On the surface, the anti-Israel lecture that CSUN sponsored on President’s Day was fairly typical of other, similar events that are becoming more common on American campuses. Always delighted to showcase anti-Israel Jews, especially if they are Israeli, the sponsoring groups brought academic Ilan Pappe. He didn’t disappoint. His gently delivered, slick screed was filled with what scholars in his field have denounced as his systematic factual errors, falsification of evidence, and fabrication of quotes. He stripped away the history of Arab and Palestinian wars, terrorism, and rejection of Israel’s right to exist in order to malign Israeli self-defense as motivated by aggressive, expansionist ambitions. He discounted Jewish historical ties to Israel and debunked any two state solution as unjust to Palestinians. He demonized Israel to justify his call for a one state solution—the dismantling of Israel.
The audience, too, was fairly typical of these anti-Israel events. About 300 attended, largely older community members and about 75 students. Some of the older attendees were passionately anti-Israel, and clapped loudly when Pappe made particularly damning statements or put down questioners who, given the rules of Q and A, could not follow up on Pappe’s “questionable” answers. The sponsoring groups were also fairly typical: the Students for Justice in Palestine [SJP] and the Muslim Student Association [MSA] who have made delegitimizing Israel their primary goal. The format was also typical. Though Pappe’s views are known to be extremely controversial and his scholarship has been questioned and severely criticized, CSUN administrators did not ask that the format be a debate with another scholar directly responding to Pappe. Instead, Pappe had the stage. The audience would not be educated by the event, but rather indoctrinated.
Despite these typical features, the event was different in disturbing ways.
The anti-Israel discourse is becoming increasingly extreme. Anti-Israel agitation on American campuses began to soar when the Palestinian terrorist campaign was unleashed in September, 2000. But there were certain red lines. In the early 2000’s, speakers who called for a one state solution that is, destroying Israel, were marginalized, dismissed as fanatics or irresponsible extremists. Not anymore. Those red lines have been crossed. Speakers like Ilan Pappe raise the one state solution, not as a possible alternative for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but as a cause for which they are fighting. Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government is even hosting a conference on the “One State Solution” in early March. The organizers’ website underscored that the conference crossed a red line: “To date, the only Israel/Palestine solution that has received a fair rehearsal in mainstream forums has been the two-state solution. Our conference will help to expand the range of academic debate on this issue.”
Make no mistake. Advocates don’t recommend a one state solution because they believe it would benefit Jewish Israelis as well as Palestinians or because they believe it is a more feasible alternative. They call for one state to punish Israel and any Jews who believe the Jewish people have a right to self-determination. Ironically and tragically, Israel’s effort to reach peace through a two state paradigm has backfired and turned into questions, not about the legitimacy of creating a Palestinian state, but rather about the legitimacy of the existence of the Jewish state. We appear to be back in the trenches of 1947-48. The CSUN event indicated that radical opponents of the 64-year-old state’s existence are trying to mainstream their views.
The venue for the Pappe event was also disturbing. CSUN has a large Jewish student population and has been relatively apolitical on the Israel issue. This event may mark a turning point for CSUN, and suggests that many formerly quiet campuses may also begin to experience anti-Israel agitation, as Penn did when a new student organization formed last fall largely in order to host a highly controversial national BDS conference this past January. Another difference between this event and former anti-Israel events is that SJP and the MSA recruited some unlikely student organizations as co-sponsors. The CSUN Greens and the South Asia Club got on board as did another unlikely group, the CSUN Communications Association. As one student observed, it was entirely unclear why the Communications Association would get involved. But it is clear that the anti-Israel groups are working hard to form coalitions with organizations that have been indifferent to or neutral on the Palestinian-Israel conflict in the past.
It is noteworthy that the event occurred when there are no major dramas about the Israel-Palestinian issue on the front pages. In the past, demonstrations and lectures were held at the height of violent conflict, such as the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign, the second Lebanon War, Israel’s war against Hamas, and the Flotilla incident. Today Syria’s brutal repression of protestors and Iran’s rush to build nuclear weapons have seized the headlines. Yet, these pressing issues weren’t on the radar at the event, other than Pappe’s shocking remark that the world seems more upset about Iran’s nuclear ambitions than about Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal, as though democratic Israel resembles the fanatical leadership of Iran, the world’s main state sponsor of terrorism and the country that has vowed to destroy its neighbor, Israel. The lesson is that anti-Israel activists aren’t waiting for high conflict events to spread their toxic message.
In general, university administrations have publicly distanced themselves from anti-Israel events and agitation. They have defended the sponsoring groups’ right to hold events or demonstrations filled with hate speech under the principles of free speech or academic freedom, but just as adamantly, many administrations made it clear that their universities did not endorse the content or agendas of the speeches. CSUN did not make this distinction. The flyer for the Pappe event read, “California State University, Northridge, Presents a Lecture by Ilan Pappe,” and the announcement was distributed by the University’s Office of Academic Affairs. The current acting president of CSUN, Harold Hellenbrand, in fact signed a public letter last fall calling for CSUN not to reinstate its study abroad program in Israel. The letter falsely accused Israel of murdering young Americans, discriminating against visitors to the country on the basis of race or religion, and of being an apartheid state. Hellenbrand’s evident biases would likely make him unwilling to publicly distance the university from the extremist views expressed at this event.
A worrisome aspect of the CSUN administration’s reaction is that it helps the effort to make anti-Israel propaganda appear to be reasonable academic discourse. The reaction also indicates that many universities will not enforce the standard that faculty and administrators not use the university or its resources to promote their personal political agendas. CSUN’s Professor David Klein, a leader of the anti-Israel movement on campus, used the CSUN website and server to promote BDS (the boycott movement against Israel). His website link is filled with anti-Israel propaganda and blood libels. When there was a public outcry, CSUN’s administration defended Klein, pleading academic freedom even though Klein’s field is mathematics which has nothing to do with Palestinians or Israel.
Penn Professor Amy Kaplan was caught on tape at Penn’s BDS conference advising faculty to surreptitiously inject anti-Israel themes into their classroom content to inspire students to support BDS. When some people wrote the chair of Kaplan’s department to protest, they were told that Kaplan was protected by academic freedom—even though she had admitted she was using her classroom to promote her political agenda. Academic freedom and free speech are bedrock values that should not be compromised, but it appears that universities will not try to enforce any distinction between professional and private views or try to prevent the abuse of their university’s names and resources, and their faculty positions, for political purposes.
Finally, the event was disturbing because it revealed that even when peers expose a colleague’s fabrications, distorted quotes and other violations of scholarly standards, the criticism doesn’t necessarily stick. It may even increase interest in people like Ilan Pappe. This reaction may also undermine the scholarly standards of the relevant academic discipline.
A sizeable portion of the students and community members in the audience opposed Pappe’s views. They respectfully asked hard questions. Given the format, they had to remain silent while Pappe answered or evaded their questions. Many of them are concerned that this event is the start of increasing anti-Israel activism at CSUN. One faculty member confided that he is especially concerned that such efforts will foster a hostile environment for Jewish students. As often happens on campuses when anti-Israel activism erupts, previously apolitical CSUN students who support Israel are inspired to organize themselves and counter the propaganda.
Roberta Seid, PhD is the education director for StandWithUs, and Roz Rothstein is the CEO and co-founder of StandWithUs.