Israel’s supporters seek to restrict the freedom of speech of America’s academics

The growing success of the Palestinian BDS movement, writes Iymen Chehade, has so alarmed pro-Israelis that they are now seeking to restrict one of our most cherished values in America, freedom of speech

Pep Montserrat for The National
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weekend eye

The Israeli occupation is not only a physical occupation of Palestine but it is also an occupation of the mind, specifically on college campuses in the United States. Pro-Israel supporters have sought to limit the discussion to frame the conflict to Americans in a particular way.

The growing success of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) has alarmed pro-Israel supporters to the point that they have sought to restrict one of the most cherished American values, that of free speech.

Groups and individuals have targeted organisations and professors on university campuses around the US, seeking to intimidate them into silence. They have also pushed for legislation on the state and federal levels that would target the academic freedom of pro-Palestinian professors and universities.

As a historian of Palestine and as someone active in public policy around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I have personally witnessed and experienced these attempts at silencing. Most recently, my course at Chicago’s Columbia College was targeted.

In October 2013, I showed the Academy Award-nominated film Five Broken Cameras in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict course I teach. The film documents the weekly protests in the West Bank village of Bil'in. Since 2005, Israel has constructed a wall cutting through the village, stealing much of the land for Israeli settlers.

Shortly after showing the film to my class, I received an email from the Humanities History and Social Sciences Department requesting a 30-minute meeting with Dr Steven Corey, my chair, regarding a student concern.

At the meeting, I was informed by the chair that an unnamed student had said that I was "biased" for showing the film and counselled me on the need for "balance" in my class. "Balance" has been a frequent demand by Zionists to present Israel's violent occupation of the Palestinians as somehow symmetric with Palestinian resistance.

When I asked why he did not ask the student to come to speak to me, he went on to say that when he was at college, he found a particular African-American professor to be unapproachable due to the anger he showed towards white students.

I pointed out to Corey that I was open to my students and I do not show hostility or anger based on students’ backgrounds or perspectives. He continued the conversation with a request for my college transcripts, stating that he wanted to “make sure that professors were teaching what they are supposed to be teaching” despite the fact that I have worked at Columbia for years and I am the one who designed and created the course.

A few days after the meeting and within two hours of registration beginning, one of the sections of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict course was eliminated.

The actions that the college took to remove the class are not surprising given the historic and continuous anti-Palestinian bias at Columbia and at other campuses around the United States.

That bias manifests itself in many ways, from the need for “balance” (a requirement not asked of professors covering other conflicts), to pressuring university departments to shut down discussion of the topic, to intimidation of academics who are not seen to follow the line.

Soon after the cancellation of the class, my union filed a grievance, claiming a violation of academic freedom. Columbia’s own statement on academic freedom ensures that “all faculty members are protected against institutional discipline or restraint in their discussion of relevant matters in the classroom, exploration of self-chosen avenues of scholarship, research and creative expression, and speaking and writing as public citizens.”

Not surprisingly the grievance was rejected, since the college itself decides on its own whether there was a breach of academic freedom.

Columbia is not the only place in America where anti-Palestinian bias is rampant. In March, a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine was suspended at Boston’s Northeastern University after members slipped mock eviction notices under dorm rooms to students to bring to light Israel’s continuous policy of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the confiscation of their property.

In March, the SJP at Barnard College in New York put up a banner entitled Stand for Justice-Stand for Palestine as part of Israeli Apartheid Week, a global week of action supported by millions who are in solidarity with Palestine. Barnard College took down the banner yielding to pressure that it “inadvertently gave the impression that the College sanctions and supports these events”.

The pressure extends beyond universities. After the American Studies Association passed a resolution calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions in December of 2013, there has been a backlash by Zionists to pass bills on the federal and state levels that would punish universities if they or their faculty support a boycott of Israel.

In one of a series of bills proposed by lawmakers around the country, Illinois State Senate Bill 3017 would obstruct the academic freedom of universities and professors and impose the will of Zionists who are threatened by the growing movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel until it conforms to international law.

However, they are fighting in retreat. Despite the many attempts to deny Palestinians their voice, more than 7,000 people signed a petition to restore the second section of my class.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) conducted an independent investigation and found that Columbia had violated my academic freedom.

As Dr Peter Kirstein states in the AAUP finding: “Professor Chehade has the academic freedom protection to present material in his own name in a course and articulate opinions in class.”

On March 31, Columbia College restored my class and I now have two sections in the autumn term. The Northeastern and Bernard SJPs have garnered thousands of supporters and Bill 3017 was withdrawn from the Illinois State Senate in April.

Supporters of Palestine are being heard, now more than ever in the United States. The BDS movement, in particular, has pushed back against the occupation and its supporters. There is also a greater awareness among supporters of Palestine of their ability to push back, and to organise. Without such widespread support, my voice, and in particular the ability of my students to gain a genuine education on the topic would have been silenced.

While there is an occupation in Palestine, there is also an occupation of the mind here in America.

Many Americans simply do not know the extent to which they are responsible for the subjugation of the Palestinians as a result of the financial, diplomatic and military support the US government provides to the state of Israel.

Thus, just as the Palestinians are resisting occupation in Palestine, there is growing American resistance to Israel’s criminal policies at academic and other institutions around the US.

In 2004, Palestinian civil society issued a call for the boycott, divestment, and sanctioning of the state of Israel until it complies with international law by ending the illegal occupation, providing full rights and equality for the Palestinians inside of Israel, and respecting the right of return for Palestinian refugees in accordance with United Nations Resolution 194.

The movement is growing in America, in Europe and in the Arab world. It is a true grassroots movement. But it is essential that governments, including Arab governments, are also part of this movement so that they are on the right side of history.

Iymen Chehade is a lecturer in Middle Eastern history at Columbia College in Chicago. He is active in the area of public policy and human rights regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict