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Israel-Palestine war: MIT students undeterred by looming suspension over pro-Palestine rally

In a matter of days, a solidarity rally for Palestinians in Gaza was met with a concerted campaign to paint protesters as antisemitic
A protester holds a "Jews for Free Palestine" sign at a rally to support Palestine at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 19 October 2023.
A protester holds a "Jews for Free Palestine" sign at a rally to support Palestine at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 19 October 2023 (AFP)

A pro-Palestine sit-in protest at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) earlier this month has sparked a slew of accusations of antisemitism and violence from a pro-Israel group, coupled with a concerted effort to permanently ban a student group calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

The Coalition Against Apartheid (CAA), at the centre of organising around ending Israel's occupation of Palestine, has become a target. But despite this campaign in an already stifling climate around Palestine activism with several universities banning pro-Palestine groups, students remain undeterred to continue their advocacy.

"There's a strong sense among the organisers within the CAA and within the broader coalition that we will be continuing to push forward and won't be swayed by any of these intimidation tactics that have been levied by the administration," Safiyyah Ogundipe, president of MIT's CAA, told Middle East Eye.

"I would honestly say that we're in a really strong position."

On 9 November, MIT's CAA helped organise a protest on campus at Lobby 7, the main entrance to the campus. The plan was to stage a 12-hour peaceful sit-in protest, nothing new for Lobby 7, which was the stage for a Black Lives Matter protest in 2019.

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The demonstrators planned to build on previous pro-Palestine actions over the past several weeks since the war on Gaza began, including a call for the university to end its MISTI-Israel Lockheed Martin Seed Fund. The fund is an initiative that promotes an "exchange between faculty and students at MIT and at universities and public research institutions in Israel", including at Lockheed Martin, an American defence contractor.

However, the night before the protest was scheduled, organisers received notice that Lobby 7 was no longer a space that could be used to hold demonstrations on campus.

"If you're visiting MIT for the first time, and you walk in the building, [Lobby 7]'s where you go, it's a very famous and historic place to hold protests," Francesca Riccio-Ackerman, a PhD student at MIT, told Middle East Eye.

"So for MIT, the night before, to send out communication saying 'by the way, you're no longer allowed to protest in Lobby 7, and if you do, you're breaking MIT policy', was a shady move."

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Riccio-Ackerman said that the move to send the notice appeared to be "intentionally trying to automatically cast anyone who participates in any kind of action as breaking institutional policy".

Because of the last-minute nature of the notice, the demonstrators decided to continue on with the protest. In the first few hours of the protest, which began at 8am, counterprotesters showed up, some with Israeli flags and posters, setting off a series of altercations between the two groups.

Riccio-Ackerman, who had documented the protests throughout the day on X, shared videos of the demonstration showing counterprotesters putting posters in the face of students, and one person physically breaking through a picket line.

After 11am, a leaflet was being passed around by the administration called on all demonstrators to leave Lobby 7 or be faced with suspension. Yet, the protesters remained throughout the afternoon and evening, despite a lockdown of the area instituted by police later in the evening.

"It was just such a beautiful show of solidarity to see so many people from all walks of life supporting Palestine," one student, who asked to remain anonymous, told MEE.

Likewise, Professor Nasser Rabbat, from the Department of Architecture at MIT, told MEE that in the few hours he was present during the protest, he found the event to be "peaceful, even cheerful".

Were Jewish students blocked from attending classes?

Since the events of 9 November, pro-Palestine protesters have been serially accused by pro-Israel students of having "physically prevented" Jewish and Israeli students from attending class.

Retsef Levi, a professor at MIT, also amplified their claim in a now viral thread that also described Jewish students as remaining in their dorms in fear and over concerns MIT was no longer safe for Jews.

However, there is no evidence that shows any student, Jewish, Israeli or otherwise, being physically blocked or hindered from attending class.

Video evidence suggests that not only were pathways provided to students in Lobby 7, as the protest went on, but it was counterprotesters who had deliberately attempted to disrupt the rally inside the building.

Footage shared with Middle East Eye, for instance, shows a counterprotester physically breaking the protesters' picket line when there appeared to be ample space for him to walk around the demonstrators.

Another video showed a counterprotester breaking through a police line and shoving a pro-Palestine protester to the ground.

In a private exchange on 13 November with the MIT Israel Alliance (MITIA), later shared online by the group, MIT President Sally Kornbluth said: "It's been falsely rumored that Jewish students were prevented from attending class."

"While we recognise a heightened sensitivity given the increase in reports of antisemitism around the country and in greater Boston, we have received no evidence of any kind that Jewish students, or anyone else, were prevented from attending class," Kornbluth added.

But then the next day, Kornbluth said in a statement that there was "a specific unease about passing through Lobby 7" though "it is not accurate that movement around the MIT campus is constrained".

