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Pro-Palestinian students suffer from harassment, police intimidation and death threats on US campus

January 30, 2014 at 2:38 am

Last April, the Zionist Organization of America and the student group Owls for Israel invited Israeli Colonel Bentzi Gruber to speak at Florida Atlantic University (FAU).

Gruber was traveling across the US for a series of talks on “Ethics in the Field: An Inside Look at the Israel Defense Forces,” in which he proposes the moral and legal justifications for “Operation Cast Lead,” the 2008-2009 attack on Gaza that Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has described as “a brutal, nearly unrestrained attack on a poor, helpless, besieged population that had nowhere to flee, save the sea, and on armed Palestinian groups, with meager equipment and primitive weaponry.”

According to a statement that was published this week, the local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which counts Jewish students among its members, expressed their concerns to university officials about Gruber’s lecture two days before the event, reminding them that some students on campus had family members killed by the Israeli military during “Operation Cast Lead”. SJP received no response, and so the students decided to stage a protest during Gruber’s lecture. Noor Fawzy, one of the students who led the protest, recounts how after the speaker’s opening remarks there was a lull, so the students stood up and went to the front of the room to state a few of the war crimes the Israeli forces committed during “Operation Cast Lead,” which have been documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Fact Finding Mission known as the Goldstone Report. They also displayed a banner that read “War Criminal,” until police came to escort them out. The protest lasted no more than two minutes, during which time some members of the audience called the protesters “spies,” “terrorists,” and other offensive names. They briefly continued their protest outside the event in the company of a police officer.

Four months later, the university formally decided to punish the five students who staged the protest, three of whom are still students at FAU. Two of the three have been placed on indefinite probation, two barred from holding any leadership positions in official student organizations, and all three are required to take part in a mandatory “University Campus of Difference” training program during the fall semester, based on a curriculum created by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

The ADL is an unabashedly pro-Zionist organization that is well known for its advocacy for Israel and public attacks against those who criticize Israel, often conflating the latter with anti-Semitism. The organization’s web site declares that, “To question the Jewish people’s right to national existence [in the land of Israel] and freedom is not only to deny to the Jewish people the right accorded to every other people on this globe, but it is also to deny the central precepts of the United Nations,” perhaps forgetting that the UN also recognizes the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. The web site for the ADL’s “A Campus of Difference” re-education program clearly reflects this same Zionist bias, even providing a guide for students to “learn how to support Israel.” The guide claims that the holy sites of East Jerusalem are part of Israel and includes sections on lobbying the government on behalf of Israel as well as combating anti-Israeli activism on university campuses.

By requiring the students to participate in a re-education program even loosely based on the ADL’s curriculum, this implies that unquestioning support of the illegal occupation of Palestine is the desired outcome. And as Fawzi points out, also that the students are the ones who are “prejudiced for standing up against war crimes and human rights abuses carried out by the Israeli military against the Palestinian people.”

How is it possible that an American university would require such a program?

Well, the ADL wields incredible influence not only on college campuses, but also in Washington. In spring Vice President Joe Biden was the featured speaker at the organization’s Centennial Gala dinner. The ADL also recently launched a “Congressional Centennial Video Project” featuring American legislators from every region of the US recounting their own personal stories and insights, as well as giving lavish praise to the ADL and its work. According to its 2011 annual report, the ADL holds over $170 million in assets. And the organization’s National Director Abe Foxman reportedly earns an annual salary of over half a million dollars.

The ADL is incredibly organized and has a wide reach. Jeffrey Blankfort recently wrote an article for Counterpunch about the organization’s history of spying in the US, which back in the 1930s focused on gathering information about communist and pro-communist organizations and individuals, and ultimately collaborating with the US government to crush the “Red Threat”. But from 1948 onwards, the ADL’s priority became targeting Arabs and critics of Israel. The extent of its spying was uncovered in 1993, when the San Francisco police department “raided the ADL’s Northern California office and discovered it was keeping files on more than 600 largely liberal civic organizations and over 10,000 individuals whose interests and activities included but also went far beyond those of the Arab-American community.”

