The pro-Palestinian mantra revolves around the belief that the Palestinians are the Arab world’s underdog; Israel is the Goliath and the Palestinians are the David. This message has been exported to the West and has engendered global sympathy for the Palestinian cause, as the quintessence of an injustice at the hands of the brutal, colonialist West.
Liberal and leftists groups ranging from women’s rights, LGBT groups and human rights activists have all championed the Palestinian cause as a common denominator that unites or even embodies their respective causes. North American college campuses are the most successful environment for all these groups.
One of the primary reasons for this has to do with how academic freedom is abused in academia. Overwhelmingly, whatever speech or activities go on in a classroom is deemed protected by “academic freedom,” whether it is academic or not. Only sexual harassment appears exempt from this blanket protection. Gradually, the entire campus has become an “academic freedom” zone, where protests and other activities now qualify as academic “speech.”
The freedom to critique is, predictably, directed mostly at the “twin Satans,” Israel and America. Although efforts to curtail speech that academics find unpleasant and unacceptable have been long standing in the form of “speech codes” and restrictions on “hate speech,” attacks on Israel and America, no matter how vicious or false, are unrestricted. Clearly, academic freedom is a one-way street; only those having the correct opinions may claim it.
Of late, we have seen a new methodology employed by sympathizers of the Palestinians cause where they accuse pro-Israel groups and individuals of violating the same free speech rights they regularly demand. For example, Israeli generals and politicians have been threatened in Europe that they will be sued for crimes against humanity; IDF veterans (which includes nearly every Israeli) have been disinvited from academic panels, and now pro-Israel professors are being accused of “intimidating” pro-Palestinian student groups.
The UCSD case
A case in point: On Feb.29, 2012 the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) student government defeated for the third year running a pro-Palestinian resolution calling on the University system to divest from US companies that supply Israel’s defense forces. The Associated Students of UCSD (ASUCSD) heard public debate on a resolution brought forth by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) calling for UC to divest from General Electric and Northrop Grumman because they supply components of Apache Helicopters sold to Israel, which then uses them to “violate” Palestinian human rights and expand the “occupation.”
UCSD University Professor Shlomo Dubnov of the Music department, who heads the campus chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, spoke out against the divestment. Consequently, on March 2, leaders of the pro-Palestinian students sent a letter of complaint to faculty, administration and members of the UCSD Campus Climate Council “to address the hostile campus climate being created for students of color and students from underserved and underrepresented communities.”
Five student organizations also made claims against UCSD professors and staff who spoke against the resolution, stating that “while we understand that it is a public meeting, for them to refer to themselves in their position as ‘UCSD staff’ or ‘UCSD professor’ is uncalled for. They used their positions as University employees to verbally attack students and to even erase the existence of many individuals in the room.”
This new tactic of silencing professors who are pro-Israel through claims of intimidation and legal threats is of great concern, not only to the individuals who might be forced to think twice before speaking out but to the universities themselves. Academic freedom has already been manipulated to mean that anti-Israel ideologues have nearly complete license to propagandize in the classroom. Now efforts to exercise free speech and push back are being criminalized as “intimidation.”
Institutions of higher education should be bastions of critical thinking, and academic freedom should not be selectively used as a bludgeon against pro-Israel speech and a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for anti-Israel speech.
Asaf Romirowsky is the acting executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).