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At US universities, free speech isn't free for pro-Palestine activists

Students have faced accusations of antisemitism and been targeted for speaking out against Israeli occupation since the latest war began

American universities claim to be places where ideas meet and unconventional views are challenged.

But most pro-Palestine students and faculty staff would likely say otherwise.

Since Palestinian armed groups launched a surprise attack on Israel on 7 October, and Israel responded with its declaration of war, tensions have raged on US university and college campuses - places that have traditionally served as hotbeds for political activism.

At elite universities such as Harvard, Columbia and Yale, amongst others, students say their attempts to speak out against the horrors being unleashed in Gaza are being conflated with antisemitism with devastating effect.

Late last week, the US Senate passed a resolution describing Palestinian student groups at several universities as "antisemitic, repugnant, and morally contemptible," adding that they were "sympathising with genocidal violence against the State of Israel and risking the physical safety of Jewish Americans."

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Then, earlier this week, the Biden administration directed the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Education to partner with campus law enforcement to investigate anti-semitic incidents on campus.

Students from several leading US universities, many of whom spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity, said even the most benign efforts to call for a ceasefire, or lead a teach-in to shed light on Israeli occupation, were being met with vicious attempts to criminalise them, embarrass their families or destroy their career plans. 

They said that discussions surrounding Israel's 75-year occupation of the Palestinian territories were muzzled for years, long before the latest round of hostilities began, but the level of intimidation had now become stark, with a growing obfuscation of Israeli crimes at an institutional level.

"Students across the US are facing an unprecedented level of harassment and doxxing attacks over their support for Palestinian rights," Dima Khalidi, director of Palestine Legal, told MEE.

"In the last two weeks alone, Palestine Legal has responded to now over 260 incidents of suppression of Palestinian rights advocacy, around the number of incidents we addressed in all of last year.

"The scale is unprecedented," Khalidi added. 

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Several students told MEE that following the murder of a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy in Chicago, and a spike in suspected Islamophobic attacks, they were advised to take precautions, including changing their names on social media, wearing masks at protests so they weren't placed on black lists, and definitely avoiding commuting alone.

This new McCarthyism, they said, is an example of a roaring authoritarianism rapidly gathering pace in America.

Doxxing, intimidation and harassment 

At Harvard University, a prestigious seat of learning in the US northeast, students said the attempts to quash pro-Palestinian sentiment were amongst the most severe.

Just a day after Palestinian fighters broke out of Gaza and entered southern Israel, students led by more than two dozen groups, including the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Harvard Jews for Liberation, blamed Israel's 17-year-blockade on Gaza for the deadly attack.

The strongly worded statement also demanded the university "disclose the full extent of its investments" in Israel and divest and reinvest in Palestinian communities, a long-standing demand by pro-Palestinian and anti-war student groups.

The statement immediately drew outrage from pro-Israeli Jewish students as well as its strong, powerful alumni and donor base, as well as several American representatives in Congress across party lines.

Harvard's leadership felt compelled to write a series of statements about the incident.

Though Harvard President Claudine Gay released a series of statements, in which she categorically condemned Hamas and distanced the university from the students, her refusal to censor the students activated a nationwide campaign where students were vilified and told to recant their endorsement of the statement.

Thousands of students show support for Palestinians in Gaza on October 14, 2023 [AFP]
Thousands of students at Harvard show support for Palestinians in Gaza on 14 October 2023 (AFP)

An Israeli billionaire couple, who had previously donated $30m to Harvard, resigned from the executive board in protest at the university's failure to rein in the students. 

This was followed by a call from Bill Ackman, billionaire hedge-fund manager and Harvard alumnus and donor, who urged the university to release the names of students who signed the statement, so that other companies could avoid hiring them.

Before long, a "college terror list" went online that published the personal information of student signatories, a tactic referred to as "doxxing". MEE understands that the list has since been taken down.

Still, several students at Harvard and other universities have gone on to lose employment opportunities for expressing positions that contradicted mainstream US approaches to Israel and Palestine. 

