In Focus: Community members say Northwestern is neither a safe nor free space for conversations about Palestine and Israel

March 2, 2023

Content warning: This piece includes mention of Islamophobia, racism, antisemitism and death.

Throughout this story, some names have been changed to protect students’ safety. Many sources who requested anonymity did so to protect themselves from being listed on Canary Mission. Sources who have chosen to remain anonymous will be indicated with an asterisk next to their name on first mention.

In spring 2021, airstrikes, rocket attacks and police violence against protesters in Palestine and Israel left 261 Palestinians, including 67 children, and at least 13 people in Israel, including two children, dead.

At times, Northwestern’s administration has emailed community members about events that impact students, faculty and staff, such as police brutality and global health crises. Yet to many students’ frustration, the administration stayed silent in spring 2021.

Ava*, a Palestinian alum who graduated in 2022, said many students reached out to the administration asking it to respond. She said she didn’t expect NU to take an explicitly pro-Palestine stance but simply hoped the administration would acknowledge it was a difficult time for Palestinians, Jews and Israelis.

“I don’t even care what they say, I just want to hear that Northwestern is literally just considering that we exist as human beings and deserve like, I don’t know, some support in any capacity,” Ava said.

NU’s students have not been silent about issues in Palestine and Israel. Over the past several years, moments of intense debate, activism and disagreement related to events in Palestine and Israel — as well as the University’s relationship with Israel — have flared up. 

Many students and faculty members have expressed dissatisfaction with the way dialogues on campus unfold, stating these conversations are either unproductive, unfree or unsafe — or stifled completely. While some said they feel talking about Palestine and Israel is becoming freer and safer, others said structural and cultural barriers continue to prevent productive dialogue. 

David Shyovitz, a history professor and director of NU’s Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies, said he wonders if these tense moments would be more constructive if they unfolded differently.

“I wonder if some of these are really missed opportunities,” Shyovitz said. “Maybe some of these really very tense expressions of these dynamics could be used to build longer-term discussions or longer-term relationships.”

Illustration by Emily Lichty

Administrative statements and silence

After NU hired Medill Prof. Steven Thrasher in 2019, he gave a graduation speech at his alma mater, New York University. 

In the speech, he voiced support for National Students for Justice in Palestine — a student-led, pro-Palestine solidarity organization active in the U.S. and Canada — and the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which supports sanctions on Israel and draws inspiration from the South African anti-apartheid movement. Thrasher also referred to Israel as an apartheid state.

In response, then-University President Morton Schapiro and then-provost Jonathan Holloway released a statement saying that while Thrasher is entitled to his own views, “Northwestern as an institution unequivocally rejects BDS” and values its “many relationships with a variety of universities and research centers in Israel.”

Thrasher said although the University did not formally punish him, the statement functioned as an “intimidation” tactic, discouraging others on campus from voicing certain opinions. 

“Ultimately, I was still hired and arrived,” Thrasher said. “But it’s very stressful … even seeing a press release about my graduation speech — that itself has a chilling effect on other people.” 

Some students and faculty who are critical of Israel said that historically, the administration’s pro-Israel statements have made speaking up about Palestine and Israel nervewracking. This dynamic makes it much easier for tenured professors to voice their opinions, Thrasher said.

Meanwhile, Shyovitz said those with social and religious connections to Israel, like himself, also sometimes feel hesitant to voice their opinions.

“I think everybody is kind of at risk of being silenced by somebody else,” Shyovitz said. “The power dynamics are not wholly unidirectional.” 

Aneesa Johnson (Communication ʼ18), said the University’s reactions to individual students expressing their views has hindered open conversation. 

Johnson, who is Palestinian, said that while at NU, she was reported to the University for bias and hate after she posted tweets criticizing Zionism. She said someone from the University emailed her while she was in an off-campus program and requested a meeting to discuss her tweets. 

Johnson said she was confused about the email and was told further details could only be discussed during an in-person meeting when she was back on campus.

“I went into the meeting very angry,” Johnson said. “I was like … this is ridiculous that I’m sitting here as a Black and Palestinian Muslim woman who wears hijab being reprimanded for bias and hate, especially with regards to a political issue that directly affects me.” 

