The Campus Free Speech Battle You're Not Seeing

The Campus Free Speech Battle You're Not Seeing
Illustration by Angelica Alzona. :

Last September, Simona Sharoni, a professor of gender studies at SUNY Plattsburgh in upstate New York gave an interview to an online magazine in which she talked about the need to connect feminism and gender to the movement for Palestinian rights. The interview wasn’t out of the ordinary for Sharoni. She’s made her critiques of Israel public many times in the past. And Sharoni is used to receiving emails in response to her talks and her public comments—being open to opposing viewpoints is part of being an academic. But this time, something different happened.

Shortly after her interview, several articles proclaiming her an anti-Semite or “shill” surfaced on the web. She began receiving rape and death threats via email and social media. Then nineteen public requests were filed for Sharoni’s information (Freedom of Information Laws apply to professors at public universities) at SUNY Plattsburgh. One public records request, filed by a nonprofit called StandWithUs, requested 17 different forms of records, including lists of Sharoni’s membership in professional organizations, donations made to her department, a list of every event she had ever attended, including rallies, talks, and faculty meetings, a list of her requests for sabbatical leave, all records that would correspond to her “teaching load,” and every email about any of the 17 different forms of records ever sent by any member of SUNY Plattsburgh’s staff and faculty. If a professor had sent Sharoni an email about one of her talks six months, or six years ago, StandWithUs wanted to see it.

The request, once it is filled by Plattsburgh, will likely total many thousands of pages of documents laying out every detail of Sharoni’s teaching life. It’s hard to know exactly how all of this information could potentially be used by StandWithUs, but the requests for records related to travel authorizations, time off, and information about teaching loads seem to suggest that StandWithUs is looking for any improprieties or technicalities that could lead to Sharon’s tenure being revoked. StandWithUs did not respond to several requests for comment.

Plattsburgh’s administration, Sharoni said, admitted the public records requests seemed designed to intimidate the administration into taking action against Sharoni, yet they declined to issue a public statement denouncing the attacks, instead issuing an internal campus email about its commitment to free speech that did not mention the specifics of Sharoni’s situation.

“While the attacks were going on, I was dealing with unbearable anxiety,” she said. “I felt like I couldn’t function, which is what these groups want.”

Free speech on college campuses has become a game of political football over the last few years. The idea that colleges are a supremely liberal space hostile to conservative views has given conservatives an excuse to cut funding to things like gun control and global warming research, under the idea that if the research comes from a university, it must be biased.

Meanwhile, real tensions over race, class and politics on college campuses have been flattened and skewed by the media into battles between professors and students over things like trigger warnings.

But while that debate has raged in hundreds of op-eds, on Reddit and Twitter and elsewhere, a battle that, at least to its participants, seems like a much bigger threat to free speech on college campuses has received considerably less attention: pro-Israel organizations, possibly with the financial help of the state of Israel, have been strategically targeting students and professors who espouse beliefs critical of Israel. The campaigns of harassment on these professors and students go beyond the usual forms of campus debate. They are full-frontal attacks waged by outside groups that attempt to ruin people’s reputations, to call into question students’ true motivations for learning or discussing Israel, to get professors fired for their beliefs, and make them subjects of mass harassment online. Anti-Semitism is a real issue on college campuses, but those most often targeted by these groups are not anti-Semitic, but critics of Israel. Pro-Israel groups seem intent on conflating the two, displaying any critique of Israel as a threat to Jewishness itself. The point, it seems, is not to engage in a debate about Israel, but to make engaging in a debate about Israel so dangerous to one’s career and mental health that engagement becomes unworthy.

Those being targeted are not politicians, or even public figures, but professors most people have not heard of and students who rarely have influence beyond their own campuses. And the level of sophistication and persistence used to target these people suggests there’s coordination behind the attacks, either by well-funded pro-Israel non-profits, or by the Israeli government or both.

While the issue may seem niche, only potentially affecting those who work on Israel-related activism, Donald Trump’s presidency could make it relevant to many more people. His administration and its backers have been hyper-critical of the pervasiveness of liberalism on college campuses. When students at Hampshire College (coincidentally my alma mater) burned an American flag in protest because they viewed it as representing genocide and imperialism, Trump tweeted that they should be jailed or lose citizenship. Ben Carson, Trump’s choice for Housing and Urban Development secretary, has suggested monitoring left-wing “bias” on college campuses, and defunding schools that do not provide space for conservatism.

If free speech on college campuses becomes a target of Trump’s administration, the current battle over Israel provides a design the Trump administration could copy and paste to any issue of their choosing, targeting a professor, student or anyone else they disagree with, and using the vast network of right-wing media companies like Breitbart and nonprofits in an attempt to silence them.

There are at least a dozen nonprofits fighting professors and students critical of Israel, and their tactics range from relatively milquetoast to militant. On one end of the spectrum are places like the Anti-Defamation League, which is a mainstream nonprofit dedicated to combating hate speech and which considers some speech critical of Israel anti-Semitic. The group monitors “anti-Israel” activity on campuses, and signs onto letters expressing their concern over courses with material critical of Israel or professors with anti-Israel stances. On the other end of the spectrum are places like Canary Mission, which essentially provides a playbook for harassment. It’s run anonymously, posts social media profiles and multiple photos of people it targets on its website, and encourages its readers to send angry tweets and messages to the professors and other people it views as anti-Israel.

