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Pro-Palestinian: An Exception to Free Speech?

Allan Brownfeld
October 5, 2014
by Allan C. Brownfeld FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND ACADEMIC FREEDOM ARE LONG-ESTABLISHED, respected pillars of our free society. Presently, however, we seem to be in the process of creating a "Palestinian exception." If you express views critical of the Israeli government and its policies, or are sympathetic to Palestinians and their efforts to achieve a state of their own, your views seem to be outside of the zone of protected free speech. Such views, it seems, are not wanted at our universities, and are certainly unwelcome within the Jewish community, where dissenting voices have been banned from Hillel Foundations and other Jewish venues. Consider some recent examples of the assault upon free speech and academic freedom when it comes to the question of Israel and the Palestinians. Bruce-Shipman-150x225In response to an article about anti-Semitism in Europe, the Rev. Bruce M. Shipman, Episcopal chaplain at Yale University, had a letter published in The New York Times of August 26, 2014. His letter, as published, states the following: "Deborah E. Lipstadt makes far too little of the relationship between Israel's policies in the West Bank and Gaza and growing anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond. The trend to which she alludes parallels the carnage in Gaza over the last five years, not to mention the perpetually stalled peace talks and the continuing occupation of the West Bank." The concluding paragraph declares: "As hope for a two-state solution fades and Palestinian casualties continue to mount, the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel's patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question." For this three sentence letter, Rev. Shipman lost his job. He says he experienced "an avalanche" of criticism and hate mail almost instantaneously, with calls for his termination going to the Yale president's office from angry alumni. This prompted the Episcopal Church to fire him. Speaking to Elizabeth Dias of Time, Shipman cited other controversial causes as models for him: "For Shipman," Dias wrote,
the controversy raises a number of 'troubling questions' about free speech on campus. In addition to the hate mail, Shipman says he has also received letters of support from people thanking him for taking a courageous stand for Palestinian rights. University chaplains, he adds, have a long history of advocating unpopular cultural positions. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., a chaplain at Yale during the 1960s, gained fame for practicing civil disobedience in protest of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Clergy today, he continues, need to know what protections they do and don't have when it comes to taking unpopular positions.
"I think of abolitionism and the role the church played in that," Shipman said.
I think of the civil rights movement. I think of the anti-war movement and the role the chaplains played in that, often incurring the wrath of big givers and donors to the university, but they were protected and they were respected. That seems not to be the case now. I think the truth must be brought out and it must be discussed on campus by people of good will without labeling anti-Semitic anyone who raises these questions. Surely this debate should take place on the campus of the leading universities across the country. If not there, where?
Shipman reports that the executive committee of the board of governors of the Episcopal Church of Yale called a special meeting on September 2 to discuss his letter. "The executive committee made it clear that I should resign or be fired," Shipman said. Members said his actions damaged the church's relations with the university and generated bad publicity, he said. Pressure came from many parts of the Yale community. Shipman received an e-mail from Yale University Chaplain Sharon M.D. Kugler, saying she was certain he had no clue how her office and its work had been affected by what he had done Yale President Peter Salovey's office quickly moved to distance itself from Shipman, pointing out that he was not on the Yale staff but was employed by the Episcopal Church. Like-what-youre-readingFor his part, Shipman is not backing down. He has been to Israel and Palestine several times and says, "They have to move together to share the land. They both have compelling claims to the land. You hear the stories and you weep. And the stories are real and true, the suffering is real and there's got to be some hope. Otherwise, you're locked in this tragic struggle for the land that seems to be to the death. If it can't be discussed on a university campus, why not?" Indeed, in the view of some observers, Shipman lost his job for stating what many believe to be an obvious truth about events in Europe. Shipman especially regrets the false charges of anti-Semitism. He said that he should be able to openly discuss the plight of the Palestinians without being subject to such false charges. Anti-Semitic, he says, is "the last thing I am, and I will not be silenced." IN ANOTHER WIDELY PUBLICIZED CASE, Professor Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American, was offered an appointment as associate professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (UIUC). He left his tenured position at Virginia Tech to assume the new position, which would have given him lifetime tenure. Instead, during the summer he tweeted his strong feelings about Israel's conduct of the war in Gaza. Citing those tweets, a number of wealthy donors then pressured the UIUC board of trustees and chancellor to rescind Salaita's offer of employment. This happened in early August, two weeks before Salaita was scheduled to start teaching classes. Chancellor Phyllis Wise sent Salaita a letter informing him that his offer of employment had been terminated. Now, Professor Salaita has no job, no health insurance, and no home. uiuc_salaita_actionOver 5,000 scholars announced a boycott of UIUC until he is reinstated. Salaita says that he was simply speaking his mind about events in Gaza. At a press conference, he said: "The way that I have always tweeted sort of has to do with the way things are happening in the moment, politically and discursively. The University administration's actions threaten the principles of free speech, academic freedom and critical thought that should be the foundation of any university." Among his other tweets, Salaita wrote: "Only #Israel can murder around 300 children in the span of a few weeks and insist that it is the victim," and "It's simple, either condemn #Israel's actions or remember your identity as someone who's okay with the wholesale slaughter of children." On the same day as the first tweet, he wrote: "It's quite simple: don't support any ideology whose practice results in dead children." In an article, "The Salaita Case And The Big Money Takeover of State Universities," Michael Hiltzik wrote in the Los Angeles Times (Sept. 13, 2014) that the University of Illinois Board of Trustees
voted 8-1 to uphold the firing of Steven Salaita. This can be rightly seen as a blow to the very concept of academic freedom, but there's a sinister undercurrent to the case: there's evidence that major donors... have tried to manipulate university administrations into doing their bidding, but it's certainly one of the most disturbing examples of a bad trend.... Even before the trustees' vote... e-mails became public showing the UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise and her fellow administrators were immediately responsive to donors unhappy with what they saw as Salaita's anti-Israel tweets. One donor told Wise that two fellow donors 'both have less loyalty for Illinois because of their perception of anti-Semitism' and pushed against Salaita himself: 'He gave me a two-pager filled with information on Steven Salaita and said how we handle this situation will be very telling,' she told members of her staff.... For any university, but especially a public institution such as Illinois, the encroachment of donor pressure on the administration is a harbinger of the destruction of academic freedom.... Wealthy donors today seldom have an interest in independent, objective academic study; they're interested in advancing their own notions of how the world works or should work, in ideology not ideas.
