Antisemitism charge against pro-Palestinian students dropped for lack of evidence
Students for Justice in Palestine, Berkeley University, stage a mock checkpoint during Israeli apartheid week, February 2012. Photo by Tony Zhou, Daily Californian
Nora Barrows-Friedman, The Electronic Intifada
August 08, 2012
Berkeley–An attempt to portray Palestine solidarity campaigning on campus as “anti-Semitism” has failed — once again — at the University of California, Berkeley.
Lacking evidence that would support their complaints, a group of Zionist students had to abandon a federal lawsuit and reach a settlement accord in late June.
But this will almost certainly not be the last case of its type. Across California, and elsewhere in the United States, well-financed lobby groups working closely with the Israeli government continue to file various lawsuits against universities, alleging civil rights violations against Jewish students. The real intention, however, is to chill Palestine solidarity activism and censor open discussions about Israeli policy in classrooms.
The UC Berkeley lawsuit termination follows a dismissal in December 2011 of an earlier version of the same lawsuit by a judge who ruled that the students’ claims lacked evidence. But the judge allowed a settlement to proceed which included the ability of the students to amend their initial civil rights law complaint. However, the settlement agreement reiterated the judge’s assertion that there was no basis to the allegations and required that the lawsuit be closed.
Activists and civil rights advocates say that the end to this lawsuit is a relief to student organizers on UC Berkeley’s campus. But it is a cautious relief.
The lawsuit against the UC Regents — the governing body of the University of California — was filed in 2011 by two students associated with Tikvah, a Zionist Jewish organization on campus. It alleges that the university allowed “discrimination” against Jewish students to occur by tolerating the “development of a dangerous anti-Semitic climate on its campuses.”
The plaintiffs also claim that the university failed to “adopt and implement policies, regulations and student organizations procedures to prevent threats, intimidation and harassment by the anti-Semitic/anti-Israel SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine], MSA [Muslim Students Association] and MSU [Muslim Student Union], all of which threatens and endangers the health and safety of University of California’s Jewish students.”
Claiming that Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim student organizations were not only “anti-Semitic” but “pro-terrorist,” the lawsuit includes extreme Islamophobic and anti-Arab rhetoric. The plaintiffs allege that “the more publicly activist SJP may be understood as the militant arm of the outwardly benevolent MSA”; and adds that SJP, the Muslim Student Association and Muslim Student Union help to “fund terrorism” and have ties to “terrorist groups including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
A central complaint in the lawsuit is that symbolic protest actions during the SJP-organized Israeli Apartheid Week — a global week of action to bring attention to Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights — along with the creation of a mock Israeli checkpoint on campus created a “hostile environment” towards Jewish students (nothwithstanding the fact that UC Berkeley’s SJP is a multi-cultural, multi-faith group that includes many Jewish students among its members).
One of the plaintiffs, Jessica Felber, also claims that she was “attacked” by a Palestinian student during one of the protests. However, the court decided early on that the entire lawsuit had no valid legal claim, and neither the university nor the court were required to address the specific allegations. The Palestinian student, for his part, has vigorously denied attacking Felber.
Zionist group files civil rights complaint
Though the Felber vs. UC Regents lawsuit has proven unfruitful to the plaintiffs, they asserted that they would bring the same complaints against UC Berkeley to the US Department of Education, citing violations of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which protects against discrimination based on race or national origin in institutions that receive federal funding.
However, this Title VI complaint may be in violation of the settlement contract and the court’s dismissal of the suit. The settlement agreement released all claims against the university, and was dismissed on the basis that the plaintiffs cannot file the same complaint again.
But the plaintiffs associated with Tikvah are pushing forward anyway, and filed the Title VI claim on 9 July. This “lawfare” tactic — using civil rights laws to claim prejudice against Jewish students because of Palestine solidarity activism, or Muslim student organizing — is being regularly practiced by other Zionist groups across the US. The tactic has been pioneered and coordinated by Kenneth Marcus, a pro-Israel activist who previously headed the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which handles such complaints.
Some say that using Title VI in this way is deeply troubling. In an article published by The Electronic Intifada in January, a Jewish professor at University of California Santa Cruz who was targeted and harassed by Zionist groups said it was “disturbing” to hear that such groups were attempting to define Judaism as a racial identity, “because that’s what Hitler did … but [they] have to define it this way to claim anti-Semitism.”
Failing to justify claims
Apparently responding to campaigns by Israel lobby groups, including the Zionist Organization of America and the Anti-Defamation League, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a new set of guidelines in 2010 that specifically “applies Title VI … to the protection of Jewish students from anti-Semitism on campuses. Title VI prohibits discrimination based on ‘race, color or national origin’ but does not include religion. Under the Department of Education guidelines, the Civil Rights Act can be invoked if anti-Jewish behavior is considered to be based on shared ethnic characteristics” (“New guidelines add protection for Jewish students,” Baltimore Jewish Times, 27 October 2010).