Many of the non-profits work behind the scenes, putting pressure on professors and college administrations without making a big ruckus. That makes their work hard, but not impossible to trace. The fingerprint of StandWithUs—which has a $4 million budget and close ties to Israel, for example, can been seen in the public records requests filed against Sharoni and others.

Most often, the groups appear to coordinate to varying degrees, some sending messages to administrations encouraging the firing of professors, others filing public records requests for their information, others, like Canary Mission encouraging online mobs to do the rest.

Jasbir Puar, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, was targeted by several groups after she gave a talk at Vassar College last February, during which she spoke about a recent trip she’d made to the West Bank to conduct ethnographic research on the effects Israeli military violence had on Palestinians. Puar is used to receiving criticism for her Israel-related work, but she’d never experienced the persistence and viciousness of what came next. First there was the op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by two prominent pro-Israel academics calling Puar an anti-Semite. Then, over the next few weeks, dozens of articles were posted on pro-Israel websites in the U.S. and Israel about Puar, some containing statements Puar said she never made.

Her biographical information was compiled on Canary Mission, and Puar began receiving dozens of emails, some, she says, contain death and rape threats.

After her university’s administration showed police some of the threats, they decided that only one was specific enough to suggest it could turn into real-life violence. Administrators received dozens of letters asking for her to be fired. Her Wikipedia page seemed to be under constant monitoring; if she or one of her students tried to change something, it would be immediately flagged for review. She got an alert from a security website that people had been searching for her home address online. Thankfully, Puar said Rutgers and her faculty union stood by her side. But she’s worried college administrations won’t readily come to the defense of others, especially women and faculty of color. And then there are the campaigns that are virtually impossible to trace, and therefore hard to fight back against.

Last April, three websites appeared online that all targeted Purdue University American studies professor Bill Mullen, an outspoken critic of Israel who has worked with the university’s pro-Palestine student group, Students for Justice in Palestine. One website criticized Mullen’s academic achievements; another lambasted Mullen for not supporting his university’s administration; the third claimed to be run by an anonymous female student who said that Mullen had a track record of sexual harassment (the only complaint of harassment Purdue says it has received against Mullen is via an anonymous tip. The same tip also complained of his anti-Israel stance).

An investigation by the Electronic Intifada, a pro-Palestinian website, found that each of the three websites targeting Mullen were purchased through the same hosting provider and its creator(s) share an IP address. Other websites set up to target students involved with Students for Justice in Palestine in Indiana were also linked to the same domains, including several websites that accused a Muslim student activist of betraying her faith by making out with her classmates at a party. That student, who I’ll call Sarah (she did not want her name used for fear it would further affect her reputation online), said the creation of the websites coincided with several phone calls from blocked or unknown numbers. The callers would hang up when she would pick up, except for one, who said “as-salaam alaikum” before hanging up. Sarah’s brother also received an email from a person who pretended to be a sympathizer with Students for Justice in Palestine, but the email contained details of Sarah’s life that made her suspect it was not from a supporter, but from someone who had investigated her online.

“I felt violated,” Sarah said. “Like they were going into my life.”

Sarah said she’s currently laying low, participating in less activism because she fears the harassment will increase. A fellow member of SJP quit out of fear of being targeted as well, she says. And Sarah’s encouraged her to quit as well.

“I know I’m standing up for the truth and doing the right thing,” Sarah said. “When my parents told me to quit, I was like, “but then they’re going to win.’”

Bill Mullen and some of the targeted students have filed a defamation lawsuit against the sites, but because they don’t know who set them up, they’re filing it against “John and Jane Doe.”

The nonprofits that have been accused of being behind these harassment campaigns are not officially linked, but they have many of the same funders, according to a report by the pro-Palestine organization Palestine Legal. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by prominent conservative Americans on monitoring and attacking professors and students critical of Israel. Sheldon Adelson, the casino owner and Trump supporter, has said he will spend at least $20 million fighting the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement. And in 2013 the Jewish Agency for Israel, a nonprofit that advocates for Israel-friendly policy, and coordinates closely with the Israeli government, said it would spend $300 million raised from both rich donors in the U.S. and the Israeli government, to “create what is likely to be the most expensive pro-Israel campaign ever.”

It’s also impossible to know whether the Israeli government is involved in the harassment—for example, whether they are choosing which professors and students to target, or helping the U.S. nonprofits coordinate. Some argue that simply providing funding to some of the nonprofits, without any strings attached, or knowledge of how that money might be used is tantamount to subsidizing the harassment.

What is known is that at least since 2010, a think tank closely linked to Israel named the Reut Institute has been working on a “delegitimization” campaign meant to call into question anyone who criticizes the existence of Israel. And in 2015 the Israeli government got even more directly involved, spending $25 million to set up a new government agency dedicated to combatting what Israel saw as a growing threat posed by the BDS movement.