After Johnson expressed her frustration during the meeting, she said the administrator had a positive, constructive conversation with her.

Yet she said the fact the University contacted her and required her to attend a meeting still impacted her. 

“I think most people at 18, 19 years old, receiving an email that I did from the University, they’re going to be scared,” Johnson said. “They’re going to shut up after that.” 

The University’s policy regarding allegations of harassment based on political belief or affiliation falls outside the Office of Equity’s jurisdiction, NU Assistant Vice President of Communications Jon Yates said in an email to The Daily. 

Thrasher said University responses play into a broader power dynamic, “socializing” community members into staying silent.

George*, a Palestinian student and former NU SJP board member, said SJP often struggles to get support from professors for its events, which he attributes to faculty being afraid of having their names affiliated with the organization.

Some Palestinian students also said administrative silence about violent and distressing events in Palestine — including those in spring 2021 — has left them feeling the University does not value conversation about Palestinian issues or take their mental and emotional well-being into account.

Sama Ben Amer, a Medill sophomore and former Daily staffer who was on SJP’s board this fall, is a production assistant at Students Publishing Company, the nonprofit corporation that publishes The Daily. She is not involved in any editorial processes at The Daily.

She said she was frustrated that she didn’t receive an email from the University in May 2022 when the Israel Defense Forces shot Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the head, adding that none of her professors brought it up in class. 

“Politics aside, it’s a journalist who was murdered … and we’re the number one journalism school in the world,” Ben Amer said. “So I feel there’s a great responsibility on us to be the first to denounce that sort of thing and lift her legacy up.” 

External lobbying groups make NU unsafe for dialogue

Amid the violence in Palestine and Israel in spring 2021, students drafted an Associated Student Government resolution that called on NU to release a statement “supporting Palestinian human rights” and “condemning Israeli oppression.” The resolution further called on the University to divest from six corporations that “have aided the oppressive and destructive Israeli occupation.”

One student said after he began working on the resolution and mentioning it to other ASG members, the Google Docs draft began receiving access requests from accounts he didn’t recognize. 

“Eventually it got to a point where I could just look up the name on Google and then on LinkedIn, and it was like, ‘Oh, this person is from Washington, DC,’” he said. “Then I saw (the) Israel on Campus Coalition and (the Israel Education Center).”

The IEC is a branch of the Chicago-based Jewish United Fund, which aims to increase support for and understanding of Israel. According to its website, the IEC “work(s) closely with Hillels across the Midwest to provide … the most effective strategies to combat delegitimization, anti-Israel activity, and the BDS movement.” 

According to its website, the ICC — the other organization that requested access to the ASG resolution draft — coordinates with various pro-Israel organizations nationwide to increase support for Israel and envisions campuses “where the anti-Israel movement is marginalized.” 

In 2018, ProPublica found that the ICC has a history of running anonymous social media campaigns to discredit pro-Palestinian activists and that the organization coordinates closely with the Israeli government’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. 

Daniel*, a MENA-identifying student involved with the ASG resolution, said it isn’t possible to talk about campus discussions of Palestine and Israel without also discussing the fears many Muslim and MENA-identifying students have about being surveilled by outside organizations, including foreign governments.

“College campuses, that’s where ideas are exchanged,” he said. “(It’s) supposed to be the bastion of free speech, but that doesn’t apply to Palestine because of these private and foreign interests that are allowed to do whatever they want with college students.” 

Illustration by Emily Lichty

The spring 2021 resolution wasn’t the first ASG resolution calling on NU to divest from companies associated with the Israeli military. It also wasn’t the first ASG resolution that received a reaction from outside organizations. 

When ASG passed a similar divestment resolution in 2015, the AMCHA Initiative, a nonprofit organization that — according to its website — aims to combat antisemitism on college campuses, wrote a letter to then-President Morton Schapiro. The letter urged Schapiro to have NU adopt the 2010 U.S. State Department definition of antisemitism, which included “demonizing Israel,” “applying a double standard to Israel” or “delegitimizing Israel” as forms of antisemitism. 

