Students in the five-college Claremont system in southern California are organizing against an act of racial discrimination by an Israeli professor who called a Palestinian student a “cockroach.”
Since the incident became public, the student says he has faced violent threats written on his reserved seat in the campus library, and someone flattened one of the tires of his car with a sharpened key.
The first incident occurred on Monday, 4 March, when the Claremont group of Students for Justice in Palestine launched its series of events marking Israeli Apartheid Week with street theater actions simulating mock Israeli military checkpoints at three of the colleges throughout the day. Israeli Apartheid Week is marked at campuses nationwide and internationally to educate the wider public about Israel’s occupation and supremacist rule in Palestine.
At one point that evening, a man who was later identified as a faculty member at Claremont McKenna College aggressively approached the Students for Justice in Palestine members staffing a mock checkpoint which was set up outside an entrance of the Collins Dining Hall on the campus.
The professor, Yaron Raviv, who is an Israeli citizen and teaches economics at Claremont McKenna College, demanded that the dining hall staff, the dean of students and campus security remove the Students for Justice in Palestine members from the area.
But since Students for Justice in Palestine had acquired official permission for its event and had its paperwork in order, neither the school officials nor the dining staff agreed to remove the students. They did request, however, that the students not block the doorway.
The student activists complied with this request, according to a Claremont McKenna College Campus Safety and Security officer’s incident report obtained by The Electronic Intifada.
A Palestinian member of Students for Justice in Palestine, Najib Hamideh, then walked up to the professor and politely asked his reason for being there, requesting that the man identify himself. In an exchange verified and quoted in the officer’s report, the professor then responded, “Fuck off, you cockroach.”
According to Hamideh, Raviv next referred to all the Students for Justice in Palestine members as cockroaches, and then asked him which of the Claremont colleges Hamideh belonged to. When Hamideh replied that he attends Pitzer College, Raviv then responded that “all Pitzer kids are cockroaches,” Hamideh says.
The Electronic Intifada attempted to contact professor Raviv for a comment on 13 March, but he has still not replied to our request.
The harangued student, as well as the Claremont chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine as a whole, are stressing to the student body and Claremont administrations that professor Raviv’s conduct amounts to racial discrimination and falls within the category of a “bias-related incident.”
In a Claremont Colleges’ document titled “Communication Protocol for Bias-Related Incidents,” it clearly states that “Bias-related incidents are expressions of hostility against another person (or group) because of that person’s (or group’s) race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, gender or sexual orientation, or because the perpetrator perceives that the other person (or group) has one or more of those characteristics.”
“Use of the term ‘cockroach’ must be taken in its specific historical context as hateful, racist, enemy imagery,” Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine wrote on 7 March, both in an incident report filed with Pitzer administrators and in a public statement to the Pitzer student body’s discussion forum. The student group cited cases of the term applied to Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide and to Jews under Nazi Germany (“Students allege bias related exchange with professor,” The Student Life, 8 March).
The term has also been used by Israeli military and political leaders in reference to Palestinians throughout its history.
Reported in The New York Times in April 1983, for example, the Israeli army Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan proposed building 10 settlements for every stone-throwing incident in the West Bank and Gaza. “When we have settled the land,” Eitan said, “all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged roaches in a bottle.”
Daniel Segal, a longtime professor of anthropology and history at Pitzer College, told The Electronic Intifada that Raviv’s behavior was “clearly harmful” to the educational environment.
“Faculty should be modeling how, when we disagree with each other, we challenge each other with evidence and/or questions about the logic of the position that we’ve developed from the evidence,” he said. “Name-calling, particularly denigrating name-calling, is not conducive to dialogue across very strong political differences. And for a faculty member to do that is to corrode and degrade the educational context of the colleges; it’s an attack on the students, it’s also an attack on our community.”
Raviv’s use of the term “cockroach,” Segal added, was particularly troubling. “A cockroach is something that ‘we humans’ have only one relationship to. We try to stomp on them, we try to wipe them out, we try to kill them, we try to eliminate them.”