Some of the organizations the ADL was keeping tabs on included: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, and trade unions. And although 75 percent of the information was gathered illegally, the criminal case against the ADL was dropped. However targeted individuals and groups still filed lawsuits and settled out of court, with the ADL agreeing to cease its spying activities and destroy all the information it had collected.

Nevertheless, it is likely that the ADL has continued to illegally spy, or in the least it still snoops. Last year, the organization wrote a letter to the president of Columbia University in New York complaining about a post on the personal Facebook page of the program coordinator of the Center for Palestine Studies. The post was duly taken down.

According to the Sun Sentinel, a local Florida newspaper, after the SJP protest at FAU the ADL similarly issued several complaints to the university and even met with the administration to personally voice their grievances, hardly making the organization a neutral arbiter, let alone a reasonable re-educational programmer.

After the protest controversy, FAU decided to launch a new diversity web site to reduce tensions. Alas the web site is anything but diverse. The video promotion opens with a statement by a professor of Judaic studies about the university’s diverse and open community, and then features a student who identifies himself as Jewish and asserts how welcome he feels at the university. The video subsequently features six more students from different backgrounds who talk about freedom of religion, interfaith learning and diversity, but without naming any specific religion or verbally identifying their particular race or religion, although one student does single out Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, as an important source of information on religion at FAU. In between, there appears a quotation by the Chair of Holocaust studies about how welcoming the university is.

Considering the ongoing history of discrimination against people of color in the US, and more recently the wave of Islamophobia against Muslim Americans, it is rather shocking that a public university appears to be singling out discrimination against Jews only. Indeed, the web site highlights a joint press release by FAU and the Broward and Palm Beach chapter of Hillel and includes sections on “Jewish Studies” and the “Center for Holocaust and Human Rights Education,” without including any other joint statement or sections about other persecuted minorities, as if Jewish Americans are the only group in the US who suffer from discrimination.

And the joint press release with Hillel is anything but inclusive of diversity. It condemns FAU students for posting mock “eviction notices” in residence halls on FAU’s Boca Raton campus in 2012. The FAU leadership states that the postings violated university policies and should not have been approved, because “university residence halls must be safe and welcoming environments for students from all walks of life to live, learn, and grow. Part of that environment includes providing students a place of repose, free from unwelcome intrusions.” Fair enough, but one would then expect the university to also address the substance of the protest and at least recognize the gross injustice of Israel’s real life evictions of Palestinians living in the occupied territories, actions that have been condemned by senior UN officials. Instead the statement endorses Hillel’s role “to advocate for and educate about the Jewish democratic State of Israel, and to oppose any effort to demonize or delegitimize it.” Referring to the eviction protest, the administration promises that it “has taken proactive steps to ensure better adherence to its policies in the future.” Perhaps this explains why another FAU student told Fawzi that the university administrators have asked the Council of Student Organizations to monitor the activities of SJP.

While Jewish concerns are obviously being heard by university officials, other complaints are apparently falling on deaf ears. According to The Electronic Intifada, some members of SJP received death threats after organizing the eviction protest. Fawzi says that she herself has suffered from harassment, police intimidation and death threats. Furthermore, in the past students from pro-Zionist groups have interrupted previous events organized by SJP, taken down the group’s event flyers, and even occupied an SJP table at a university event, replacing the group’s literature with pro-Israel literature. These incidents were all reported, but no actions were ever taken to protect the threatened members of SJP or to punish the pro-Zionist students.

The new FAU diversity web site declares that, “Offensive language and personal attacks are sometimes used to assault and undermine others. At FAU, we strive to embody the best of what it means to be human, abiding by that other cherished maxim: Treat others as you would have them treat you.” But if the university were truly following this maxim, then it would not have allowed Colonel Bentzi Gruber the right to speak on campus in the first place, considering his leading role in “Operation Cast Lead,” which according to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem killed 773 Palestinian civilians, including women and children. I mean, what rights to free speech should we expect a foreigner in the US to have when he personally has denied others, who were innocent of any crime, the right to even live?

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