According to Michael Simon, NU Hillel’s executive director, Hillel “communicate(s) regularly with the Israel Education Center and with the Israeli Consulate of the Midwest (based in Chicago).”

Several students who are critical of Israel also consistently identified Canary Mission as making it more difficult for them to speak out. Canary Mission is an anonymous online blacklist that compiles public dossiers of student activists and organizations it deems to be anti-Israel or antisemitic.

According to reports from media outlets The Forward and The Times of Israel, the Israeli government has used Canary Mission’s blacklist to deny visitors entry at its borders.

“Canary Mission is literally the thing that stops me the most when speaking up,” Ava said.

Ava is stateless — her family grew up in Palestinian refugee camps — and she hopes to someday attain U.S. citizenship. She said she worries being blacklisted on Canary Mission would make it more difficult for her to get a job and, eventually, U.S. citizenship. 

As a result of this fear, Ava said she never joined SJP during her time at NU. George said many Palestinian students he knows have avoided becoming involved with SJP for this same reason.

Charles*, a Palestinian American student, said he’s been having conversations with his family for at least 10 years about precautions to avoid being blacklisted on Canary Mission. 

“If it’s out there and attached to my name that I’m critical of the Israeli government,” he said, “that can be preventative to me being able to go back to where my people are from, and where I have family and connecting (with) what I consider my homeland.”

Some activists who have been blacklisted on Canary Mission said they have still been able to succeed professionally and even visit Palestine. Johnson, who was involved in the 2015 ASG divestment campaign, was blacklisted after her freshman year. Although she said her Canary Mission profile was brought up once during a job interview, she was still able to attend graduate school and easily find work.

Though she hasn’t tried to visit Palestine since she was blacklisted, she said her friend — who is also blacklisted — was able to enter safely.

“I want people to be brave enough not to let the scare tactic work on them and to speak the truth and to advocate regardless,” Johnson said.

But for many students, the fear remains. While George is not blacklisted on Canary Mission, he said he was terrified at the border the last time he visited family in Palestine, worrying that Israeli border agents might somehow know about his involvement with NU SJP and deport him to the U.S.

“It’s really so hard for us to get into the homeland just for being Palestinian,” he said. “And once you are in your homeland, you never know if you’re going to be safe from some authorities who are going to be out for you.” 

How campus institutions shape conversations

The Middle East and North African Studies Program released a statement in fall 2021 that said students who are critical of Israel lack established spaces and institutions of support on campus compared to students who support Israel’s policies. 

Prof. Wendy Pearlman, a MENA Program professor who teaches about Palestine and Israel, said the department wrote the statement in response to a group of MENA-identifying students telling the program’s faculty members they didn’t feel they had any other spaces on campus to go for support.

“We’re not here as an academic department to say we support some students and not other students — we’re here for any student who wants to learn about the Middle East and North Africa, regardless of their position,” Pearlman said. “But we found quite compelling some of the students’ concerns.”

Many students said the organizations that are -– and aren’t — established on campus shape the way conversations unfold.

For instance, George said while groups like Hillel have a house on campus, groups like SJP and MENA Student Association are less established. Charles said campus discussions are often hosted by Israel-sympathetic groups, pushing conversations in a more pro-Israel direction.

Ben Amer said this fall, she and other SJP organizers worked to make SJP more of an established institution in NU’s campus culture through increased visibility and fundraising for humanitarian causes. 

“Right now, I would say SJP is not part of the culture — it’s part of the counterculture,” Ben Amer said. “It’s not widely accepted as a legitimate student organization in some people’s eyes, and I think including the administration.”

Emily*, a Jewish student who is anti-Zionist, said Jewish students who are not pro-Israel also struggle to find spaces on campus where they feel comfortable. 

Jewish Voice for Peace — a Jewish-led, anti-Zionist organization — defines anti-Zionism as “a loose term referring to criticism of the current policies of the Israeli state, and/or moral, ethical, or religious criticism of the idea of a Jewish nation-state.” Emily said she identifies with both parts of JVP’s definition. 

George defined anti-Zionism as opposing Israel existing as a state on the grounds that it was established by the displacement of Palestinians and continues to be maintained by occupation and denial of full rights to the Palestinians who remain. 