Even so, Israel lobby groups have yet to make any legal headway using various strategies in California and across the US.
As The Electronic Intifada reported, the Amcha Initiative, a Zionist political group co-founded by faculty at UC Santa Cruz and UC Los Angeles, has launched legal actions against faculty members who are openly critical of Israeli policies, and are taking their claims of “anti-Semitism” and “intellectual and emotional harassment” of Jewish students to the top courts in the state.
Amcha filed complaints of violations of Title VI at UC Santa Cruz more than one year ago, a matter that is is still pending with the Office of Civil Rights. StandWithUs, a Los Angeles-based national Israel lobby organization working closely with the Israeli government, was also planning a civil rights complaint against Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, but never appears to have filed it since the plan was exposed by The Electronic Intifada last September.
In January, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights threw out a complaint by Zionist groups alleging civil rights law violations at Barnard College in New York.
In 2008, the Department of Education tossed out a Title VI claim filed by the Zionist Organization of America against UC Irvine — but, according to The Jewish Daily Forward, the case is apparently being reconsidered under the secretary of education’s new guidelines, and another, separate Title VI complaint has been filed there (“Coming up empty on Title VI,” 13 March 2012).
Demanding punishment of faculty
This past month, Amcha leveled attacks (but not a civil rights complaint) against a professor at UCLA who posted a link to websites with information on the Palestine solidarity movement, including the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. UCLA’s academic freedom committee of the academic senate rejected Amcha’s claims against Dr. David Delgado Shorter, and reiterated the school’s commitment to academic freedom and protection against intimidation and complaints by outside political groups.
In another example from June of this year, the Global Frontier Justice Center — the US front for the Israeli lawfare group Shurat Hadin — demanded that the city of Los Angeles sue California State University at Northridge mathematics professor David Klein for his outspoken criticism of Israel.
This demand — which California’s attorney general had earlier declined to take seriously — followed an aggressive campaign against Klein by Amcha, who called for the university to punish him for his public support of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Invoking the Holocaust
Legal threats are part of an expanding effort by the Israel lobby and Zionist groups who target the academic system with accusations of anti-Semitism, emotion-laden allegations of attacks on Jewish students and manipulation of the memory of genocide to silence debate. In their Title VI claim, for example, the Felber lawsuit plaintiffs invoked the Holocaust, labeling the Univrersity of California’s “tolerance” of Palestine solidarity groups on campus as “a chilling reminder of the darkest chapter of history.”
They claimed that “the university’s actions and omissions present a disturbing echo of incitement, intimidation, harassment and violence carried out under the Nazi regime and those of its allies in Europe against Jewish students and scholars in the leading universities of those countries during the turbulent years leading up to and including the Holocaust.”
Tom Pessah, a Jewish Israeli graduate student at UC Berkeley and a longtime member of Students for Justice in Palestine, remarked that this comparison is not just shockingly ludicrous, but dangerous as well.
“Many people have devoted their entire lives to informing the world about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism more generally, and this is a truly priceless legacy that is supposed to protect all of us, Jews and non-Jews, from further expressions of racism,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
“To use this legacy to score cheap political points completely devalues it, and that is something that actually puts Jews in jeopardy. If people listen to the arguments in this lawsuit, and get really convinced that what Jewish students experienced in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust is in any way like [what’s happening at] UC Berkeley in 2012, that will undermine the work of everyone who has ever sought to raise awareness of what the Nazis did. Anti-Semitism will really come to mean disagreement with Israeli government policies, and nothing more than that. And that is really scary.”
“Shutting down speech critical of Israel”
Liz Jackson of the National Lawyers Guild’s San Francisco office has been actively involved with legal advocacy work in defense of the free speech of students engaged in Palestine solidarity activism at UC Berkeley. She said that the Felber lawsuit and Title VI claims are prime examples of the way in which Zionist groups are attempting to clamp down on academic freedom and on-campus critical discussion of Israeli policies.
“This lawsuit isn’t just about those events, it’s not just about Israeli Apartheid Week, or mock checkpoints — it’s about shutting down speech critical of Israel,” Jackson stated.
“And because it’s harder to bully and threaten [individual] students themselves, because they’re passionate and not going to be deterred, they try and do it by threatening the campuses. Basically the thrust of the lawsuit was that it violates the civil rights of Jewish students by failing to protect them against a hostile ‘anti-Semitic’ environment,” she said.
