When Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill, known for his forceful and principled advocacy for racial justice, as well as a number of other social justice issues, spoke at the United Nations on November 28 in favor of equal rights for all in Palestine/Israel, he apparently went one cause too far.
First, he was fired as a commentator by CNN. Now, members of Temple University's board of trustees are up in arms. They don't approve of something a Temple faculty member said, off campus, on his own time.
Sounds all too familiar.
Back in 2014, Palestinian professor Steven Salaita wrote some tweets critical of Israel's then-ongoing bombardment of Gaza, which had killed more than 2,000 people and helped make the strip of land where nearly two million Palestinians are trapped virtually unlivable today.
The University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign Board of Trustees, under enormous pressure from big donors and anti-Palestinian groups, got him fired — to hell with the First Amendment.
Salaita sued, and the university settled, surely realizing it was in the wrong legally. But at what cost?
Hill has been vocal in his support for Palestinian rights for over a decade. He has visited the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea on several occasions and has seen for himself Israel's oppressive military rule over the West Bank, its illegal settlements, the segregation and codified discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel — all part of Israel's efforts to erase indigenous Palestinians and ensure the dominance of Jewish Israelis. He's written about how this situation reminds him of the persisting injustices against black communities in the US.
At the end of a speech detailing Israel's ongoing violations against Palestinians, delivered at the UN on the occasion of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Hill said: "We have an opportunity to not just offer solidarity in words but to commit to political action, grassroots action, local action, and international action that will give us what justice requires and that is a free Palestine from the river to the sea."
Israel lobby groups don't like this. Some say, unashamedly, that they don't recognize that there even is such a thing as "Palestinians" — including Rick Santorum, who remains employed as a CNN commentator despite his bigoted comments towards Palestinians, LGBTQ people, and others.
The ongoing project to make historic Palestine into a state that privileges Jews from around the world over indigenous Palestinians relies on just such a negation of a people to make it a reality. Israel's recently passed nation-state law codifies what has been the plan from the beginning: that only Jewish Israelis — not their Palestinian Christian and Muslim neighbors who have Israeli citizenship, nor the millions of Palestinians whose lives and territories are under Israeli military control in the West Bank and Gaza, nor the millions more who have been expelled since 1947 and not be allowed to return — have the right to self-determination in the land between the river and the sea.
Supporters of Israel are now pressuring Temple to fire Hill. They are saying that calling for equal rights for all human beings "from the river to the sea" is antisemitic, and the equivalent of calling for the destruction of Israel.
It's a familiar argument to me. At Palestine Legal, we hear this kind of charge lobbed every day against people in the US advocating for Palestinian rights.
We have seen the same groups that are now pressuring Temple — the Zionist Organization of America and the Anti-Defamation League among them — do the same at other universities, to censor and punish activism and scholarship on Palestine.
At the University of California, Berkeley in 2016, administrators canceled a student-led class on "Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis" mid-semester after two dozen anti-Palestinian groups, along with an Israeli government minister, complained. The university reversed course after civil rights groups, including my office, threatened to sue.
More recently at UCLA, Israel's supporters called for the cancelation of a conference that National Students for Justice in Palestine organized on campus. LA City Council member Paul Koretz insinuated during a demonstration outside the conference that students were "plotting terrorism." Ironically (or not), the very demonstration Koretz spoke at included members of the Jewish Defense League — a group that has actually killed Palestinians and has been labeled a terrorist organization by the FBI.
Meanwhile, as I write, US senators are trying to push through in an appropriations measure a bill that would criminalize certain boycotts for Palestinian rights, and one that would define antisemitism to encompass any criticism of Israel. And twenty-six states have already passed laws that punish boycotts for Palestinian rights. Kentucky's governor admitted that he signed an executive order prohibiting state agencies from contracting with companies that boycott Israel at the behest of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself.
Our highest elected officials are actively undermining our right to speak out for freedom. As a public institution, Temple is also undermining these rights, as we wrote in a letter to its President Richard Englert last week. On Tuesday, Temple's board of trustees, while acknowledging Hill's constitutional right to speak for Palestinian freedom, nevertheless condemned it as "hate speech"; a member of the board had earlier stated it was "evaluating" what to do about Hill.
When professors and students at institutions of higher education can't engage and speak freely on one of the most pressing foreign policy and human rights issues of our times, when they're condemned for calling for freedom and equality for everyone, we should all be alarmed.
Censorship such as what Marc Lamont Hill is facing is no accident. Despite unprecedented support from the Trump administration for the most extreme, right-wing government in Israeli history, Israel and its supporters here are increasingly concerned about growing grassroots support for Palestinian freedom among Americans. And they're doing everything they can to stop it.
Thankfully, people are seeing through Israel's fear-mongering and false accusations. They see that Israel's oppression of Palestinians is connected to struggles here for racial, indigenous, and immigrant justice. And they're seeing that the same oppressive forces are trying to keep these freedom movements down.
Marc Lamont Hill is not alone. Not in his belief that all people deserve freedom and to live with dignity and equal rights on their land, including Palestinians; and not in the way he is being slandered and censored for expressing this belief.
To resist the reactionary right-wing onslaught that threatens all of us, we must stand together, from Standing Rock to Ferguson, until we are all free, from every river to every sea.
Dima Khalidi is the founder and director of Palestine Legal.