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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Guest Column: Don’t come to American University

The institution has become an accomplice to genocide and the far right’s rise

The following piece is an opinion and does not reflect the views of The Eagle and its staff. All opinions are edited for grammar, style and argument structure and fact-checked, but the opinions are the writer’s own.

For the first time in more than 17 years of teaching at American University, I can no longer recommend our school to prospective students — or to anyone.

President Sylvia Burwell’s newly imposed policies restricting basic rights to free speech and free association have made the University nothing less than an accomplice to the U.S.-backed Israeli genocide of Palestinians in Gaza and part of growing censorship facing schools and universities, such as in Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Florida.

Widespread student, faculty and staff opposition has shown the true aims of Burwell’s policies: silencing protest against the Israeli government’s atrocities. “The main issue here is not the protest itself,” the AU Student Government’s Executive Board said in a statement originally sent to Inside Higher Ed, “but the reason why students are choosing to protest: which is the events unfolding in Israel and Palestine.” In imposing policies on the campus that appear to violate the school’s own commitments to free expression, Burwell and her allies at the University are joining national and international efforts by Israel’s supporters to shut down criticism of and effectively enable the Israeli government’s genocidal war against Palestinians.

As a Jew and a human being, I’m appalled that my University would participate in silencing legitimate protest to call for a ceasefire and stop mass slaughter. As a Jew, I’m particularly appalled that Burwell deceptively described her policies as efforts to combat antisemitism and “support the sense of belonging” of Jewish students and the broader community. While there have been multiple appalling antisemitic incidents on campus in recent months and years, such as vandalism including swastikas and antisemitic language, many Jewish students, staff and faculty, like me, feel less of a sense of belonging at AU — not more — because of Burwell’s policies. 

Palestinians, Palestinian-Americans and others supporting Palestinian rights certainly feel far less belonging after becoming the target of another in a series of Burwell’s anti-Palestinian emails since Oct. 7. 

Ironically, the new policies appear to have created greater feelings of connection for people of all backgrounds who have joined an unprecedentedly broad opposition movement struggling against Burwell’s policies and for peace, Palestinians and First Amendment rights.

Rather than helping combat antisemitism, Burwell’s policies undermine important work to struggle against it and other forms of hate, bigotry and discrimination. “The ban on indoor protesting is counterproductive in combating antisemitism, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim discrimination and ensuring student safety,” SG affirmed in a unanimous resolution calling for rescinding the policies. 

Burwell’s policies undermine all types of anti-hate work because they’re part of a longstanding ugly, cynical campaign to use bogus accusations of antisemitism to distract from and silence legitimate critique of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Criticizing Israel’s actions is not antisemitic, just as criticizing India’s actions under Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not anti-Hindu and just as criticizing Apartheid South Africa’s actions was not anti-white.

For anyone possibly comforted by the new policies, consider the perilous precedent they set for a future AU president who might use them to target other groups and campus organizations. “The repression and censorship of student organizations is dangerous and should concern every single student at AU. It will harm all of us,” AU’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter wrote in The Eagle.

Beyond harming AU students, Burwell’s policies are helping fuel the rise of anti-democratic politics. The new policies appear designed to ban or sanction AU Students for Justice in Palestine and anyone else advocating for Palestinian rights. Burwell thus has joined actions taken by DeSantis in Florida and by universities including George Washington University, Columbia University, Brandeis University, Rutgers University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to ban or restrict the activities of Students for Justice in Palestine chapters and other pro-Palestinian organizations.

The ACLU described Florida’s ban on Students for Justice in Palestine as “dangerous and wrong,” and “a blatant and harmful effort to censor pro-Palestinian speech on campus, in violation of the Constitution.” The ACLU warned, “Actions like these could pave the way for further censorship and discrimination within our schools and across the nation.”   

AU already has earned a reputation for being one of a growing number of schools where new rules on speech and protest “are really part of a larger push to limit speech on campuses,” as the Chronicle of Higher Education has reported. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit organization promoting free speech rights, has urged the University to “immediately reform … the new provisions.”

Even more frighteningly, Burwell’s policies are a slippery slope to banning books and even classes by scholars falsely deemed antisemitic for criticizing Israel, much as Florida, Texas and other states, municipalities and school districts have banned and censored books, as well as African American studies and lessons about the history of slavery.

“President Burwell, this is the legacy you are leaving behind,” wrote AU Students for Justice in Palestine. “You decided to stand on the wrong side of history.”

It’s not too late for President Burwell to choose another path. In her remaining days as president, Burwell could listen to the overwhelming opposition and rescind her policies. She could show brave leadership by calling for a ceasefire in Gaza like Vice President Kamala Harris and growing numbers of scholarly associations, unions and countries worldwide.

If AU’s administration continues to support the U.S.-backed Israeli genocide in Gaza, I will continue to tell people, “Don’t come to AU.”

For now, I will only recommend AU to those wishing to join an inspiring movement of students, staff and faculty struggling to stop a genocide and bring justice to Palestine and our school.  

David Vine is a professor of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

This article was edited by Alana Parker, Jelinda Montes and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis, Charlie Mennuti and Romy Hermans.

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