On 10 Mei, on a day in which Hamas launched rockets into Israel and Israel responded with strikes on Gaza as the Middle East descended into devastating violence, student leaders at the University of Michigan put out a statement on the crisis addressed to the campus community.
The central student government (CSG) didn’t mince words. The Israeli occupation amounted to war crimes, hulle het gesê, subjecting Palestinians to “Israeli settler-colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid”.
Closer to home, the student leaders went on, anti-Palestinian sentiment had been allowed to “run rampant” on campus. Palestinian voices had been “profoundly marginalized through censorship and threats”.
The statement concluded by urging students to prevent US tax dollars being used to harm Palestinian children. Learn more about Israeli oppression, they recommended, by following the “boycott, divestment, sanctions” movement, of BDS.
It didn’t take long for the backlash to start. Hillel, the largest Jewish organization on US campuses, rushed out a counter-statement that accused the Michigan student leaders of using “inflammatory language that put the blame entirely on Israel” and left many Jewish students feeling “unseen and unrepresented”.
A rightwing group, Young Americans for Freedom, accused the student government of opening “the door to antisemitism against Jewish students. BDS and antisemitism have no place at the University of Michigan.”
A senior told the College Fix that the endorsement of the BDS movement would “place a target on the backs of all Jewish students on campus”.
There was worse to come. Nithya Arun, the student body president, told the Guardian that the CSG statement received widespread support from influential sections of the campus, including the adjunct faculty, graduate students and Black student unions.
But the authors also received racist, sexist, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim abuse. “We received messages threatening our employment prospects and safety. One of us received a death threat over the phone,” Arun said.
The volatile climate at the University of Michigan reflects rising tensions across several US campuses in the wake of the eruption of violent clashes in Jerusalem three weeks ago. Renewed fighting in the Middle East has prompted students in universities across America, emboldened by last summer’s wave of Black Lives Matter protests, to rally against more than half a century of Israeli occupation and to call for an international boycott modeled on the ostracism of apartheid South Africa.
In turn there has been a sharp increase in attempts to quell the protests, with reports that Palestinian students and their allies have faced harassment online. Palestine Legal, an advocacy group that defends supporters of Palestinian rights, told the Guardian that they had received a marked increase in requests for legal help since the violence flared in Jerusalem.
“In the past two weeks there has been a surge of complaints coming in to us from students whose posts on social media have been censored, who have falsely been accused of antisemitism or have even faced death threats,” a Palestine Legal attorney Amira Mattar, who is herself Palestinian American, gesê.
Similar complaints have been raised by the opposing side. “There is a distinct uptick in antisemitism and anti-Israel rhetoric on campus and on social media,” said Matthew Berger, a spokesperson for Hillel. “Jewish students are being personally targeted and subjected to hatred online for expressing their personal support for Israel.”
The toxic atmosphere on some US campuses has been long in gestation. Last year Palestine Legal took on 213 gevalle involving attempts to quash pro-Palestinian advocacy.
Sommige 80% of the reported cases related to US campuses, with students or faculty targeted at 68 different academic institutions.
In his new book exploring the hostile nature of the Israel-Palestine debate on American campuses, The Conflict Over the Conflict, Kenneth Stern chronicles the various ways in which politically impassioned student groups have tried to influence debate. He relates how Students for Justice in Palestine, a leading activist group campaigning for a boycott of Israel, sought to cancel a research trip to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan organized by Vassar College.
The group argued that the trip offered financial and other support to Israeli “apartheid”.
As counterpoint, Stern relates how the Zionist Organization of America tried to stop a teacher workshop at Columbia University. ZOA opposed the workshop simply because of its title, “Citizenship and Nationality in Israel/Palestine”, objecting that there was no such country as “Palestine”.
The paradox of such attempts to restrict academic exploration of the Middle East crisis, Stern told the Guardian, was that it gave the impression that US universities were on fire with pro-Palestinian activism when in fact major confrontations were relatively rare. “People paint campuses as burning over this issue, and anti-Israel activity as ubiquitous, but the data doesn’t bear that out," hy het gesê.
Every year, Stern pointed out, there are twice as many pro-Israel events on campus as pro-Palestinian. For all the heat that BDS, the boycott movement, has generated, no academic institution in America has ever divested from Israel in the 19 years of its existence.
Though excesses have been committed on both sides, the record is by no means evenly weighted. Much like the Middle East discord itself, the balance of forces lies overwhelmingly in favor of supporters of Israel, with pro-Palestinian groups vastly outgunned.
Students protesting against Israeli occupation frequently find themselves accosted by a powerful array of well-funded adversaries – some backed by the Israeli government itself – armed with a battery of cyber tools. “There has been an increase this year in blacklisting website activity that encourages doxing online of Palestinians and their allies,” Mattar said.
At the University of Michigan, Arun said that pro-Palestinian activists have been “blacklisted, insulted and harassed for years. It’s only through decades of student organizing that we’ve been able to get to a place where pro-Palestine activism can take up space – but it’s still incredibly difficult.”
