Judith Butler and Dima Khalidi speak with TRNN’s Sharmini Peries, about two reports released this week, on how Israel’s defenders use false charges of anti-semitisim, law suits, and official denunciations to limit debate on US Campuses
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Over the last ten years there has been a growing resistance in the U.S. to Israel’s violation of human rights, growing settlements and walls, and denial of land, livelihood and economic development of Palestinians. Add to all of this the military operation launch by Israel between July 8 and August 26 of 2014. Palestinians now refer to this as 50 days of death and destruction by Israel. According to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees at least 2,131 Palestinians were killed in Gaza as a result of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. At least 1,473 of the dead were civilians, including 501 children and 257 women. The resistance to all of this in the U.S. is a growing movement nationwide, particularly on college campuses where many young Arab students are coming of age and acquiring consciousness about the politics of the region. This movement has taken on a life on college campuses, criticizing the Israeli government’s continued assault on the people of Palestine, constituted by Arabs and a growing number of Jewish Americans. Campus groups have called on their universities to divest from companies that do business with Israeli corporations. The result, according to two reports released this week, is harassment, charges of anti-semitism, intimidation, and even job loss and prevention of advancement for those who publicly speak out. One report, titled The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S., details 152 incidents of censorship, punishment, and sanctions in 2014 alone against pro-Palestine groups, and 150 incidents and 33 requests for assistance in anticipation of potential suspension. The second report, released by the advocacy group Jewish Voices for Peace, is titled Stifling Dissent: How Israel’s Defenders Use False Charges of Anti-Semitism to Limit the Debate Over Israel On Campus. To discuss all of this I am joined by two guests, Dima Khalidi and Judith Butler. Joining us from Chicago is Dima Khalidi. She is the founder and director of Palestine Solidarity Legal Support and cooperating council with the Center for Constitutional Rights. And joining us from Berkeley, California is Judith Butler. She is the Maxine Elliott Professor of comparative literature and critical theory at UC Berkeley, and the author on several books on gender, sexuality, politics, and ethics. She is also on the advisory board on academic freedom of Jewish Voices for Peace. I thank you both for joining me today. So Dima, let me start with you. Was there any one incident that propelled you into doing this report? And if so, what was it? KHALIDI: Well, there have been many incidents, actually. You know, Palestine Legal was founded in 2012 as a result of a number of high-profile incidents that we saw, including the prosecution and conviction of ten students at the University of California Irvine for protesting a speech by the Israeli ambassador. A kind of unprecedented criminal prosecution for expressing views at a public lecgture. So before the establishment of Palestine Legal we were seeing a rise in these kinds of incidents of suppression of Palestine advocacy, especially on campuses. And since we were established we have responded to nearly 300–this is just in the last 18 months, in fact, between January 2014 and June 2015, we’ve responded to nearly 300 incidents of suppression on about 65 college campuses, and you know, 24 different states. So it really is a widespread problem. It’s not just a few isolated incidents we’re seeing. You know, I think several incidents in the last couple of years stand out. And they really illustrate the range of tactics that are being used against Palestine solidarity activists in order to silence them. And one that stands out, I think, is the case of Northeastern students, who, you know, were distributing flyers in the dorms. And you know, as a result they were visited by the campus police and called by the police and interrogated. Their group was suspended. Several students were disciplined. So we’re seeing these kinds of disproportionate punishments of students and others, and censorship of people who are expressing views on Palestine because there’s a lot of backlash from groups in this country that do not want that view to be aired. And so they’re engaging in a number of tactics to make sure that, that that doesn’t happen. And part of that is by pressuring universities and other institutions to cancel events, or to punish student activities and to fire professors. It’s happened with Steven Salaita only last fall. You know, he, he lost a, his career has been ruined because of complaints about his tweets on the assaults, the Israeli assaults on Gaza. So, so the effects are real for people here. PERIES: Judith, the Stifling Dissent, the report done by Jewish Voices for Peace, what