Jackson told The Electronic Intifada that the Israel lobby groups were smart to have identified the campus as a priority battleground to try and quash criticism and discussion of Israeli policies. “When they get so many students to say ‘I feel uncomfortable,’ that’s their best effort at making a case conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism,” she said. “Where else in US society are they going to have a chance to make that case? The campus is their only place.”
“Guidance” from Israel lobby
The settlement agreement was filed around the same time as two separate reports on Jewish Student Campus Climate and Muslim and Arab Student Campus Climate were presented to the University of California. The reports were issued by members of the University of California’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion, a council developed by UC President Mark Yudof in 2010.
Yudof wrote a letter in September 2011 explaining that the climate councils would be asked to review “current efforts and identify ongoing challenges to creating healthy and welcoming campus environments” (“President Yudof address campus climate concerns for Jewish community”).
Yudof has been an ally to Israel lobbyists who are eager to enforce censorship on campus behind the mask of perceived discrimination against Jewish students. As Dalia Almarina reported for The Electronic Intifada in April, Yudof wrote an open letter to the University of California community in March admonishing incidents of “intolerance” against Jewish students. Almarina described this letter as an “attempt to disguise promotion of Israeli impunity as concern for the safety and security of University of California students. His comments amount to abuse of those who suffer true oppression as political tools for silencing any challenge to Israeli supremacy.”
Included on his advisory council addressing climate concerns for Jewish students is Rick Barton, national education chairman of the Anti-Defamation League — a onetime civil rights group that now attempts to stifle Palestine solidarity activism on campuses across the US. The campus climate report on Jewish students, which Barton co-authored, can be downloaded from the UC website.
Yudof also “sought guidance,” he stated, from the American Jewish Committee, another Zionist organization, in addressing concerns from Jewish groups following the 2010 divestment initiative at UC Berkeley (which was later vetoed by the student body president) and the UC Irvine protest by Muslim students against an appearance by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.
The students — known as the Irvine 11 — were eventually convicted in September 2011 of “criminal conspiracy” for their decision to take part in a vocal protest during Oren’s speech, but the judge in the trial refused to sentence them to any jail time. The University of California also suspended the Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine immediately following the protest.
However, despite boasting of “disciplining” students such as the Irvine 11, Yudof himself couldn’t contend that Jewish students face a climate of hostility due to Palestine solidarity activism by students and faculty across the state. In January, just days after the Department of Education threw out the civil rights law complaint against Barnard College, Yudof explained in comments in to The Forward in relation to the Title VI complaints at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz that it would be “difficult to prove that the students and faculty in question faced a pervasive, hostile atmosphere.”
Despite Yudof’s affirmation that proving a hostile climate towards Jewish students would be difficult, the climate report on Jewish student experience repeated claims strategically used by Israel lobby groups equating Palestine solidarity activism and anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.
In a recent article for Al Jazeera English, poet and activist Remi Kanazi reported that “from the outset, the Jewish Student Campus Climate report focuses on nonviolent protests and speeches critical of Israel, a state in clear violation of international law, not anti-Jewish bigotry. In fact, nearly 50 percent of the report (excluding the introduction and recommendations) covered ‘the Anti-Zionism/Anti-Israel Movement and its Impact on Climate’ ” (“Silencing pro-Palestinian speech on campus,” 12 July 2012).
Distracting from the real issue
Tom Pessah of Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Berkeley was concerned that the campus climate report on Jewish students has received more attention than actual human rights abuses in Palestine.
“This is the main issue,” Pessah said. “Some people [think] that the way Israel is being talked about on campus is much more important than people not having access to clean water or medical supplies, or being in jail without trial for years. All of these issues we are trying to raise aren’t receiving as much attention as the campus climate report.”
Furthermore, Pessah added, “there’s a consistent effort to divert attention from what the facts are to how people feel.” In the climate report, the authors give a lot of attention to the specific terminology used by Palestine solidarity activists to describe Israeli policy — such as apartheid, the Nakba (the forced displacement of more than 750,000 Palestinians during Israel’s foundation) and ethnic cleansing.
“The counter-argument, given some kind of official sanction in this report,” Pessah said, “is that you can’t actually use those words, because someone’s going to get upset. And I think that that’s a very un-academic way of going about it — you don’t need to deal with actual facts and arguments that people are making, because it might upset you. This is an aberration of the whole academic environment.”
The report’s authors, Pessah pointed out, initially note — correctly — that the Jewish community has a diversity of opinions about Israeli policy. But in the recommendations section toward the end, the authors “report that most Jewish students feel that their identity is related to Israel and they feel that any criticism of Israel is an attack on Israel and an attack on their identity … And suddenly, where before we had a diversity of opinion, now there’s just one correct opinion, which happens to be the ADL [Anti-Defamation League] line,” Pessah added.
