Advocates fear Biden’s campus antisemitism plan will mobilize law enforcement to surveil students – Mondoweiss
On Monday, the Biden administration announced that it would take a series of new actions to combat antisemitism on campuses across the United States.
NBC News reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice are partnering with campus police to track threats and provide federal resources to schools. A White House official told NBC that DHS security experts have been detailed to engage with universities going forward.
The move raises concern among free speech advocates and Palestine activists, who point out that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are often purposely conflated to crack down on campus organizing. Since the October 7 Hamas attack many pro-Israel organizations, pundits, and lawmakers have pushed a narrative that Palestine solidarity protesters are terrorist-supporting antisemites.
Not only has the administration failed to push back on this narrative, they have seemingly embraced it. When asked if pro-Palestine protesters were extremists at a briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre drew a comparison to the racists who marched in Charlottesville in 2017. Jean-Pierre’s comments came just days after White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates decried anti-Zionist student activism “delegitimizing the State of Israel” in a statement that compared activism to hate crimes. “Amidst the rise in poisonous, antisemitic rhetoric and hate crimes that President Biden has fought against for years, there is an extremely disturbing pattern of antisemitic messages being conveyed on college campuses,” it read.
“Yesterday a Muslim woman was stabbed to death in Texas, but today [Biden] made the priority to mobilize law enforcement to surveil students in solidarity with Palestinian freedom in the name of combatting antisemitism,” tweeted attorney and author Noura Erakat. What an blunderous crisis of leadership.”
Campus groups targeted
The Biden announcement comes amid wider calls for a crackdown on campus Palestine groups.
Last month Florida Governor and GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis’ ordered universities to shut down National Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters in the state over dubious connections to terrorism.
The state said the ban was justified because the organization produced a toolkit that references Palestinian resistance and declares that, “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement.”
“Based on the National SJP’s support of terrorism, in consultation with Governor DeSantis, the student chapters must be deactivated,” reads a letter from chancellor of the state’s university system to the targeted Florida schools.
“Publish every name of the pro-Hamas protesters in our cities and universities,” tweeted fellow presidential hopeful and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. “They are siding with terrorists who chant ‘death to America.’ That is unacceptable.”
Last week the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said it was teaming up with the Brandeis Center, a pro-Israel lawfare group, to call for investigations into SJP.
“We call on university leaders to immediately investigate their campus SJP chapters regarding whether they have improper funding sources, have violated the school code of conduct, have violated state or federal laws, and/or are providing material support to Hamas, a Foreign Terrorist Organization designated as such by the Secretary of State of the United States since 1997,” reads an open letter to nearly 200 schools from the two organizations. “Pending these investigations, universities must also update their code of conduct to ensure that harassment and support for terrorism have no place on campus. If universities do not check the activities of their SJP chapters, they may be violating their Jewish students’ legal rights to be free of harassment and discrimination on campus.”
The right-wing organization Accuracy in Media has driven a billboard truck to Harvard University campus and the residences of students who signed a letter in support of Palestine. The billboard shows the students’s faces, along with personal information, and smears them as antisemites.
“My mother has been reached out to numerous times because of this,” a Muslim student told Teen Vogue. “The high school where my brother goes is listed online publicly, which obviously puts him in danger too. This has, I think, very much gone far beyond backlash.”
“I definitely have not felt safe…. on multiple levels,” she continued.“I think, more than ever, I’ve been reminded again and again of what being Muslim means in the world, with what’s going on in Gaza and Palestine; what it means in this country, with some of the Islamophobic attacks that have happened over the past couple of days; but also, what it means to be a marginalized person on this campus.”
The group Palestine Legal told the The Intercept that they’ve fielded 300 requests for legal assistance over just the last two weeks.
“In a moment where we’re witnessing the growing wave of support for Palestinian freedom, we are also witnessing the rise of violent anti-Palestinian, Arab, Islamophobic rhetoric wielded to repress and criminalize the brave advocacy efforts and speech of predominately Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and other students of color, who as a result, have been subjected to racist and xenophobic harassment across schools and universities,” the group’s Advocacy Manager Lina Assi told Mondoweiss. “It is clear that the statements, actions, and lack of action by schools and universities are contributing to the dehumanization of Palestinians and fostering an anti-Palestinian environment that will have lasting harm on students.”
