Pro-Palestine voices must not be silenced

The recent high-profile cases of Kenneth Roth and Jim Cavallaro were just the latest anti-Palestinian actions taken against students and scholars who challenge Israeli settler-colonialism.

Earlier this year, Kenneth Roth was denied a senior fellowship with the Harvard Kennedy School for criticizing Israel. Last month, Biden revoked Jim Cavallaro’s appointment to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for calling out Israeli apartheid and the AIPAC lobbyists who enable it. To many, these blatant violations of academics’ right to free speech may come as a shock. For us, as members of the Ivy Plus Palestine Coalition and as student organizers fighting for Palestinian self-determination, this was nothing out of the ordinary—just the latest iteration of anti-Palestinian action taken against students and scholars in the interest of preserving Israeli settler-colonialism.

In the words of Professor Cavallaro, to whom we reached out for a statement, “Censorship of human rights advocates who denounce apartheid in Israel/Palestine affects countless Palestinian academics, activists, and students, most of whom do not have the kind of platforms from which Ken Roth and myself benefit.” As student activists for Palestine across nine prominent U.S. college campuses, we have repeatedly experienced this censorship. These tactics of ideological violence are all too common on U.S. college campuses and are routinely employed against students like us, who support Palestinian self-determination—but they must end.

For years, organized pro-Israel propaganda firms have worked to silence all advocacy for Palestine and all criticism of state violence. We have been subjected to anti-Palestinian smear campaigns, threats to withhold funding and employment, and negligence from our university administrations when it comes to protecting us. Though these campaigns take many forms, they all support a common agenda: squash academic dissent and limit our freedom of expression. 

We are frequently harassed by organizations outside of our universities that deploy intimidation and misinformation tactics designed to scare our student activists into submission. In 2022, the right-wing Horowitz Freedom Center posted over 5,000 Islamophobic propaganda leaflets around the University of Chicago campus, insinuating that SJP was a front for Hamas and slandering pro-BDS students and politicians as present-day Nazis. In 2022, pro-Israel groups outside of Princeton spent over $1000 on social media advertisements in order to spread propaganda about Princeton’s referendum to boycott Caterpillar Inc. for demolishing Palestinian homes. Since 2016, over 41 Cornell activists and organizers have had their information posted online by Canary Mission. These scare tactics are meant to frighten people away from activism and deter employers from hiring activists. In the words of Ibtihal Malley, a Barnard alumna who has been profiled on Canary Mission, “Some members get put on Canary and decide it isn’t worth it in the long run.” 

Our very right to protest is regularly challenged by those who support the Israeli occupation. In 2022, Dartmouth College Safety and Security tore down fliers advertising the Dartmouth Palestine Solidarity Coalition’s vigil for Palestinians killed in Gaza and power-washed their chalk off the sidewalk so no trace would remain of the event. Also, in 2022, students at the University of Pennsylvania had their Palestinian flag stolen from the Fossil Free Penn encampment. In 2018, University of Chicago Students for Justice in Palestine had their protest installation thoroughly vandalized and their property stolen from the venue—the University of Chicago declined to take any action in holding the perpetrators responsible. In 2014, the Columbia administration tore down a SJP protest banner, violating the “long-standing tradition to allow any recognized Barnard or Columbia student group to […] hang a banner promoting their event”.

Additionally, student organizers at our universities routinely face interference from administrators in our democratic initiatives. In 2019, despite the students of Brown University voting to divest from companies that support the Israeli occupation, the president of Brown vetoed their referendum, going against the recommendation of the school’s official Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies. This campaign is ongoing. In 2022, the Princeton referendum to boycott Caterpillar machinery was ignored by the Student Government, despite the fact that the referendum passed with a majority of students voting “Yes.” Their student government held an internal election to determine whether or not they would uphold opposing groups’ appeal to nullify the results—a clear violation of their democratic mandate. In a similarly undemocratic spirit, the president of Princeton announced that they would take no action whatsoever on the democratically upheld referendum. A year later, the same thing happened at Columbia—their referendum to divest from companies involved in the occupation was shot down by the president of the school. In the words of Rashid Khalidi, a professor at Columbia: “the president has shown contempt for the democratic process.” Simultaneously, the students of Barnard College had their referendum win the majority of votes and be subsequently shot down by their president, Sian Beilock—now the president-elect of Dartmouth College.

These attacks extend far beyond just students: academics at our universities who speak on Israeli settler-colonialism are frequently punished for exercising their academic freedom. In 2021, Cornel West was denied tenure at Harvard, in part due to his support for Palestinian human rights. In 2017, Bruce Duthu, a faculty member of Native American Studies at Dartmouth, was the subject of a protracted smear campaign by pro-Israel faculty and staff who claimed his support for Palestinians was antisemitic. In 2006, Juan Cole, a history professor who had been approved for professorship by multiple departments, was denied tenure at Yale for criticizing the Israeli occupation and the U.S. war on Iraq. In 2014, chaplain Bruce Shipman was also forced to resign from Yale for criticizing Israel’s siege on Gaza.

In our experience, the main reason speaking out for peace is dangerous is because the accusation of antisemitism has become a catch-all used to silence criticism of Israel. Needless to say, this tactic is disingenuous and irresponsible. Antisemitism specifically refers to prejudice against or persecution of people of Jewish faith or origin. To argue that criticism of the Israeli state falls under that definition is, therefore, to argue that Judaism and Zionism are identical, implying that one cannot be Jewish without supporting Israeli state violence and that those who support Israel and its crimes cannot possibly be antisemitic. Neither of these statements is true: many Jewish activists support Palestinian liberation, and many Christian Zionists have been well-documented antisemites

More than this, however, false accusations of antisemitism are actively dangerous, particularly at the current political moment. Antisemitic views are undoubtedly on the rise around the world, and such claims only serve to muddy the waters, making real instances of antisemitism harder to identify and combat. In reality, these unfounded allegations do not help Jewish people but only distract from the fundamental problem: Palestinians are the victim of the world’s longest modern military occupation, subject to routine violations of the Geneva convention in their daily lives, and are denied basic human rights every day in the name of racist ethnonationalism. Overwhelmingly, it is they who suffer under the status quo, and it is their plight that demands action. By all accounts, their situation is dire––both in Palestine and in exile.

Yet, against this backdrop of suppression, there is a small glimmer of hope. As Professor Cavallaro told us in his statement, “Times are changing––after public pressure, Ken was given his position back, and there’s a growing recognition around the world that this is apartheid. More and more people are joining together to demand human rights for Palestinians.” With his words in mind, we stand in firm solidarity with Jim Cavallaro and Kenneth Roth, and we refute the lies of the smear campaigns which have been leveled against both them and us. Their mission is our mission: a better world, free from occupation. Until the day when that is achieved, they will not be silenced, and neither will we.

In Solidarity,

The Ivy Plus Palestine Coalition

(all organizations below have signed this statement and approve of its publication)

  • The Palestine Solidarity Coalition of Dartmouth Students
  • Yalies4Palestine
  • Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine
  • Princeton Committee on Palestine
  • Brown Students for Justice in Palestine
  • Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine
  • Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee
  • Penn Against the Occupation
  • Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Chicago