Freedom of Speech for Palestine Solidarity Activists

Defenders of Israel’s human rights abuses frequently attack critics for supposedly suppressing freedom of speech. But as the recent controversy at Williams College shows, it’s Palestine solidarity activists who face the highest risks when they speak out.

Thompson Memorial Chapel exterior view at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 2008. Daderot / Wikimedia

The US Department of Education opened an investigation against Williams College in Massachusetts for discrimination after student government refused to grant a student group, the Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI), official status. The media response has been hysterical: within a few weeks of the decision, Breitbart, Inside Higher Ed, the Boston Herald, and Ben Shapiro’s website the Daily Wire had all published articles accusing the college of suppressing free speech.

As one of the student activists involved in organizing against this group, I have seen firsthand how the outrage machine around Israel is able to turn seemingly any criticism of the country’s government, no matter how small, into a national controversy. Shortly after the decision, I found myself quoted in Forbes; and outlets tied the remarks I made in my student newspaper to those by Rep. Rashida Tlaib. (My point, not all that extreme, was that Israel receives so much military aid from the United States that the creation of student groups to come to the country’s defense is unnecessary.) It speaks volumes to the fragility of advocates for the state of Israel that college students are now as threatening to them as sitting members of Congress.

On campus, the debate was far more limited than the press made it seem. No one ever considered stopping WIFI from inviting speakers, holding meetings, or otherwise expressing their views. Many of us, however, had issues with WIFI potentially receiving financial support from student government, considering this money comes directly out of students’ pockets through a Student Activity Tax. Moreover, WIFI repeatedly refused to say whether or not they would accept money from lobbying groups like AIPAC, who they had been in contact with previously, or if they would use students’ money to invite extremist, pro-Netanyahu speakers to campus. WIFI’s fig leaf throughout the entire process that they were merely interested in supporting the State of Israel, politics notwithstanding. Student government was unconvinced: how could it be moral to fund and legitimize a group whose express intention is to support a state that, as much now as historically, has been responsible for the killing and forced expulsion of Palestinians?

Williams students, on the whole, are not particularly interested or informed about Israel/Palestine. We are an elite institution and suffer all the attendant political ills: an apathetic and jingoistic view of international politics, pitiful socioeconomic diversity and, recently, discrimination against black students in student government. The conversation around WIFI, however, was an opportunity to move the discourse on campus — to make the argument that Palestinian rights are human rights and ought to be recognized as such.

At one point in the debate before the student government vote, two Palestinian students took the floor to describe what exactly life under occupation looks like: running from bombs, having rifles shoved in their faces as children, only getting water three times a week, not being able to visit family without passing through Israeli security checkpoints; the Nakba was mentioned and correctly identified as an attempt on the part of the Israeli government to commit genocide against Palestinians.

The response from WIFI’s leadership was as disjointed as it was offensive: since the Nakba, they argued, the Palestinian population has actually increased somewhat — thus, the Israeli government could not have carried out genocide. Obviously, no definition of the word genocide has anything to do with total change in population; the United Nations Genocide Convention specifically defines the term as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Palestinian students, outraged, asked what a high birth rate had to do with their right not to be ethnically cleansed from their own lands. With some time left to speak, WIFI’s leadership then just stated that Israeli settlement in the West Bank is not settler colonialism. Apologies and explanations were roundly asked for on both these points — although none were offered.

After it became obvious that WIFI was more interested in redefining human rights abuses than advocating for their club, a vote was called; WIFI was voted down 13–8. Those of who organized against the group’s recognition felt we had done something important: we had pushed our fellow students to live up to their values and condemn support for state violence. Moreover, we had won the debate fair and square. Playing by the rules of liberal parliamentarianism, we successfully argued to a center-right and apathetic student government that this was an issue on which to take a stand.

Within a week of the vote, the issue was already a national controversy. Those of us involved in organizing around this issue quickly published an op-ed in our student newspaper to clarify our views, hoping to head off baseless accusations of antisemitism and “leftist repression.” From the very beginning, we had organized with Jewish students and made a point to voice our support for a variety of Jewish and Israeli voices in the peace process. We made it abundantly clear that our criticisms were directed specifically at the State of Israel and not Jewish people as such.

Good intentions and good organizing, however, did nothing to stop the harassment of student activists. As our names were published in a variety of liberal and right-wing publications, we began to receive threatening emails and calls for our expulsion. One friend of mine, who had only spoken briefly during the debate, had his name, photo, and LinkedIn profile published with the dog-whistle addendum that he was a member of the Muslim Student Union.

At this point, students who had been powerful and convincing voices for justice found themselves forced out of the debate. Muslim students were wary that speaking out would invite targeted harassment from websites like Canary Mission; international students from Palestine and elsewhere worried that criticizing the state of Israel publicly would lead to restricted travel and reprisals against family members living in conflict zones.

While student activists were worried about their physical safety, pro-Israel advocates were arguing in national media outlets that their right to free speech was being suppressed. In any case, shortly after the vote, the administration reversed the student government’s decision and granted WIFI official status via a loophole. The administration specifically took issue with the fact that the decision to deny WIFI official status “was made on political grounds.”

How else could such a decision have been made? In what world do politics not enter into decisions about legitimizing groups that defend human rights abuses? Furthermore, why elect a student government if it can’t act politically? Would denying a student group that espoused support for apartheid South Africa also be unacceptable if it was found “politics” influenced the decision? Even viewed from within the logic of liberalism, the response to this issue has been incoherent.

Despite the fact that most of this controversy has been framed as a free speech issue, the media responses illustrate just how hollow a value “free speech” is to the liberal establishment. “Free speech” went on: a democratically elected council of students decided, after several hours of debate, not to grant WIFI official status; there was a “marketplace of ideas” and no one bought that support for the State of Israel could be decoupled from the country’s past and continued human rights abuses.

While efforts to defend public figures like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib in their criticisms of Israel are essential, we must also reaffirm support for small-scale activism. Given that advocates for the State of Israel, many with national media platforms, have shown themselves willing to attack anyone who speaks out on the country’s human rights abuses, we ought to be similarly undiscriminating in offers of support and solidarity for those under fire. In a political environment where criticizing Israel can invite physical harassment, doxxing, and arrest, we will struggle to win ground so long as grassroots activists are cutoff from networks of national support that would allow for real resistance.