Pro-Palestinian advocates are frequently threatened online with being reported to Canary Mission, a secretive website that names and shames students and professors whom it accuses of spreading hatred of Israel. According to the Jewish American news outlet The Forward, the site is run by a small group of English-speaking immigrants in Jerusalem with funding coming from an equally shadowy not-for-profit, Megamot Shalom.
The Guardian asked Canary Mission to clarify its funding and objectives, but received no reply.
Another fearsome opponent is the online platform Act.IL, an app that exists to “fight back against the demonization and delegitimization of the Jewish state”. Launched in 2017 by a former Israeli intelligence officer with partial funding by the Israeli government, Act.IL rallies American supporters of Israel and sends them on “missions” to combat criticism of the country often emanating from campuses.
People joining a “mission” are given pre-prepared letters of complaint targeting Palestinian advocates which they are then encouraged to send to university administrators or legislators. Once the “mission” is completed, participants are rewarded with badges and points.
One of Act.IL’s “missions” was directed against a Palestinian-American student at Florida State University after he was elected president of the student senate. Ahmad Daraldik, who spent much of his childhood growing up in the West Bank, came under a concerted barrage of attack not only from the mobile app, but from Republican legislators who threatened to cut off funding from the school if action wasn’t taken to demote him. He also faced opposition from city council members and fellow students who orchestrated three petitions against him.
Daraldik was eventually ousted from the student leadership position in a legal challenge.
As part of the campaign against Daraldik, his detractors unearthed several questionable comments he had made on social media. One shared a fake photo that claimed to show an Israeli soldier stamping on the neck of a Palestinian child.
Daraldik captioned the photo “stupid jew thinks he is cool”. Daraldik om verskoning gevra for the comment, which he made, it transpired, when he was 12 years old and living under Israeli occupation.
Another post used against him involved a selfie in which he was standing next to a statue of Nelson Mandela. He captioned the photo, posted on Instagram in 2019, “Iconic. #fucktheOccupation #fuckIsrael”.
Opponents pointed to that post and said it indicated that Daraldik was steeped in hatred and should not be entrusted with a leadership role. He countered that he had taken the photo and made the remark while he was crossing from Jordan into the West Bank.
Israeli soldiers had detained him and his father and sister for six hours as they scoured their personal possessions. “I was humiliated. I was dehumanized. I was upset,” hy het gesê.
Of all the accusations leveled against Daraldik, in common with other Palestinian students like him, the most potent is the charge that his criticisms of Israel are inherently antisemitic. The label of antisemitism is being deployed by pro-Israel groups and their supporters among Republican politicians and university administrations with increasing frequency and impact.
Hillel is one of the organizations that argues there is a very fine line between criticism of Israel and hatred of all Jews. “Any time that you paint all Jewish students as having the same position on an issue and associate American Jewish students with the policy of another government, that is going down the road of antisemitism,” Berger said.
Pro-Palestinian advocates reply that they are not painting all Jewish students in that light. Rather they are focusing on the human rights abuses that have flowed from Israel’s 54-year occupation of Palestinian areas.
“The false accusation of antisemitism seeks to distract from what is happening in Palestine,” Mattar said. “Rights advocates are forced to respond to accusations that are irrelevant – it’s not about hatred towards Jewish people, it’s about Palestinians wanting freedom.”
Florida is one of two states, both Republican-controlled, that have adopted into state law a codified definition of antisemitism that critics say is so loosely worded that it risks prohibiting open discussion about Israeli government violations of international law. The definition would prohibit human rights investigations focused exclusively on Israel, and ban speech “demonizing Israel by … blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions” or “delegitimizing Israel” by claiming that the existence of the state is a “racist endeavor”.
The formula, known for short as the “working definition” of antisemitism, has been decried by the Progressive Israel Network, a coalition of US groups pressing for democracy, equality and peace in the Middle East. The alliance said that the definition risked wrongly equating legitimate questioning of Israel’s founding and system of government with unacceptable antisemitism.
Last August the administration of Daraldik’s school, Florida State University, imported the definition into its own ordinances, thus rendering academic debate on its campus more fraught and circumscribed. Several other college administrators have wielded the antisemitism stick to beat BDS and other divestment campaigns on their campuses, insluitend Tufts en Columbia.
Kenneth Stern, who is an authority on antisemitism as the director of the Center for the Study of Hate at Bard College, has been alarmed by the way the working definition, and its inclusion of criticism of Israel in its characterization of antisemitism, has been embraced by academia. He has particular skin in this game, as he was himself the lead drafter of the original version of the working definition in 2004.
That document was created as a guide for data scientists to help them record levels of antisemitism across Europe. “We never thought of using this as a way to censor speech on campus – it was entirely divorced from that,” Stern told the Guardian.
In Stern’s view, a basic truth has been lost amid all the shouting. Universities and colleges are places of learning, where debate on the most intractable problems should be encouraged not tamped down.
“Campus ought to be where students wrestle with difficult ideas. It’s where they come to figure out what they think, what they still have to learn, and where they know they have the space to be wrong.”