Intimidation will not stop fight for Palestine, Letter to Ohio State University

September 18, 2014

Sam Agarwal

[I wrote this letter to the Athens Post, the newspaper which has been covering the Marzec issue locally. They are refusing to acknowledge it. – Author]

To the Editor:
I am a graduate of The Ohio State University and grew up in Columbus, Ohio. I am writing in response to a letter to the editor titled “Freedom of Speech Lost” by Carolyn Miller which appeared in The Post this Friday, and to the allegations that OU Student President, Megan Marzec, has somehow infringed on the “First Amendment Rights” of the four supporters of “Bobcats for Israel” who were arrested in the Student Speak Out on Wednesday evening.

It has been adequately documented in another letter to the editor, written by someone who attended the meeting, that the decision to have the four students removed was put to a vote by all of the students in attendance, thus in no way could be seen as “fulfilling [Megan’s] personal agenda” as alleged by Ms. Miller. Rather than ruminating on the details of the meeting (which, again, have been explicated by Tim Adams in Saturday’s The Post), this letter is an attempt to shed light on the tactic which is deployed by OU campus Zionists and other supporters of oppressive regimes. Apologists for the Israeli Occupation have systematically used the cloaks of “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom” to silence those who oppose the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

It is no secret that administrators of neo-liberal universities sit on the boards of many companies that profit from the Occupation of Palestine. This obviously colors the way they treat those who openly criticize Israel. The Saliata Papers, which are a 700+ page series of communications obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, suggest that this is also coming at the expense of academic integrity. The Papers show that the Chancellor of The University of Illinois Urbana Champaign (UIUC), Phyllis Wise, acted against English Professor Steven Salaita after being pressured by donor alumni and Board of Trustees members. Salaita was ultimately fired after posting a Twitter comment critical of Operation Protective Edge (in which over 2,200 Palestinian civilians were killed by the Israeli Defense Forces). In this case, who is infringing on whose freedom of speech?

Before Salaita it was Dr. Norman Finkelstein, a Jewish Professor of Political Science, who was denied tenure from Depaul University when he proved that a book written as a revisionist history of the state of Israel by Harvard Law Professor, Alan Derschowitz, was a jumble of plagiarized untruths. In 2009 Professor William Robinson was subjected to death threats and nearly run out of the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) by the pro-Israeli lobby when he included materials that were critical of Israel as optional readings in his course. But it is not just professors who have been subjected to this double standard—in 2013 Students Against Israeli Apartheid at York University had their student group status revoked and their activists were banned from campus premises after they helped to pass a resolution endorsing BDS.

On the other hand, for those who find it tempting to sympathize with the cries of “First Amendment Rights” violations which are now ringing throughout the Zionist camp—especially as movements like the campaign for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) grow—it is instructive to learn the history and motives behind this rhetoric.

In the 1980s when the world was rising against the Apartheid policy in South Africa, the veil of “academic freedom” was used by apologists of the regime. These individuals were able to get away with this because the American government was openly supporting the Apartheid state—in fact the Pentagon declared the ANC “one of the more notorious terrorist groups in the world”. Today most people realize that this was a tactic used to divert attention from the circumscription of rights to movement and communication of the oppressed South Africans.

It is not my task here to delve into the details of the alliance between Apartheid South African and Israel—it has been sufficiently outlined in Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s ground breaking book that, following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel received extensive support in nuclear missile development and testing, and later in policing and crowd control from the Afrikaner government. My aim is, rather, to draw a parallel in the strategy charted out by the Zionists to apartheid’s apologists—that approach is to hide behind the rhetoric of freedom of speech while intrinsically denying any of that freedom to the supporters of Palestine and to the Palestinians themselves.

Palestinian academics and students live in constant harassment and threats from the Israeli state. Their fundamental rights such as access to building materials for homes and drinking water are in peril. In Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, alone, over 138 schools were bombed or damaged, including 89 run by UNRWA, as per a report by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). In the words of Judith Butler, “The Zionist discourse [on academic freedom] acts as a means to displace the conversation away from the devastation of Palestinian institutions” and also from the stranglehold of the pro-Israeli lobby over Western educational institutions.

The only solution, as members of the campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) are insisting, is to “de-Zionize”our campuses.

Samantha Agarwal is a graduate of the Department of Political Science at OSU (agarwal.71@osu.edu)

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