Although Yale claims to be a bastion of free speech that provides a forum for addressing all political and cultural issues, the one exception to this is the issue of Palestinian liberation.
The discourse around Palestine at Yale is surrounded by fear and restraint. Discussion is often prefaced with the familiar acknowledgment of how complicated the topic is, immediately obscuring the power relations between a Western-backed occupying power and a population subjected to life under occupation. Ensuing conversations are, at best, composed of vague statements about the need for “peace” and “dialogue” on “both sides.” Tired and simplified narratives take the place of coherent conversations about the reality of life in Palestine, deliberately absolving the West, particularly the United States, from any responsibility in funding and supporting the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
Despite the numerous human rights violations and continued expansion of illegal settlements, criticizing the settler colonial regime occupying Palestine is the exception to the cherished American value of freedom of speech. Unequivocally supporting Palestinian liberation is a choice that can put one’s professional life at risk.
Some of the most prominent intimidation campaigns against those supporting Palestine take place on campuses like Yale. In 2006, Juan Cole, a noted Middle East expert, was denied tenure at Yale because of his anti-Zionist pieces on his blog “Informed Comment.” In 2014, Reverend Bruce Shipman was forced to resign from his position as chaplain of the Episcopal Church at Yale because of his condemnation of the war on Gaza. And this phenomenon extends beyond Yale’s campus. Last month, Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch, had his fellowship to the Harvard Kennedy School vetoed over his criticism of Israel. Harvard later reversed its decision following pressure from students and alumni, including the organizers of the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee. However, professors are not the only ones vulnerable on campuses. For students, especially students of color, discussing Palestine invites accusations of hate speech and antisemitism, as well as fear of doxxing and intimidation. Pro-Palestine activism can land students on blacklists backed by pro-Zionist organizations.
Many incorrectly frame Zionism — the political project seeking to establish Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people — as synonymous with Jewish identity. This conflation of the Jewish people with the Zionist state makes any criticism of the occupation immediately deemed “antisemitic.” In reality, Zionism is an ideology and a political movement that, in the words of its founders, necessitates the erasure of Palestinians and the violent seizure of their land in the pursuit of creating a modern nation-state.
If we have learned one thing from the last couple of years, it is that silence kills. The lack of discussion on the systemic nature of Israeli war crimes has given total impunity to a state that murders civilians, massacres refugees and bombs a city already under siege. Since the assassination of American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces in May 2022, the Biden administration has failed to hold Israel accountable. The number of murders is showing no signs of slowing down so far, as 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians since the Second Palestinian Intifada. And as of Feb. 6, 2023, 36 Palestinians have already been killed.
Yalies4Palestine, or Y4P, was created in response to this silence. In the spring of 2021, Israel was simultaneously forcing Palestinian families in East Jerusalem out of their houses and bombing residential buildings in Gaza, killing and injuring innocent people. Because Yale did not have any spaces where students — especially Palestinians — could discuss and process this violence, we initiated conversations that drew students’ attention to these human rights abuses. Yalies4Palestine has created increasingly popular spaces to discuss, think and dream of ways to break the institutional gag on criticism of Israel. As a result, the Yale student body has become more aware, if not more critical, of the Israeli occupation and the crimes committed against the people of Palestine.
But having conversations about Palestine is only the first step. The next necessary step is to ask Yale as an academic institution and as a corporation, to end its complicity in the colonization of Palestine and to hold Israel accountable.
We can act, and we can act locally. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, or BDS, movement effectively challenges the complicity of states, corporations and other entities in supporting Israeli settler colonialism. Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, BDS is devoted to ending international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians through boycotts, community mobilization and grassroots campaigns. In 1986, Yale students proved the efficacy of such campaigns when they protested the Yale Corporation’s investments in South African apartheid, eventually forcing the University to comply with the demands to divest in the 1990s. Yale failed to take a stand against South African apartheid until its students forced it to do so. Today, we must do the same.
In December 2022, Yalies4Palestine launched the first-ever BDS campaign at Yale. Prior to this, Yale was the only university in the Ivy League not involved in the BDS movement, largely due to this campus’s pro-Zionist climate. This is despite public institutional condemnations of human rights violations in Iran and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We must overcome this culture of hypocrisy and call on Yale to take a stand against the Israeli occupation. We echo the sentiment expressed in a recent article about the attempted censorship of Kenneth Roth: “Universities are sites that must always privilege truth, along with the free inquiry through which it is discovered. Where this is lacking, universities veer away from enlightenment and in time they enter darkness.” As students at one of the most elite academic institutions in the world, we have an obligation to illuminate truth and honor light over darkness. Join us in fulfilling this obligation by signing and sharing our petition demanding that Yale cancel its contract with G4S — a security company involved in some of the world’s worst human rights abuses, including those in Israel — and by taking the initiative to learn more about the BDS movement.
NOOR KAREEM is a Sophomore in Pauli Murray college. She is a member of the BDS Committee for Yalies4Palestine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CRAIG BIRCKHEAD-MORTON is a junior in Silliman College. He is the Chair of the BDS Committee for Yalies4Palestine. Contact him at email@example.com.