Emily said Hillel was the first place she went after moving into college to get food for Passover. But she hasn’t been back since then, largely due to how she feels about Hillel’s positions on Palestine and Israel. 

According to Hillel International’s “Standards of Partnership,” the organization cannot partner with, house or host organizations and speakers who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state; “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel”; or “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

When asked about the guidelines, Simon said Hillel International encourages campuses to adopt the guidelines in ways that reflect the local environment.

“I connect in a lot of ways to some of the spirit of the guidelines,” Simon said. “I also want to be careful about what it would mean to follow the letter of the guidelines.”

Since many campus organizations have voted for divestment resolutions in ASG, such as FMO and Rainbow Alliance, directly following the guidelines would mean Hillel could not partner with many groups on campus. Simon said avoiding these partnerships could be “very counterproductive.” 

“Hillel has partnered with organizations like FMO and Rainbow Alliance in the past, and we would certainly welcome partnerships with such organizations now and in the future,” Simon said in an email to The Daily. 

Though Simon said he wants anti-Zionist Jewish students to feel welcome to participate in Hillel and its community on campus, he also said the organization doesn’t “have an obligation to provide a platform for positions that … don’t just question Israel’s policies … but that are primarily designed to delegitimize Israel.”

Emily said she’s now working to launch an NU chapter of JVP, which she hopes could serve as a community space for non-Zionist Jewish students and as an ally for SJP. 

“Coming from a community back home where I was going to Sunday school every weekend with Jewish people who have like-minded ideas … I think it is kind of lonely coming here and not having that community,” Emily said.

Palestinian students who do not identify with SJP’s tactics or messaging also face challenges. Charles said he doesn’t feel comfortable in Israel-sympathetic spaces on campus, but he has also felt alienated from SJP. 

He said he doesn’t think his views are as “extreme” as SJP’s, and he doesn’t like that in his opinion, the group leans into provocative rhetoric, operates relatively anonymously and isn’t particularly open to “formal discussion.” 

But beyond SJP, he said he’s not sure what spaces he has to speak his mind on campus.

“Northwestern feels like a very Israeli-sympathetic school,” Charles said. “(In) places where I would expect … (to be able to) speak and share my opinions as a Palestinian, places like SJP, I don’t feel welcome there either.” 

Emily said she thinks anti-Zionist students want to have conversations, but she doesn’t think it’s fair to blame SJP for a lack of dialogue because these conversations can be frustrating for Palestinian students. George also said past conversations he’s had with pro-Israel students and organizations were unproductive and “draining.”

Ben Amer said while conversations can be valuable, she doesn’t think they’re always worth engaging with — especially when one party has a better established platform to speak from. To move forward, conversations need to be held on equal terms, she said. 

“The parameters for conversation and discussion cannot relent certain truths … and if we were to have a conversation, the level that both parties should be at should be even-handed,” Ben Amer said. “The access to the platforms in question are not the same, so conversations benefit one party more than the other.” 

Navigating backlash, retaliation and prejudice 

Many students said they fear backlash and retaliation from their peers when voicing opinions about Palestine and Israel. 

Ava said when she posted or spoke about her views, peers would unfollow her or start avoiding her in public. She said other NU students visibly flinched when she told them she was Palestinian. 

Some Zionist students also said they fear voicing their opinions on campus. Weinberg junior Lily Cohen, a Jewish student who is Zionist, said she feels students who express Zionist opinions have received intense backlash from peers. 

“Zionism is just the belief that Jewish people have a right to self-determination,” said Cohen. “I believe in the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.”

This was one reason she decided to write an op-ed in The Daily in Fall Quarter 2022. In the op-ed, Cohen said her love for Israel is central to her Jewish identity and called the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — a phrase SJP often uses in its activism and messaging — antisemitic. 

“From the perspective of a lot of students who consider themselves to either be Zionists or just generally support the existence of a Jewish state in Israel … we’ve seen other people who have brought it up … get attacked and ripped apart for it,” Cohen said. “It’s hard to be willing to do that.” 