are the types of incidences or suppression here that are, you know, categorically that led you to issue such a report? JUDITH BUTLER: Yes, well, first let me just say that I think Jewish Voices for Peace is enormously pleased to be publishing its report at the same time that Palestine Legal publishes its, its report. And I think these two reports should be read together, and they should–they should be understood as an indication of a, of a, of a growing indignation on the part of many people concerned with campus politics and academic freedom. With these tactics of intimidation, and in my view and the view of the report, really, there are kind of four general areas of concern. One is intimidation, the intimidation of students, undergraduates, graduates. Intimidation of faculty, especially contingent faculty and nontenured faculty. Censorship of intervention into the curriculum we teach them, books we, we teach, and sometimes also not allowing faculty or activists to speak on campus when their views don’t coincide with mainstream Zionist understandings of the state of Israel and Palestine. I think there’s also, in addition to intimidation and censorship, there is another way to limit debate, which is simply to say, as Hillel does, any speaker who doesn’t actually defend the same view of Zionism that they hold to is not welcome at Hillel. So those students, mainly Jewish students who come to Hillel to understand their world and to understand Jewish values, are not allowed to actually hear a variety of viewpoints about Zionism at, at Hillel itself. Why, why–why wouldn’t Hillel be a place that invites an open and robust debate? So what we’ve seen is the production of Open Hillel, a group of students who had to, to break off from Hillel because it limited debate so severely. And lastly, of course, we’re also seeing forms of retaliation. Some of them are implicit. Young faculty members or graduate students who take certain kinds of critical positions on the state of Israel are being threatened with the loss of job, we did see that in the Steven Salaita case. They’re being threatened with, with, with professional devastation and limitation. And also some state assemblies are now under pressure trying to pass alws that retaliate against individuals or institutions that have supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. All of, all of these are, are issues of great concern. PERIES: And Judith, how broad is the fight against the Palestinian free speech here in the, on campuses? Because we now see that it’s not just limited to campuses, it’s also taken off a new life in terms of the divestment campaign in state governments. BUTLER: I’m not sure now many people it represents. But I think that it’s very forceful. The, the state of Israel has, has put a fair amount of money into its current campaign to fight what it calls the delegitimation of the state of Israel. It seems to me that open debate on Israeli policy or even open debate on Zionism is not the same as delegitimation. I mean, if the state understands itself as legitimate it can enter that debate and say, we’re legitimate. And certainly legitimacy’s not the only question that’s being raised by, by many of the people who are targeted with censorship and intimidation. But there are groups like the AMCHA Initiative, we don’t know how large they are. They don’t really publish their, their membership, if they have a membership. But their tactics are forceful, you know. Blacklisting. Making a list of students, faculty, who have supported Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or have refused to oppose it. What is, what’s the, what’s the point of a, of a blacklist? The whole point of a blacklist is to tell future employers that these people are a problem. Or a group like Stand With Us, which understands itself as doing advocacy work for the state of Israel, it takes an active stance against J Street, which is actually for the most part a Zionist organization which has some criticisms of the state of Israel. Actually calls itself pro-Israel. The language I don’t really understand. It sounds like football. But in any case they, members of Stand With Us violently assaulted Jewish Voice for Peace members in Berkeley at a divestment hearing in 2010. And then there, there are other groups as well that, that tend to characterize Muslim student associations as terrorist. So this kind of, of really appalling language and irresponsible speech and retaliatory methods and intimidation techniques are, are becoming quite common. I don’t–they’re strong in the sense that they cause a scandal and they do frighten administrators. But I’m not sure how much, how many people actually are behind these efforts. I think it’s a good question. PERIES: Now, how much of this campaign against Palestinian free speech is rooted back to the state of Israel? KHALIDI: Well, we don’t know exactly. But we, as you said, there have been reports that the, the government of Israel is, is putting money, resources towards this. The, the prime minister himself has, has said that they, that the