Suppressing Pro-Israel Views at the University of Chicago

Student newspaper retracts an op-ed challenging the tactics of anti-Israel radicals

The suppression of pro-Israel views on college campuses has been a troubling development in the ongoing cognitive war against Israel. Now, the silencing of pro-Israel voices even appears in student newspapers. The McGill Daily, as one troubling example, has a long-standing, publicly announced policy of never publishing pro-Israel content in its pages, deeming any expression of support for the Jewish state to be racist and oppressive.

This week, the University of Chicago’s student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, followed that same ignoble path and violated journalistic and free speech ideals by retracting an op-ed titled “We Must Condemn the SJP’s Online Anti-Semitism.” The op-ed was written by two students who questioned the tactics and ideology of members of the University’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a perennially toxic and corrosive group of anti-Israel radicals.

On January 26th, as the op-ed by Melody Dias and Benjamin ZeBrack notes, SJP posted on its Instagram page the shocking admonition, “DON’T TAKE SH*TTY ZIONIST CLASSES.” The SJP post asked students to “[s]upport the Palestinian movement for liberation by boycotting classes on Israel or those taught by Israeli fellows.” According to the post, any students who enrolled in these classes would be “participating in a propaganda campaign that creates complicity in the continuation of Israel’s occupation of Palestine” because “Israeli-centered classes are designed to obscure Palestinian perspectives.”

Dias and ZeBrack made a number of accusations against SJP in their op-ed. They noted that SJP had posted the inflammatory infographic on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day and declared that the decision to make the post at such a time was insensitive, and even cruel. They shared their view that asking fellow students to boycott three particular classes about Israel and Zionism “taught specifically by Israeli fellows is xenophobic as Israelis cannot change their nationality” and that the post “demonizes that nationality by declaring all courses taught by someone affiliated with the nation as propaganda.” Dias and ZeBrack further explained that “all courses listed are explicitly within the University’s Jewish Studies center” and that SJP’s proposed boycott thus “furthers the trope that Jewish courses and professors work to contribute to propaganda for Israel, which is a blatantly false narrative.”

The two authors shared their dismay that a university that “prides itself on its free speech policy” would be home to a group that openly seeks to suppress speech and destroy academic freedom. In Dias and ZeBrack’s words, “this SJP post actively encourages students to drop such classes, hence discouraging educational freedom. This also violates the University’s discrimination and harassment policies, as the Israeli faculty are directly discriminated against. As such, the Jewish student community is indirectly discriminated against.”

Characteristic of their reaction to those who combat their corrosive activism, SJP was incensed that anyone had the gall to question their tactics and motives. Another post on the SJP Instagram account in response to the Dias-ZeBrack op-ed expressed a defective view often held by anti-Semites: “To frame this call as ‘anti-Jewish’ not only perpetuates the dangerous (and wholly false) conflation of Jewishness and Zionism, but also deliberately diverts attention from the ongoing ethnic cleansing that the israeli [sic] colony has been inflicting on Palestinian lands and peoples from its inception to the present.”

The widely-adopted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, as many know, stipulates that attacks on Zionism can be considered anti-Semitic, particularly when those attacks are attempts to deny Jewish self-determination or when Zionism is classified as a racist, oppressive endeavor. Contrary to SJP’s claim that the op-ed’s characterization of their tactics was both dangerous and wholly false, credible and respected experts in these matters support Dias and LeBrack’s views and share their concerns about attacks against Zionism.

Nevertheless, SJP demanded of the Maroon’s editors, “in response to these offenses,” the “[i]mmediate deletion of the article,” a “public apology issued by the Maroon [sic] to SJP UChicago and to Palestinian students for the dissemination of misinformation and the disregard of journalistic integrity and factual reporting,” and, most ominously, “a public recommitment to ensuring that all columns and articles abide by expected standards of accuracy and truth, particularly those written by Zionist authors or on behalf of Zionist organizations” [emphasis added]. In other words, SJP requested that a separate standard of exclusionary journalistic ethics and practice be applied whenever Israel, Zionism, and Jews are involved.

[Related: “Silencing Disfavored Speech”]

Astoundingly, in response to SJP’s absurd demands, two feckless editors, Kelly Hui and Elizabeth Winkler, not only deleted the offending op-ed from the Maroon’s “Viewpoints” section, but also published a craven, apologetic editorial of their own in which they dissected the op-ed for its perceived factual inaccuracies. Hui and Winkler justified their decision by claiming that the op-ed written by the pro-Israel supporters was the source of campus enmity, not SJP’s original decision to call for a boycott of courses about Israel.

“We condemn the pitting of Jewish and Palestinian students against one another,” Hui and Winkler wrote, “and we deeply regret the extent to which the op-ed’s factual inaccuracies—which we should not have published—perpetuated such a harmful dynamic.” The editors’ decision to retract an opinion piece from a section of the Chicago Maroon, written in response to a campaign of demonization and delegitimization of Israel and Zionism by the chronically toxic activists of SJP, was outrageous enough. However, Hui and Winkler compounded the offense by suggesting that sections of the op-ed contributed to “the pitting of Jewish and Palestinian students against one another.” No, actually, it is SJP’s poisonous attacks on anything Zionist on campus and its call for the boycott of “shitty” Zionist courses that pit pro-Israel students against pro-Palestinians, not op-eds that correct misinformation or defend Israel.