“It’s an organization with an agenda, and this agenda shows right through in the report,” he said. “They’re using their image as a protector against anti-Jewish racism, which is a great cause, to bring forward this Zionist agenda, which is not consensual, and which amplifies voices of certain students above others.”
Real fear for Muslim students
Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ San Francisco Bay Area chapter, told The Electronic Intifada that the persistent intimidation, climate reports and threats of lawsuits against students and student groups in California have contributed to an atmosphere of actual, realized fear and caution on campus for Arab and Muslim students.
“We’re now getting reports from families who are saying, you can’t go to school at this campus, or if you do go to school at this campus, you cannot get involved in the MSA [Muslim Student Association] or the SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine],” she said. “[Parents are saying] ‘don’t rock the boat, just graduate.’ These are things that we theorized about five or six years ago, when I was in school, and now that I’m out, I can actually see this manifesting, I actually see these parents giving this advice to these students — it’s concerning.”
A current UC Berkeley student and member of Students for Justice in Palestine, who is of Palestinian descent and who did not want to be named, agreed. The student told The Electronic Intifada that even though he was sufficiently concerned to request anonymity, “I wouldn’t say it has affected me nearly as much as it has other students — because there are students I know who wouldn’t even feel comfortable affiliating with SJP or MSA on their resumes and/or graduate school applications.”
The student added, “many others refuse to participate in meetings and events, or to even join the clubs at all, in fear that they will be targeted by militant Zionists or even law enforcement agencies.”
Billoo remarked that though the attacks have manifested in various ways, it’s clear that the tactics are starkly similar, pointing to centralized strategies orchestrated by larger Zionist and Israel lobby groups. “You see references to StandWithUS, the Zionist Organization of America, and then you see the evolution of tactics in a way that I think … MSA and SJP students simply are not resourced to respond to in the same fashion that they’re being attacked,” she said.
But, she added, this also makes it clear that these students and their Palestine solidarity activism are “incredibly effective.”
“This is when [students] have the most time and the most energy in their entire lives,” Billoo said. “And they have access to thousands of other students to influence them, to talk to them about the human rights atrocities that are happening within the apartheid State of Israel. Even so, it is frightening and it is threatening as we see more and more movement in terms of equating [criticism of Israeli policy] with anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic rhetoric.”
Wide support for free speech
Since the campus climate reports were published, on-campus committees and activist groups, legal advocates, civil rights organizations and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) have called on UC President Yudof to table the report on Jewish students because of its “poor methodology and bias,” in the words of JVP.
In a press statement, Cecilie Surasky of JVP said that “rather than offering a genuine exploration of a range of Jewish student life issues — which we would support — the report reads like a blueprint for limiting pro-Palestinian activism and further marginalizing the growing numbers of students, many of them Jewish, who are critical of Israeli policies” (“JVP asks UC president to table biased report on Jewish life on campus,” 25 July 2012).
Meanwhile, the National Lawyers Guild’s San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Bay Area office, and 17 Arab, Muslim and Palestinian rights activist organizations at the University of California issued a statement which called on Yudof “to exercise caution and adopt a more even-handed approach while considering possible changes in campus free speech rules” (“RE: UC campus “climate assessment” and student speech,” 12 July 2012 [PDF]).
“From its inception, the Council has singled out student speech and activism critical of Israel,” the letter states. It adds that the appointment of a member of the Anti-Defamation League — a group which has called on the UC to silence activism critical of Israel — to help author the climate report, “clearly was calculated to appease your critics in the staunchly pro-Israel community.”
And the UC Ad-Hoc Committee on Jewish Campus Climate drafted their own letter and issued several online public petitions to demand that Yudof table the report.
Opportunity to tell the truth
Zahra Billoo said that throughout all of this, there lies opportunities for Muslim and Arab students and students who are involved in Palestine solidarity activism to take control of their narrative. “They can say hey, this is insane, this was a frivolous lawsuit, and now a complaint is being funded by some outside force based entirely on lies and seeking to chill the First Amendment rights of everybody on campus, not just a handful of students. Because these things impact all of us,” Billoo stated.
The UC Berkeley student who did not wish to be named added that the next step for Palestine solidarity organizing involves strengthening campus coalitions and ensuring that the truth about Israel’s apartheid policies is accessible to the masses.
“It’s important to make sure that campus organizations across the US are not putting any unnecessary energy into defending themselves from Zionist intimidation and harassment, because that is exactly what they would like for us to do,” the student said.
“We are not here to entangle ourselves in legal battles with right-wing fanatics — our primary concern is, and always has been, to end the illegal occupation of Palestine.”
Nora Barrows-Friedman is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.