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Shanks '12: The criminalization of dissent and why it matters

At Brown, we are known for meaningful analysis and crafting innovative methods for change. This is thanks to an atmosphere that privileges social justice and positive transformation. So it is natural that we should worry at attempts to curtail our academic and political freedom. We must expose these attacks to truth and not allow them to stifle our voices from conference rooms.

In early September, 157 colleges and universities received a letter reminding them of their responsibility to combat anti-Semitism on their campuses. No doubt anti-Semitism is and has been a blight on humanity. But the anti-Semitism to which Israel Law Center refers is not the systematic reduction of religious protections for Jewish students or an atmosphere of religious or ethnic chauvinism that makes students feel unwelcome. It is the criticism of the "Jewish state of Israel."

This letter is a thinly veiled threat, encouraging universities to stifle discourse that is critical of Israel. It operates on faulty logic, assuming that all Jews support pro-Israeli policy, accusing all pro-Palestinians of anti-Semitism and all Muslim groups of supporting terrorists. But perhaps the most insidious part of this letter is its role in a broader campaign to narrow discourse and criminalize dissent on college campuses.

It falls on us to ensure that accusations of anti-Semitism are taken seriously, while at the same time critically engaging attempts to stifle free speech and use Brown's Jewish community as a shield against legitimate criticism of the Israeli settler state.

In the letter, Kenneth Leitner, the center's director of American affairs, calls our attention to two issues. One is that "Jewish and Israeli students feel intimidated" because they think they will be held accountable for the "supposed ‘wrongdoings' of the Jewish state of Israel." The other is that the Muslim Students Association forms "the university arm" of Hamas even though Leitner admits he has no evidence that any chapter is supporting the organization at this time. That Leitner would accuse Muslim Student Association chapters of affiliating with groups the U.S. considers terrorist with no evidence is obvious Islamophobic incitement. Furthermore, there is a glaring contradiction in legitimately asking that Jewish and Israeli students not be held accountable for the actions of Israel and then asking universities to cast a suspicious eye over Muslim students.

The letter is only more troubling in the context of the current McCarthyite political climate, which systematically intimidates professors and students who are vocal in their opposition to Israeli settlements and in their support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. It bears mentioning that the Knesset outlawed the movement in Israel this summer. This process operates in conjunction with the justice system to form a military-prison-industrial complex that stifles dissent in every conceivable way, from police brutality to harsher sentencing for acts of civil disobedience to media blackouts. The consequences are chilling.

Students at UC Irvine and UC Riverside were sentenced Sept. 23 to three years of probation and 56 hours of community service for disturbing the speech of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren. The "Irvine 11," as they are called, were threatened with prison time for exercising their right to free speech. It is abundantly clear that, had the students not been Muslim and had the issue not been Palestine, their sentencing would have been lighter. It is also clear that pressure of the kind being exerted on Brown had a hand in their treatment — as an example to pro-Palestinian student activists. Lt. Dan Choi was arrested for chaining himself to the White House fence in protest of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, while Howard students were arrested for protesting the execution of Troy Davis in the same fashion.

Police now respond to the call to maintain order through preemptive arrests that often include detaining individual journalists, like at the Denver Democratic National Convention in 2008, and harsh sentences to prevent people from protesting again, as they attempted to do to Lt. Choi and got away with doing to the Irvine 11. In September 2010, 23 anti-war activists in Minneapolis, Chicago and Grand Rapids, Mich. were served subpoenas to appear before a grand jury investigating support for terrorist organizations.

Historically, students have been central to sociopolitical change. Brown students coordinated in 1968 to force the University to admit higher numbers of students of color. They also marched against the war in Vietnam. Brown students have protested the Iraq War, police brutality, unfair labor practices and the lack of corporate accountability. Students saddled with prohibitive debt and faced with neoliberal government and corporate corruption are behind political movements in Tunisia, Chile and New York.

There is a reason universities are sites of protest. Universities are sites of power where experts forge discourse and fashion the agendas that ultimately dictate the arc of history. And just as resistance accompanies hegemony, it is natural that student and faculty protest should check the power of academic institutions and push to them toward more humane futures.

Malcolm Shanks '12 is a gender and sexuality studies and Middle Eastern studies concentrator.


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