Doxxing trucks

Among the most bizarre doxxing campaigns against pro-Palestine activists was the emergence of digital billboard trucks driving near Harvard's campus.

Sponsored by the conservative watchdog Accuracy in Media (AIM), the trucks began flashing the photos and names of student leaders who signed the letter referring to them as "Harvard's Leading Antisemites".

AIM also placed the names of the students on its website under a section called Harvard Hate Jews.

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One Harvard professor, who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity, said the situation had spiralled out of control, with trucks also spotted in the suburbs targeting the prominent parents of student activists.

"I feel incredibly unsafe," a Palestinian student at Harvard told MEE on condition of anonymity. "Students choosing to speak up on the ongoing genocide are consistently being met with backlash."

MEE reached out to AIM for comment but did not receive a response by time of publication.

The tactics at Harvard have since been replicated across several universities across the US.

At Columbia University in New York, students advocating solidarity with Palestinians found themselves being monitored, their mobility deliberately hindered, as administrators turned the university into a fortress, shutting down entrances and exits normally open to the public.

Several students said those rallying for Palestinian rights were deliberately made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome; their concerns made out to be hazardous and a public nuisance.

Others reported that Muslim women were spat on and there were incidents of their hijabs being pulled off at the university.

 ​​​​​​​Over the past week, the trucks were back at Princeton, this time, targeting an academic for his statement on the events in Gaza (supplied)
​​​​​​Over the past week, the trucks were back at Princeton, this time, targeting an academic for his statement on the events in Gaza (Supplied)

One graduate student at Columbia told MEE on condition of anonymity that they were portrayed as troublemakers and criminals for speaking up on Palestine. Another student, an undergraduate involved with SJP, told MEE that the rhetoric was so menacing, that it had become "very messy for students to wear a keffiyah or hijab at the school".

The student pointed to several incidents on the campus, including a speech by a Columbia professor on 26 October that has since gone viral.

In a 10-minute-long lament, Shai Davidai castigated the university for allowing pro-Palestine protests on campus by what he described as "pro-terror students organisations". 

"We would never allow the KKK to march on our campuses. We would never allow pro-ISIS demonstration on our campus," Davidai said. 

The immediate resort by Zionist students and faculty to compare student actions for Palestine as antisemitic prompted 144 scholars at Columbia to write a letter to the wider community to express alarm over how students were being vilified.

In the letter, the scholars, including Katherine Franke, Rashid Khalidi and Mahmood Mamdani, among others, condemned the ways in which students have been harassed and intimidated and accused of antisemitism for contextualising the events of 7 October.

'We've always known it to be true that Palestine is the exception to activism and free speech'

Ruqaiyah Damrah, student activist

But these academics were subsequently attacked, too, for failing to describe Hamas as "terrorists" in their letter.

Students in other universities like Princeton, Yale, and City University of New York (Cuny) narrated similar experiences. 

"In my past two years of Palestine activism at Yale, we always found it difficult to get institutional protection for us to conduct our work - creating spaces of dialogue and activism on Palestine," Ruqaiyah Damrah, a former president of Yallies for Palestine, the local Palestine student group at Yale University, told MEE.

"We've always known it to be true that Palestine is the exception to activism and free speech at Yale - which is hailed as this elite liberal institution of academic thought - and we expected better," Damrah added.

A Yale University spokesperson told MEE that the school was "focused on guiding and supporting all members of the community".

"We encourage our students and all members of our community to extend grace to one another, consider their words carefully, conduct themselves with decency and respect, and move forward with kindness, empathy, and compassion," the spokesperson said.

The refusal of university administrators to engage with students has also shaken their belief in the university as a melting pot of ideas, and even as a place of learning.

"The majority of students who have been severely doxxed and harassed by anti-Palestinian vigilante groups like Canary Mission and Accuracy in Media, and whose safety and livelihoods are being threatened by outside actors, are people of colour and/or Muslim," Khalidi from Palestine Legal, added.