“We have failed to produce a solution to stop this movement,” one member of Israel’s parliament said when the agency was created. “With time, the pressure exerted on Israel [against the BDS movement] will steadily increase.”

The agency is run by former military captain Gilad Erdan, and keeps a relatively tight lid on its activities. One former Israeli intelligence officer told an Israeli newspaper that the agency participated in “black ops”—covertly waging smear campaigns against critics of Israel and directing online attacks against them. Erdan did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

But one clue to just how directly involved Erdan’s agency is in battles on U.S. college campuses comes from what happened to a student-created course at UC Berkeley last fall.

UC Berkeley allows students to create their own courses overseen by a faculty advisor. Berkeley senior Paul Hadweh, who was raised as a teen in the West Bank, submitted a course called “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis.” The course was approved by the school’s administration, and a faculty advisor was assigned. Then in early September, news sites based in the U.S. began to draw attention to the course. It was the first Hadweh says he had heard about controversy over it. Then a letter writing campaign, coordinated by Amcha, one of the larger pro-Israel nonprofits in the U.S., and signed by 40 other pro-Israel nonprofits, asked UC Berkeley administrators to cancel the class. And then, with no warning to Hadweh, the class was canceled.

Amcha did not respond to several requests for comment.

As the course and the controversy over its cancellation brewed at Berkeley, Hadweh was contacted by one of his friends in Israel, who said he’d seen Hadweh’s course mentioned on Israeli news: a reporter for a local Israeli TV news station had interviewed Gilad Erdan, the head of the government’s anti-BDS efforts. The report said he and his agency had covertly put pressure on UC Berkeley to cancel the course. UC Berkeley communications officer Dan Mogulof said the school did not receive any direct communications from the Israeli government, but did receive many emails from pro-Israel nonprofits.

After weeks of protests from UC Berkeley students, the course was reinstated. But the full repercussions of the course have yet to shake out: Hadweh is Christian, and when he is back in the West Bank for the holidays, he and his family usually cross into Jerusalem for Christmas, which requires a permit sponsored by a Jerusalem-based church. For the first time in his life last year, Hadweh’s says his permit to cross was denied by the Israeli government.

The consequences of these kinds of campaigns against critics of Israel have effects beyond college campuses. Talking to the people who’ve experienced them, I got the sense that they are uniquely isolating events. With the world turned against you, your career in jeopardy, and often indifferent college administrations staying silent, it can feel like you’re in it alone—you against a multimillion dollar machine intent on you losing.

Rabab Abdulhadi, a professor of ethnic, race and resistance studies at San Francisco State University, has been battling pro-Israel groups for years. The harassment reached its peak in 2014, after Abdulhadi took a research trip to the Middle East, and met with a few people that far-right groups like Amcha consider terrorists. Amcha and several other groups claimed that Abdulhadi’s trip was a misuse of state funds and called for her to be fired. After months of controversy, her school came to her defense. But Abdulhadi said she feels scarred by the years of emails, threats, and campaigns against her.

“If you want to speak out, they’re going to make your life hell,” she said. “There’s a cost for everything. And the cost is very high. They want the cost to be high enough that you just shut up.”

While I was researching and writing this article, Congress took several steps that help legitimize the tactics used by pro-Israel groups to harass professors and students. In response to a wave of anti-Semitic violence and vandalism in December, the Senate passed a bill that did little to end anti-Semitism and instead directs the State Department to take any speech that “delegitimizes”, “demonizes”, or “applies double standards to Israel” into consideration when investigating schools for anti-Semitism. In other words, now professors and students critical of Israel are not only at risk of monitoring from pro-Israel groups, but the U.S. government. And last summer, New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo signed a first-of-its kind executive order meant to punish any group or company that supports the BDS movement by barring the state from doing business with them. Civil rights groups called it a McCarthyesque blacklist.

One does not have to care about Israel and Palestine to see how these kinds of tactics could have a chilling effect on free speech: Donald Trump has shown a willingness to support McCarthy era tactics to silence dissent—using friendly media as a megaphone and shunning journalists who disagree with him, asking the State Department for a list of employees working on issues of gender equality and a list from the Energy Department on those working on climate change. If he ever wants to take on dissent on college campuses, thanks to the work of dozens of pro-Israel nonprofits, the millionaires and billionaires that fund them, and the Israeli government, he’ll have a model to follow: choose a target, whether a professor or student, and attempt through harassment to make their position, whatever it may be, so hard to uphold, that they and others give up the fight.

And those who want to write critically, to disagree with the mainstream, to call out perceived injustice, will have to weigh the ever-increasing costs. It’s a calculation Rabab Abdulhadi, Jasbir Puar, Simona Sharoni and dozens of others are now used to making before they write, before they attend an event, before they speak to anyone in public. It’s a calculation I had to make in writing this article—balancing whether it was worth it to publicize what I believe is an injustice against the cost of ending up on a list (or several), and possibly subject to the harassment of a thousand Twitter trolls. To paraphrase Rabab Abdulhadi, when does the cost get high enough that you just shut up?

Peter Moskowitz is a journalist and writer. His book How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood is out March 7 from Nation Books.

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