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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Guest Column: Punishing student support of Palestine right now is pedagogical malpractice

Academic repression undermines AU’s goal of student thriving

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.

I write to support American University’s large and growing Student Coalition for Palestine, and the many students with connections to, consciousness of and compassion with Palestine and its long struggle against Israeli occupation and apartheid. I especially support the more recent struggle for sheer survival in the face of Israeli forces’ genocidal bombardment, mass displacement and deliberate starvation of Gaza. In particular, I invite other faculty, staff and administrators to support AU’s Students for Justice in Palestine, which has just endured unwarranted disciplinary punishment. In fact, we at AU ought to be honoring these students for their conscientious analysis and agency in this time of academic repression and apathy.

The atrocities committed against Gaza alone, not to mention the West Bank, these past six months have no modern precedent. The ferocity, rapidity and intentional nature of the famine, compounds the calculated destruction of all Gazan universities and schools, in what has been decried as “scholasticide” — not to mention homes, now called “domicide”, hospitals, UN humanitarian shelters, even the ‘safe’ corridors and every structure that supports Palestinian life. Israeli officials’ stated goal has been to destroy all buildings in the Gaza Strip (what has been referred to as an “open-air prison” for 2.3 million residents), displace Gazan survivors elsewhere and then confiscate the Strip entirely. 

South Africa launched a historic case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, which ruled in January that Israel’s actions did plausibly amount to genocide and that they must allow humanitarian aid immediately. Nearly three months later, Israeli forces have done the opposite — blocking more trucks, attacking aid convoys, firing on and killing civilians desperately waiting for bread in the notorious “flour massacres,” and most recently targeting and killing international food aid workers.  

The horror of this is that it is not considered a horror in mainstream news or here on our campus in dominant curriculum, officially sponsored campus events or in AU presidential emails. This widespread dehumanization of Palestinians obscures the scale of their torture, slaughter and deliberate starvation, rendering the violent death of tens of thousands of children as mere “collateral damage.” This chilling euphemism has saturated and corroded layers of U.S. society and leadership, across universities and the halls of Congress, the State Department and the White House. 

It has also undermined U.S. legitimacy around the world. It bears reiterating the callous and self-defeating recent history: since October, the U.S. government has vetoed two United Nations Security Council resolutions and a General Assembly resolution calling for humanitarian pauses or ceasefires — which could have prevented so much mass death. Even after the ICJ case and ruling, the U.S. responded by defunding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency  — the humanitarian lifeline serving over 3 million Palestinian refugees in the region and by advancing another $14 billion in military weapons to the Israeli army. After vast global and domestic grassroots mobilization for a ceasefire, the U.S. government finally merely abstained on the March UN Security Council resolution — after demanding the wording change from a “permanent” to a meager “lasting” ceasefire.

Dystopically, on college campuses and in curriculum, the war on Gaza has hardly been mentioned, much less contextualized. This mirrors mainstream media, where the historical violence remains obfuscated in bias. The crisis demands clarity: It is not a religious conflict, it is a land grab. It is not a war between two equal parties, it is a genocide against mostly children. It also didn’t all begin on Oct. 7. 

As World War III, God forbid, looms, never has there been more need for U.S. universities to foster spaces for deep research, critical analysis and integrative dialogue about colonialism, the Holocaust, British imperial complicity in antisemitism, histories of Zionism and, tellingly, how white European identity arose in opposition to Judaism, to Islam and to racialized othering of Arabs and Semitic people at large. We need multiple classes and research into Orientalism, how antisemitism intersects with anti-Muslim racism in a vicious cycle, on settler colonialism, carceral technologies, the geopolitical deployment of hunger, humanitarianism’s contradictions, how the Global War on Terror foments anti-Muslim racism and how whiteness and geopolitical imaginaries of the “West v. rest” shaped 20th and now 21st centuries. U.S. universities now need even more training in investigative journalism, political economies of the military-industrial complex, interfaith peace diplomacy, geopolitical ecologies of apartheid, child psychology of trauma and so much more.

What we don’t need is silencing. How is the deliberate devastation of Gaza not analyzed, or even mourned at a University that prides itself on politically engaged students, student and lifelong activism and ‘changemakers?’ Most faculty and staff fear professional retribution for incorporating Palestine or the current disaster in their syllabi or seminars. In this deafening silence, students have arisen to ask questions, join the global call for a ceasefire, and call attention to the injustices underway. 

U.S. universities have responded at large with aggressive repression of Palestinian students, solidarity and support, and, sadly, we see this here at AU. The large, robust coalition of 25 new and long-established student groups in support of Palestine, including Jewish Voice for Peace, has emerged to meet the moment. Yet, many face untrue and unfair assertions of antisemitism — and now even disciplinary action grounded in what SJP has called racist police profiling and interrogation presuming criminality. Islamophobia, antisemitism, anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian racism and other axes of hate feed off each other right now in a vicious cycle of disinformation atop years of systemic dehumanization. Singling out antisemitism — and weaponizing it to silence criticism of Israel — aggravates the situation. 

American University invests in key aspects of “student thriving,” and many faculty and staff on campus have dedicated themselves to this admirable endeavor — as the AU Middle-States Accreditation Self-Study ‘Student Thriving’ Subcommittee team I served on just chronicled for the “Thriving: Improving the Student Experience” chapter. Yet, an honest account of AU student experience requires acknowledging how the last six months have been wrenching for our students with connections to and consciousness of the injustices ravaging Palestine and Israel. I have not seen this level of collective concern and struggle on campus, even during the pandemic. It has negatively impacted student well-being and conditions for thriving, and President Burwell’s recent limitations on free expression have only furthered the alienation and cognitive dissonance for Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and students in solidarity with Palestine, who have faced undue backlash, doxxing, silencing and now probation. Meager attempts at institutional support for them have come in the form of increased American University Police Department and FBI presence on campus, which carries well-documented risk for Islamophobic and racialized surveillance, now borne out in the criminalization of SJP. 

Accordingly, in the name of student thriving, I join the widespread campus support for SJP and call for their immediate reinstatement on AU’s campus, as well as the campus-wide mobilization to rescind the AU curtailment of academic liberties, cloaked in ‘inclusivity’ double-speak. At this time, American University does not need to be punishing the very students (and staff and faculty) who bring or seek Palestinian perspectives. This ‘Palestinian exception’ has long been counterproductive to our educational mission and to the public good at large. As the months go on and the situation in Gaza becomes more dire and as the U.S. silence more flagrant, the academic repression on campus becomes pedagogical malpractice — an educational fail. Our students deserve better. 

Garrett Graddy-Lovelace is a provost associate professor in the Department of Environment, Development & Health in American University’s School of International Service. She also serves as a faculty advisor for AU’s Antiracist Research & Policy Center and for AU’s Center for Leadership and Community Engagement. 

This piece was edited by Alana Parker, Jelinda Montes and Abigail Turner. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis and Charlie Mennuti. 

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