Faculty in the firing line

Faculty have also borne the brunt of the widespread attacks on academic freedom.

In the days following the 7 October attack, Joseph Massad, the noted professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, had his name placed on a petition with more than 47,000 signatures calling for his dismissal.

His crime? An article he wrote about the attacks.

The instigator behind the petition, Maya Platek, who previously worked with the Israeli military, accused Massad of "condoning and supporting terrorism".

Platek did not reply to MEE's request for comment.

Similar efforts to discredit professor and students are also playing out at Cornell university in Ithaca, New York University (NYU) and Yale.

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At New York University (NYU), a law student Ryna Workman was removed as president of the school’s Student Bar Association and subsequently lost a job offer from the law firm Winston & Strawn after she wrote a newsletter expressing solidarity with Palestinians.

At Cornell, Russell Rickford, an associate professor of history, took a leave of absence after he was widely criticised for his comments following the 7 October attack. 

"It was exhilarating. It was energising. And if they weren't exhilarated by this challenge to the monopoly of violence, by this shifting of the balance of power, then they would not be human. I was exhilarated," Rickford said to a crowd of students at the campus.

Likewise, at Yale, Zareena Grewal, a religious studies and anthropology professor, was accused of "condoning violence, advocating for a terrorist organisation" as well as of considering "war crimes against civilians to be acts of resistance" for a series of tweets. Grewal maintains that her tweets have been taken out of context to smear her as a Hamas supporter even though she did not defend Hamas in any tweet.

According to the latest count, there were 50,000 signatures calling for Grewal's dismissal. 

"The university has provided support for safe and peaceful rallies on or near campus," a Yale University spokesperson, told MEE.

"The university has also resisted calls to discipline community members expressing pro-Palestinian sentiments; this holds for pro-Israeli statements as well," the spokesperson added.

A history of censorship

Attempts to ridicule, censor or even eliminate Palestinian scholarship and equate voices critical of Israel with antisemitism have a long history in American universities. 

Former Congressman Paul Findley wrote in his book They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel's Lobby that since the late 70s, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was active in training students into propagating Israeli talking points, documenting voices critical of Israel, and interfering with the editorial policies of student newspapers on campus.

Likewise, academics were placed on lists produced by the B'nai B'rith Anti Defamation League (ADL), like the "Pro-Arab Propaganda in America: Vehicles and Voices", that sought to expose pro-Palestine voices, and often found themselves isolated in academic circles.

"Pro-Israeli organisations and activists frequently employ smear tactics, harassment and intimidation to inhibit the free exchange of ideas and views," Findley wrote in 1985.

The noted scholar, Edward Said, who taught at Columbia University, routinely faced threats for his writing that challenged and transformed mainstream ideas of the Palestine question.

For his efforts, Said was described as the "Professor of Terror" and in the early 1990s, placed on a Zionist hit list. His office in Columbia was also firebombed.

"Apart from the president of Columbia, only Said’s office had bulletproof windows and a buzzer that would send a signal directly to campus security," Timothy Brennan wrote in his biography of Said.

'We've been seeing the term 'manufactured consent' resurface lately to describe the role the media is playing in the genocide of Palestinians, and universities as an institution are taking part in it as well'

- Palestinian academic in US

In 2007, Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, was denied tenure at DePaul University for his vehement critiques of Israel and his forensic examination of how the Holocaust was being used to justify Israeli crimes against the Palestinians.

There was the case of Steven Salaita, whose job offer from the University of Chicago in 2015 was rescinded for a series of tweets on Israel during "Operation Protective Edge", in which more than 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza were killed by Israeli airstrikes.

In 2021, the activist and philosopher Cornel West resigned from Harvard in part, he said, due to anti-Palestinian racism at the university. He said the university's "market-driven" nature had led to "spiritual rot".

More recently there was a campaign to have Professor Satyel Larson fired from Princeton University over her decision to use a book that accuses Israel of deliberately maiming Palestinians.

In this case, Amichai Chikli, Israel’s diaspora affairs and combating antisemitism minister, personally wrote a letter to Princeton and asked for the book to be removed from the curriculum.

