Suppressing Pro-Israel Views at the University of Chicago

, Richard Cravatts, Leave a comment

The suppression of pro-Israel views on campus has been a troubling development in the ongoing cognitive war against Israel. Now, the silencing of pro-Israel voices even appears in college newspapers. The McGill Daily, as one troubling example, has a long-standing, publicly announced policy of never publishing pro-Israel content in its pages, deeming it to be racist or oppressive in its support of the Jewish state.

This week, the University of Chicago’s student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, followed that same ignoble path by violating journalistic and free speech ideals in retracting an op-ed written by two students, “We Must Condemn the SJP’s Online Anti-Semitism,” who questioned the tactics and ideology of members of the University’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a perennially toxic and corrosive anti-Israel group of radicals.

On January 26th, as the op-ed by Melody Dias and Benjamin ZeBrack noted, SJP had posted on its Instagram page the shocking admonition, “DON’T TAKE SH*TTY ZIONIST CLASSES.” Students were asked to “Support the Palestinian movement for liberation by boycotting classes on Israel or those taught by Israeli fellows.” According to the SJP post, any students who enrolled in these classes would be “participating in a propaganda campaign that creates complicity in the continuation of Israel’s occupation of Palestine” and that, in its view, “Israeli-centered classes are designed to obscure Palestinian perspectives.”

Dias and ZeBrack made a number of accusations against SJP in their now-deleted op-ed, including their opinions that SJP posted the inflammatory post on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day as an insensitive, even cruel tactic; that asking their fellow students to boycott three particular classes about Israel and Zionism

“taught specifically by Israeli fellows is xenophobic as Israelis cannot change their nationality, and this post demonizes that nationality by declaring all courses taught by someone affiliated with the nation as propaganda;” and, they noted, that “all courses listed are explicitly within the University’s Jewish Studies center. This furthers the trope that Jewish courses and professors work to contribute to propaganda for Israel, which is a blatantly false narrative.”

The two authors also suggested that while the University “prides itself on its free speech policy . . ,  this SJP post actively encourages students to drop such classes, hence discouraging educational freedom. This also violates the University’s discrimination and harassment policies, as the Israeli faculty are directly discriminated against. As such, the Jewish student community is indirectly discriminated against.”

Characteristic of their reaction to anyone who answers back to their corrosive activism, SJP was incensed that anyone had the gall to question their tactics and motives. Another post on the SJP Instagram account in response to the Dias-ZeBrack op-ed by SJP expressed the defective view often held by anti-Semites that “To frame this call as ‘anti-Jewish’ not only perpetuates the dangerous (and wholly false) conflation of Jewishness and Zionism, but also deliberately diverts attention from the ongoing ethnic cleansing that the israeli [sic] colony has been inflicting on Palestinian lands and peoples from its inception to the present.”

The widely-adopted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, as many know, stipulates that, in many instances, attacks on Zionism can be considered anti-Semitic, particularly when those attacks are attempts to deny Jewish self-determination or when Zionism is classified as a racist, oppressive endeavor, so despite SJP’s claim here that the claim is both dangerous and wholly false, experts in these matters—and not biased, anti-Semitic ideologues—have determined that there is support for Dias and LeBrack’s views.

Nevertheless, SJP demanded of the Maroon’s editors, “in response to these offenses,” the “Immediate deletion of the article,” a “public apology issued by the Maroon to SJP UChicago and to Palestinian students for the dissemination of misinformation and the disregard of journalistic integrity and factual reporting,” and, most ominously, “a public recommitment to ensuring that all columns and articles abide by expected standards of accuracy and truth, particularly those written by Zionist authors or on behalf of Zionist organizations.” [Emphasis added.] In other words, SJP requested a separate standard of exclusionary journalistic ethics and practice when Israel, Zionism, and Jews are involved.

Astoundingly, in response to SJP’s absurd demands, two feckless editors, Kelly Hui and Elizabeth Winkler, not only deleted the offending op-ed but published a craven, apologetic editorial of their own in which they dissected the op-ed for its perceived factual inaccuracies and justified their decision by claiming that it was the op-ed written by the pro-Israel supporters which could be the source of campus enmity, not the original action of SJP in calling for a boycott of courses about Israel.

“We condemn the pitting of Jewish and Palestinian students against one another,” they wrote, “and we deeply regret the extent to which the op-ed’s factual inaccuracies—which we should not have published—perpetuated such a harmful dynamic.” Of course, in addition to the editors’ outrageously inappropriate action in removing an opinion piece from The Chicago Maroon, written as a response to a campaign of demonization and delegitimization of Israel and Zionism by the chronically toxic activists of SJP, they compounded the offense by suggesting that sections of the op-ed contribute to “pitting of Jewish and Palestinian students against one another.” No, actually, it is SJP’s poisonous attacks on anything Zionist on campus and its initial call for “shitty” Zionist courses to be boycotted that pit pro-Israel students against pro-Palestinians, not op-eds that correct misinformation or defend Israel.