“It is also clear that in this environment of increased dehumanization of Palestinians fueled by Israel and echoed by U.S. officials, will only further expand the criminalization of Arab, Muslim, and immigrant communities through baseless accusations of support for terrorism and calls for more policing, and surveillance,” she continued. “This is reminiscent of the repressive ‘War on Terror’ policies that led to extreme state repression and constitutional rights violations against these communities.”
IHRA working definition
Biden’s move also comes shortly after the administration announced plans to expand the 1964 Civil Rights Act by instructing eight cabinet departments to extend protections to victims of antisemitism and other forms of religious bigotry.
“These wide-ranging protections provide important tools to curb discrimination based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics and to better protect the civil rights of all Americans,” said The White House in a statement.
The eight agencies are the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, Treasury, and Transportation.
The move is part of the Biden administration’s plan to implement its National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, details of which were released earlier this year. In the lead-up to that announcement, pro-Israel groups had lobbied The White House to adopt the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, a vague interpretation of the prejudice that was developed in 2016 and features a number of “contemporary examples” of antisemitism. Some of those examples include specific criticisms of Israel. However, the Biden administration also heard from progressive organizations and human rights who warned that an embrace of the definition would stifle free speech and Palestine advocacy.
The definition was ultimately referenced in the plan, but it also cites the Nexus Document definition, which is preferred by some progressives because it allows more leeway for criticisms of Israel. “Even contentious, strident, or harsh criticism of Israel for its policies and actions, including those that led to the creation of Israel, is not per se illegitimate or antisemitic,” it explains.
The administration references Israel 10 times in the 60-page document. “In addition, the strategy reaffirms the United States’ unshakable commitment to the State of Israel’s right to exist, its legitimacy, and its security—and makes clear that when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism,” reads a White House factsheet released alongside the plan.
Although many pro-Israel groups have publicly celebrated the plan, some on the right have criticized it for not going further. “Joe Biden had a chance to take a strong stand against antisemitism and he blew it,” said Republican Jewish Coalition CEO Matt Brooks. GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley tweeted that the administration was “pandering to the radical Left and siding with Israel’s enemies” through the plan.
The White House released a fact sheet documenting some of the actions agencies have taken as part of the antisemitism plan, but the ultimate details of the expansion remain unclear. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) says it was “intimately involved” in developing the antisemitism plan and that it continues to collaborate with The White House as a part of this expansion.
The partnership inevitably raises red flags for activists as the ADL consistently tags anti-Zionism as antisemitism. “Anti-Zionism as an ideology is rooted in rage,” declared Greenblatt in a 2022 speech. “It is predicated on one concept: the negation of another people, a concept as alien to the modern discourse as white supremacy. It requires a willful denial of even a superficial history of Judaism and the vast history of the Jewish people. And, when an idea is born out of such shocking intolerance, it leads to, well, shocking acts.”
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: anti-Zionism is antisemitism,” he told a crowd the year before. “Denying the right of Jews — alone among all peoples of the world — to have a homeland is antisemitism. Singling out just the Jewish state for condemnation while ignoring others, is prejudice.”
In 2019, President Donald Trump signed an executive order ostensibly cracking down on antisemitism across college campuses. The declaration threatened to pull federal funding from schools that failed to combat discrimination. The executive order cites the IHRA working definition as one of the government’s criteria for determining bigotry. The move paved the way for a number of lawsuits from pro-Israel targeting universities over Palestine activism from staff and students.
There’s been debate about the Biden administration’s official position on the order, but earlier this year, a White House official confirmed that it was implementing the Trump measure. “The Trump EO is still in effect,” the official told Jewish Insider. The administration has also repeatedly stated they support the IHRA definition. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said they embrace it “enthusiastically.”
However, the story isn’t quite that simple. In January, the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a fact sheet detailing protections for religious students. It notes that the office enforces the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the document doesn’t incorporate the IHRA definition.
An open letter to the Education Department’s OCR from Palestine Legal, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) calls on the office to take action on anti-Palestinian racism.
“In this environment of increasing dehumanization of Palestinians fueled by Israel and
echoed by U.S. officials and institutions as Israel blatantly conducts a genocide in Palestine, we are deeply concerned about the escalation of anti-Palestinian racism and for the safety of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students across university campuses and K-12 schools, as well as other students daring to speak out in defense of Palestinian life,” it reads. We urge OCR to take immediate steps to safeguard vulnerable students experiencing anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, and Islamophobic bigotry.
At Mondoweiss, we understand the power of telling Palestinian stories. For 17 years, we have pushed back when the mainstream media published lies or echoed politicians’ hateful rhetoric. Now, Palestinian voices are more important than ever.
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