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The (not so) new red scare

Zionists weaponize  “antisemitism” to crack down on academic freedom

Socialist scholar, union activist, and Tempest member Dana Cloud, who is on the faculty of California State University, Fullerton, describes the crackdown on scholars in the Cal State system as an example of the broader pattern of weaponizing the charge of “antisemitism” against faculty and students who have spoken out against the Zionist genocide in Gaza.

On May 24, tenured, award-winning Justice Studies Professor Sang Hea Kil at San José State University (SJSU) received a letter from the university president announcing that she was suspended pending an investigation of her political activities. These activities included advising student organizations in their desire to protest in solidarity with Palestine and criticizing administrators for their public endorsements of Zionism and their crackdown on student protest. The letter uses language from the California Faculty Association collective bargaining agreement and cites state law as grounds for sanctioning Kil and other outspoken faculty.

“The basis of this decision is your reported violations—despite notice—of university policies,” “directing and encouraging students to violate university policies,” and “targeting at least one colleague and/or a group of colleagues,” the letter states.

About her suspension, Kil wrote,

All of the accusations made against me by SJSU are completely false. In fact, I believe that my temporary suspension is part of an academic freedom suppression campaign against me. I have been an outspoken critic of the genocide in Gaza as well as an advocate for faculty rights as a CFA union member and leader. At SJSU, the administration has been completely silent and complicit on the matter of genocide in Gaza. Outcries for some accountability have been called upon by SJSU students. In my capacity as the Faculty Advisor for the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at SJSU, I felt it was within my duties to support them in their campaign to bring greater awareness to the university community. It is their constitutional right to be able to protest against the Israeli genocide of Palestinians and its silence on campus.

In response to the suspension, the Young Democratic Socialists of America club at SJSU published a press release defending Kil. The release notes that Kil helped students defend their encampment and exposed the administration’s actions to undermine the student protests, including the turning on of campus sprinklers at night to flush out the activists. “The CSU has decided to, instead of answering student and faculty demands for divestment from companies financially and materially supporting genocide, escalate the situation by suspending faculty,” the YDSA wrote.

A campaign is underway to contact the president of SJSU to reinstate Dr. Kil. It is unclear whether Kil can turn to the California Faculty Association for support. Although the union’s general assembly passed a cease-fire resolution earlier this spring, leadership has not responded to requests for support. Activists are contacting union leaders to insist that they defend Kil.

Professor Sang Hea Kil

Meanwhile, Zionists across multiple campuses of the California State University are mounting a systematic campaign to discipline pro-Palestinian scholars. On May 28, they sent a letter to the Chancellor making their case. This letter is horrifying in a number of ways:

  1.  It conflates anti-Zionism and the critique of the Israeli state with antisemitism. (For a fuller discussion of how this conflation is worse than misguided, see Barnaby Raine).
  2. It accuses the movement of harming or threatening Jewish students, without specific evidence.
  3. It constructs a definition of academic freedom (ironically citing the American Association of University Professors, currently engaged in defending targeted academics) that restricts what professors can and cannot say in the classroom.
  4. It advocates denying anti-Zionist speakers a platform to speak.
  5. It encourages discipline against educators who give students “loaded or one-sided prompts” regarding “on-campus antisemitic and anti-Israel actions” in their classrooms. (On this basis, I could be fired for teaching sympathetically about the movement in my class on social movements.)
  6. It condemns campuses that have responded positively to the BDS demands of the encampments. It equates BDS with antisemitism.
  7. It denies Palestine studies a place in ethnic studies curricula, arguing that ethnic studies should only, by law, include the concerns of Native American, African American, Asian American, and Latinx people. Of course, the letter advocates adding Jewish studies to ethnic studies programs, in contradiction to the rationale excluding Palestine studies.
  8. It argues that Students for Justice in Palestine and Faculty for Justice in Palestine have no place on our campuses, threatening to revoke recognition and funding for these groups.
  9. It empowers the administration to enforce rigged anti-discrimination policies, codes of conduct, and enforced education programs to curtail professors’ speech in the classroom.
  10.  It calls on the CSU administration to “curb the unchecked antisemitic activism of faculty and departments.”
  11.  It blames “outside agitators”—a.k.a. socialist and other militants in what amounts to red-baiting—for influencing, or even instigating, the student protests.
  12.   Horrifyingly, it refers to Israel approvingly as “the Jewish State,” implying and endorsing the purgation of non-Jews from the land, while condemning any slogans or rhetoric insisting upon the rights of Palestinians to return to their land.

The letter represents one among many efforts by Zionist appologists for genocide in Gaza to discipline pro-Palestinian academics. Another example from my experience is the censoring of a Palestinian speaker at the national meeting of the academic National Communication Association last November.