Cohen said she and many other Jewish students felt targeted by the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” because it has been used by Hamas, a Palestinian military and political group, to call for the destruction of Israel and its Jewish inhabitants. In her op-ed, she said the slogan was antisemitic because it originates from the 1988 Hamas charter. 

Palestinian liberation activists first used the slogan in the 1960s as a call for a secular, democratic state in the entire territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Zionists have also used the phrase in some contexts to advocate for Jewish control over the region. In the 1980s, Hamas — which opposes secular Palestinian liberation groups and organized a number of suicide attacks in Israel in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s — picked up the slogan to advocate for Islamic, Palestinian control over the region. However, the slogan does not appear in the 1988 Hamas charter. 

Today, many Palestinians on campus interpret the slogan as a call for Palestinians to be able to live freely in the lands where they used to live. For Charles, whose grandparents are now denied entry to the places where they were born, this message resonates with him.

Ava said she only recently heard someone suggest the slogan advocates for the elimination of Jews from the region — she had always considered it to be a call for Palestinian unity.

Before writing the op-ed, Cohen said she talked to the administration in November 2022 about classifying “from the river to the sea” as “harmful language.” 

She said she hoped doing this would reduce how often the phrase was posted around campus, “alleviating the frustrations” of students who didn’t like seeing it. However, Cohen said the University’s legal team “(didn’t) see a legal basis to consider it hateful speech.” 

Her op-ed ignited tense debate and argument about Palestine, Israel, Islamophobia and antisemitism on campus.

Ben Amer said she was frustrated by Cohen’s op-ed because she felt it employs Islamophobic and racist tropes against anti-Zionist students by implicitly comparing them to terrorists. 

“People take for granted how dangerous hearing those things can be — she fully called us terrorists, and the ramifications of that will just set us back so much,” Ben Amer said. “We started off the quarter wanting to establish ourselves as a quote-unquote legitimate organization. But even when we go through the process by the books, we are still called terrorists.” 

Illustration by Emily Lichty

Following the op-ed’s publication, an anonymous banner was placed on the fence outside Deering Meadow facing Sheridan Road. The banner — made from copies of the op-ed taped together — had the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” painted on it.

The morning the banner was displayed, Simon said some Jewish students came to him in tears, feeling it was an act of intimidation and bullying. He said he sent a message to NU Student Affairs asking whether the banner was authorized to be posted on Deering Meadow’s fence. It was taken down after a couple hours. 

Hillel released a statement later that day condemning the banner, calling it a “targeted attack on a Jewish individual.” Pictures of the banner also ended up on the Jewish on Campus Instagram account, which documents incidents on college campuses it deems antisemitic, with a caption stating the slogan was a “direct call for violence against Jews.” 

Ben Amer said she was glad to see a response to the op-ed in the form of the banner. She said the slogan is a call for Palestinian freedom and isn’t antisemitic.

“Unless you are in groups that are aware of the harm that the author had caused, you’re not going to realize what the problem is,” Ben Amer said. “The good of the banner was in broadcasting to the entire campus and forcing that conversation onto everyone and forcing everyone to reckon with what that article meant.”

SJP later released its own statement, saying “the current public fixation on the phrase ‘From the river to the Sea, Palestine will be free’ as an ‘antisemitic terrorist slogan’ is a particularly violent form of silencing.” The statement also clarified the organization’s position as opposing Zionism — “the ongoing racism, materialism, and militarism of the State of Israel” — and not the presence of Jewish people in the region.

Later that week, NU administration sent out two emails.

One of the emails, from President Michael Schill, maintained that the slogan could be interpreted in different ways, while noting he “would have hoped that the people who put up the sign near Deering Meadow … would have responded instead by discussing the issues, perhaps through their own op-ed.” 

The administration’s response was a change from past silence regarding tensions about Palestine and Israel. Cohen said she didn’t think the emails from the administration would change anything, but she was happy they were sent. 

Some students involved in SJP, like Ben Amer and George, said they were encouraged to see the administration respond in some way. They said they were also glad the administration took a more neutral stance and did not call the slogan antisemitic. 

Ben Amer said she appreciated that the banner was provocative. 

