In November, a seemingly innocuous Instagram post inviting “all students” to a university-sponsored trip to Israel caught the attention of Palestinian students at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC). However, members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were quick to realise that the journey might not be as inclusive as it seemed.
In an attempt to voice their concerns, Salaam Khater, former president of SJP, and her friends, registered for the informational Zoom session in January, led by the faculty member in charge of the trip and the study abroad office. Little did they know that this would be the beginning of a shocking journey filled with discrimination.
“The trip to Israel was being promoted as a trip that is welcoming for all students. However, us being Palestinian and aware of the Occupation know that, if we were to go on this trip, it wouldn’t be the best outcome,” says Salaam.
“We registered for the Zoom call using our names and UIC emails to ask these very important questions to the faculty member leading the trip and to the study abroad office.”
However, they found themselves waiting in the virtual waiting room for approximately 20 minutes without being admitted.
Apprehensive that their Arab names might be the reason for their exclusion from the event, Salaam opted to change her name to “Rebecca”, while another SJP member, Jenin Alharithi, changed hers to Haley, after which they were suddenly granted access.
During the call, they attempted to ask pertinent questions about the trip and the ethical considerations of visiting a country involved in occupation, genocide and ethnic cleansing. However, their questions were met with indifference and an attempt to silence them.
The facilitators muted Salaam, branding her questions as political and, therefore, irrelevant.
Jenin’s experience paralleled Salaam’s, further highlighting the discriminatory treatment they faced. She informed the panel of her own challenging experiences as a Palestinian citizen travelling to Israel, only to receive inadequate responses that demonstrated a lack of willingness to address the concerns of Palestinian students.
She says: “After I was instantly let in once I changed my name to Haley, they were talking about how the trip to Israel will consist of visiting a Bedouin area and camping out in tents to immerse themselves in the culture and see how lovely the country is.”
“When the Q&A started, I informed them that I, a Palestinian citizen who holds a Palestinian ID and passport, have my movement restricted whenever I go to Palestine and Israel and that I can’t really go anywhere that’s not the West Bank. So, I questioned them on how they can guarantee me entering Tel Aviv.”
“But a staff member responded saying they’ve never had a problem entering Israel with an Israeli and American citizenship even though I noted that Israeli citizenship is completely different and considered a legitimate citizenship in the eyes of other nations and Palestinian citizenship is not,” Jenin explains.
Meanwhile, another SJP member, Soha Khatib, who chose not to change her name, remained in the waiting room throughout the meeting. She sent emails to the study abroad office, but her pleas for assistance fell on deaf ears. Moreover, during a subsequent one-on-one meeting with the UIC’s study abroad office, Soha says she faced dismissal, condescension and insensitivity, including being told that she should simply choose not to go on the trip if she felt unsafe.
She says: “My mum is black, and my dad is Palestinian, so I felt it very important to mention … the treatment of black people in Israel, including Ethiopian Jewish people. But when I asked how they can guarantee the safety of black students who also make up a large portion of the UIC population, he [university employee] told me he sensed the undertones of a political agenda.”
“When I began asking more in-depth questions, he just responded saying he doesn’t understand why I want to go on the trip if I’m going to be mistreated.”
I also brought up the apartheid in Israel, but he said the US and Israel have good ties so they’re allowed to travel there, completely erasing the ethics and morality of hosting a study abroad trip in Israel
Despite their repeated efforts to engage with UIC administrators and express their concerns, Salaam, Jenin and Soha encountered resistance at every turn. The administrators were dismissive, unresponsive and even attempted to censor their voices.
In their pursuit of answers, Salaam invoked the Freedom of Information Act to obtain email records that shed light on the administrators’ motives, which revealed that the administrators were planning to admit only students known to the trip’s professor, undermining their initial claim of allowing all students.
Zoha Khalili, staff attorney from Palestine Legal who are helping the students with their case, says: “What’s interesting in the records that Salaam was able to obtain is that we could see that even before the session took place they were also talking about consulting with an outside consultant about the controversial nature of their trip. So, they knew this was going to be controversial.”
“They were also monitoring the comments that were made on the Instagram post that was taken down and noted that two of the people who registered for the Zoom session had also made critical comments on the Instagram post.”
So from the get-go, they were ready to engage in censorship. They knew this trip was controversial and it’s very clear that Palestinian American students were not going to have equal access to this trip.
The discrimination faced by Salaam, Jenin, Soha and their peers is a grave violation of their rights as students. It reflects a disturbing disregard for the principles of equality, fairness and academic freedom that universities should uphold.
A civil rights complaint was submitted against the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) earlier this month, alleging acts of discrimination against Palestinian-American students and individuals who expressed solidarity with Palestine during campus gatherings.
The Title VI complaint, filed by Palestine Legal, has been presented to the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. This complaint calls for a thorough civil rights inquiry into what is characterised as a consistent practice of suppressing free expression and fostering an unwelcoming atmosphere for students of Palestinian descent and those advocating for Palestine.
Soha recounted events in February when the students began distributing flyers to shed light on the problematic trip and exposing the racism they had faced when raising questions about it.
As they began distributing the flyers a professor told them they were causing a disturbance and threatened to call UIC police. Perplexed by the accusation, the students said they decided to leave as they didn’t want trouble.
However, as the doors of the lift opened they saw police officers waiting for them.
“We were all trying to walk away but a police officer grabbed me by the Keffiyeh scarf. I’m also the only hijabi Muslim in the group and the officer grabbed me by my hijab, too, telling me I can’t walk away.”
“I said okay and questioned why he needed to grab me, only for him to grab me again more forcefully and say we were all detained. I watched the video back and realised he pushed me into the wall. I think my trauma response blocked it off.”
In its response to MEMO, the UIC said: “The university has neither received formal notification of a complaint filed with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR), nor any specific details regarding its nature or content.”
“To maintain a fair and impartial process, the university refrains from commenting on matters related to ongoing investigations, including those initiated by the OCR. We take all allegations of civil rights violations seriously and will fully cooperate with any inquiries that may arise from a complaint.”
Despite the hurdles they’ve encountered at UIC, the SJP students remain committed to their cause, driven by their collective belief in the importance of raising awareness about the Palestinian struggle.