Hamideh, having graduated from high school in the occupied West Bank where he lived for 10 years, remembers being “subject to this form of abuse many times before,” he said in a Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine public statement (“Statement regarding bias-related incident on Claremont McKenna Campus,” SJP Claremont Facebook page, 8 March 2013).
“It is a great irony that at a checkpoint simulation on campus that I helped to organize, I experienced an Israeli calling me a cockroach, just as has been done to me many times before at actual checkpoints in the West Bank. To me, this is a discriminatory incident and I personally do not feel comfortable as a student on a campus where a faculty member is allowed to demean me and curse at me.”
For fellow Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine member Zavi Kang Engles, the incident at the mock checkpoint strikes at the heart of Palestinian rights advocacy by students as a whole. The professor’s “cockroach” slur “also implicated other people doing this sort of work,” she told The Electronic Intifada. “In that way, the professor’s remarks were an attack on all of SJP.”
Sixteen persons — including reporters for Pomona College’s The Student Life and The Electronic Intifada, and nearly all the members of Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine, along with supporters such as the Pitzer College student body vice president — crowded into the Pitzer dean of students’ tiny office late afternoon on 8 March, to meet with Dean of Students Moya Carter and Vice President for Student Affairs Jim Marchant.
Hamideh was visibly disturbed during the meeting, at one point nearly breaking down, his voice shaking, as he cited further personal trauma. “When I go back to my country, the [Israeli army] makes me open up my Facebook, my Gmail, and if they see any conversations [on this topic] …” He said that he was afraid of what Israeli forces might do, including refuse him entry into the West Bank in the future.
Students under investigation
In a Pitzer campus-wide statement on 8 March, Marchant wrote that his Pitzer administration was investigating what he mildly described as “inappropriate and hostile verbal comments by a CMC [Claremont McKenna College] faculty member” directed at the student during the event (“Students accuse professor of hate speech following Palestine justice event,” Claremont Port Side, 11 March).
But in its initial statement on 7 March, Pitzer’s administration was quick to emphasize that it is working with Claremont McKenna College in a joint investigation of “whether the policy on demonstrations was followed” by Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine during their event. The colleges understood that “some form of verbal exchange occurred involving a Pitzer student and CMC faculty member.”
Such remarks did not sit well with members of Students for Justice in Palestine, which stated in their public response that “both the Pitzer and CMC administrations should be putting more effort into investigating the discriminatory and harmful actions of a faculty member rather than investigating the previously sanctioned, constitutionally protected event held by [Claremont SJP].”
In the following days, Pitzer administrators seemed to agree. “I apologize, the [7 March] statement was misleading,” Marchant said in the meeting on 8 March. He explained the effort as a “compromise” with Claremont McKenna College, whose administrators remain focused on whether the student group followed school policies, while Pitzer administrators are concerned with the “verbal exchange.”
Marchant’s clarifying regrets didn’t make it into his campus-wide statement made later that evening. He did, however, concede that the group informed Campus Safety and Security of its event, for which it obtained formal permission, and complied with all requests by school officials on the scene prior to the incident.
Claremont SJP has garnered the strong support of Pitzer College faculty during this ordeal. Along with news of the incident spreading rapidly throughout the student campus, on 10 March the Pitzer Faculty Executive Committee stated in a letter obtained by The Electronic Intifada that it was “extremely concerned” by the incident, urging Claremont McKenna College and Pitzer to finish investigating the matter “immediately and thoroughly.”
Admonishing the Pitzer administration, the faculty committee added: “We think it is unfortunate that the initial public communications about this issue were focused on potential demonstration policy violations — we reassert that the right to peaceful demonstrations is an integral piece of an open, intellectually vigorous college community.” The committee reaffirmed a “protection from verbal assault and harassment.”
In a follow-up letter to the entire five-college student body dated 15 March, the Pitzer Faculty Executive Committee stated that “the Pitzer investigation into the matter has shown that the five college students involved in the SJP event of 4 March did not violate any procedures in carrying out their event. It is [Claremont McKenna College], however, that has the responsibility for further investigation into Professor Raviv’s behavior, and conducting that investigation is not within Pitzer College’s purview.”
