Located on the outskirts of Boston, Brandeis University has been under siege since Friday when a group of some 150 undergrad and graduate students indefinitely "occupied" the Bernstein-Marcus Administration Center. The students, who are taking shifts in the round-the-clock protest, have vowed to remain until 13 demands are met.
On Thursday, the group, which operates under the monikers "Concerned Students 2015" and "Ford Hall 2015," submitted their 13-point list of demands to acting president Lisa Lynch, giving her 24 hours to comply. The demands include a 10 percent across the board hiring of full-time black faculty and staff, the appointment of a vice president for diversity and inclusion, and mandatory diversity education for all students. (In 2014, the school's website states the entire student body is under 6,000, of which some five% was black, 6% Hispanic, and 13% Asian.)
In response, over the weekend the acting president wrote the students a multi-page letter validating their feelings and vowing to boost diversity. "The atmosphere described by our students is painful to hear and calls on all of us to address these issues," Lynch wrote, but she declined to set a timetable for actual action. (In a leaked email, interim Provost Irving Epstein instructs faculty to use discretion in regards to protesters' class attendance and assignments.)
Interestingly, in point number 12 on the students' list, they demand Senior Vice President Andrew Flagel publicly apologize to student Khadijah Lynch. Lynch, one may recall, was brought to social media infamy after fellow student Daniel Mael wrote a blog citing her inflammatory tweets following the murder of two police officers in New York in December 2014.
Now a senior, Lynch majors in African and Afro-American Studies and as of last year, also served as an adviser to other undergrads. Her contentious tweets, since erased, including, "i have no sympathy for the nypd officers who were murdered today [sic]."
In the Truth Revolt blog, Mael also referenced Lynch's tweets about the widespread rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, after a suspected racially motivated shooting in August, "the fact that black people have not burned this country down is beyond me" and "I am in riot mode. Fuck this fucking country." Mael also cited a Lynch post about Brandeis, "a social justice themed institution grounded in zionism. word. thats a fucking fanny dooley."
Mael's article was shared on social media almost 100,000 times; Lynch was pilloried in the comments, and the story was broadly covered in international media.
Among the other layers of fallout — Mael was escorted by a bodyguard when he returned to campus and former Brandeis president Frederick M. Lawrence stepped down at the end of January to join the Yale Law School — Flagel published a statement calling Lynch's tweets "hurtful and disrespectful, inconsistent with our institutional values."
While the students' demand for an administration apology to a single student may seem out of place in the broader struggle for racial diversity at the long-time "Jewish" American university, it's not.
As definitions of freedom of speech are put into flux, the campus is ever more seen by minorities as a war zone in which protests — and especially the social media coverage of them — are the choicest weapons for retaliation.
And as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly fought on North American college campuses, both Israeli advocacy groups and pro-Palestinian organizations are preparing their students for a long and arduous battle for the public consensus.
No camel crossing
In today's academic world, there is a growing movement to prioritize subjective psychological experiences over empirical objectivity. A student's hurt feelings can be grounds for a professor's dismissal. New vocabulary — such as "microagressions," "trigger warnings," "liberating tolerance" and "privilege" — is now commonplace, and academics write of a new coddling of the fragile college student.
Put in a broader campus context, today's emphasis on students' psyches is now at war with traditional hierarchical roles, and as paying customers, students expect the administrative authority to cater to their needs.
It is in this context that professors are asked to label literature with warning stickers for the benefit of the potentially traumatized and that this fall a free yoga class for the disabled was canceled at the University of Ottawa due to "uncomfortable" cultural issues concerning colonialism. In Minnesota, a small college's May 2014 Hump Day event with a camel was called off because of fears of racist overtones to people from the Middle East. And in October at Yale, an email from a faculty dorm mother counseling common sense in Halloween costumes was the impetus for a riot. Even USPresident Barack Obama has spoken out against the stifling of political diversity on campus.
It is in this absurd atmosphere that the November 10 resignation of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe after months of race riots on campus caused one reporter to opine, "Mizzou students rejoiced over Wolfe's resignation, but just as much over their new-found power to effect change through protest."