A careful and educated editor could go through SJP’s writing and find a litany of factual inaccuracies, distortions of history, and pure propaganda meant to slander the Jewish state. Why have the editors not scanned the writing of SJP supporters for such counter-factual terms as “settler-colonial regime,” “apartheid,” “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” or “the liberation of Palestine”—terms which are inaccurate, inflammatory, and part of a false narrative that inspires hatred of Israel, Zionism, and, often, Jews? If accuracy is now going to be the Maroon’s journalistic litmus test for op-eds, then both sides of the argument need to be judged by the same yardstick, not just “those written by Zionist authors or on behalf of Zionist organizations,” as SJP has requested.

It is profoundly troubling that college newspaper editors now embrace the view that pro-Israel beliefs are somehow immoral, oppressive, indefensible, and even racist at their core and should be suppressed, while pro-Palestinian ideology—even when it is corrosive, counter-factual, and sometimes anti-Semitic—is viable and can be promoted. The entire pro-Palestine campaign against the Jewish state, of course, is defined by its created narrative. It assesses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the use of feelings, emotional reactions, assumptions, and lies, not facts. That is the very reason that SJP and other anti-Israel groups do not wish to defend their calumnies about Israel through actual debate and a recitation of facts and history. Instead, they prefer to attack Israeli scholars and courses about Israel, not by deconstructing their work for factual errors but by promoting their own false narrative about ethnic cleansing, the occupation of Palestinian land, settler colonialism, genocide, and the unending oppression of an indigenous people—the key themes in anti-Israel ideology.

[Related: “The Middle East Studies Association Betrays Academia”]

In its post asking fellow students to boycott courses related to Israel, SJP included unhelpful annotations intended to reveal the “Zionist agenda” behind the courses. Instead, the annotations reveal just how tendentious and arrogant SJP is in second-guessing the faculty and academic committees who created and approved these courses—which are comprised of scholars far more educated and wiser than the activist brats of SJP.

The description for the “Gender Relations in Israel” course taught by Meital Pinto, for example, reads that “Israel does not separate between religion and state, family law in Israel is largely influenced by religious patriarchal norms.” SJP’s annotation declares that “Prof. Pinto makes it seem as if patriarchy occurs within a narrow scope—caused by religious laws. Israel is patriarchal because it is a colonial apartheid state.” The course discusses the different aspects of sexuality and gender in Israeli society, but SJP sees no purpose in that discussion since it already has decided Israel’s true nature. “Contradictions arise because israel [sic] uses a propaganda technique called ‘pinkwashing’ which exploits queer rights to hide its occupation and apartheid practices behind an image of progressiveness,” SJP unhelpfully and fallaciously notes. While the course description promises to “explore ways in which [members of the LGBT community] act creatively to affect social change, and the projects and organizations they form to combat gender prejudice and discrimination,” the SJP annotation claims that this ambition is futile “because they exclude queer palestinians [sic], and operate within a colonial system of racism and apartheid. queer palestinian [sic] representation within ‘israeli’ [sic] society is not liberatory—the dismantlement of israeli [sic] occupation and apartheid is.”

The critical annotations of the course taught by Stephanie Kraver, “Narrating Israel and Palestine through Literature and Film,” offer a similar critique. While the course intends to engage “with an array of literary and cinematic depictions” in order to “go beyond stereotypes,” the SJP annotations suggest that the description obscures “Israeli settler colonialism, the erasure and demonization of Palestinian voices, and theft of Palestinian land and livelihood,” and that “the Israeli experience is necessarily defined by the colonization and disposession [sic] of Palestinians.”

Professor Pinto’s other class, “Multiculturalism in Israel,” is similarly demeaned. In response to the course’s stated intention to “review different definitions of terms such as ‘multiculturalism,’ ‘multicultural state,’ ‘liberal state,’ [and] ‘cultural rights’” and to consider how the terms are used in Israel, SJP simply declares that Israel is “a society founded on racist settler colonial principles, ethnic cleansing, and the attempted erasure of both Palestinian people and their political rights and identity.” In addition, SJP’s annotations claim that “Zionism has always worked to destroy the Indigenous diversity of Palestine in favor of the violent establishment of the Israeli state, which openly considers itself ‘the nation state of the Jewish people.’”

SJP and other anti-Israel activists on college campuses would prefer, of course, that nothing that might be construed as pro-Israel ever be uttered or taught or written about on campus. The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once quipped that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”—something that SJP has yet to realize or comprehend. SJP activists are certainly permitted to have their own version of history and their own narrative about the Israeli-Palestinian debate, but people as clever, and even more clever, than them also have their own narratives, facts, and set of truths. And both views should be, and must be, heard—both in the editorial pages of the Chicago Maroon and elsewhere.

Ironically, it was the University of Chicago that published a seminal set of guidelines for university free speech, the 2014 “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,” often referred to as the Chicago Principles. Perhaps the Maroon’s editors should read the Chicago Principles next time they are tempted to suppress the views of any group or individual on campus.

“In a word,” the report reads, “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.”

The Chicago Maroon editors might want to review those words.


Image: Mx. Granger, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Richard L. Cravatts

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of "Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews."

4 thoughts on “Suppressing Pro-Israel Views at the University of Chicago

    1. OK — Name one example — anywhere — of a student renouncing the student’s own pro-Palestinian editorial.

      Just one example…

      1. And tell me that something similar to what recently happened to Allen West in Buffalo has ever happened to a pro-Palestinian speaker.

        “Man bites dog” is newsworthy for a reason — it doesn’t happen…

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