Eight years ago this week, a coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations issued the global call for a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel in response to the international community's continued failure to hold Israel accountable for denying Palestinians "their fundamental rights of freedom, equality, and self-determination through ethnic cleansing, colonization, racial discrimination, and military occupation." While BDS has not yet become part of the mainstream political discourse in Washington, the movement has gained considerable traction throughout the US in recent years. As the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation recently pointed out in an email communiqué, among other achievements "boycott campaigns have…ushered in a new climate in the academic and cultural world."
This is true. BDS has opened new spaces of cultural resistance here in the US. For example, although the popular singer-songwriter Alicia Keys recently refused to cancel her 4th July concert in Tel Aviv, the campaign urging her to boycott Israel received considerable media attention. USA Today, the country's third largest daily, even published a relatively favorable article on the campaign, reporting that "a delegation representing coalitions of more than 500 US organizations" delivered a petition, signed by more than 12,000 people, asking Keys to cancel her concert. The article also conveys the reasons for the boycott and mentions notable artists and intellectuals who have recently come out in support of it, and without making any effort to delegitimize it.
Increasing public support for BDS has likewise opened new spaces in the academy, where we now see more and more critical scholarly engagement with Israel's occupation of Palestine. But this has also been accompanied by a reactionary backlash. Indeed we often hear about the tenure struggles of professors who dare to critically question Israel, including Dr Joseph Massad who was eventually awarded tenure by Columbia University, and Dr Margo Ramlal-Nankoe who thus far was not by Ithaca College. However we must also be aware of the price that many students have to pay for speaking truth to power, as some students in Boston, Massachusetts recently found out after organizing their own boycott.
In April, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Northeastern University staged a protest during an event sponsored by the pro-Israel group Huskies for Israel that featured active duty officers from the Israeli Defense Forces talking about "their Israeli identity and their experiences in the Israeli military." According to Yvonne Abraham at The Boston Globe, when the presentation started 35 students stood up with "small signs taped to their shirts. One member called the soldiers war criminals. One or two chanted slogans." And then immediately afterward the protesters all left the room. So the whole protest only took around one minute or less. But even so, the University has since placed SJP on probation, claiming that the group "failed to get a permit for its demonstration," which apparently needs to happen at least seven days in advance.
The students argue that the administration did know in advance about their intended protest, and administrators even sent the students an e-mail before the event urging them to use restraint, but not to abstain altogether.
Furthermore, in 2011 students from Huskies for Israel also disrupted a lecture by noted author and scholar Dr Norman Finkelstein (who himself was denied tenure by DePaul University). According to The Huntington News, pro-Israel protesters repeatedly interrupted Dr Finkelstein throughout his lecture, standing up "whenever he said the word 'Israel,' holding signs that supported their beliefs and carrying Israeli flags." At one point somebody even yelled out "you're wrong." And yet these students escaped any sanction.
So it appears that there are double standards at play here, and apparently this kind of discrimination is nothing new. SJP leader Tori Porell explains that although the group has successfully organized many popular events in the past, "during this year's Israeli Apartheid Week, we were not allowed to proceed with our planned 'mock checkpoint' demonstration. The University claimed that we had not filed some forms correctly, but the timing was suspect as they only notified us less than 24 hours before the event was to take place." She adds that, "There are numerous other examples of SJP being somehow singled out for bureaucratic hassles that other groups never seem to encounter."
And as Abraham also points out in the Globe, the University is now requiring SJP to come up with a "civility statement" that lays down rules for future conduct, which suggests that any punishment is inspired more by politics than bureaucracy. According to Porell, SJP has never heard of any other group being required to have a "civility statement". However the administration stands by the sanction, saying that these types of conflict provide a "teachable moment" and that the experience will help strengthen the leadership of SJP. But then we have to stop and ask why the administration was not just as eager to help strengthen the leadership of Huskies for Israel after its protest?
Perhaps it has something to do with a letter that Huskies for Israel sent to the President of Northeastern before Dr Finkelstein's lecture, available in full at his web site. The letter implores the university to intervene and stop the event because it will create "an environment that is harmful and hostile to Jewish students on our campus." Indeed the letter quite unbelievably states that if the event does in fact take place, then "irreparable damage will be done to the Jewish students on our campus that comprise about 1,000 members of our student body, and the University will ultimately stand accountable for that harm." The letter contains many other claims that are also beyond belief, as well as pointed accusations against both the administration and the faculty.
The bullying tone of this letter makes what happened to SJP even more concerning. How can we accept the claim that the exchange of ideas about Israel and Palestine will create a hostile atmosphere for Jewish students only? Also how will listening to a scholarly argument cause "irreparable damage?" And what kind of threat against the University is Huskies for Israel making? Certainly these questions are meaningful when considering the broader issue of academic freedom more generally. But perhaps we can overlook them in this case, because when Dr. Finkelstein did finally speak, it is likely that the hostility, damage and harm these students claimed they would experience from his lecture all disappeared because they were able to protest, and without any sanction.
But then surely SJP should also have been allowed to protest, especially against soldiers who are actively causing harm today through their occupation of Palestine? What is the purpose of any military occupation other than to dominate the occupied by force? And since Israel is in a continued state of conflict with Palestine through the occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem, as well as the siege on Gaza, Palestinian-American students and those sympathetic to their cause will undoubtedly be fearful upon encountering the very same soldiers who are currently carrying out these acts of domination today. Except when students from SJP protested the soldiers, they were punished.
The double standard being practiced here risks further minimizing both the contemporary and historical crimes against the Palestinian people, while maximizing the historical crimes against the Jewish people. Both populations have suffered. But certainly the academy should be an open space where all human suffering is equally recognized?
It is deeply problematic that some American students are not allowed to freely criticize an occupying army, while others can freely criticize a respected scholar who critically reflects upon that occupation. Porell explains that, "SJP is working to raise more awareness about our situation on campus through a wider media campaign and through outreach to other student groups." So the good news is that the students remain determined to continue their struggle. However Porell also admits that so far the "debate seems to be isolated to the students involved or [those] who were already connected to the issues." So I guess what we need to learn from this "teachable moment" is that despite the recent achievements of BDS, here in the US we still have a long way to go.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.