Students at the University of Illinois Chicago have filed a federal complaint against the school, alleging that staff discriminated against them because of their ethnicity and national origin.
The seven students, six Palestinian Americans and one Jewish American, attempted to join an informational session over the videoconferencing platform Zoom in January about a study abroad summer program in Israel.
During and after the video call, students say they were racially profiled, harassed and silenced by university staff and, later, by campus police.
In the Zoom call, UIC staff denied the students with Arab and Muslim names admission to the session while other students who had Western-sounding names were able to participate.
It was only after several of the Palestinian students decided to change their screen names to non-Arab pseudonyms that the university staff allowed them entry into the session.
The students say that this showed the staff’s intent to bar Arab and Muslim students from participating and asking critical questions.
The Jewish student, who has a name of European origin, was allowed entry immediately, according to the complaint, and witnessed the blatant discrimination against her friends.
Civil rights group Palestine Legal is representing the students in the complaint, which was filed this week with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
The students say that the public university has violated its non-discrimination obligations under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Title VI protects individuals from being “excluded from participation in, be[ing] denied the benefits of, or be[ing] subjected to discrimination” on the basis of race, color or national origin.
Before the informational session took place, the university’s study abroad program office posted an advertisement for the event on Instagram, inviting students to participate.
The Israel trip was marketed as a chance “to learn more about how you can immerse yourself in new cultures, music, dance and food while enriching your UIC academic experience.”
The students filing the complaint, who are members of Students for Justice in Palestine, replied to the post “by pointing out Israel’s well-documented pattern of discriminating against Palestinians, including Palestinian Americans, and criticized the university’s decision to host a trip in the apartheid state. UIC subsequently removed its post from view,” the complaint states.
Such study abroad programs are often part of an Israeli propaganda effort “designed to give international students a ‘positive experience’ of Israel, whitewashing its occupation and denial of Palestinian rights,” according to PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
Critics have repeatedly pointed out that they also violate equal rights clauses because Israel regularly denies entry to persons on the basis of their Palestinian, Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim ancestry.
Students wanted to be able to voice their concerns to staff and faculty about the discriminatory nature of these types of trips.
Planning to keep students out
Email communications obtained under a freedom of information request and seen by The Electronic Intifada show that UIC staff monitored students’ registration information before the Zoom event, and cross-referenced names against a spreadsheet listing students who had criticized the program on Instagram.
The emails show that the university staff members sought to strategize about the situation with at least one person from outside the university – Daniel Wehrenfennig, the director of CIEL, a California-based nonprofit that arranges student trips to various “conflict” regions around the world.
Kyle Rausch, the executive director of UIC’s study abroad office, wrote an email to Wehrenfennig on 19 January 2023 introducing him to two university colleagues: Vered Arbel, the instructor who was to lead the Israel trip, and Irina Krymova, who worked with Rausch in the study abroad program and was helping coordinate the trip.
“Unfortunately, a social media post promoting the program has received negative comments from supporters of the BDS movement,” Rausch wrote, “and we are pretty sure that these protestors are likely to join the info. session on Monday.”
BDS stands for boycott, divestment and sanctions – a campaign led by Palestinians to hold Israel accountable for human rights violations, similar to the movement that helped end apartheid in South Africa.
Rausch recounted in the email that he had earlier spoken by phone with Wehrenfennig and “briefly shared about some of the challenges we’ve encountered promoting the Elements in Motion program” – the name given to the Israel study abroad trip. According to Rausch, Wehrenfennig “mentioned having experience in navigating these issues,” adding, “so I thought it might be nice to make a connection.”
In a response sent to Rausch, Arbel and Krymova on 21 January, Wehrenfennig wrote: “I would be happy to continue the conversation and share some of my thoughts regarding the situation you are facing with the upcoming info session.”
“Do you know any of the protesters or have any personal or institutional relationship with them?” Wehrenfennig inquired.