state will work to, to engage in lawfare against those who are advocating for Palestinian rights, especially through Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. And you know we, we also know that there are connections between certain Israel advocacy groups that are engaging in these tactics and the state of Israel. So–and organizing, an organization like Shurat HaDin, the Israel Law Center, which is behind a lot of litigation and lawsuit threats here and around the world. We saw they, they have threatened the American Studies association with a lawsuit, as well as others. We, we know that there are connections between them and, and the Israeli state as well. That they may even be taking direction from, from the state of Israel. So the connections are there. There’s also evidence that Stand With Us has close connections with the state of Israel. So they’re undeniable, the depth of them I think is not fully known. PERIES: Now, Judith, we know that the boycott and divestment movement and the resistance on campus has grown. In the past sort of, such resistance movements focused on AIPAC as an organization. What other organizations are in existence that is doing this counter-campaign? BUTLER: I think we are moving into a kind of McCarthyism, or we have already moved. It seems to me that, that many of the people who defended the, the firing of Steven Salaita did so precisely on ideological grounds. They, they didn’t like his point of view and they also presumed they knew what his point of view was. And that was a, that was a non-hiring, or a firing really, that was based on a kind of panicked understanding of his views. But the truth is is that people have been arguing about boycotts for a very long time. Divestment, sanctions, these are–these are established methods and they belong to a nonviolent, a nonviolent movement that’s seeking broad freedoms and justice for the people of Palestine. One can be for it, one can be against it. But it’s properly part of debate in any democratic society. And to try to shut it down and to scare people into thinking that their lives will be ruined and their professional prospects ruined is really, I think, not only an abrogation of basic principles of freedom of expression and freedom of association, but it’s an active, an active practice of censorship that should be imposed on both legal and political grounds. PERIES: And Dima, of the 152 incidences of censorship, punishment, sanctions that you have documented, and this has been over the period of 2014, against pro-Palestinian groups, how many of them are as severe as Salaita’s case? KHALIDI: Salaita’s case is, is one of the more severe that we’ve seen in terms of repercussions for faculty, certainly. But, but we see on a daily basis the kind of, the same kind of effect that, that the case, Salaita’s case has had. Where faculty are intimidated or are, you know, silenced because of their views. We have seen a couple of other cases of faculty being terminated, certainly being attacked for their courses or, or programs that they’ve put on. You know, the Middle East Studies Association, the Middle East studies programs have been attacked. You know, there’s–there’s been an attack on the funding, federal funding for Middle East studies programs, claiming that they are not balanced and that they violate, violate certain laws, which is not the case, certainly. So we’re seeing broad-based attacks. The kinds of cases we deal with are also, you know, there’s, it’s a progressive situation. So we see a lot of pressure being put on universities after a student group does an action, for example. We see a complaint, we saw several complaints to the Department of Education about Palestine activism on campuses. And while these complaints were dismissed ultimately, there were investigations that were open for years. And it resulted in another tactic that we’re seeing, which are a number of bureaucratic barriers being placed to prevent students from organizing. Security fees being imposed on them before they have an event. You know, being called in to the administration to discuss what they are going to say, to give lists of their membership. To, you know, give them scripts of their mock checkpoints on campuses. So, so the effects are more than just, you know, people losing their jobs. It’s a matter of student activists and other, others who are made to feel like what they’re doing is wrong, criminal somehow. And, and then we see a lot of law enforcement scrutiny as well being put on them. So you know, these, these accusations of anti-semitism, of terrorism, are really troubling. There’s really a range of, of tactics that are being used here. And their effects also range. But there’s, it’s, it’s really disturbing how, how much of this we’re seeing. And you know, even if, if it’s not a firing it’s, it has a real effect on people. PERIES: Judith, how does Jewish Voices for Peace actually advise people how to deal with this false accusation of anti-semitism? BUTLER: Well, I think that the main, main point that Jewish Voice for Peace has communicated on this