So when earlier this month, pro-Palestinian students disrupted an Israel studies forum, were asked to desist and were chided by an Israeli professor for not listening to an accredited guest scholar, the offending professor is portrayed as "disrespecting" the students. And in the aftermath, the students posted a viral YouTube video, opened an online fundraising campaign, and have retained the services of a lawyer to have the professor formally investigated and removed.
These are just a few of the many examples examined in academia and the press. Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf, for example, has followed this trend of liberal intolerance with several in-depth reports. In speaking about the Yale Halloween riots he writes, "Everyone invested in how the elites of tomorrow are being acculturated should understand, as best they can, how so many cognitively privileged, ordinarily kind, seemingly well-intentioned young people could lash out with such flagrant intolerance... They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings."
In another massive Atlantic essay, constitutional lawyer Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt write, "Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. A claim that someone's words are 'offensive' is not just an expression of one's own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.
"...Social media has also fundamentally shifted the balance of power in relationships between students and faculty; the latter increasingly fear what students might do to their reputations and careers by stirring up online mobs against them," they write.
The writers explore the jargon of "microaggressions" ("small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless") and "trigger warnings" ("alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response") and their effects on today's students and their "fragile psyches."
"In a variety of ways, children born after 1980 — the millennials — got a consistent message from adults: life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well. So it's not hard to imagine why students arriving on campus today might be more desirous of protection and more hostile toward ideological opponents than in generations past," they write.
"This hostility, and the self-righteousness fueled by strong partisan emotions, can be expected to add force to any moral crusade," write Lukianoff and Haidt.
Reading the above sentence with the Palestinian-Israeli student struggle in mind may help explain what happened at a now controversial November 13 University of Texas, Austin event.
What happens at the University of Texas, stays on YouTube
The general public was invited to Dr. Gil-li Vardi's lunchtime lecture on November 13 at the University of Texas, Austin's Institute for Israeli Studies. To sweeten the pot, the Stanford lecturer's talk, "The Origin of a Species: The Birth of the Israeli Defense Forces' Military Culture," included a complimentary lunch for those who RSVPed in time.
By noon that Friday, there was a rather large group of students who clearly had no intention of staying for lunch, but it was certainly a learning experience for all.
Wearing keffiyehs and holding aloft a Palestinian flag, a dozen or so members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) staged a "peaceful disruption" led by second-year law student Mohammed Nabulsi. The plan, according to the resultant viral YouTube video, was to declaim a two-minute denunciation of Israel's "ethnic cleansing" against Palestinians and then leave en masse.
However, things went awry after Nabulsi made what he calls his "intervention" following Vardi's formal introduction.
As seen in the video, which was edited from three cameras and has garnered over 172,000 views, the founding director of the Institute, Prof. Ami Pedahzur, protests the disturbance of an academic forum, then, seeing Nabulsi has no intention of desisting, sarcastically claps and calls him "brilliant."
Things quickly escalate as an angry graduate student confronts Nabulsi, tries to obtain his phone, and eventually grabs the Palestinian flag held by other students.
Israeli-born Pedahzur attempts to divert the PSC students, saying, "If you want to learn, stay. If you don't want to learn, stay out," but Nabulsi turns to Pedahzur, shouting, "We don't want to listen to your white washing. We know who you are, we've read your stuff. The IDF represents the ethnic cleansing of over 800,000 indigenous Palestinians. It means hundreds of thousands of villages razed to the ground. It means the death of my great grandfather."
Eventually, after attempting to appeal to the students to stay and learn, Pedahzur resignedly says the students should speak and then leave.
A very hoarse Nabulsi begins again. "I want to talk about my grandfather, who was murdered by Zionist militias, leaving eight children behind... that's what we want to talk about. We want to talk about the fact that the center for Israeli studies exists on our campus to white wash the State of Israel's crimes against the Palestinian people," says Nabulsi.
In the background someone, presumably Vardi, quietly says, "Let's talk about it."
Nabulsi retorts angrily, "It doesn't matter, you are a former IDF soldier, we do not listen to you. You have nothing to say about the Palestinian experience. You have nothing to say about ethnic cleansing."
