Those speaking out for Palestine are protesting the political injustice and illegality of the status quo. They have the right to speak out and we should vigorously defend that right.

By Jeffrey D. Sachs and Sybil Fares, Common Dreams

The bullying of America’s universities and their students by Congress and donors threatens to destroy a crucial pillar of American democracy: political free speech. The war in Gaza has inflamed tensions in the US and around the world. Yet rather than encourage public deliberation, historical understanding, and the search for peace, politicians and donors are aiming to shut down public opposition to the policies of the Israeli government.

Washington DC - 10-14-2023 Palestine Protest March

The latest victim of the bullying is the University of Pennsylvania, where the President of the University and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees were induced to resign after attacks by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.). Stefanik crudely twisted basic terms in her verbal attack on three university presidents. Her vulgar manipulation and a push from Wall Street donors led by a CEO of a private equity firm has brought a top university to its knees.

While the Harvard trustees backed the Harvard President, the assault on the universities continues. The UPenn donor has now sent the university a list of highly intrusive questions regarding hiring, student admissions, course selection, and other topics core to academic freedom and governance. The executivedirector of the Penn Chapter of the American Association of University Professors wrote that “Today, unelected trustees with no academic expertise are evidently attempting a hostile takeover of the core academic functions of the University of Pennsylvania — functions related to curriculum, research, and the hiring and evaluation of faculty.”

In attacking the UPenn President, Stefanik baselessly asserted that universities are not cracking down on students who are calling for genocide against the Jews. The charge is bogus. Student protests are not calling for genocide, but for Palestinian political rights. AP has debunked false claims made on social media that pro-Palestinian protestors are calling for Jewish genocide. On the contrary, the protestors were charging Israel with genocide in Gaza, a charge supported by the Center for Constitutional Rights. (There may be cases of individuals calling for genocide, but nobody has yet produced even a single documented case that this applies to the campus protests, much less that it constitutes a widespread pattern.)

During testimony of three university presidents before the House Education and Workforce Committee, Stefanik crudely misrepresented the meaning of terms to make her phony case. When questioning President Gay of Harvard, she asked:

“Will admissions offers be rescinded, or any disciplinary action be taken against students or applicants who say, “from the river to the sea” or “intifada” advocating for the murder of Jews?”

Stefanik’s charge that these terms mean “advocating for the murder of Jews” is baseless. The two phrases are about politics, not murder.

As even Stefanik probably knows, the phrase “from the river to the sea” is about who governs the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The expression and closely related phrases are used by those Israelis who reject the State of Palestine and by those Palestinians who reject the State of Israel.

The 1977 manifesto of Israel’s right-wing Likud Party, that is, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s party, declared “Between the sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” In 2014, Israel’s agriculture minister stated “Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea there will be only one state, which is Israel.” Israel’s self-professed fascist finance minister Bezalel Smotrich recently gave a speech with maps showing Greater Israel including the West Bank, Gaza, and parts of Syria and Jordan, that is, Greater Israel from the river to the sea.

Thus, both Israelis and Palestinians invoke the concept. By itself it is a political concept, not a call to murder, but a claim of political sovereignty. It could take on a murderous intent in some contexts or by some speakers, for example if an Israeli right-winger used the phrase specifically to justify the mass destruction and depopulation of Gaza. In their testimony, the three university presidents talked about the context of language, all the more important since the very premise of the questioning—that student protestors are calling for a Jewish genocide—is false. The claim that context matters is far too subtle for the likes of Stefanik, who is using language for bullying, not for facts or honest dialogue.

Since context matters, here is the real context of the campus protests. Students are protesting a political status quo in which Israel has already killed more than 17,700 Gazans, of whom 70 percent were women and children, using US-supplied munitions; has destroyed homes, hospitals and schools, displacing nearly two million Gazans; and has deprived the entire population of food, safe water, health care, and other essential needs. The students are protesting a political status quo in which Israel already rules from the river to the sea, and invokes that very concept in the call for a Greater Israel. The students are rejecting Israel’s repeated violations of UN Security Council resolutions, including the resolution declaring Israel’s West Bank settlements to be a “flagrant violation” of international law with “no legal validity.” Again, there may be individual cases of hate speech, of course, but the campus protests are about politics.

The claim that context matters is far too subtle for the likes of Stefanik, who is using language for bullying, not for facts or honest dialogue.

In calling for Intifada, the students are calling for political change, not murder. The word Intifada (Arabic: انتفاضة) means “resistance.” It originates from the root word nafed (Arabic: نفض), which translates to shake away – in other words, to shake off oppression. For decades, the call for intifada has been a call for Palestinian self-determination and independence, and is fully compatible with either a one-state or two-state solution.

Thomas Jefferson made the case for an American Intifada in the Declaration of Independence, that is, the shaking off of British rule. When Palestinians demand an end to Israeli occupation of Palestine, they are following Jefferson:

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

While Stefanik is trying to squelch free speech and political protest, Arab and Islamic leaders are reiterating their long-standing call for peace based on the two-state solution. Israel should be agreeing with the Arab and Islamic countries, the UN Security Council, and the Palestinian Authority on the two-state solution. In such a peace, troops including from the Arab states would be deployed by the UN Security Council to secure the peace in Gaza and demobilize violent militias. Palestine would become the 194th Permanent Member of the United Nations, as it requested a dozen years ago before the request was blocked by the Obama Administration.

In sum, students speaking out for Palestine are protesting the political injustice and illegality of the status quo. They have the right to speak out and we should vigorously defend that right. Congress should stop bullying our students, and fulfill its most urgent task: ending the mass killings in Gaza and forging a path to peace.