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The real problem on US school campuses is anti-Palestinianism

While Zionists raise alarm bells about alleged antisemitism at US colleges and universities, few talk about the ruthless attacks on Palestine advocacy
University students protest against the Israeli occupation in Washington in 2002 (AFP)

Many of us are looking forward to returning to campus in the fall, eagerly anticipating face-to-face interactions in classrooms, libraries, cafeterias and campus events. Life was never meant to happen on Zoom. What we are not looking forward to, however, are the renewed attacks on campus activism for Palestine - but we must brace ourselves for them, yet again.

In an alarmist article published this month, Jeffrey Herbst, president of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, asserted that colleges were unprepared for “the possibility of an explosion of antisemitism on their campuses in the fall”. Citing an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) survey, Herbst noted that 41 percent of American Jews feared for their safety after the recent flareup of violence in Israel/Palestine.

There are daily incidents of censorship, bullying, doxxing, intimidation and assault against organisers for justice in Palestine

The ADL, of course, has been denounced for its well-documented “history and ongoing pattern of attacking social justice movements led by communities of colour, queer people, immigrants, Muslims, Arabs, and other marginalised groups, while aligning itself with police, right-wing leaders, and perpetrators of state violence”. Nevertheless, it is sadly still considered a reliable source for university administrators.

In the ADL survey cited by Herbst, the polled American Jews were asked about events they deemed antisemitic. I cite it only to foreground how those polled perceive anti-Semitism, namely: "Two-thirds or more of American Jews considered the following to be definitely or probably antisemitic: saying that Israel should not exist as a Jewish state (75 percent); comparing Israel’s actions to those of the Nazis (70 percent); or protesting Israeli actions outside an American synagogue (67 percent).

“Calling Zionism racist (61 percent); calling for companies and organisations to boycott, divest from or sanction Israel (56 percent); or calling Israel an apartheid state (55 percent) are also considered by the majority of Jews to be definitely or probably antisemitic.”

Censorship and bullying

Obviously, it is the equation of Israel with Judaism, and thus the equation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism, that Zionists fear may lead to “an explosion of antisemitism” on campuses this fall.

Meanwhile, there is little-to-no mainstream denunciation of the ruthless attacks on Palestine advocacy, even as we know there are daily incidents of censorship, bullying, doxxing, intimidation and assault against organisers for justice in Palestine - particularly, but not exclusively, young Palestinian organisers. These attacks are not merely perceived to be anti-Palestinian; they actually are anti-Palestinian, targeting an individual because they support Palestinian rights.

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In recent years, groups such as Palestine Legal have led the charge in defending those who have come forward to describe falling victim to Zionist harassment and intimidation. In 2015, together with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Palestine Legal published a report, titled “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech”, which documented some of these incidents of censorship, punishment, or other forms of burdening advocacy for Palestinian rights.

“The overwhelming majority of these incidents - 89 percent in 2014 and 80 percent in the first half of 2015 - targeted students and scholars, a reaction to the increasingly central role universities play in the movement for Palestinian rights.”

One recent case involved Ahmad Daraldik, a student at Florida State University who came under a sustained vitriolic, racist and Islamophobic attack for having posted on social media about his experiences growing up in the West Bank under Israeli occupation. According to Palestine Legal, university administrators were made aware of the extremely hostile climate he was subjected to, but “FSU not only disregarded the hostile climate for Ahmad on campus, but also took egregious actions of its own to magnify the injuries”.

University administrators have also sanctioned and banned Students for Justice in Palestine chapters, cancelled courses on Palestine from an anti-Zionist perspective, and fired instructors, including tenured faculty, for their Palestine advocacy.

Believe the victims

While censorship and smear attacks tend to target students and faculty, Zionists also target outspoken professionals and organisers who are critical of Israel. This summer, for example, Fidaa Wishah was fired from her position as a paediatric radiologist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital because of a tweet critical of Israel.

Zionists claimed they could not trust Jewish children to Wishah, yet as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is now suing the hospital, explained: “Her post on her personal Facebook page, while critical of the Israeli government, has intentionally been taken out of context to portray Dr Wishah as anti-Semitic rather than what she has been known as her entire career, a civil rights advocate.”

The list of organisers and activists who come under vitriolic attacks for their advocacy for Palestine is long, and it permeates all sections of American society

In May, Florida-based Palestinian organiser Rasha Mubarak was subjected to racist, sexist, Islamophobic slander over her leadership role in Palestine advocacy. A Florida state legislator, Randy Fine, also equated Palestinians in Gaza with “terrorists”, and cheered on the Israeli army to “#BlowThemUp”. The fact that a democratically elected politician can make such statements is indicative of the widespread acceptance of anti-Palestinian rhetoric.

By accepting the equation of Israel with all Jews, and thus guarding against what Zionists “deem antisemitic”, campus administrators are engaging in anti-Palestinianism, defined by Cambridge historian Mezna Qato as: “Prejudice, hostility or discrimination against Palestinians. Denial of the Nakba. Accusing a Palestinian of ‘latent’ racism(s) without cause. Allowing Palestinian exception to all other held liberal or left values/politics.”

This coming academic year, as we continue our longstanding efforts to push university administrators to distinguish between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, we must make a focused effort to denounce the anti-Palestinianism that has mostly gone unnoticed - not because it is rare, but precisely because it is so very pervasive as to not be recognised as wrong.

Indeed, the list of organisers and activists who come under vitriolic attacks for their advocacy for Palestine is long, and it permeates all sections of American society. As case after case of these smear campaigns fail to unearth “antisemitism”, but rather bitterness towards Israel as the oppressor, we must ask administrators to believe the victims of these attacks, rather than the accusers.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Nada Elia
Nada Elia teaches in the American Cultural Studies Programme at Western Washington University, and is currently completing a book on Palestinian diaspora activism.