The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) joins the large chorus of individuals and organizations denouncing President Trump’s December 11, 2019 Executive Order stifling speech and activism critical of Israel on US campuses.
This executive order presents a disturbing escalation of the Trump administration’s campaign to shut down criticism of Israel, and poses a highly troubling challenge to academic freedom and human rights advocacy. Indeed, on the very day it was announced, Representative Denver Riggleman (R-VA) called for an investigation of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University based on the fact that some of its faculty members openly endorsed BDS.
This order, which adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, in enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights act only opens up academic departments to threats to their academic freedom and deformations of research. By policing discourse about Israel-Palestine in line with the IHRA’s definition, any distinctions between anti-Semitism and criticism of the state of Israel become murky, if not indistinguishable. The IHRA definition has already been vigorously criticized by intellectuals, activists, and academics in both the US and the UK, many of them Jewish.
In addition, this executive order follows a highly problematic trend of Title VI being used in frivolous lawsuits by anti-Palestinian activists who charge US universities with anti-Semitism and violations of civil rights. Three such lawsuits against University of California campuses have been thrown out by the courts. The irony is that civil rights legislation meant to guard against racial discrimination is being deployed to uphold a racist, anti-Arab and Islamophobic agenda, one which is aggressively promoted by the current right-wing administration.
Earlier this year, the US Department of Education actually threatened to cut funding to the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East studies if it did not revise its offerings to please a Republican agenda. The AAUP has pointed out that this is a violation of academic freedom and that this sets a dangerous precedent in that any criticism of Israel may lead to cuts in federal funding. The exceptionalism made for Israel has led to a situation in which its human rights violations could be legally exempt from criticism, and challenges to racial bias or Islamophobia in Israel’s policies or by its defenders could be punished by law. This is a travesty of academic freedom and anti-racism. No one loses their jobs if they dare to criticize Russia, China, or even Saudi Arabia!
For decades now, US academics critical of Israel have faced a campaign of significant intimidation and harassment, and an ambiguous definition of anti-Semitism has been used to shut down human rights activism and BDS campaigns related to Palestine-Israel, including by blacklisting and bullying student activists. The expanding BDS movement has helped push back against this censorship, and University of California faculty have also objected to the UC Regents’ adoption of the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism as exceedingly broad.
Further, it must be made clear that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism does not help in warding off actually existing anti-Semitism. In fact, given that the Trump regime has made bedfellows with neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, while supporting an aggressive agenda of Israeli expansion and annexation of Palestinian lands, it has only exposed the compatibility, and indeed interdependency, between anti-Semitism and Zionism.
The Trump Executive Order is first and foremost a response to the success of the BDS movement in the U.S., and the broadening embrace among young students and progressive advocates of Palestinian human rights. In the past 13 years, there have been more than 250 victories for the BDS movement in North America. BDS is also now endorsed by such diverse groups as the U.S. Presbyterian Church, teachers’ unions, and prominent African Americans like Angela Davis. As in so many other areas of political life, the Trump administration is trying to move the U.S. backwards to a more reactionary past. Trump’s executive order will be challenged, and his administration’s effort to stifle speech critical of Israel and organizing for Palestinian human rights will fail. But this will require us to keep organizing and resisting–to stand strong in the face of fascism as we continue to support BDS on our university campuses.
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