Radical Student Union labelled anti-semitic by off-campus group

Following their screening of a documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict entitled “The Occupation of the American Mind,” the Radical Student Union (RSU), a student organization at Case Western Reserve University whose mission is to “to discuss, organize and communicate with other students in order to help build a more democratic and just society,” drew criticism not only from CWRU students and staff, but also from outside organizations.

The screening of the documentary was first criticized by students, with second-year student Hannah Pomerantz calling the film “an inaccurate and one-sided narrative” in an open letter to President Barbara R. Snyder. Brian Amkraut, executive director of the Siegal Lifelong Learning Center, soon followed, questioning in a Cleveland Jewish News article why RSU would “start” with Israel as opposed to other political causes. Soon after, RSU’s screening of the documentary was listed on a website for the AMCHA Initiative as “antisemitic expression,” because it “condoned terrorism.”

According to its website, The AMCHA Initiative is a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to investigate, document, educate about, and combat antisemitic behavior on college and university campuses in America and the institutional structures that legitimize it and allow it to flourish.” In addition to tracking what may be considered typical forms of antisemitism— harassment, discrimination, physical or verbal assault or genocidal expression towards Jewish people—the AMCHA Initiative also defines “delegitimization (of Israel),” “insinuating that Israel is an illegitimate state and does not belong in the family of nations,” and “BDS Activity,” activity relating to the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, as within the scope of antisemitism. They name “Muslim and Pro-Palestinian Student Organizations” as one of the number one sources of antisemitism on university campuses.

“There is initial shock the first time you go on the Internet and see yourself as someone who is being accused of condoning terrorism,” said RSU President Gabriel Murcia. “In that initial sense, it’s like wow, this is real. But in a broader sense, we kind of knew what we were getting into, because it’s happened to so many other student activists around the country and other campuses.”

The AMCHA initiative is not the only nonprofit organization monitoring campuses for discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are joined by a variety of other organizations who review, critique and condemn certain types of Middle Eastern scholarship and student activity, including one called “Campus Watch.” On its website, lists can be found that label professors as “recommended” and “to avoid,” according to their research focuses and class syllabi.

With discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict already drawing heated criticism from Israeli and Palestinian supporters alike, additional pressure from outside organizations may make students even more reluctant to talk about it.

In 2013, in an effort to maintain academic freedom on campus, and in light of the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Snyder released a statement on behalf of the university, outlining the university’s policy towards academic boycotts. “As leaders of an institution of higher education,” she wrote, “we must oppose the proposed academic boycotts of Israel in the strongest possible terms.”

In agreement with the American Association of Universities’ statement opposing academic boycotts on the behalf of academic freedom, Snyder took the stance that “boycotts exemplify the converse of the concept of academic freedom,” and “seek to subvert one of higher education’s core values in service of other ends.” By refusing to engage in boycotts, CWRU refused to take one side or another in the political conflict and sought to maintain academic freedom. In concert with that principle, Snyder continued, “individual scholars at Case Western Reserve may well choose to embrace the boycott, condemn our opposition to it, or speak in favor of other solutions.”

Faculty at CWRU have been mostly silent on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the exception of some faculty who act as advisors to student organizations and the CWRU Department of Political Science, which brings in about one to five speakers per academic year to talk about their research on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are typically visiting professors, whose visits are often coordinated by the Northeast Ohio Consortium for Middle East Studies (NOCMES) or the Middle East Studies Association (MESA).

In addition to these events, though there is currently no pro-Palestinian student group recognized by the Undergraduate Student Government on campus, other student organizations have held events dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Muslim Student Association (MSA), though more a social and religious organization than a political one, has held events dealing with political issues in the past. The most recent was a panel on “Islam in America” in the spring of 2016, discussing how Islam is portrayed in the media. “If a student came and wanted to discuss [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict], we would definitely make accommodations,” said MSA President Amalia Gitosuputro.

Students at CWRU who have organized events about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict share the same goal to educate people about the conflict without bias and to encourage free and open discussion of the issue.

“We’re not anti-anyone,” said Noa Hockstein, president of Israel’s CWRU, the pro-Israel student group on campus. “We are a pro-Israeli group, we support Israel, but we are open to everything, and we want there to be a very non-biased conversation. We want to know all sides of the conflict.”

With regards to whether CWRU is doing enough to ensure academic freedom, however, Murcia said, “I think there are efforts nationally for pro-Palestinian activists to be silenced … and our administration, along with all the other administrations, aren’t doing enough to keep that from happening.”

“I think everything that has happened,” he continued, “it’s just the perfect case study of why students are so hesitant to do this.”