issue is that to criticize the state of Israel for its policy on Palestine, which would include its occupation, which would include the siege of Gaza, which would include the dispossession of Palestinians in ’48 and then again in the, in the last many decades every time new, new borders were drawn. To, to offer those kinds of criticisms is certainly not anti-semitic. One is not attacking the Jewish people. One is not making any claims about who the Jewish people are. One is, one is–one is criticizing a state for unjust policies. And one is criticizing a state for an ongoing subjugation of a minority population that is, is and is not within its national boundaries. So we, we really need to continue to understand that legitimate criticism on the, on, on very basic democratic principles like equality, like freedom, like freedom from subjugation, I mean, all of these–all of these are issues that, that many Jewish people on the left have been struggling for for centuries. So you know, why, why would it be anti-semitic to struggle for freedom or to, or to criticize a state for the illegitimate restriction on freedom, the illegitimate restriction on citizenship and on mobility? So I think we need to disarticulate those two. I, I think there’s a great fear of being accused of anti-semitism. Many Jewish people also mute their own criticisms of, of Israel, because they’re afraid of being accused of self-hated, or they’re being accused of collaboration with anti-semitism. But many Jews are not in, in, in agreement with the state of Israel. The Pew Center published an, a very interesting poll that suggested that the majority of Jews in the United States don’t have strong feelings about Israel. So–and then the rest of us obviously arguing with one another. I don’t know any Jewish dinner table where that argument isn’t happening. So you know, we’re–we’re a diverse and complex people with many political points of view. I don’t think you can say that the state of Israel adequately or fully represents the views of the Jewish people, it’s simply not true. PERIES: And Dima, the last word to you. One of the things cited in the report is the ways in which legislation is being used in order to stifle free speech. Can you elaborate on that? KHALIDI: Yeah. We’ve seen, certainly since the American Studies Association passed a resolution to endorse the academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions in December of 2013, we saw a wave of legislation that directly attacked BDS and the academic boycott in particular. So in, in 2014 we saw about 11 such pieces of legislation being introduced. And you know, with a lot of opposition to this legislation, the bills that–the bills that were introduced did not pass. And a lot of these bills actually tried to defund universities that subsidize associations like the ASA, and that, you know, endorse the boycott. So you know, such a clearly unconstitutional bill did not pass muster in, in several states where it was introduced. We’ve also seen a number of nonbinding resolutions that have been introduced that condemn the academic boycott, that say it’s anti-semitic. That, you know, profess their undying loyalty to the state of Israel, and, and so many of those have passed, often unanimously, in state legislatures. And we’re, we’ve seen more of that this year, and there is a promise of more to come. In Illinois a bill passed that actually forces the state pension system to divest from companies that boycott Israel. So we’re expecting more legislation like this, that basically, you know, imposes the state’s view of this issue on people. And it’s troubling. It has a serious chilling effect, and you know, it raises serious constitutional questions as well. So we’ve seen, there’s a bill pending in Pennsylvania as well that tries to defund universities. So this is a broad-based attack. We saw Sheldon Adelson–Adelson himself pledge millions of dollars to, to combat BDS and, and Palestine activism in general. And you know, he, he has said that much of that will go towards lawfare, towards lawsuits, legislation directly attacking the BDS movement. So, so we’re expecting more of this. And it’s a really troubling trend. But we do know that in this country that the right to boycott is, is protected by the First Amendment. It’s very clear, you know, given the history of, of social justice boycotts in this country, the civil–from the civil rights era. This is, this is a constitutionally protected speech activity and associational activity. So there’s, there’s only so much impact that, that this legislation can have without violating First Amendment rights. And, and so it’s very clear that people should not, should understand that this doesn’t affect their right to advocate for BDS. And you know, that the impact is really more of the chilling effect that these things have and the pronouncements of state policy here. PERIES: Dima Khalidi and Judith Butler, I thank you both for joining us today. KHALIDI: Thank you for having me. BUTLER: Thank you very much. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.