When Palestinian-American professor Steven Salaita received the e-mail that he was being fired from a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he was crushed. “Everything had been arranged for our move,” Salaita explained. “Our son—he was 2 at the time—had been enrolled in a daycare in Urbana, on campus in fact, and I felt this terrible sense that I had failed my family…. We were left without health insurance, first of all…and so we were constantly worried about what would happen if the need for medical attention arose and the fact that if something did happen to any of us, we could end up spending the rest of our life in severe debt.”
Professor Salaita’s case, unfortunately, is not unique. Students and professors seeking to change the status quo in Israel/Palestine are frequently censored, punished, or subjected to baseless legal complaints. They are branded as “uncivil” or “divisive” or falsely accused of supporting terrorism and anti-Semitism when they hold events, distribute fliers, or support the growing boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.
On September 30, Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights released a groundbreaking report documenting the widespread suppression of Palestine human rights advocacy in the United States. Over an 18-month period, from January 1, 2014, through June 30, 2015, we responded to nearly 300 incidents of censorship, punishment, or other burdening of advocacy for Palestinian rights. Eighty-five percent of these incidents targeted students and scholars.
It seems absurd that on a US college campus, where principles of academic freedom and free speech are presumed to be among the strongest in the world, that professors are censured for expressing criticism of a nation-state, or that students are summoned by administrators and forced to explain why they are “singling out” Israel. (When Donald Trump’s corporate sponsors began to desert him in droves because of racist statements he made, no one asked why he was being singled out, when there are others with far worse records.)
Yet this is the kind of speech suppression that Palestine Legal has consistently witnessed in the three years my organization has been documenting the suppression of Palestine activism in the United States.
How did we get to the point where students speaking out for Palestinian rights—and professors writing about them—often face overwhelming, disproportionate pressure to censor their speech?
After 30 years of public-funding cuts, cash-strapped American universities, both public and private, rely on private donors more than ever. The Koch brothers alone gave a total of $12.7 million to 163 US colleges and universities in 2012. The billionaire conservatives also fund, through the Donors Capital Fund, anti-Palestinian groups such as CAMERA and Stand With Us, in addition to Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Foundation, which in turn has acted as a “conveyor belt” for funding ultra-Zionist organizations such as the Brandeis Center and the AMCHA Initiative, according to the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, which analyzed these groups’ tax returns in a recent report.