Liberal critics of Israel often think that, to achieve peace with Palestinians, all Israel needs to do is better respect international law. Noura Erakat’s new book, Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine, powerfully corrects this narrative by showing how international law has done more to entrench Israel’s settler colonialism than impede it. I reviewed the book for Jacobin.
When I was an undergrad at Fordham, my friends and I tried to form a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The student government voted to approve our application, but the dean of students overruled that vote and prohibited us from attaining official club status on campus. So we filed a lawsuit. Last week, we won: a judge ordered Fordham to recognize SJP as a university-sanctioned club. I wrote about it for The Nation.
On the first day of the Spring 2017 semester, national media outlets broke the story. That morning, two legal organizations, the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal, sent an eleven-page legal letter to Fordham University’s president contending that the school’s decision to deny official club status to the Jesuit university’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) violated free speech principles and students’ civil rights.
“This experience has underscored how difficult it is to talk about Palestinian freedom in America without facing serious suppression,” Ahmad Awad, the chapter’s then-president, wrote in the New York Daily News. “I was devastated to discover that Fordham would prohibit SJP — and, even worse, do so not because of any bad behavior, but simply because of what it represents on paper.”
We—that is, Fordham SJP’s founding members, of which I was one—expected to face some Zionist resistance, but the categorical ban blindsided us. After all, several other universities in the tri-state area—Columbia, NYU, John Jay, Brooklyn College, Hunter, Pace, Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale—and many other Jesuit universities—Georgetown, Boston College, Loyola Chicago, and Marquette—have SJP chapters, among the 200 in the US advocating on college campuses for the basic rights of Palestinians. But Fordham did not. In the fall of 2015, we set out to correct that, just over a year after the brutal Israeli assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014 that killed more than 1,500 Palestinian civilians in 51 days. As citizens of an imperialist state that financially, diplomatically, and militarily enables Israel’s war crimes, ethnic cleansing, settler colonialism, and apartheid more than any other, we had a responsibility to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. Doing so on Fordham’s campus, we found, was made close to impossible.
Our experience is not unusual. In fact, it is a manifest example of a phenomenon known as the “Palestine exception to free speech,” a disproportionate effort across American institutions to stifle and punish advocacy for Palestinian rights. State governments; officials at museums, community centers, and non-profits; and university administrations in particular regularly capitulate to pressure from pro-Israel lobbyists and suppress the free speech rights of pro-Palestine activists. In a 2015 report, our attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal documented nearly 300 instances of suppression of Palestine activism on more than 65 US college campuses in an 18-month period. Ours was just one.
After submitting our application, we were met with several setbacks, including concern over, to quote the dean of students, “rogue chapters” of SJP that were engaging in forms of direct action that he said he wouldn’t like to see at Fordham. The dean, the director of student affairs, and the student government were also concerned that our support for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), a nonviolent movement initiated in 2005 by Palestinian civil society to put economic pressure on the state of Israel to restore basic rights to Palestinians, would “stir up controversy.”
Finally, after 364 days of delays and questioning along these lines, Fordham’s student government voted on our application in November 2016. Despite an organized attempt by a few professors and Fordham’s Jewish Student Organization to sway the vote against us, the student government approved SJP for club status. “This chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham fulfills a need for open discussion and demonstrates that Fordham is a place that exemplifies diversity of thought,” its statement read. “[SJP’s] presence will help to create a space for academic discussion and promote intellectual rigor on campus. We do not believe that the presence of Students for Justice in Palestine will take away from efforts to promote a safe environment on our campus.”
But on December 22, the last day of final exams before winter break, Dean of Students Keith Eldredge emailed us to say that he was exercising his never-before-used veto power to overrule the student government’s vote, denying us club status.
First, he wrote, “I cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country, when these goals clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University.” Second, he wrote that our unwavering support for BDS “presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding” and fosters “polarization rather than dialogue.” Last, Eldredge took issue with our name, saying that its “affiliation” with the national chapter is not the “best way to provide” “open, academic discussion and the promotion of intellectual rigor on campus.” “There is no appeal of my decision,” he wrote in a follow-up.