“We were able to identify that at least a couple of the commenters who have registered for the info. session are UIC students,” Rausch responded the next day. “I believe the plan is for Vered [Arbel] to only admit those students she knows have expressed interest in the program tomorrow.”
At the very least this email indicates that Rausch and his colleagues intended to decide for themselves, based on their own criteria, which UIC students would be allowed to participate in the information session and which would be banned.
The three UIC staffers and Wehrenfennig exchanged several emails aimed at scheduling a follow-up call in which they would all participate to discuss the matter further, but the emails do not indicate if this call ever took place and, if so, what was discussed.
In their federal complaint, the SJP members say that they were prevented from joining the information session, relegated instead to a “waiting room” on Zoom. After being denied access to the session, several of the students decided amongst themselves to change their display names to Western-sounding pseudonyms.
“So I changed my name to a kind of common name, Rebecca Goldstein,” Salaam Khater told The Electronic Intifada. Khater is the president of UIC’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.
“I was like, you know what, if they want to be obvious with the discrimination against Arab names, let’s see if they’re actually going to give into it. And within one minute, maybe two, if I can recall exactly, I was let into the Zoom,” she said.
“A political agenda”
When the Palestinian students changed their screen names to European-sounding pseudonyms and were let into the session, Jenin Alharithi – who changed her name to “Hayley” – told The Electronic Intifada that she raised her concern about racial profiling and anti-Palestinian restrictions at the airport.
“I said, I have a [US] passport and I have a Palestinian ID. So when I go to Palestine, I’m not seen as an American citizen, I’m seen as a Palestinian citizen. And my movement is really restricted whenever I go there – I can’t really enter through the Tel Aviv airport,” she explained.
She asked the faculty organizer of the Israel trip about how staff would accommodate Palestinian and Muslim students who would be racially profiled at the airport. She said that she did not get a definitive answer.
Other students also started to raise ethical concerns about the trip, “and then the facilitators got very dismissive,” Alharithi said.
“At one point, they muted me halfway through my question,” she added.
Rather than addressing students’ concerns about the discriminatory impact of Israel’s exclusionary policies, the senior associate director of the study abroad office told students that questions about the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians “and the impact this would have on UIC students of Palestinian national origin interested in the trip were inappropriate,” the complaint states.
Rausch allegedly told students that he would “not respond to questions that were ‘protesting’ the trip and threatened to eject people who were ‘not complying with [their] request for a peaceful info session,’” the complaint adds.
“This racially charged language not only disregarded the importance of students’ concerns about whether Palestinian students would be allowed to access university programs equally, but also portrayed their concern over discriminatory treatment within a university program as aggressive or violent,” the complaint notes.
Another student, Soha Khatib, did not change her name to a pseudonym and was not let into the Zoom session at all. Afterwards, she emailed Rausch and asked to have a meeting with him.
In that meeting, held a few days after the informational session, she said that she initially did not bring up the fact that she was Palestinian.
“I thought maybe if I just didn’t bring it up, I could have more discourse,” Khatib told The Electronic Intifada.
“But I did, throughout it, bring up the fact that I’m mixed, and that my mom is Black. And I had mentioned the treatment of Ethiopians in Israel. I said, how are you planning to protect Black students, aside from Palestinian students, who are likely to face racism in Israeli society?”
At that point, she added, the administrator “didn’t respond and said that he sensed the tones of a political agenda. And he kind of got the idea that I am Palestinian, and asked if I had ever even been [there].”
He asked “why I had wanted to go so bad if I felt like I was going to be poorly treated,” she said.
According to Khatib, the administrator made a comment that he was gay, and wouldn’t want to go to Saudi Arabia because of the treatment he would face there.
“That was really jarring to hear,” she said.
“Just to have that used as a way to dismiss my frustrations of not only not being able to be treated the same in what is my homeland, where my family originated from, but also the fact that when I bring it up in academic spaces on a college campus where we’re meant to learn and hear about other people’s ideas, I’m immediately shut down, dismissed and invalidated.”
