Israel bias on college campuses, activists claim

Panelist and journalist Ali Abunimah (A.M. ’95) argued that the Palestinian perspective is unwelcome on college campuses.

By Jon Catlin

Palestinian journalists and poets argued that pro-Israel bias on college campuses is a growing trend, while defending pro-Palestinian student activism here at the University, at a panel discussion in Swift Hall Tuesday evening.

The event, entitled “Turning point: how the invasion of Gaza backfired for Israel,” was sponsored by the RSO University of Chicago Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The panelists focused on the question of human rights violations incurred by Israel during the state’s controversial invasion of the Hamas-held Gaza Strip in December 2008.

Among the speakers was Ali Abunimah (A.M. ’95), a journalist, who compared the recent Israeli human rights violations to Jim Crow in the American South and Apartheid in South Africa.

“The imminent fall of colonialism and apartheid is a tall order, but these regimes are under strong ideological pressure,” he said. “It is this ideological battle that Israel fears—they call it ‘delegitimization.’”

Abunimah also claimed that the Palestinian narrative is suppressed in the U.S., particularly on college campuses. He pointed out how 11 students at the University of California, Irvine, now known as the “Irvine 11,” were charged and convicted in criminal court of disturbing a February 2010 speech by the Israeli ambassador. Abunimah blamed “Islamophobia” in part for the convictions.

Addressing his alma mater, Abunimah noted, “Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke at the University of Chicago in 2009—on leadership of all things—but to have a Palestinian Prime Minister speak would be out of the question.”

Student protesters interrupted and shouted at Olmert repeatedly during his speech, which took more than three times as long to deliver than planned. Panelist Annan Shehadi, a Chicago-based artist, described the demonstrations “not as violating free speech, but rather as preventing war crimes from being considered normal.”

Shehadi went on to praise the efforts of students on college campuses for spreading awareness of the Palestinian perspective, such as the mock-evictions from dorm rooms and mock-security-checkpoint on the quad that SJP organized last May.

According to SJP organizer and third-year Sami Kishawi, this panel was the third such event focusing on the Gaza invasion, Operation Cast Lead.

On these student efforts, Shehadi remarked, “Because of these demonstrations, people are starting to search for the truth for themselves…overcoming the Western media bias.”

In addition to demonstrations, panelist Kanazi suggested the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which boycotts Israeli performers who go abroad and tries to persuade musical artists not to perform in Israel, as a form of immediate action.

Abunimah concluded with a prediction that young activists equipped with social media may have a larger role to play in the politics of the region, alluding to the Arab Spring revolts that began last year.

“This is the generation that is ready, willing, and able to finish the job, though we sit on the shoulders of others,” he said.

A shorter version of this article was originally published.