The committee added that it will work with faculty and students to “organize forums for discussion of the incident and related topics,” after this week’s spring break.
Asked to comment on the situation, Liz Jackson, cooperating attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support Initiative, wrote in an email to The Electronic Intifada: “This case epitomizes the repressive environment faced by students who stand up for Palestinian rights on campuses nationwide.” Jackson added that “from Brooklyn to Berkeley, from South Florida, to southern California, students are subjected to harassment, discriminatory treatment and legal threats.”
In particular, California has become a hotbed for legal and administrative measures aimed to discourage Palestinian rights-based activism.
In August 2012, the California state assembly passed a non-binding, bipartisan resolution, HR 35, which civil rights organizations say conflates on-campus Palestine solidarity activism and rights advocacy with anti-Semitism.
The range of activities that California legislators recommended banning includes merely stating that Israel has engaged in “crimes against humanity” or “ethnic cleansing,” or using language describing Israeli policies as racist or akin to apartheid; the sponsoring of boycott, divestment and sanctions actions; and other political activities regularly organized by student Palestine solidarity groups.
It was revealed that resolution HR 35 was drafted with help from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an ultra-right-wing Zionist organization which is building a “museum of tolerance” on top of an ancient Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem (“California legislator promise to affirm free speech rights on campus earns praise of Palestine solidarity activists,” Mondoweiss, 4 September 2012).
Back at the 8 March meeting at Pitzer College, Dean Moya Carter said she had met with Claremont students who were upset by the Students for Justice in Palestine mock checkpoint action, which they perceived as “hostile” and “aggressive.” According to one student she quoted, “[SJP members] weren’t being pro-Palestine, they were being anti-Israel.” However, no outside groups have contacted the college nor have any complaints about the mock checkpoint action been filed as of 8 March, according to both Carter and Marchant.
More significantly, no action has been taken against professor Yaron Raviv as of press time.
Professor Daniel Segal told The Electronic Intifada that even though Raviv is “clearly in violation of [the college’s] handbook” due to his bias-related targeting of Najib Hamideh and the other students, he was not surprised that the Claremont McKenna College administration has chosen to be protective of Raviv rather than take responsibility. “[CMC] has not cultivated a respect for and a commitment to foster dissent, particularly dissent from the left,” Segal added.
By choosing to scrutinize an approved protest action rather than pursue an investigation into one of their faculty members’ wrongful, racist conduct toward students, Segal explained that this is just the latest in a series of “chilling effects” that the Claremont McKenna administration has had on dissent and protests.
Meanwhile, aggressive attacks against Hamideh have taken place since the incident with Raviv became public. Hamideh told The Electronic Intifada that on 12 March, a sharpened metal key had been deliberately shoved deep into his car’s tire, flattening it. On the same day, a threatening note was found scrawled on a card marking his reservation for a carrel desk in the college’s library.
On the library carrels, each desk has a sign reading “This carrel has been reserved for” and then the student’s name. Hamideh explained that someone had written “me to fuck” under his name and scrawled under that, in different handwriting, “in the skull.” Hamideh said that although Student Affairs had been notified, and had acted “horrified,” administration officials haven’t yet taken any action.
Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine member Sonia Mehrmand said that since the incident with professor Raviv became known, students have expressed shock and outrage — but also support for SJP and its members. “It’s not slipping under the radar like it could have,” she said. “The angry voices are the loudest ones. It doesn’t mean that they’re the only ones.”
Hamideh said, “I really feel like it’s an act of desperation … When I was in Palestine, I remember first hearing about [the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement] and thinking that it was never going to happen. But like in South Africa, the BDS movement started, and then on college campuses, and it pushed through. It gained national attention. And that’s how oppression can be stopped.”
All images courtesy of Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine.
Gabriel M. Schivone is a Chicano-Jewish American and a student researcher at the University of Arizona and is a on the ad hoc steering committee of National Students for Justice in Palestine.
Nora Barrows-Friedman is an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada.