Aljazeera: How UC devalues Arab and Muslim student voices
UC's behaviour with respect to Israel-related speech conflicts directly with notions of free speech
By Yaman Salahi, Aljazeera, August 2, 2012
Los Angeles, CA - For years, University of California (UC) leaders have walked a fine line between complying with First Amendment limitations on their power and placating pro-Israel interest groups agitating against the growing clout of Palestinian solidarity activism.
Under pressure, UC President Mark Yudof in 2010 commissioned two committees to issue reports on the so-called "campus climate". One focusing on Jewish students and the other on Arab and Muslim students, the new reports - which characterise criticism of Israel as an affront to Jewish students - have prompted many to believe that the UC intends to curb campus speech critical of Israel.
At their core, however, the reports demonstrate that UC not only has a free speech problem, but an equality problem.
Normalising support for Israel
The report about Jewish students is laden with ideological predispositions that undermine the credibility of its findings and recommendations regarding campus activism. One section of the report, for example, addresses what is called "The Anti-Zionism/Anti-Israel Movement and its Impact on Climate" (but which proponents of this movement call a movement for freedom, justice and equality).
By framing the issue in this way, the authors presume that Palestinian solidarity has an "impact" on campus climate, as if, prior to this movement's emergence, university campuses were characterised by some "normal" state of affairs in which all students felt welcome and equal. But that could not be further from the truth and the fact that this forms the starting point explains some of the report’s findings.
Although the report inquires into such matters as whether mock checkpoints and walls, die-ins and other demonstrations criticising human rights violations by Israel's occupying army negatively affect Jewish students, there is no similar inquiry into the "impact" frequent celebrations of Israel's creation and speeches by Israeli combatant soldiers and government officials might have on Jewish students who do not identify with Israel and its policies, or on Arab or Palestinian students whose families were killed or exiled as a result.
There is similarly no inquiry into whether on-campus recruitment for Jewish-only Birthright trips has an impact on non-Jewish students who have attempted to apply.
Instead, pro-Israel activities are described as such: "Israel advocacy organisations play an active role on each campus and have engaged outside agencies such as AIPAC, J Street, ADL, Stand With Us and many others in the effort to promote a deeper understanding for all students of the challenges which confront Israel, the Palestinians and the region as a whole."
Compare the way these movements are described - "Israel advocacy organisations" vs "Anti-Israel Movement" - and how their missions are understood, promoting a deeper understanding vs possibly creating a hostile climate.
The silence about the "impact" of pro-Israel events reflects an attitude that pro-Israel expressions are simply a positive part of the normal, benign landscape of campus life. At the same time, events presenting a critical view of Israel are perceived to be anomalous and alien, or, worse, divisive, as if students were previously unified in their love and support for Israel.
There is no recognition that different groups of students might perceive these events very differently, or an explanation of why one group's perceptions should trump the others'.
Ignoring positive impact
The report also assumes that whatever "impact" the Palestine solidarity movement has had, that it has uniformly been negative and that it has impacted all Jewish students in the same way. Significant numbers of Jewish students, however, have been impacted in a positive way, many joining its ranks, others provided with their first opportunity for interacting with people that hold different views from them on the matter. Others are simply indifferent.
A letter by Jewish Voice for Peace charges that the authors of the report "develop and rely upon a narrative that represents the viewpoint of only one sector of students: those who support and advocate for Israeli policies", at the expense of "Jewish students who are critical of Israel". Even to the extent that some students - Jewish or otherwise - vigorously disagree with this movement, many would hold that exposure to different ideas comports with the purpose of attending a university.
The movement has also had a positive impact on other communities on campus that is disregarded by the report. It is home for an underrepresented and often marginalised position in the general public. It has provided a vehicle for many students from underrepresented Arab, Muslim and Palestinian communities to engage in a vibrant campus debate and to learn the tools of activism.
From organising speaking events and conferences, to staging protests and lobbying efforts, this movement is a formative part of many students' lives, regardless of their ethnic background or religious views. The empowering aspect of this movement is completely eclipsed by the mischaracterisation of its purpose, aims and composition.