Again, Pedahzur attempts to engage the students, saying, "Sit down listen! Sit down and learn! What do you all know?! You are all so young, you know so little! Listen to a professor!" He asks the other PSC students, "He's a Palestinian, that makes him an expert on Palestinian issues? No! Sit down and learn!"
As Nabulsi says, "Yes! It makes me an expert!" the other PSC students chant several rousing rounds of "Free, free Palestine," "Long live the intifada," "We want '48, we want two states," before a quiet voice says, "OK, you've made your point."
Following the incident, in a statement on Facebook the students claim they were "met with physical force and intimidation." They say they were detained by campus police for 40 minutes, and that one member, who was no longer a student at the time of the incident, received a trespass warning.
Hours later, radical Muslims in Paris wantonly murdered some 130 people during multi-pronged terrorist attacks. An evidently distressed Pedhazur, in his 40s and a product of the Internet era himself, wrote an impassioned blog in which he discusses Paris, the UT incident, and exposes individual students' identities and pseudonyms.
"Initially, I thought that the members of the group had a genuine interest in human rights and justice. Gradually, I realized that they are part of a group who have a long history of launching manipulative campaigns that aim at intimidating and terrorizing those who they perceive as their enemies," wrote Pedahzur.
"What I saw was a tight group of young men and women who follow a charismatic leader who admire a notorious murderer. After spending two decades of learning how people turn to terrorism, I fear that what I witnessed on Friday should raise many red flags," wrote Pedhazur, according to an archived version of his blog. In an update to the blog, he said he has decided to press charges against the students, who had by then released their viral video.
Presumably with the help of their crowdfunding campaign, the PSC students retaliated and retained the services of lawyer Brian McGiverin, an attorney with the Austin Lawyers Guild. On November 18, the PSC students filed a complaint against Pedhazur with the Office of Institutional Equity and the Office of University Compliance Services, alleging violations of anti-discrimination laws and policy and violations of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
"The university has an obligation to protect students' freedom of expression and privacy, and against any racial discrimination," McGiverin said. (Attempts to speak with Pedahzur and the PSC students were unsuccessful.)
The university wrote in a statement last week that the Office of the Dean of Students and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts have begun interviewing those involved to "determine whether members of the university community violated any university rules. University police, after responding to a call from the event, determined that none of the actions at the event rose to the level of a criminal offense."
"The University of Texas at Austin strongly defends and supports free speech for all members of the university community," said President Gregory L. Fenves in a press statement.
"Our students and faculty benefit from an environment that encourages this free exchange of ideas — and in which everyone is able to both share their views and let others do the same," said Fenves. (Fenves has had a lot on his plate this month, with a Supreme Court case defending the use of race in campus admissions, and a large professor-driven lobby against carrying concealed weapons on campus classrooms, dorms and other buildings.)
In a letter sent last week to Fenves, the Anti-Defamation League's Austin regional director Renee Lafair wrote, "Attempting to shut down speech and refusing to engage in dialogue is not a new strategy or unique to the University of Texas at Austin. Rather, it is tactic being employed by anti-Israel activists on campuses around the country."
And based on two recent reports, one by the ADL, "Anti-Israel Activity on Campus, 2014-2015: Trends and Projections," and the other by Palestine Legal, "The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the US" — both sides of the conflict accuse the other of similar censorious practices.
The fight for students' hearts and minds
According to a new report released last week by the ADL, in 2014 the organization tracked over 520 anti-Israel events on campus — a 30% increase from the previous academic year. Among these events were 19 campuses in which students introduced divestment resolutions and referenda — a 21% increase over the 2013-2014 academic year — and student groups also initiated 29 BDS campaigns, a 21% increase from the 15 BDS campaigns in the previous academic year.
The ADL report stated that in the fall 2015 semester alone, "over 150 explicitly anti-Israel events have taken place, up from 105 events that occurred during the same period in 2014."
As for the cause of this marked rise, the ADL points to efforts by the American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). "All three groups sponsor programs to assist students on campus with BDS campaigns and their national conferences often include specific sessions for students to discuss BDS strategies and past success."