But if Fordham is “committed to research and education that assist in the alleviation of poverty, the promotion of justice, the protection of human rights,” as the mission statement proclaims, then Eldredge’s claim that the political goals of the Palestinian people “clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University” is without merit. Since the Nakba, the forced removal by Zionist paramilitaries of 750,000 Palestinians at the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the settler colonial government of Israel has increasingly chipped away at the land and rights of Palestinians. Every few years, Israel “mows the lawn” in Gaza, its genocidal euphemism for bombing the besieged population into submission. As occupied people of the West Bank and Gaza, as second-class citizens of Israel, or as refugees across the world denied the right to return, Palestinians should be among the least controversial of groups deemed worthy of international solidarity.
As Radhika Sainath, our attorney at Palestine Legal, quipped, “No one’s more polarizing than president-elect Trump, but Fordham did not ban the College Republicans.” When the College Republicans invited the right-wing, racist political strategist Roger Stone to campus this past October, Fordham president Joseph McShane, S.J., denounced Stone’s “demeaning” opinions, but said he would nevertheless allow Stone’s talk to proceed. “If we err in this decision, we do so on the side of academic freedom,” he wrote. The inherent contradictions in Fordham’s alleged dedication to academic freedom expose clearly the “Palestine exception.”
We argue that there is little that fosters polarization more than Fordham’s ban on SJP. The most effective barrier to open dialogue and academic freedom is an outright prohibition on a group to advocate its political agenda—precisely what Fordham has done to SJP. The deeply flawed conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, one of the sources for the accusation that SJP is “polarizing,” will persist as long as Fordham prohibits SJP from highlighting this distinction. What’s more, every oppressed or marginalized political viewpoint is slandered by the power structure as “polarizing” and “controversial” until it becomes accepted in the mainstream. Powerful officials label something “polarizing” to delegitimize a political idea they don’t agree with.
Regarding our so-called “affiliation” with the national chapter (NSJP), we obtained email confirmation, as requested, from NSJP saying that “we have not had any requirements for any group that comes to our conference to include specific language in their respective constitutions.” NSJP’s website makes it clear: “we do not dictate to SJP chapters: all individual SJPs are autonomous student orgs on their respective campuses.” We also added a line to our proposed constitution, again as requested, making clear that “NSJP requires nothing of us, and we have no responsibility to it.” In this context, it’s hard not to view Eldredge’s decision as anything but an attack on an expression of solidarity with other groups fighting for the basic rights of Palestinians and on anti-imperialist politics more broadly.
After Dean Eldredge issued his veto, a solidarity petition created by New York City SJP garnered support from more than 125 organizations and 400 individuals. Fordham’s administration received letters expressing support for SJP from more than 125 Fordham faculty members, a group of Catholic clergy and professors, Jewish Voice for Peace, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, the Middle East Studies Association, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
When Fordham announced that it planned to stay the course, SJP organized a rally. Nearly 50 supporters showed up on a cold Monday afternoon, from students to professors to our comrades in NYC SJP, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Workers World Party, and the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network. Fordham responded by charging a member of SJP with violating the university’s demonstration policy. When Eldredge prohibited her from bringing a lawyer to her disciplinary hearing, she walked out. Eldredge then sanctioned her with a warning.
In April, we sued Fordham. Because Fordham is a private university, its students aren’t legally protected by the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees. So our lawsuit alleged that Fordham had violated its own policies on free expression and the proper procedure for handling a proposed club’s application—an issue justiciable under a section of New York law that prohibits action deemed “arbitrary and capricious.”
One of the major claims in the lawsuit centers on a curious email we received from the president of student government just a few weeks before the body’s vote of confidence in SJP. After I pointed out in a meeting with student government that it appeared as if our application was being handled in such a way that violated the terms of the club application process, he told us that the guidelines provided to SJP were “written incorrectly,” adding:
The formal Club Guidelines should have been copied exactly to the Club Registration Packet but for some reason that did not happen… During the making of said registration document, both myself and the members of the Office for Student Involvement assumed that the two documents would be exactly the same, unfortunately that was not the case and we are realizing the error in our assumptions…. I apologize on behalf of [student government] for the confusion… I can guarantee that there was no malicious intent for the differences in the forms, simply a lapse in editing.