A careful and educated editor could go through SJP’s writing and find a litany of factual inaccuracies, distortions of history and fact, and pure propaganda meant to slander the Jewish state. Why have the editors not scanned the writing of SJP supporters for such counter-factual terms as “settler-colonial regime,” “apartheid,” “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” racism, or “the liberation of Palestine,” terms which are inaccurate, inflammatory, and part of a false narrative that inspires hatred of Israel, Zionism, and, often, Jews? If accuracy is now going to be the Maroon’s journalistic litmus test for op-eds, then both sides of the argument need to be judged by the same yardstick, not, as SJP has requested, “particularly those written by Zionist authors or on behalf of Zionist organizations.”

It is a profoundly troubling notion that college newspaper editors now embrace the view that pro-Israel views are somehow immoral, oppressive, indefensible, even racist at their core and should be suppressed and that pro-Palestinian ideology—even when it is corrosive, counter-factual, and sometimes anti-Semitic—is viable and can be promoted. The entire pro-Palestine campaign against the Jewish state, of course, is defined by its created narrative, a way of assessing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through the use of feelings, emotional reactions, assumptions, and lies, not facts. That is the very reason that SJP, and other anti-Israel groups and individuals, do not wish to defend their calumnies about Israel with actual debate and a recitation of facts and history. Instead, they prefer to attack, as happened here, Israeli scholars and courses about Israel, not by deconstructing them for factual errors but by promoting their false narrative about ethnic cleansing, the occupation of Palestinian land, settler colonialism, genocide, and the unending oppression of an indigenous people—the key themes in anti-Israel ideology.

The annotations SJP unhelpfully included in the course descriptions for the three courses they asked the fellow students to boycott indicate how tendentious and arrogant they are in second-guessing the faculty and academic committees who created and approved these courses—comprised of scholars far more educated and wiser than the activist brats of SJP.

The description for the “Gender Relations in Israel” course taught by Meital Pinto, for example, reads that “Israel does not separate between religion and state, family law in Israel is largely influenced by religious patriarchal norms,” but the SJP notes add that “Prof. Pinto makes it seem as if patriarchy occurs within a narrow scope-caused by religious laws. Israel is patriarchal because it is a colonial apartheid state.” While the course will discuss the different aspects of sexuality and gender in Israeli society, SJP sees no purpose in that discussion since it already has decided Israel’s true nature. “Contradictions arise because israel [sic] uses a propaganda technique called ‘pinkwashing’ which exploits queer rights to hide its occupation and apartheid practices behind an image of progressiveness,” SJP unhelpfully and fallaciously notes. While the course description promises to “explore ways in which [members of the LGBT community] act creatively to affect social change, and the projects and organizations they form to combat gender prejudice and discrimination,” the SJP annotation claims that this ambition is futile “because they exclude queer palestinians [sic], and operate within a colonial system of racism and apartheid. queer palestinian [sic] representation within “Israeli [sic]” society is not liberatory —the dismantlement of israeli [sic] occupation and apartheid is.”

The critical annotations of the course taught by Stephanie Kraver, “Narrating Israel and Palestine through Literature and Film,” receives a similar critique. While the course intends to engage “with an array of literary and cinematic depictions throughout the quarter [and] to go beyond stereotypes,” the SJP annotations suggested that the description obscures “Israeli settler colonialism, the erasure and demonization of Palestinian voices, and theft of Palestinian land and livelihood,” and that “the Israeli experience is necessarily defined by the colonization and disposession [sic] of Palestinians.”

Professor Pinto’s other class, “Multiculturalism in Israel,” is similarly demeaned. While the purpose of the course is to “review different definitions of terms such as ‘multiculturalism,’ ‘multicultural state,’ ‘liberal state,’ ‘cultural rights,’” SJP instead deems Israel to be “a society founded on racist settler colonial principles, ethnic cleansing, and the attempted erasure of both Palestinian people and their political rights and identity such as the extent to which diversity should be accommodated.” In addition, SJP claimed in its comments, “Zionism has always worked to destroy the Indigenous diversity of Palestine in favor of the violent establishment of the Israeli state, which openly considers itself ‘the nation state of the Jewish people.’”

SJP and other anti-Israel activists on campuses would prefer, of course, that nothing that might be construed as pro-Israel ever be uttered or taught or written about on campus. The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once quipped that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” something SJP has yet to realize or comprehend. They are certainly permitted to have their own version of history and their own narrative about the Israeli-Palestinian debate, but people as clever, and even more clever, than they also have their own narratives, facts, and set of truths. And both should be, and must be, heard, both in the editorial pages of The Chicago Maroon and elsewhere.

Ironically, it was the University of Chicago that published a seminal set of guidelines for university free speech, the 2014 “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,” often referred to as the Chicago Principles. Perhaps the Maroon’s editors should read them again before they decide to suppress the views of any campus group or individuals in the interest of protecting competing thought and expression.

“In a word,” the report read, “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.”

The Chicago Maroon editors might want to review those words.