In his letter, Chikli described the book as antisemitic and argued that such material would make Jewish students feel unsafe on campus. 

The university's refusal to have the professor fired or her curriculum adjusted, prompted a pro-Israel group to send mobile billboards to the university, in which it vilified Jewish students who had defended the professor's right to teach whatever she wanted.

Emanuelle Sippy, a Jewish student at Princeton, told MEE that contrary to what Chikli claimed, the calls for justice and equality for Palestinians is not what made her feel unsafe at the university.

"It is the anti-intellectualism and dogmatism of right-wing Zionists and white supremacists that posed the real threat to progressive Jews," Sippy told MEE.

Along came a letter

The latest attacks on students and the pressure on universities to provide condemnations of Hamas, along with denouncements of student pro-Palestinian activism, have been concerted and unrelenting.

One Palestinian academic based in the US, who asked not to be named, said that the pace and scale of the response from US universities suggested schools were being directed to clamp down on sentiment that was perceived as hostile to Israel.

The academic pointed to a letter sent by the Association of University Heads, Israel, to the presidents of universities across the world on 11 October. 

"We have heard of initiatives undertaken by faculty and students on some campuses in countries outside of Israel to support Hamas and Islamic Jihad actions, and we understand that there has not always been a clear response from academic leadership to such signs of support," the letter, signed by the heads of nine Israeli universities, said.

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"We hope that you will agree with us that there can be no support for such terror organisations in Western democratic societies, just like there is no support for Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State," the letter added.

The letter urged colleagues to see this as an exceptional moment that required exceptional action.

"This is not 'war as usual' or just another chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are not 'good people on both sides" ... Hamas and Islamic Jihad have proven themselves to be cruel, barbaric organizations reminiscent of the Taliban and the Islamic State," the letter added.

Though it's unclear which universities received the letter, academic collaboration and institutional ties between Israel and the US is considered a fundamental pillar of the "special relationship" between the two countries.

Yale has student exchanges and collaborations with seven out of the nine Israeli universities that signed the letter. Harvard has programmes with three out of the nine, while Columbia has longstanding relations with at least four out of the nine Israeli universities.

In response to questions from MEE, Yale said "it would check" if they had received the letter from their counterparts in Israel that called for unconditional support for Israel, while Columbia University declined to comment and Harvard did not respond.

Other universities in which pro-Palestinian advocacy has been placed under scrutiny, such as CornellPrinceton and UC Berkeley, the institutions in question have deep ties with the Israeli academic institutions mentioned in the letter, while NYU has an entire campus in Tel Aviv. 

Israeli propaganda on US campuses

The Israeli government has also invested heavily to encourage student exchanges to and from Israel, and in programs like Birthright, a free trip to Israel for Jewish youth, designed to inculcate a love for the country.

These efforts have also intensified over the past decade as a means to counter a growing wave of scholarship and intersectional solidarity.

For several decades, Black American leaders and social movements have shifted toward supporting the Palestinian cause, with leaders like Malcolm X, Huey P Newton and Angela Davis all expressing solidarity.

This historic stance has also been adopted by newly formed movements such as Black Lives Matter, which has also championed the Palestinian cause amongst other social issues.

Conversely, we've also seen the emergence of pro-Israel organisations such as the Israel Institute, which seeks to "enhance knowledge about modern Israel" at "priority universities".

The Israel Institute, created in 2012, refers to itself as both independent and objective, but lists several former Israeli soldiers within its ranks, and routinely defends and champions Israel on US campuses.

'They [Israeli authorities] are scared of how many people now in support of Palestine and are proud to say that'

Amari Butler, African and African American Resistance Organisation

Since 2020, the institute has been chaired by Daniel B Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel, and currently a special liaison to Israel on Iran.

By mid-2022, the institute was hosted by at least 19 universities across the US.

The exchanges between US and Israeli universities have also seen thousands of Israelis coming to the US to study, with the 2020 academic year seeing upwards of 2,000 Israeli students on programmes at universities across the country.