Maria LaHood, senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said: "The university has violated the Constitution by terminating Professor Steven Salaita's appointment based on the content of his speech. It has also sent a chilling message to faculty and students everywhere that the First Amendment and basic principles of academic freedom will be ignored when it comes to speech that is controversial or critical of the Israeli government." A group of Jewish students and faculty members at UIUC gathered in September to observe the Jewish ritual of tashlikh, and dedicated the service to Professor Salaita. Tashlikh takes place during Rosh Hashone, the Jewish New Year, and involves symbolic casting off of sins through the tossing of pebbles or bread crumbs into a natural body of water. Event leaders, who included Samantha Brotman, a visiting lecturer and Arabic specialist, used an adapted script from Jewish Voice for Peace that took as its focus the casting off of both personal and collective sins, particularly those of the ongoing occupation of Palestine and the firing of Professor Salaita. The group initially coalesced over the signing of the Jewish Community of UIUC Letter In Support of Professor Steven Salaita. Among the selected sins cited by the group were:
Allowing violence against Palestinians to be committed in our name as Jews and as Americans; not fighting for the rights of Israeli Palestinians.... elevating anti-Semitism above other oppressions and refusing to see its interconnectedness with racism, classism, transphobia, homophobia, and xenophobia in our communities.... feeling powerless in the face of the theft of Palestinian land, the destruction of Palestinian homes, and the silencing of Palestinian voices, like that of Professor Steven Salaita.
In a letter to Chancellor Wise, this Jewish group wrote:
By conflating pointed and justified critique of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism, your administration is effectively disregarding a large and growing number of Jewish perspectives that oppose Israeli military occupation, settler expansion and the assault on Palestinians. We did not survive ethnic cleansing and carry on the legacy of our people to have our existence used to justify the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians or their unethical treatment when they speak out against the murder, violence, and displacement of their own people.
A boycott against UICU is growing. Professor Steve Cicala of the University of Chicago canceled a lecture he was scheduled to give in October. In a letter [PDF] to Chancellor Wise, he noted that her reasons for terminating Salaita, that his criticism of Israel was "uncivil," was simply a "fig leaf" for other concerns. He says he cannot support the fact that Wise's decision may have been influenced by donors: "I will not be coming to UIUC until the university clarifies to its donors exactly what their contributions are buying — and that faculty speech is quite simply not on the menu. I'm afraid this is impossible until Steven Salaita is reinstated." 20140903_StudentSentate_BobocatsforIsarel_002.wideaIN ANOTHER MUCH-DISCUSSED CASE, the student body president of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, Megan Marzec, was challenged by the university president to take "the ice bucket challenge" to raise awareness of ALS. What Marzec did was make a video in which she pours a bucket of fake blood over her head to protest Israel's abuse of Palestinians. In the 50-second video, which she posted on Facebook, she says: "I'm urging you and Ohio University to divest and cut all ties with academic and other Israeli institutions and businesses. This bucket of blood symbolizes the thousands of displaced and murdered Palestinians, atrocities that Ohio University is directly complicit in through cultural and economic support of the Israeli state." Marzec was swiftly denounced. The campus group Bobcats for Israel. and Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity, called for her immediate resignation. One student critic told the Cleveland Jewish News, "In part of the video, she promotes the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, which is anti-Semitic." Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, head of Hillel at Ohio University, called for Marzec's resignation, and, in effect, threatened economic harm to the university if she continued in her elected position. She wrote Marzek an open letter: "Dear Megan, How could you possibly do such a thing if you've got university partners that care about you? .... It makes alumni want to pull their funding." On September 10th, at a meeting of the university's Student Senate, Bobcats for Israel staged a protest. The majority of students present shouted them down with chants of "we will not be bullied" and "free exchange of ideas." Ultimately, the police were called in and the protestors were arrested, as the onlookers called them "fascists." They were charged with disruption of a lawful meeting. Marzec said that she has received death threats and other forms of abuse. Yet more than 600 people signed an online petition in "solidarity with Megan Marzek's right of free speech to publicly state her political opinions on the liberation of Palestine." The petition condemns "any attempt to employ threats and/or acts of interpersonal violence to intimidate Ohio University students into silence." WITHIN THE ORGANIZED AMERICAN JEWISH COMMUNITY, free speech and open debate has virtually come to an end. In the case of Hillel Foundations on college campuses, voices in any way critical of Israel are unwelcome. Hillel