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Supporting Campus Discussions on Palestine

Northwestern has a vibrant student political culture where students organize, protest, and join their student government to demand meaningful social change both within and beyond the campus community. For many students, this includes advocacy related to the Middle East and North Africa in general, and Israel and Palestine, in particular. Some do so with deep personal, familial, religious, and cultural connections to the region that intensify the salience of these issues. Tensions at Northwestern at the end of spring quarter unfolded in this context.

We are aware that strong views often infuse discussions related to Israel and Palestine. But there can be no learning and intellectual growth without open exchange. And there can be no open exchange in the face of harassment, intimidation, online defamation, or any threat thereof. Northwestern recently released guidelines that hail the university as a place that encourages “freedom of speech, freedom of inquiry, freedom of dissent, and freedom to demonstrate in a peaceful fashion.” These freedoms must be guaranteed in discussions of Israel and Palestine.

Supporting diverse student perspectives is especially critical because, for many decades, there have been concerted efforts to intimidate and silence voices inside and beyond the academy that are critical of the policies of the State of Israel. These are often led by organizations outside of the academy with little commitment to the principles of academic debate and student safety. The internet has greatly exacerbated the resulting risks for students, particularly with the appearance of Canary Mission, an organization that creates libelous public profiles of students (and faculty) on its website that jeopardize their reputations and employment prospects. The Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal issued a groundbreaking report on heightened attacks on students and faculty in 2015, and have continued to document attacks since then.

It is important to emphasize that as experts in this field we do not see this as a debate between Jewish students and Muslim students. Students of all backgrounds hold differing and often divergent views on these questions. It is also not about anti- (or philo-) Semitism. All of our students demand and deserve safe spaces in which to develop, discuss, and grapple with difficult topics. And while students who support the policies of the State of Israel have institutional structures that offer a permanent place to meet, regular staff to which to turn, funds to support robust programming and enrichment opportunities, and mechanisms with which to release statements in response to events, students advocating for Palestinian rights (including Jewish students), have nothing comparable. Many of these students are also Palestinian-identified or MENA-identified; these students bear the additional emotional burden of mourning the loss of life while also engaging in critical discussion. Students have told us that they feel they have no safe space for critiquing Israeli policies, or mourning Palestinian lives lost to Israeli state policies: "The university issued statements after the George Floyd murder. They issued statements about anti-Asian American violence. We get nothing."

Faculty and graduate students in the MENA program issued a statement of solidarity on behalf of Palestinian rights earlier this year. But that statement is not enough on its own. The existing disparity of campus resources allows only a part of our student body to gather and create community, to receive emotional support, to work through difficult issues together, and to supplement their curricular options with deep learning outside the classroom. All Northwestern students need support to negotiate the structural inequality on our campus that both reflects and exacerbates broader inequalities on this issue in our country and the world.

As faculty committed to both our teaching and to our student’s well-being, we are concerned about the profound disparity in this regard when it comes to discussions of Israel/Palestine, and wish to speak out in support of and in solidarity with students of all backgrounds who are in search of an open, constructive, and honest conversation about such issues. The role of Northwestern in such a conversation is to facilitate difficult conversations in an atmosphere free of intimidation and harassment. We applaud our students’ efforts to use and test the knowledge produced in our classrooms in the wider world, and support their calls for recognition and support as they do so. This is the purpose and promise of higher education. We therefore call on Northwestern to:

(1) Ensure that University administration provides the conditions in which difficult conversations on contested issues can take place. This would include inviting MENA Studies faculty and graduate students to help shape statements and organize teach-ins. We are resources that can be consulted to inform and shepherd in these developments.

(2) Not conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and refrain from issuing any statements that are not clear on this issue. Anti-Semitism, like any form of bigotry and racist hatred, is inexcusable under any circumstances. But anti-Semitism is wholly distinct from anti-Zionism, which is opposition to the existence of a separate nation-state for the Jewish people. Being anti-Zionist is a political stance that is not in any way equivalent to hatred of Jews. Furthermore, one can be critical of the practices of the State of Israel without being anti-Zionist. Conflating these categories -- anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and critique of the State of Israel -- is intellectually dishonest and politically dangerous. It runs counter to the University’s mission to foster clarifying conversations that help students make sense of a complex world. It also serves to silence campus debate by unfairly ruling out legitimate political questions and critiques.

(3) Demonstrate an understanding of the marginalized status of MENA-identified students in all aspects of university decision-making, resource allocation, and communications. Show toward them the same level of awareness and support that is shown toward other underrepresented or minoritized populations on campus.This includes devoting resources and responding to MENA-identified students’ requests for a “Middle Eastern and North African” ethnicity category option on university documents and a Multicultural Student Affairs branch for Middle Eastern and North African students.

MENA Studies Core Faculty, Northwestern University