That statement, however, was later updated to say there were moments where "some students were impeding access to the Infinite Corridor" and that, given the loud nature of the demonstration, "it is no surprise that some students felt afraid of passing through Lobby 7".

Levi, the professor who posted the viral thread, told MEE that this new statement from the "MIT president confirm[ed] that the reports of Jewish students being impeded from going to class are in fact true, and consistent with the student letter I posted on Twitter on Nov[ember] 10".

MIT would not comment on the contents of the letter to MITIA or what evidence had come to light a day later to warrant the new statement.

Students present at the demonstration who spoke to MEE said they were growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of transparency at MIT and were appalled at the ongoing efforts by the administration to modify their statements to fit their narrative.

In response to MEE's request for comment, MIT's media relations director, Kimberly Allen, said: "MIT leaders are working hard - with students, faculty and staff - to ensure everyone feels safe and able to focus on their classes, their research, and their work solving the world's toughest scientific problems."

War of narratives

After the Lobby 7 protest, the MIT Israel Alliance penned a letter to the administration in which it claimed that pro-Palestine students had periodically engaged in antisemitic harassment and hate speech towards Jewish and Israeli students.

But the letter, reviewed by MEE, essentially just makes reference to pro-Palestine chants, slogans and statements criticising Israeli government policy. It also called for MIT to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which equates antisemitism with criticism of Zionism or Israel. 

Soon, the MIT Israel Alliance was on CNN and Fox News repeating the unsubstantiated claims that Jewish students are no longer safe on campus.

In response to the MIT Israel Alliance, Jews For Ceasefire, a group of Jewish and Israeli students at the university, penned a letter of their own urging the administration to refute the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

"MITIA is now attempting to spin the protest to suit their own narrative - that of uninformed or hateful supporters of Palestine against peace-seeking Jews," the letter stated.

"MITIA speaks as if they stand for all Jews and Israelis at MIT but we are here together to call out this blatant lie. They do not represent us, they do not speak for us."

MEE asked MITIA about whether it considers itself as representative of the entire Jewish and Israeli community, given that there were several Jewish students that both participated in the pro-Palestine protest and opposed the endorsement of the IHRA definition.

MITIA did not respond to MEE's multiple requests for comment.

"They started pushing out a bunch of media, without verifying claims, while ignoring evidence that is out there," Ricco-Ackerman, the PhD student at MIT tracking the developments at the university, said.

"And [they] went on CNN and just pretty much are given the platform to say, publish and distribute anything that they want to say, without verification," she added.

Students, faculty, alumni push back

As it stands, the student-led Coalition Against Apartheid (CAA) group said it was recently notified that it was under investigation for breaking university policy during its decision to go ahead with the protest in Lobby 7.

"The possibility of suspension of CAA as a club is one of the potential outcomes that could come up," Ogundipe, president of CAA, said.

Yet for student organisers like Ogundipe, such an outcome wouldn't be the end of their work.

She said that CAA has already received assurances from other student groups on campus that they can pile their resources, including the ability to reserve rooms and locations on campus, and use them to help push for demonstrations and events around Palestine.

'An attack on one of us, is an attack on all of us'

- MIT student groups in support of CAA

The war on Gaza that began more than a month ago has killed nearly 15,000 Palestinians, according to latest data.

Around 1,2oo Israelis were killed during the initial Hamas-led assualt on Israel 7 October.

In just the first few weeks, Israel dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza. Hundreds of scholars have warned that Israel may be committing genocide against Palestinians in the enclave.

Meanwhile, support for CAA from students, faculty and alumni have poured in. Several other student groups including Palestine @ MIT, the Black Students Union, the Asian American Initiative, the Arab Student Organization, Reading for Revolution and others said in a statement: "An attack on one of us, is an attack on all of us."

A group of faculty also penned a letter in support of the 9 November demonstration. And nearly 400 MIT alumni have signed an open letter to the administration threatening to withhold contributions to the university if it does not apologise for the "hasty and harmful response" to the demonstration, which included the threat of suspension levied against students.

"Alumni saw the media that circulated in the aftermath of the sit-in, portraying the peaceful demonstration as a threat to the physical safety of others. We, along with members of the MIT faculty, found this narrative at odds with what happened," the letter stated, urging the university to not fall under pressure from "politically motivated actors".

"We morally balk at a Palestine-exception to free speech, and we call on MIT to strive to create an environment where all community members can voice their concerns."

Several students that MEE spoke to for this story, who have been a part of the demonstrations, said that while the climate on campus is quite tense, they don't feel any fear while going about their daily activities.

And despite developments across the country where students may face risks to their future careers over speaking up on Palestine, many of the students are not swayed by those threats.

"There's a range of ways that we as students kind of think about these things because we're all operating on different levels of risk," said Ogundipe.

"There's this general aura of like, I would not want to work at a job that would ask me to compromise on any of these sorts of principles."

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