pittsburgh, follows a pattern of university administrators across the country who have come under pressure from major Israel lobby organizations to condemn BDS and shield Israel from criticism.

The lawsuit was filed by professor Channa Newman in response to a Title IX investigation into her conduct by the university.

Title IX is a federal civil rights law that protects against discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex in educational institutions.

In 2018, Newman was accused of disparaging the anti-sexual assault #MeToo movement during a conversation in class with a student who revealed that she had been raped.

According to Robert Ross, a professor at the university, the student came to him “bawling … she was shaking. Her fingernails had all been bitten off,” he told The Electronic Intifada.

Ross said the student told him that Newman had belittled her in class, “putting her to tears and re-traumatized her,” and that she had proceeded to call the student at home to continue the argument.

Ross added that with the student’s permission, he reported the incident – as encouraged by university and state policy – and emailed relevant administrators. In the following days and weeks, other students came to him upset and traumatized at Newman’s treatment of the student.

The university suspended Newman with pay while they investigated. The investigation concluded that Newman did not violate the Title IX statute, and she returned to campus.

Newman had strongly denied the accusations.

Last summer, Ross said, he learned that Newman filed a lawsuit against the university, alleging that the student who had accused her had conspired with Ross to get Newman ousted from her teaching position.

In the lawsuit, Newman claims that Ross has used his position to foster “a militant version” of BDS and “hateful views against Israel” that “are anti-Semitic,” which she alleges have led to a hostile work environment for her.

Similar claims of hostile work environments from Israel-aligned students and professors have been used as a cudgel to clamp down on Palestinian rights activism on campuses for years.

With this lawsuit, Ross said, “I think she’s just using BDS to cover herself and as a weapon to attack.”

Moreover, Newman’s lawsuit cites the US State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism.

Like the very similar International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition that is promoted by Israel and its lobby, the State Department definition includes claims that it is anti-Semitic to say Israel’s foundation was a “racist endeavor” or to apply “double standards” to Israel by requiring from it “behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Newman has hired a lawyer, Jerome Marcus of the Kohelet Policy Forum, an Israeli think tank with the stated purpose “to secure Israel’s future as the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

Marcus has litigated against Palestine rights activists as well as the American Studies Association over its 2013 resolution to support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions involved in violating Palestinian human rights.

Shutting down speech

Before and after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre by a white nationalist in October 2018, some of Israel’s most extreme supporters have shielded white supremacists and instead shifted the blame for anti-Jewish attacks to supporters of Palestinian rights, especially on campuses.

In his op-ed, Hennigan said he was involved in “outreach efforts” with representatives of Hillel, an Israel-aligned campus organization that has explicitly forbidden its members from discussing BDS or sponsoring events with speakers who support the BDS movement.

Notably, he explained that he had recently met with members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, along with the chief executive and publisher of a right-wing Jewish publication and others, ostensibly to discuss BDS.

Israel lobby groups such as the Jewish Federations of North America and its local chapters have been prominent forces in the push to shut down criticism of Israel on campuses.

In 2010, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs launched the Israel Action Network, described as “a multimillion-dollar joint initiative to combat anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns,” and to fight “the delegitimizing of the State of Israel.”

During Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh shared Israeli army propaganda on Facebook demonizing Palestinians and justifying attacks on civilians. Israel’s 51-day assault killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including 550 children.

An independent inquiry commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council found extensive evidence that Israel committed war crimes.

Now, with allies within the Trump administration, Israel lobby groups “have been emboldened to file complaints against students, scholars and whole academic programs, no matter how groundless the complaints might be,” Zoha Khalili, staff attorney with Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada.

And Trump administration policies – like the executive order – “have created an environment where university administrators feel more pressure than ever to respond to the demands of Israel advocacy groups,” Khalili explained.

Dangerous conflation

Human rights supporters across the US are concerned and outraged over Hennigan’s adoption of Israel lobby talking points to conflate the Palestinian rights movement with anti-Jewish bigotry.

In a letter to Hennigan, dozens of scholars, faith leaders and activists urged the university president to educate himself on the actual demands of the BDS campaign, and to not just repeat talking points given to him by members of “a subgroup of one community that supports the Israeli government.”

With his statement, Hennigan has told Palestinian students “that they cannot demand their rights and protect their families from harm,” stated Friends of Sabeel North America, a Christian ecumenical group, along with Jewish Voice for Peace and American Muslims for Palestine.

“Students who care about universal freedom and justice are being told they cannot take peaceful action in support of upholding international laws and norms,” the groups explained.

“Jewish students who do not want the Israeli government to use their religion to justify oppression are being told they cannot engage in boycotts or advocate for divestment,” they added, saying that these values are what Point Park University should uphold.

Scholars with the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) also contested Hennigan’s statement.

In a statement emailed to The Electronic Intifada, Hennigan said he was “compelled to submit an op-ed in response to specific concerns raised by the Jewish community” regarding the lawsuit filed by Newman.

He added that he regrets “if anyone was offended by my inartful articulation of Point Park’s credo to condemn all forms of hatred, bigotry and discrimination,” and indicated that he has been involved in discussion with “those who are more knowledgeable than I” about the situation in Palestine.

But he has refused to retract his statement that conflates BDS support with anti-Semitism.

The university, for its part, says that it “categorically denies the allegations of wrongdoing contained in the complaint, and will vigorously defend itself in the lawsuit.”

Point Park has filed a motion to dismiss Newman’s lawsuit.

Chilling effect

Following Donald Trump’s executive order, signed in December, that paves the way for a dangerous escalation of federal government investigations into Palestinian rights activism on campuses, the chilling effect for students and professors is accelerating.

And even if the lawsuit against Point Park University is tossed out, the administration’s attack on the BDS movement will continue to reverberate.

These legal complaints and the public smear campaigns that accompany them have intimidated many students and faculty into self-censorship, Palestine Legal’s Khalili told The Electronic Intifada.

“Whether it is the president of the university or the president of the United States, authority figures are demonizing activists in an effort to silence them or force them into their way of thinking,” Khalili said.

University administrators, with a heightened sensitivity to complaints, are “issuing these public condemnations, imposing new requirements on Palestine-related events and displays, and opening up investigations into student activism,” she added.

By scrutinizing faculty and students, administrators “think they can avoid themselves being scrutinized by the federal government, but the impact on the university community is similar,” Khalili said.

Ross said he is worried for the broader Palestinian rights movement as universities – along with state and federal governments – ramp up anti-BDS efforts.

“Even as a tenured professor, I read [Hennigan’s op-ed] and asked, is my job in jeopardy? He said BDS has no place at PPU, and I have been involved in the BDS movement,” Ross said.

“Maybe right now, there’s not much of a [Palestine solidarity] movement on campus,” he added, but Hennigan’s false assertion that BDS and anti-Semitism are one and the same “is certainly intimidating students, junior faculty and adjunct faculty in advance.”

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