It’s no coincidence that SJP was the first club to uncover this discrepancy, as no other club has been subjected to the same Trumpian extreme vetting that we were. Fordham tried to explain away the error with the dubious assertion that the confusion created by the incorrectly written documents was a “harmless error created by students, not the university,” and therefore the university wasn’t liable. Ironically, the line in the club application procedure absent from the “incorrectly written” version that magically appeared in the new one—which we did not receive until 11 months after we applied—assigned explicit, unilateral veto power to Dean Eldredge as the final step of the application process. In the old version, Eldredge’s role was merely to “approve” proposed clubs in tandem with another school administrator and before—not after—the student government’s vote.
“Fordham’s student speech policies convey at the most basic level that it cannot treat students or groups that promote views that are unpopular or controversial differently or negatively because administrators or others on campus disagree or have negative associations with them,” the lawsuit made clear. If Fordham values “freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas,” believes that the “expression of controversial ideas and differing views is a vital part of University discourse,” and guarantees that everyone “has a right to freely express his or her positions and to work for their acceptance whether he/she assents to or dissents from existing situations in the University or society,” as its own policies state, then its selective refusal to recognize SJP—in contrast to other political groups like the Feminist Alliance, College Democrats, and College Republicans—based on how much controversy the club’s pro-Palestine, anti-Zionist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics could provoke is clearly arbitrary and capricious.
Further evidence for the arbitrariness and capriciousness of Fordham’s decision can be found in its concern over the perceived behavior of the “rogue” SJP chapters—NYU SJP’s mock eviction notices, for example. In a statement to media, Fordham said that its officials “aren’t in a position to know the truth of these reports,” admitting that its justification for banning SJP at Fordham was based merely on hearsay about students at other campuses, undercutting any rational basis for its decision.
When it came time for Fordham to respond to our lawsuit, it offered an entirely new justification for its decision, one that no university official raised with us at any point in the club application process. Dean Eldredge claimed that he banned SJP to prevent “the resulting possible negative impacts on student safety and the general security of the Fordham community.” As author and activist Sarah Schulman pointed out in her book Conflict Is Not Abuse, Zionists on college campuses have frequently invoked the language of safety and abuse to successfully shut down pro-Palestine activism.
Tomorrow, Wednesday, January 3, a Manhattan court could dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the university’s decisions are not reviewable by a court. But if the court allows the case to proceed, it will be tasked with deciding whether to grant SJP’s request for a preliminary injunction, an order requiring Fordham to temporarily recognize SJP as an official club while the court considers the merits of the case. Without this injunctive relief, SJP’s members could graduate before they have the chance to make Palestine activism a part of their college experience.
“What my peers and I care about is not simply the state of free speech protection on university campuses, though it is unconscionable that Fordham has created these conditions in which many students no longer feel safe to voice support for Palestine,” Sofia Dadap, one of the petitioners, said. “What we believe in is standing against racism and imperialism and actively promoting collective self-determination for Palestinians and all colonized peoples.”
Taken at face value, President Trump’s nonsensical declaration of his IDGAF position on a solution to Israeli apartheid –– “I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.” –– seemed to signal a slight departure from more than 20 years of U.S. support for the politically acceptable two-state solution.
After the 1993 Oslo Accords made the two-state solution popular, Bill Clinton became the first president to endorse it in January 2001. George W. Bush then made it official U.S. policy, where it remained until Trump’s press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday.
Corporate media reacted with deep concern. Both the New York Times and Washington Post editorial boards used the word “dangerous” to describe Trump’s shift away from what the former called “the only just answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“There is no conceivable one-state solution that both parties will like,” the Times asserted. “The likeliest outcome, given the growth rate of the Arab population, is that Israel would be confronted with a miserable choice: to give up being a Jewish state — or to give up being a democratic state by denying full voting rights to Palestinians.”
