For most college students, extracurricular activities are a welcome escape from the stress of school. But as student activists move into summer vacation, the consequences for speaking their minds can weigh heavily long after class is dismissed.
Across the country, students working to bring attention to issues of injustice on their campuses find themselves under attack, both by anonymous Internet groups and the federal government itself.
As members of our campus chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, my friends and I advocate for Palestinian rights and a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For our efforts, we live in fear of being targeted by the right-wing website Canary Mission.
Canary Mission posts profiles of activists — primarily students — who they claim “demonize Israel” by criticizing the Israeli government’s ongoing military occupation of Palestine. Canary Mission-created profiles contain personal information and are often the first to come up on Google search results, which can affect students seeking employment or access to academic opportunities.
While websites like Canary Mission have long been a source of anxiety for students like me, the recent resurgence of bills condemning peaceful protest against Israeli actions pose a new threat.
One increasingly popular type bans participation in the pro-Palestinian BDS movement. BDS, which stands for “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions,” advocates for economic pressure on Israel in an effort to end the occupation.
Proponents of these bills, which have existed for several years in states from Texas to Michigan, are going national in recent months. They insist that state governments — and now the federal government — should be barred from contracting with corporations who participate in peaceful boycotts of Israeli products and institutions.
Equally troubling, the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act” forces the Department of Education to use a definition of anti-Semitism that encompasses almost any criticism of Israel, and encourages universities to impose consequences against students who fit this definition. Opponents of this bill and its previous versions call it the “Silencing Students Act” because of the threat it poses to pro-Palestinian activists like me.
As these bills undergo debate in the House and Senate, dissidents have faced repeated accusations of anti-Semitism. However, I am a proud anti-Zionist Jew, and I know that the long and troubling history of Israel leaves more than enough room for criticism of its policies. The Judaism I practice is based in fighting for justice and speaking out against oppression; it is not bound to a state that disenfranchises millions of its Palestinian residents.
When controversial speakers come to my campus advocating against protective policies for the trans community or victims of sexual assault, I believe it’s justified for students to protest them. For this, pundits complain about the supposed free speech violations committed by progressive students on a near-daily basis.
But I don’t hear the same outrage towards right-wing supporters of Israel whose proposed laws would actually punish speech.
The truth is, conservatives who rant against campus activism but support these boycott bills are afraid of the power that my friends and I hold. They’re not actually worried about freedom of speech at all — and they’re certainly not interested in an ethos of free speech that’s based in respect for the dignity of others.
Instead, they’re perfectly comfortable with teachers being fired for their affiliation with a social movement (as happened to Bahia Awami in Texas, who refused to sign an employment contract that included a pledge not to boycott Israel), or students being publicly blacklisted for standing up for their beliefs.
This summer, I’m learning how to identify real inclusivity when I see it — and how to take on those who would undermine it. BDS is not your enemy, and neither are the students who support it. Our speech deserves to be free, too.