“There’s this undue pressure on Palestinians … to protest peacefully and respectfully and without any sort of disruption,” she said. “That negates the whole purpose … It’s not meant to be cooperative, it’s not meant to subscribe to any sort of status quo or rulebook because that’s exactly what we seek to disrupt.”

National trends of antisemitism and Islamophobia

Amid increasing national instances of antisemitism and Islamophobia, many students and faculty worry that broader trends are hindering productive conversations at NU. 

According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents increased by 34% between 2020 and 2021. Extreme antisemitic acts, including harassment and assaults, increased by 43% and 167% respectively, reaching their highest levels since the ADL started tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.

“I think recently, especially, it’s really erupting in the U.S. again,” Cohen said. “I and a lot of other Jews are just really on edge and are kind of hypersensitive and hyperaware to antisemitism coming from any angle.”

Illustration by Emily Lichty

She said conversations with her great-grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, have instilled in her the importance of the idea of Israel as a refuge for Jews.

There has also been a rise in Islamophobia across the U.S. The Council on American-Islamic Relations reported a 28% increase in Islamophobic hate and bias incidents between 2020 and 2021. 

Daniel said that, in his experience, people often enter conversations about Palestine and Israel with “very racist stereotypes about Muslim people and people from the Middle East and North Africa” in mind.

Grace*, a Jewish student who is anti-Zionist, said pro-Israel rhetoric can become more founded in people’s minds when antisemitism increases. But she said she thinks that idea should not overshadow the human rights violations Israel commits today. 

Johnson agreed that while empathy toward Jews is crucial given their experiences of historical and current safety threats, it’s important to draw a line between Palestinian advocacy and antisemitic rhetoric.

Some Palestinian students said they feel accusations of antisemitism in response to anti-Zionist activism can be weaponized to shift the focus of conversations away from Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. 

“The whole issue stems from people assuming that what I’m saying is something else and then refusing to let us respond or react or do anything,” Ava said. “It’s kind of like … even your voice is taken away from you.”

Illustration by Emily Lichty

Emily said that as a Jewish person who has been to many of SJP’s events, it’s clear to her that the group isn’t antisemitic.

“I think conflating Palestinian freedom with antisemitism actually takes away from … the actual antisemitism that’s happening around the country from the far right,” Emily said. “I think it makes sense that … Jewish students are scared right now.” 

Shaping conversations going forward

Community members like Shyovitz said they felt that following Cohen’s op-ed, the focus on one slogan — “from the river to the sea” — was counterproductive, preventing more “in-depth, historically informed” dialogue from taking place. 

These conversations have played out differently on other college campuses. Salaam Khater, the president of the University of Illinois Chicago’s SJP chapter, met with NU SJP members for the first time in fall 2022. She said she thinks NU’s campus atmosphere is different from UIC’s. 

“We have not received major backlash from students that were noticeable in the sense of being Zionists or pro-Israel,” Khater said. “The atmosphere overall is pretty safe (at UIC) in the sense of where many Palestinians or allies feel safe in speaking up.” 

She said having a large, formally recognized community of MENA and Palestinian students at UIC may provide a greater sense of safety. Although neither NU nor UIC collects demographic data about MENA students in the broader student population, UIC has an established Arab American Cultural Center on campus, and 23% of its MENA-identifying students are Palestinian. 

To move forward, Shyovitz said, conversations need to progress beyond specific instances of controversy.

He said he would like to see more support from the University for more courses about Palestine and Israel so campus dialogues can be more informed and thoughtful. 

“If we could get past arguing over slogans and instead actually argue over content or try to understand one another’s actual historical and moral and political claims … we might be better off,” Shyovitz said.

Charles said he thinks it’s important to discuss whether certain language or slogans are antisemitic or harmful, since he wants to ensure antisemitism does not flourish at NU or anywhere else.

However, he wishes campus conversations would not fade after that discussion alone. 

“We never make it back … to that actual debate of like, ‘Is Israel committing unjust crimes against the Palestinian people?’” he said. “It never gets back to that point because tensions flare, we start getting emails and it dies down until the next thing.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @willsclark01

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