CEO Eric Fingerhut, apparently unaware of the long history of Jewish opposition to Zionism, declares that, "'Anti-Zionists' will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances." b-3burg-102111At Harvard, in November 2013, Avraham Burg, the former speaker of Israel's Knesset, spoke in an undergraduate dormitory after being barred from speaking at Harvard Hillel. At issue, in part, are attempts by certain groups under the Hillel umbrella to co-sponsor events with the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, a campus organization that advocates for boycotts against Israel. Burg was later allowed to attend a smaller invitation-only dinner at the Hillel building, but was forbidden from hosting the event there since it was co-sponsored by the Harvard College Palestinian Solidarity Committee. Other co-sponsoring groups included J Street U. Harvard and two Hillel-affiliated groups, Harvard Students for Israel and Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance. Burg, who is a harsh critic of Israel's occupation policies, spoke in the Quincy House Junior Common Room instead. "It's such a shame that Harvard Hillel would not allow an open discussion about Israel to take place within its walls," said Sandra Korn, who helped organize the talk. "Hillel should be a space for students to engage with Jewish issues regardless of religious or political beliefs." Jewish students are in open rebellion against the kind of thought control Hillel attempts to impose. Across the country an Open Hillel movement has emerged. Jewish students at Wesleyan University, for example, declared that, "At Wesleyan, values of inclusion are central to our identity both as Jews and as participants in then larger Wesleyan community. In Hillel's guidelines, Jewish plurality gives way to Zionist unanimity, and we are acutely aware that many individuals have formed robust, meaningful Jewish identities that do not comport with traditional Zionist ideas." The students argue that efforts at censorship violate basic Jewish values: "We believe," said their statement, "that dialogue and critical engagement are central Jewish values. Our community is founded on texts that are meant to be interpreted, argued over, and debated endlessly... Hillel draws its name from the great rabbinical sage who believed that all should be able to learn and that discourse should be free and unbound by guidelines imposed from above.... We believe Hillel International's deviation from these principles alienates members of our community and strays from Jewish tradition." ACROSS THE COUNTRY, rabbis have also effectively been silenced if their support for Israel and its policies are not total. A 2013 Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) study found that about one-third of rabbis said they repressed their true views about Israel for fear of clashing with leaders in their congregations. In an article, "Muzzled By The Minority" (Reform Judaism, Fall 2014), Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, writes:
In 2012, I met with a dozen Reform and Conservative rabbis. Two of the rabbis, who served different synagogues, mentioned having each recently made the mistake of giving sermons that were somewhat critical of Israel's policy toward the Palestinians. Congregants with hawkish views responded with such outrage, contempt and ferocity that the rabbis vowed that, going forward, they would simply remain silent on the subject in public, rather than subject themselves to arbitrary litmus tests of loyalty to Israel. The fact that not a single rabbi in the room suggested the two rabbis reconsider their decision didn't strike me as strange. Truth is... American Jews no longer know how to have a civil conversation about Israel.
In September, Rabbi Brant Rosen, announced that he would step down from leadership at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Illinois after seventeen years, because, he said, his role in Jewish Voice For Peace and his advocacy of Palestinian rights "has become a lightning rod and divisive." Rosen told the New York Times (September 23, 2014): "For many Jews, Israel is their Judaism, or at least a big part of it. So when someone challenges the centrality of Israel in a public way, it's very painful and very difficult, especially when that person is their rabbi." The organized American Jewish community used to be in the forefront of challenging every obstacle to free and open debate and discussion. Now, sadly, it is attempting to establish a "Palestinian exception" to free speech, both within the Jewish community, at our colleges and universities and in every other public sphere. This is a sign of desperation, as it becomes clear that American Jewish opinion is hardly "united" behind Israel's policies, and in the larger American society there is growing dismay with regard to Israeli policies and American financial support for them. Free speech, in the end, will survive the current assaults upon it, to the benefit of us all, including those within Israel itself who hope to create a genuinely democratic society. Update 8 Oct 2014, 13:30: This article has been revised to clarify the circumstances of Avraham's Burg visit to Harvard University, and to correct the identification of Samantha Brotman (as per her comment, below). On the latter count, we regret the error. Allan C. Brownfeld is publications editor for the American Council for Judaism, founded in 1942, and a nationally syndicated columnist. A version of this article is scheduled for publication in the November/December 2014 issue of The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.