Palestine, MIT, and Free Speech: A Letter from Student Activists to Our Professors
We are the MIT Coalition Against Apartheid (CAA), a student group that is the product of years of advocacy efforts by Palestinians and Palestinian rights activists. The CAA first began as the movement for the liberation of the black majority in South Africa in the late 1980s. Since its reactivation in May 2021, it has continued as an anti-settler colonial movement for the liberation of Palestinians living under apartheid and occupation.
Writing and advocating about Palestine is always difficult because we grapple with many dilemmas as activists. How do we speak in a way that conveys the colonial realities of our peers while also taming our language so as to not appear “one-sided?” Do we rename our art demonstration “Palestinian Awareness Wall” or do we keep it as the “Israeli Apartheid Wall” and push back against any administrative obstacles? How can we write the phrase “Israeli Government” without being called antisemitic before the ink dries?
Activism on Palestine at MIT has always been precarious. How many of us truly feel that we can discuss Palestine without the fear of repercussion? We have seen that Palestine is the free speech exception. This article touches on the visible and reported, as well as the invisible and unreported instances that people have felt too identifying to share with the wider community but felt safe to share with the CAA. They are stories of retaliation, discrimination, and hostility.
Therefore, for those Palestinian rights activists who feel that their tongue is tied, their voice is reduced to a whisper and their vocabulary constrained, we are taking a stand. We need to move beyond closed-door conversations with the MIT administration and open the conversation to everyone. Free speech is a collective right, interconnected and interdependent. As faculty, MIT moves where you move – we need your voice to support Palestinian advocates and move closer to a more just future that facilitates impassioned discussions and discourages censorship of the future generations at MIT.
We would also like to take a moment to pay respect to Shireen Abu Akleh, who was assassinated while covering the IDF raid on the Jenin refugee camp in May 2022. Her death was a great tragedy for the voice of journalism in Palestine. We condemn her murder by the Israeli forces and the attack on her funeral precession.
About the Free Speech report
In the spring of 2022, the CAA produced the first Free Speech for Palestine Rights Activists at MIT report to document offenses to Palestinian free speech and to empower the MIT community to hold its institution accountable. We found that there was a lack of centralization in reporting the forms of suppression that we experience, so we wanted to begin the first community consultation of its kind and share our findings with the Free Speech Working Group. The testimonies touch upon the stories and experiences of Palestinian rights activists. They paint a clear image of the patterns of suppression that students and scholars face on this campus. Some are the stories of graduated advocates, some are our own, and others are stories submitted to us from the MIT community.
Our report highlights four of the seven main patterns documented by Palestine Legal in their 2015 report, The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S.:
- False and Inflammatory Accusations of Antisemitism and Support for Terrorism
- Official Denunciation
- Bureaucratic Barriers
- Cancellations and Alterations of Academic and Cultural Events
- Administrative Sanctions
- Threats to Academic Freedom
- Discriminatory interactions with staff/professors What follows is a summary of that report.
MIT Coalition Against Apartheid
1. False and Inflammatory Accusations of Antisemitism and Support for Terrorism
Palestinian activists often face false and defamatory claims of antisemitism and/or support for terrorism in response to “Palestinian rights speech.”
- MIT students being labeled as supporters of terror on social media by other MIT students when discussing protest movements and the people’s right of self-defense.
- Antizionism being labeled as antisemitism by MIT Hillel on their social media
- MIT staff members sharing information about training workshop by the director of Birthright engagement at MIT that conflated antizionism and antisemitism.
2. Official Denunciation and Academic Freedom
In response to outside pressure, institutional actors sometimes pronounce official disapproval of the legitimate views and actions of Palestine advocates. This is frequently done by unfairly characterizing Palestine activism, particularly support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, as improperly delegitimizing Israel or as uncivil, divisive, and unconducive to dialogue. Such misleading framing, promoted by certain Israel advocacy groups and predominantly reserved for speech in support of Palestine, attempts to mask the officials’ underlying disagreement with the viewpoint of Palestine activists.
In 2013, President Reif issued a statement denouncing the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israel, citing that an academic boycott was “antithetical to MIT values.” We believe that the discouragement and shunning of an academic boycott is an overstepping of the president’s office.
Boycotting is a form of free expression, and it is the right of academics to freely regulate their academic business with external actors. If academics collectively choose to regulate their behavior in a manner aligning with BDS, it must be respected and protected from interference.
3. Bureaucratic Barriers
University officials routinely erect administrative obstacles or abruptly alter school policies to hamper student organizing for Palestinian rights. These measures include creating impediments to reserving rooms and forcing students to obtain advance approval for events, pay security fees, and attend mandatory meetings with administrators. Though seemingly neutral, these policies sometimes target and frequently disproportionately burden speech in favor of Palestinian rights.
Testimonials from past activists describe how they were required to have several meetings with the administration before their events (particularly those surrounding Israeli Apartheid Week) to ensure that their content fit into MIT’s idea of acceptable language. These bureaucratic barriers exist within a climate in which Palestinian activists already feel their speech is threatened on college campuses. These threats to speech are more than through bureaucratic barriers but have turned into in-person threats. Recently, at our event in the fall of 2021 with Noam Chomsky, a student became increasingly intimidating to a student organizer when they refused to check in with their ID, to comply with MIT Covid-19 protocol, and once they complied with identifying themselves they entered and left the event promptly. We encourage all members of the community to join our events and to engage in discourse, however, it is not uncommon among college activists to face physical threats of violence especially from protestors.
Such bureaucratic barriers present a challenge to Palestinian activists who may be forced to use their limited resources to ensure that their actions fall within the guidelines set by the administration. At a past event organized by Palestinian activists, MIT SOLE recognized the “sensitive nature” of their event and suggested police attendance to ensure student safety. This left the organizers concerned that their events could be canceled if any risk arose requiring police presence because their budget couldn’t afford such security measures.
4. Cancellations and Alterations of Academic and Cultural Events
From campus lectures and community discussions to art and film exhibitions, public events critical of Israeli policy often come under attack, forcing organizers to cancel, move, or substantially alter the programs. Israel advocacy groups frequently contend that such programs lack “balance” or are antisemitic.
Several years ago, activists erected the first Israeli Apartheid Wall at MIT, a colorful exhibit and advocacy campaign to educate the MIT community on the occupation (which continues to be displayed annually). The wall also included a reference sheet taped to the back, providing sources for the claims made on the wall. During its first year, several Zionists complained about its existence to the MIT administration and began distributing flyers making claims against Palestine, without references, directly in front of the wall. However, they were not reprimanded, and instead, the Palestinian activists were told that the wall would be taken down if their posted reference sheet wasn’t made larger and more visible.
Similarly, in past years, the MIT administration forced activists to avoid using “Israel” and “apartheid” in their event names, renaming the “Israeli Apartheid Week” as the “Palestine Awareness Week.” Such a change significantly restricted their ability to express criticism of Israel.
To contact the CAA, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.