Likewise, on 17 October, a coalition of American colleges and universities, including City University of New York (Cuny), issued a public statement supporting Israel and opposing Hamas. 

"We are building a broad coalition that can articulate inhumanity when we see it," said Rabbi Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University.

Since the statement was issued, several donors have sought to pressure universities to denounce and criminalise student activism.

The New York Times reported that several Wall Street financiers had approached elite, Ivy league schools to wield influence over university policies.

The Wexner Foundation cut ties with Harvard, while the University of Pennsylvania lost one of its biggest donors over what they viewed as insufficient condemnation of Hamas' attack by university leadership.

The attempts to conflate pro-Palestinian advocacy with support for Hamas have paved the way for some organisations to be criminalised. Last week, Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, ordered state universities to ban Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) from campuses. 

Palestine Legal said in a statement that the recent attempts to ban SJP, a group with roughly 200 chapters around the country, which publicly endorses the n0n-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS), seeks to "distract from, distort and silence the message of student activists across the United States, the same way Israeli propaganda has sought to distract public attention from ongoing Israeli war crimes."

Crisis of the university

Students said that while the attacks on their activism were not surprising, the pace at which universities collectively shed any pretence of commitment to equality, justice and even academic integrity was alarming.

Several students said that their activism and support for an independent Palestinian state was part of a larger struggle for progressive policies - including lower tuition fees, labour rights, anti-militarism, Medicare for all, inclusive immigration policies - at the modern American university.

It has drawn the support of social movements across the spectrum, including Jewish Americans, Muslims, South Asians, as well as Indigenous rights groups, many of whom, over the past decade, have become strong advocates of academic boycotts.

Last week, thousands of students from across the US and Canada took part in a walk-out and then a sit-in, demanding that their governments pressure Israel to stop the bombing of Gaza, halt the murder of Palestinians and put an end to military aid to Israel.

"We recognise these attacks on us as acts of desperation because they know they don't have the power of the people on their side," Amari Butler, co-founder of the African and African-American Resistance Organisation (Afro), a dedicated space for activism around issues relevant to Black students at Harvard, told MEE.

"Just over the past few weeks alone, we have tens of thousands in the US and hundreds of thousands worldwide coming onto the streets in support of Palestine, demanding that the United States stop all and all aid to Israeli apartheid, and to stop spending our tax dollars on Israeli apartheid and genocide in  Palestine," Butler said.

"And now out of desperation, they're resorting to these disgusting intimidation and scare tactics to try to scare us and scare the leaders out of talking about Palestine and make us afraid and make us feel unsafe to talk about Palestine," he added.

Students participate in a "Walkout to fight Genocide and Free Palestine" at Bruin Plaza at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) in Los Angeles on October 25, 2023 [AFP]
Students participate in a "Walkout to fight Genocide and Free Palestine" at Bruin Plaza at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) in Los Angeles on October 25, 2023 [AFP]

Palestinian academics, too, maintain that the intimidation meted out to advocates speaking up for Palestinian rights was a manifestation of the continued defeat of Zionism as an inclusive ideal among vast swathes of the American public.

They said the role of mainstream media, big business, and the state to coalesce around Israel hadn't gone unnoticed.

"We've been seeing the term 'manufactured consent' resurface lately to describe the role the media is playing in the genocide of Palestinians, and universities as an institution are taking part in it as well," the Palestinian academic based in the US, who has been following developments closely, said.

"The mix of media bias, Israeli interference, vilification by universities, work together to repress Palestinians and their allies, and normalise Zionist ideology that seeks to annihilate and erase," the academic added.

It's why some students say they won't stop their activism, despite the countless threats they face.

"They [Israeli authorities] are scared of how many people now in support of Palestine and are proud to say that," Butler said.

"And in this moment, it is more important than ever for us to double down and assert that we're not scared and we're not intimidated.

"Yes, it was shocking at first to see them behave like this. But now that we understand that they are scared, we know we are on the right side of history."

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