For its part, Palestine Legal, "a nonprofit legal and advocacy organization supporting Palestine activism," writes on its website that it responded to nearly 300 incidents of "censorship or other suppression" of Palestinian advocacy between January 2014 and June 2015, of which 85% targeted students and scholars on over 65 US college campuses.
"In the first six months of 2015 alone, Palestine Legal responded to 140 incidents and 33 requests for assistance in anticipation of potential suppression. These numbers understate the phenomenon, as many advocates who are unaware of their rights or afraid of attracting further scrutiny stay silent and do not report incidents of suppression. The overwhelming majority of these incidents — 89 percent in 2014 and 80 percent in the first half of 2015 — targeted students and scholars, a reaction to the increasingly central role universities play in the movement for Palestinian rights," writes the report.
The Palestine Legal report earmarks a number of Jewish allies, including Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews Say No, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, and Open Hillel.
The report also points to unhelpful organizations such as Canary Mission, which attempts to publicly shame pro-Palestinian activists through publicizing their profiles on an anonymous website, and the AMCHA initiative, which among other endeavors, haspublished a list of over 200 Middle East studies professors who have called for academic boycotts of Israelis. (A group of foremost Jewish Studies professors also condemned the AMCHA list last year.)
The Palestine Legal report includes a smiling image of Rasmea Odeh, who was convicted in Israel in 1970 in connection to two terrorist bombings, with the caption, "The Department of Homeland Security arrested Chicago civil rights advocate Rasmea Odeh for the rarely prosecuted offense of lying on a naturalization form."
And in closing, in what some may construe as verging on anti-Semitic tropes, the author writes, "A network of lobbying groups, watchdog groups, public relations entities, and advocacy groups funded by, working in coordination with, and/or staunchly supportive of the policies and practices of the Israeli government primarily drives efforts to silence speech on behalf of Palestinian rights. Organizations dedicated to countering Palestinian rights activism—often in ways that seek to unlawfully suppress protected speech, as detailed in this Report—have proliferated in response to the increasing effectiveness of the movement for Palestinian rights."
20 years after the 'water buffalo' incident
Back in 1993, Jewish student Eden Jacobowitz was trying to study in his dorm room at the University of Pennsylvania when outside his window, a group of mostly black Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters where being a bit rowdy.
He stuck his head out the window and shouted, "Shut up, you water buffalo" to the women. And was subsequently charged with violating the university's racial harassment policy.
Back then, in his defense, Jacobowitz, who had spent a considerable time in Israel and was fluent in Hebrew, claimed that "water buffalo" — in Hebrew behema — had no racial connotations (and indeed, till today it still does not) and was merely meant to describe a group of loud, vulgar people.
Coming on the tail of an era of 1980s political correctness, the incident made headlines and even political cartoonist Garry Trudeau devoted a Sunday's Doonesbury to it.
Jacobowitz was eventually cleared of the charges; he graduated, sued Penn, went to law school, and went into human resources. "No one involved in the incident wants to talk about it today," according to a 2013 Philly Magazine article.
Indeed, according to Prof. April Kelly-Woessner from Elizabethtown College, a generation after Jacobowitz's water buffalo outburst, students are much less tolerant than their parents.
In an essay, she describes today's campus as having an almost Orwellian atmosphere: "If we look only at people under the age of 40, intolerance is correlated with a 'social justice' orientation... intolerance itself is being reclassified as a social good... multicultural tolerance allows individuals to limit the rights of political opponents, so long as they frame their intolerance in terms of protecting others from hate."
Such was the case of Andrew Pessin, a philosophy professor at Connecticut College. Last April, Pessin was targeted by anti-Israel activists who accused him of racism after publicizing a Facebook post they had hand-picked from last summer's Gaza war.
Pessin was widely condemned by his colleagues and the school administration in the chaotic period following the public accusations in the school's student paper. He eventually took a medical leave of absence, and he told The Times of Israel last week that although his "situation is not yet resolved," he is currently scheduled to return to work in January.
He said that he's been following Pedahzur's "saga," and sent him words of support.
"During my ordeal it was the hundreds of emails of support I received that really kept me going, so I urge people to get in touch," said Pessin.
As to his advice for Pedahzur?
"Get a good lawyer as soon as possible."