The Post made the same point: “there is no workable one-state formula under which Israel would remain both a Jewish state and democratic.”
These rebukes to Trump’s statement sound exactly like what John Kerry said in his final speech as Obama’s secretary of state in December. After delivering perhaps the strongest criticism of Israeli settlements by any U.S. official, he affirmed U.S. support for a two-state solution: “The two-state solution is the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Explaining his rationale, Kerry said, “here is a fundamental reality: if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic, it cannot be both. And it won’t ever really be at peace.”
But rather than an argument for a two-state solution, this point should be viewed as an argument against it. In fact, this oft-repeated argument is the two-state solution’s death knell or, as Ali Abunimah put it, its “eulogy.”
When the New York Times, Washington Post and John Kerry describe what Israel “giving up” being a democracy looks like — “denying full voting rights to Palestinians,” as NYT put it; or, “Most Israelis who favor [one state] imagine an apartheid-like system in which Palestinians would live in areas with local autonomy but without either sovereignty or the same democratic rights as Jews,” in the words of the Post; or, “If there is only one state, you would have millions of Palestinians permanently living in segregated enclaves in the middle of the West Bank, with no real political rights, separate legal, education and transportation systems, vast income disparities, under a permanent military occupation that deprives of them of the most basic freedoms. Separate and unequal is what you would have,” as Kerry put it –– what they’re actually describing is the current reality for Palestinians. If Israel were to “give up” being a democratic state after implementation of a one-state solution, it would look no different than it does now.
The conception of a two-state solution, as the Times, Post and Kerry see it, would “cosmetically repackage this injustice as Palestinian ‘independence,’ without fundamentally altering it,” Abunimah wrote. “What [Kerry] offers Palestinians is a demilitarized bantustan with the singular purpose of preserving an all-powerful Israel as a racist state with a permanent Jewish majority.” In other words, a two-state solution would not solve the problem of apartheid. It would also allow the racism inherent to Israel as a Jewish state to persist.
Without doing so explicitly, the argument made by the Times, Post and John Kerry acknowledges that Israel, under a one-state solution, would be morally indefensible as a Jewish state. The only realistic solution, therefore, is one state with equal rights for all.
It’s worth noting that Trump’s lack of explicit support for a two-state solution in the press conference yesterday does not mean the United States has all of a sudden abandoned support for it. In fact, today Trump’s team has already began to clarify or walk back Trump’s comments during the press conference, affirming U.S. support for a two-state solution.
“We absolutely support a two-state solution,” Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said.
The two state-solution is the “best possibility for peace in the region,” said David Friedman, Trump’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Outside of Facebook’s office at 770 Broadway in New York on Friday afternoon, activists protested Facebook’s recent partnernership with the Israeli government to crack down on “incitements to violence.”
Despite the constant heavy rain, nearly two dozen protesters showed up to the event, organized by the Samidoun Palestinian Political Prisoner Solidarity Network and NYC Students for Justice in Palestine.
“We’re here today in solidarity with Palestinians who have been protesting Israel’s new agreement with Facebook, as well as its deletion of Palestinian content, which has been an ongoing problem for years,” Joe Catron, one of the event’s organizers, told me.
Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that Facebook and the Israeli government have teamed up to “tackle incitement” online “as the government pushes ahead with legislative steps meant to force social networks to rein in content that Israel says incites violence.”
As Alex Kane reported in The Intercept in June, Israel has been aggressively monitoring the content of Facebook posts by Palestinians. Human rights groups have documented that as many as 400 Palestinians have been arrested in the past year for the content of their social media posts. “This is a brutally effective form of censorship in the Middle East, where online communication is a popular organizing tool that’s generally seen as independent of government interference,” a Huffington Post reporter wrote.
