Protecting pro-Palestine activists can feel almost impossible – but these students succeeded

Students of the University of California - Los Angeles (LA Times)

Lexi McMenamin

The Nation  /  March 16, 2021

When a lawyer tried to force UCLA’s Students for Justice in Palestine to publicize the names of their speakers at a 2018 conference, the students fought back. And won.

For students of the University of California–Los Angeles, this campus event was unlike most others. For one, security was tight. Both campus police and private security staffers hired by the student organizers patrolled the campus spaces being used for the conference, fending off protesters attempting to take photos of participants through classroom windows. Attendees not only needed a name tag and wristband to enter and exit but also needed to conceal them outside of conference spaces, as a safety precaution. The conference schedule was kept secret until its first event started, and pamphlets with the schedule were closely guarded—so much so, an attendee later said, that conference organizers snatched forgotten ones out of trash cans. And when moving from one campus building to another, fenced in by campus police, participants were harassed, called names, and chased by protesters.

This was the 2018 National Students for Justice in Palestine conference, a convening of organizers from campuses across the country, hosted by UCLA’s campus SJP chapter.

UCLA student organizers took care to preserve the anonymity of speakers, in order to prevent them from being put on no-fly-lists, potentially denied entry to other countries, or contacted by the FBI over their organizing work—all of which have reportedly occurred to other organizers speaking out about Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians. When UCLA pushed the organizers to share the list with them in order to cross-check the speaker list with federal officials, the students shared the list under an agreement that UCLA would preserve their anonymity to protect them.

But in February, three years after the event, the student organizers behind the conference went to court over a complaint filed by David Abrams, executive director of the Zionist Advocacy Center, a non-profit founded in 2015 to “advocate on behalf of Israel in the Courts and before agencies.” Abrams, who has a track record of pursuing litigation against organizations that engage in some way with Palestine, including former president Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center and Doctors Without Borders, has filed a complaint against UCLA, demanding that the school release the names of the anonymous speakers. He says that the information falls under the California Public Records Act and that he intends to use the names in order to “investigate terrorism.”

On March 11, the court denied Abrams’s request, writing, “Disclosure [of the National SJP speakers list] would violate their rights to freedom of association, anonymous speech, and privacy.”

While the student activists say they are glad for the ruling in their favour, they also say that the situation was yet another example of the targeted harassment and intense scrutiny that Palestinian rights activists across the country have been subjected to for years. At the core of this harassment is Canary Mission, an anonymously-run blacklist that documents public supporters of Palestinian rights in what is being used as an anonymous surveillance system. Individuals listed on Canary Mission say that the website was mentioned while they were being questioned by FBI agents while engaging in student activism or attempting to travel.

According to the attorneys, Abrams’s pursuit of the speakers’ identities was yet another attempt at funnelling activists’ names onto the blacklist. “The real goal of this case for Abrams is to get the names of the presenters, to harass them, and to send their names to Canary Mission, and to try and interfere with their job applications or their employment,” Glenn Katon, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Asian Law Caucus representing the anonymous speakers, told The Nation. “Basically, to intimidate and harass people to stop them from advocating for Palestinian rights.”

Organizing around Israel-Palestine has been a controversial testing ground for activist rights and “free speech” policies, particularly on college campuses. In the last year alone, Zoom cancelled an event with Palestinian activist Leila Khaled and ensuing Zoom calls to discuss her censoring. Nathan J. Robinson, editor-in-chief of the leftist magazine Current Affairswas fired from his columnist role at The Guardian after tweeting about US military funding to the Israeli government. The controversy even hit Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” with host Michael Che receiving extreme backlash after he cracked a joke about Israel’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout.

And UCLA is one of several colleges, including the University of Massachusetts–AmherstColumbia UniversitySan Francisco State University, and the City University of New York, that have faced litigation over SJP chapters. Ongoing litigation between Fordham University students seeking to launch an SJP chapter and school administrators is in its fifth year, as judges continue overturning each other’s attempts to by turns allow then dissolve the chapter. (I attended Fordham University and was involved in SJP organizing on campus from 2015 to 2017, but I am not a part of the litigation.)

These lawsuits follow a familiar pattern—what the NGO Palestine Legal has called the “Palestinian exception to free speech.” And while the courts and the legislature are frequently the vehicles for formalizing suppression of Palestinian activism, the hoops that students must jump through to talk publicly about Palestinian justice on college campuses are, in their own way, a form of speech suppression. Fending off accusations of hate speech and anti-Semitism, being barred from accessing their institutions’ usual funding channels for events, and being subjected to outright intimidation are simply matters of due course in Palestinian rights activism. Students say that these barriers chill effective organizing.

