Palestine at the centre of free speech battle on US campuses, academics say

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  August 25, 2023

Methods used to blacklist pro-Palestinian academics are now being deployed against students and academics in other fields, experts say.

As issues of academic freedom and censorship continue to dominate conversations in universities across the US, academics say that many of these issues – as well as the methods of censorship – can be linked back to speech over Palestine.

Dima Khalidi, executive director of Palestine Legal, said that academics have for decades been working to put the issue of Palestinian rights at the forefront of their universities, often leading to attempts by pro-Israel and Zionist groups to censor their voices.

“It is clear that there’s a Palestine exception to our free speech rights, but it’s not the only one. And I think it’s a sign of our quickly eroding constitutional rights,” Khalidi said during a webinar hosted by the Washington-based think tank, the Arab Center, on Friday.

Sites like Canary Mission and Campus Watch have been introduced over the past twenty years, acting as blacklists where students, activists, and academics with pro-Palestinian views or those who criticize Israel are placed and levelled with accusations of antisemitism and supporting terrorism.

Middle East Eye previously spoke to several students who have had to brave smear campaigns because of their pro-Palestinian activism. And according to The Intercept, blacklists like Canary Mission have become even more frightening because they are used by law enforcement in Israel and the US.

“While Campus Watch was one of the first groups to create a blacklist against professors who criticize Israel, we’ve seen that inspire, likely, newer right-wing groups like Professor Watchlist, which is a project of Turning Point USA that supposedly exposes professors who discriminate ‘against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom’,” Khalidi said.

This year alone, there have been several attempts to censor academics and other individuals critical of Israel on US campuses.

In January, former Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth was denied a fellowship position at Harvard University. Roth told MEE at the time that the reason for his denial likely had to do with his criticism of Israel.

Roth was eventually given the fellowship at Harvard after a wave of outrage. But Laila El-Haddad, who is originally from Gaza and attended the Harvard Kennedy School in 2002, told MEE at the time that the incident was just one of many incidents showing bias towards Israel and was also a troubling precedent for Palestinian academics who speak out against Israel.

Then this past summer, Zionist groups and the Israeli government called on Princeton University to ban a book discussing Israel’s intentional maiming of Palestinians. The issue also led to outrage, and an open letter against the move has received around 400 signatures so far.

Fida Adely, an associate professor and director of Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, said during the webinar that the attempts and methods around the censorship of Palestine can now also be seen in other academic fields, such as Critical Race Theory or gender studies.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill into law that bans Critical Race Theory from being taught in public classrooms.

“The kinds of censorship we see now around Critical Race Theory, around teaching about gender issues, around teaching about slavery and US history is really kind of like the chickens come home to roost,” Adely said.

“We’ve allowed this kind of censorship around a basic right to boycott, the basic right to critique Israel for decades in the United States. And now we see all kinds of legislation that follows a very similar playbook trying to shut down all kinds of discourse in classrooms in the United States.”