As The Intercept reported on May 16, the jobs of scholars committed to Palestinian liberation are at stake. The article states:

Since the beginning of Israel’s war on Gaza, academics in field including politics, sociology, Japanese literature, public health, Latin American and Caribbean studies, Middle East and African studies, mathematics, education, and more have been fired, suspended, or removed from the classroom for pro-Palestine, anti-Israel speech. … Scores of academics across the country are likely under investigation and many stand to have their contracts quietly expire without renewals.

The Intercept spoke with a dozen professors, all of whom were at one point under investigation since October 7, and four of the professors lost their jobs as of the end of this semester. The American Association of University Professors is pursuing inquiries of violation of due process based on the politics of professors who have turned to the AAUP, all of whom have been in support of the Palestinian cause. AAUP senior program officer Anita Levy said, “We are at the dawn of a ‘new McCarthyism.’ This may be the tip of the iceberg.”

Indeed, the opening of Congressional hearings on campus activism and speech harkens back to the days of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was formed in 1938 to investigate citizens, public employees, organizations, and culture workers (among others) who were suspected of having ties to the Communist Party. It blacklisted and convicted Hollywood actors and writers, encouraging comrades to “name names” among culture workers and government officials. President Harry Truman denounced this committee as “the most un-American thing in the country.”

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government held a hearing on May 15, during which committee members grilled the presidents of Northwestern University, Rutgers University, and the University of California, Los Angeles. These presidents acknowledged that a number of investigations of pro-Palestinian faculty were underway.

It should be said that this wave of academic repression is not new; elsewhere I have analyzed how the neoliberal university in capitalism functions to silence dissenting voices and how right-wing attacks on scholars minimize the critical potential of universities. The 2017 resurgence of the far-right led to numerous attacks on critical and outspoken academics.

Over the past three decades, professorial advocacy of Palestinian liberation has been the most common target of right-wing backlash. Established in 2014, the Canary Mission Blacklist has targeted numerous faculty, including myself, for expressing pro-Palestinian views. One prominent example is that of professor Steven Salaita, who was denied employment—after having been offered a job—at the University of Illinois in 2014 for expressing support for Palestinian liberation. About this case, I argued that Salaita’s exclusion was about how “the war in Gaza and the emergence of a political antagonism in the US and elsewhere that threatens any ideological unity regarding Israel, Palestine, and the U.S.’s relation to them.”

Despite the disciplining of pro-Palestinian intellectuals not being a new phenomenon, in the context of the present war on Gaza, it has taken an even more virulent turn. However, academics across the country are fighting back, emboldened by the wave of militant student encampments and the increasing isolation of Israel from the world community, most recently exemplified by the condemnation of Israel by Ireland, Spain, and Norway.

a set of tents and artwork proclaiming support for Palestine
Student encampment at California State University, Los Angeles. Photo by Dana Cloud.

As Helen Scott recently explained, the greatest source of power for academics speaking out in solidarity with Palestinians is the connection to the labor movement. Scott argues, “The convergence of union, student, and community struggle is a model of the way forward. Palestine is at the epicenter of a radical convergence of movements.”

Starting last week, the United Auto Workers 4811, which organizes 48,000 academic workers in the University of California System, began a series of rolling strikes. Focusing on economic pressure points through labor action and BDS campaigns is a source of real leverage for the pro-Palestine struggle.

The fact that university administrators and politicians are ramping up the persecution of people aligned with the Palestinian cause is, in fact, an indicator of their weakness and desperation to minimize the impact all of us are making on an increasingly fractured ideological, political, and economic consensus around Israel. As Sang Hea Kil herself urged,

Please do not be scared off by this. Our academic freedom is so important to us all and these scare tactics to threaten and repress me hurt us all as faculty. We need to fight as a united front or we will lose our constitutional freedoms and soul to the ivory tower. I will never give up. Let’s continue to battle hard on all fronts!

In the context of defending academic freedom, it should be noted that Israel’s assault has reduced all twelve universities in Gaza to rubble. The death toll mounts in Gaza as millions, starving and desperate, are relentlessly driven from the land. It is our duty as socialists, workers, unionists, students, faculty, staff,  and other activists for Palestinian liberation to organize in our unions and communities, to defend scholars and others who are under attack for their solidarity, and to carry this powerful struggle forward.

Featured image credit: Khalid Albaih; modified by Tempest.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

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Dana Cloud View All

Dana Cloud is a Tempest member, longtime activist, and lecturer in communication studies at California State University, Fullerton. Author of Reality Bites: Rhetoric and the Circulation of Truth Claims in U.S. Political Culture (OSU Press, 2018), she writes and teaches in the areas of social movements and critical cultural studies.