“[They] follow you, taking screenshots of the things that you post online, such that anything that you say is potentially being monitored,” says Zoha Khalili, staff attorney at Palestine Legal. “You never have the opportunity to change your opinion about anything, you always have to be 100 percent right, because there’s someone watching over your shoulder, tagging your university and your employer, whoever.”

In light of this, UCLA’s chapter of SJP took extreme precautions to protect conference-goers and speakers. Though the chapter of SJP is a UCLA-sanctioned club and therefore could reserve campus spaces for free, it would then have been forced to open them to the public. Instead, conference planners chose to pay for private spaces to insulate the conference from potential protesters. National SJP members vetted all the speakers, requiring references from each to ensure that it could not be infiltrated. They recruited an outside security team to work the conference in addition to the UCLA Police.

The university itself also took extreme precaution: In advance of the conference, UCLA Police completed an investigation into its planned speakers; this information was shared with the FBI. University and local officials also publicly condemned the conference, alleging that to host it was in and of itself anti-Semitic. In October 2018, UCLA officials sent the campus chapter a cease-and-desist letter to change its logo, which at the time incorporated elements of the UCLA logo. The LA City Council passed a resolution calling on the university to cancel the conference. A few days before, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block criticized SJP at UCLA in the Los Angeles Times over their decision to exclude pro-Israel student groups.

One student organizer from the national organization, who prefers to remain anonymous, said that the pressure to make sure everyone at the conference felt protected was constant. “I want to be able to return to Palestine one day. [With] the doxing that takes place, and the terrible attacks on Palestinian students, and these blacklist websites, students—Palestinian students specifically—really fear not being able to visit their families and their countries, their home,” they said. “I was so happy to be there, and to be surrounded by the people that I was surrounded by.… But, at the same time, it was just the constant fear of, ‘Who’s gonna walk in when? What’s going to be interrupted?’”

Another student organizer said that this stress is intentionally induced with the purpose of distracting students from their organizing work. “The way that Palestinian organizing, Palestinian students, and their supporters continue to be targeted by right-wing actors, and by Zionist and university administrations that align themselves with those actors, really gets in the way of a lot of students being able to engage in this social justice movement,” they said. Both student organizers said they faced similar battles on their own campus, including one’s university administration stalling their club’s establishment for a year.

In the months following the conference, Abrams continued pushing UCLA to provide the names of the speakers at the November 2018 NSJP Conference. In early August, UCLA denied his request; later that month, Abrams filed a complaint against UCLA in Los Angeles County Superior Court, claiming that the list falls under the California Public Records Act. In the fall of 2020, the eight anonymous speakers intervened in the case.

In their personal statements, the anonymous speakers wrote about the discrimination they and their families have faced as Palestinian Americans. Many wrote that their advocacy work is a vital expression of their personhood in the face of suppression. “Engaging in this work in a safe manner is core to my sense of self and important for the liberation of my family and my people,” one anonymous speaker, named Doe 5 in the legal record, wrote.

Another anonymous speaker, called Doe 8, a Palestinian-American who in 2015 was banned from entering Israel for 10 years, wrote that the fight was a personal one. “Israel’s occupation of Palestine affects the lives of my family, those who live here in the United States and those who continue to live in Palestine, ” they wrote. “I believe that my advocacy for Palestinian human rights is the reason the Israeli government denied me entry into the country in the past.… The Israeli government gave no formal reason for their denial. After the ten-year ban ends, I will attempt to visit Palestine once again. I am afraid that the public disclosure of my name in association with this conference would impose even further barriers to my entry to Palestine in the future.”

This time, the speakers’ names remain protected. But Abrams’s attempt to legally force their identities into the public eye forced student activists to fear for their own safety—not to mention spend time, funds, and energy to fight back against false terrorism accusations. “Organizers are very proud to be a part of a movement for Palestinian liberation,” one student organizer said. “We’re not trying to hide our identities in order to to hide from being affiliated with Palestinian liberation…[it’s because of] right-wing actors who continue to abuse the legal system and other institutional levers to try and stop a righteous social movement, for liberation for Palestinians, and as part of a larger movement for collective liberation.”

Lexi McMenamin is a freelance journalist reporting on politics, identity, activist movements, and pop culture