In February, SJP members attended a study abroad program expo, a campus event highlighting the various travel programs available to UIC students.
During the event, Salaam Khater said she walked up to Rausch, wanting to talk to him about the treatment she and her friends experienced in the Zoom session. Khater says he dismissed her assertions that students had been excluded and discriminated against. According to Khater, the administrator claimed that the students were lying.
Rausch then claimed that the professor leading the trip “was only admitting students whose names she recognized,” according to the complaint.
“This response felt deceptive to the Palestinian students, who knew that three of them had been admitted under the fictitious names of Hayley, Rebecca Goldstein and Alissa James – students who do not even exist, much less were familiar” to the professor.
Another Palestinian student, the complaint states, who had previously taken one of Arbel’s courses and therefore was recognizable by her, “was not admitted to the Zoom session until [the student] changed her display name.”
The following week, SJP began publicizing on Instagram parts of conversations their members say they had with UIC staff including Arbel, spotlighting both the instances of discrimination and UIC staff’s whitewashing of Israeli apartheid.
On 13 February, students also posted similar flyers inside a campus building which houses the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition, where Arbel teaches.
Two professors inside the building “took down the flyers and threatened to call police if students did not leave the building,” the complaint states.
“And as we went downstairs, when the doors opened, immediately we were met with four officers,” Soha Khatib told The Electronic Intifada.
“And that was obviously very terrifying,” Khatib said, noting that involving the police “over putting up posters is just crazy – it was sheets of printer paper.”
“Then the cops told us that we weren’t allowed to leave,” Khatib said. “That was confusing, because upstairs, they said, if you just leave, the cops aren’t going to come, and we followed direct orders. And still, that wasn’t enough. And that’s when things started to escalate.”
As the students attempted to leave, Jenin Alharithi told the campus police officers that they could speak to their lawyers. Alharithi alleges that one officer grabbed her and demanded that she show her student ID card.
“I said, we’re leaving, there’s no need for escalation, but then the police started saying ‘No, you cannot leave, you’re being detained right now,’” Alharithi said.
She says the police never gave them a reason for being detained.
“We were told that flyering is okay,” she said she told the officers. “So many organizations on campus flyer every single day, and nothing happens to them. You guys are just targeting us because you know what’s on our flyers. You know who we are, and you just want to penalize us right now because we’re Palestinian, and we’re fighting for the Palestinian cause.”
Alharithi reported this incident to the university police, which subsequently self-investigated and determined “that the officer’s actions did not constitute a violation of department policies,” according to the complaint.
“Every right to complain”
The administration did not stop there.
Shortly thereafter, the study abroad program’s executive director emailed Khater demanding that SJP take down the photos on their Instagram posts, claiming that it was copyright infringement. He also threatened legal action, according to the complaint.
Then, the Office of the Dean of Students announced in March that SJP would face disciplinary charges over the flyering.
According to the university police, SJP’s flyers violated campus policies because they had not been pre-approved by the university. Khater told The Electronic Intifada that the flyering rule was being selectively applied to SJP.
Students then filed complaints with the university’s Office for Access and Equity, demanding that the administration investigate the treatment Palestinian students received both during and after the January informational session.
The university informed the students in July that it had closed its review without conducting any internal investigations – effectively deciding that the students’ discrimination claims were unfounded.
“So with that response, we all decided to take this complaint to the higher-ups and are reporting it to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights,” Khater said.
If the federal government finds evidence of discrimination against Palestinians at UIC, she explained, it would set an example for other Arab students in the US.
“As Palestinians, you shouldn’t feel like you have to stay silent, or normalize apartheid, or normalize Israel. Just because it’s what everyone around you is okay with, or it’s what professors and faculty gaslight you to think, you as a Palestinian have every right to complain that you are being discriminated against.”