Fordham flunks a free speech test
Photos © by Bud Korotzer
Fordham flunks a free speech test
This month, Fordham University, my alma mater, denied students on campus the chance to form a student group to support Palestinian rights.
We thought we’d go through the same application process as any other student group. Instead, we were subject to a protracted 13-month review process.
We were eventually approved by the student government and started preparing for our inaugural event — only to learn that Dean of Students Keith Eldredge implemented a rarely used veto power to ban the group from campus
I was still a student when the application to form the group, Students for Justice in Palestine, was first submitted. The process included repeated meetings with administrators; questioning around Gov. Cuomo’s widely criticized executive order against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; and numerous administrative hurdles.
All of this drained my time and energy and had a serious impact on my studies. I graduated and was never given a chance to advocate for what I believe in on my campus. Now, current and future students won’t have that chance, either.
Advocating for the basic rights of Palestinians is more than just a conviction for me, it is an integral part of my identity. My mother’s father was a Polish survivor of Nazi labor camps, and my father’s parents were born in Palestine prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948. These two histories of oppression taught me to value human dignity and to fight injustice wherever I see it.
My relatives in the West Bank have been forced to live under Israeli military rule for decades now, with no ability to control even the most basic aspects of their lives. The Israeli government controls the borders, which means that even though my grandparents — one of whom is a U.S. veteran — were born there, they are now prohibited from living in their birthplace. They can only obtain a visitor’s visa for three months a year, if they’re lucky.
When I travel to Palestine to visit my relatives, I am routinely discriminated against and threatened by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints simply because I am Palestinian.
It’s only natural that I wanted to establish Students for Justice in Palestine — an organization that exists on over 170 campuses nationwide — at Fordham.
I was devastated to discover that Fordham would prohibit SJP — and, even worse, do so not because of any bad behavior, but simply because of what it represents on paper. This decision violates the free speech and academic freedom the university guarantees under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act in addition to its own values as an institution “committed to research and education that assist in the alleviation of poverty, the promotion of justice, the protection of human rights and respect for the environment.”
This experience has underscored how difficult it is to talk about Palestinian freedom in America without facing serious suppression. In recent years, students and faculty who choose to speak critically of Israeli policies have faced increasing pushback, a problem that has been widely documented by constitutional and civil rights attorneys. In the first half of 2016 alone, there were 171 such incidents of suppression across the country.
Despite these obstacles, support for Palestinian rights has grown over the years as more Americans have become aware of the oppression facing Palestinians. Recent polls found that 60% of Democrats and 46% of all Americans support sanctions or stronger action against Israel for building settlements on Palestinian land, and that sympathy for Palestinians among millennials has tripled since 2006.
Fordham and other institutions can try to shut down this growing social justice movement, but they won’t succeed in silencing people who feel a moral imperative to create a better world.
The great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who called on the U.S. government and consumers to boycott and divest from the apartheid regime in South Africa, once said, “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.” Despite Fordham’s wishes otherwise, I won’t give up this fight. I will continue to stand up for what is right until freedom rings. I will not die.
My request of Fordham is a very modest one: Let Students for Justice in Palestine live.
Awad is a recent Fordham graduate.