The AP report prompted journalist Glenn Greenwald to ask, “Do you trust Facebook — or the Israeli government — to assess when a Palestinian’s post against Israeli occupation and aggression passes over into censorship-worthy ‘hate speech’ or ‘incitement’?” He also pointed out that “it’s actually very common for Israelis to use Facebook to urge violence against Palestinians“:
In 2014, thousands of Israelis used Facebook to post messages “calling for the murder of Palestinians.” When an IDF occupying soldier was arrested for shooting and killing a wounded Palestinian point blank in the head last year, IDF soldiers used Facebook to praise the killing and justify that violence, with online Israeli mobs gathering in support.
According to Israel’s Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked – who, ironically enough in a now-deleted genocidal Facebook post, called for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes” a day before six Israelis kidnapped and burned alive Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khudai – Facebook has granted 95 percent of Israel’s 158 requests to remove content in the last four months.
More than a week after the AP report, the Electronic Intifada reported that Facebook, undoubtedly a hugely influential force in journalism, had deleted the accounts of editors at two prominent Palestinian publications. “We believe this is the result of the agreement between Israel and Facebook. It is very strange that Facebook would take part in such an agreement, given that it is supposed to be a platform for free expression and journalism,” one of the newspapers said. The next day, Facebook admitted the editors’ accounts were deleted in error.
“Facebook is a private company, with a legal obligation to maximize profit, and so it will interpret very slippery concepts such as ‘hate speech’ and ‘inciting violence’ to please those who wield the greatest power,” Greenwald wrote.
The protest outside Facebook’s office lasted from 4 p.m. to about 6:30 p.m.
See my coverage of the protest on Periscope here.
Originally published at the Fordham Observer‘s “Going Global” column.
The Observer is launching an international column to update students on global events with expert commentary from professors. Tweet us what you think @fordhamobserver.
Nigerian Presidential Election
Muhammadu Buhari has become the first opposition candidate to win a presidential election in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, unseating President Goodluck Jonathan by 2.7 million votes. One of Nigeria’s military rulers, Buhari, 72, first came to power in a military coup in 1984. Many voters were drawn to his hard-handedness in a country marked by corruption and an Islamist insurgency by Boko Haram, both targets of much of Buhari’s aggressive rhetoric. “If he acts on his military approach to end the insurgency, Nigeria will plunge into violence and political instability. There is no military solution to Boko Haram. Buhari must address the socio-economic causes of the insurgency to advance democratic values and foster economic development,” Amir H. Idris, professor and chair of African and African American Studies, said.
Palestine Becomes Member of ICC
As of April 1, Palestine has become an official member of the International Criminal Court (ICC). In January, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas acceded to the 1998 Rome Statute, which created the court, after the United States and Israel blocked a U.N. Security Council measure calling for an end to the Israeli occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state. Palestine has given the ICC jurisdiction over incidents beginning in June 2014, a month before Israel launched its 51-day assault on the Gaza Strip killing more than 2,200 Palestinians, including nearly 1,500 civilians, opening the door to prosecute Israeli war crimes. Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, opened a preliminary examination in January. The Israeli military is conducting several already in an attempt to stymie external efforts to hold the military accountable for war crimes. “[Palestinian ICC membership] could mean prosecution not only of Israelis, but also Palestinians – including groups like Hamas. As the ICC’s preliminary examinations typically last months or years, it may be a whole year before we see how the ICC will proceed,” Karen Corrie, adjunct professor of political science and former trial lawyer for the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICC, said.
Obama Imposes Sanctions on Venezuelan Leaders
In March, the White House imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan senior officials, citing human rights violations and corruption. As a legal requirement to justify the sanctions, President Obama declared Venezuela “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security,” but has since rescinded this classification. 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries issued support for President Nicolás Maduro and rejected the US sanctions, claiming they are a threat to Venezuelan sovereignty and aren’t actually about human rights given U.S. support of repressive regimes across the world and its long-time attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government in Venezuela. “Regardless of what one can think of the wisdom of Maduro’s policies, it is hard to see how Venezuela — a country in the middle of a deep economic crisis, high inflation and high crime rates — can represent such a threat to the most powerful country in the world,” Hector Lindo-Fuentes, professor and associate chair of history, said.