Why Bias Against Pro-Palestinian Protesters Matters for Everyone

Mother Jones; Stephen Lam/San Francisco Chronicle/AP

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On Thursday, committees at Stanford University published two reports on the campus climate following October 7. The publication comes just days after hundreds of pro-Palestinian students walked out in protest of the official graduation ceremony. The new reports, created by separate committees, are complex. Broadly, they delve into antisemitism and bias against Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians at the California university amid mass protests. But their lessons go far beyond the college campus.

Activists at Stanford were some of the first in the nation to set up a tent encampment protest, calling for an immediate ceasefire on October 20. Students and community members seeking to create a platform for pro-Israel student voices set up a corresponding encampment—called a “blue and white tent”—on November 13. The encampment calling for a ceasefire was among the longest-established student encampments, lasting more than 120 days. In early June, pro-Palestinian students occupied the president’s office on Stanford’s campus. Thirteen people were arrested.

The two dueling encampments are an example of yet another reckoning on a college campus—albeit an elite, private one with one of the largest endowments in the country—over student protests after Hamas’ attack and Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza.

In mid-November, Stanford University convened a select number of students, alumni, and professors to create a Subcommittee on Antisemitism and Anti-Israeli Bias, as well as a Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian (MAP) Communities Committee. 

The MAP report, titled “Rupture and Repair,” highlights a series of incidents ranging from an administrative request to remove the Palestinian song “Dammi Falastin” (translates to “My Blood is Palestinian”) from a student-produced recruitment video at the medical school, to administrative changes in events relating to Palestine. The document also references an incident in which an Arab Muslim student reported being struck by a car whose driver allegedly shouted, “Fuck you and your people.” 

A separate report, centered around antisemitism on the campus, was published simultaneously. That report documented a freshman seminar class where an instructor offered their analysis of the October 7 attack, calling Hamas a “military force” and describing the events of that day as “not terrorism,” but the result of “Israeli colonialism.” (A student petition was drafted in January and collected more than 1,700 signatures in support of the instructor, and that instructor filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in April.)

The antisemitism report also shares examples of other incidents, ranging from vandalism in and outside student residences to disruptive protests held outside a town hall to discuss antisemitism on campus. The report mentions one student-organized party on campus at which attendees were allegedly required to say “Fuck Israel” to gain admission. According to the report, all these events—in the classroom, on campus, and even on social media—show that antisemitism and bias against Israelis “is in the air.” 

One key short-term recommendation of the antisemitism report was for Jewish students and Israelis to be recognized as identities in the University’s DEI programming “so that the harms they are enduring are treated with the sameconcern as those of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ members of the community.” Over the longer term, however, the report suggests a more significant overhaul of the university’s DEI programs. (“We offer the radical proposal of moving from DEI programs as presently constituted to a pluralist framework that benefits individuals from all backgrounds, including Jews and Israelis, who are not currently protected, and indeed are disadvantaged, by DEI,” the report said.)

“What I would want, more than anything else, is for administrators to read both of these reports and make judgments that are not in order to placate one political audience or another, but that are really based in [what] our university’s values should be,” Shirin Sinnar—a professor of law who specializes in civil rights and national security issues and served as a member of the MAP Committee—told me this week.

We spoke about Sinnar’s work, the findings in both reports, and her thoughts about what this means for everyone—on and off campus. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why did you agree to be a part of the MAP Committee?

I and so many others were already seeing so much suppression of speech around Palestine. And I think for many of us, we’ve always seen that there is a Palestine exception to free speech on university campuses and otherwise. So it’s not that it was entirely new, but it was just at a very different level of intensity after October and seeing how afraid people were, both for their personal safety, but also especially afraid to speak out about the issue and just speak out in ways that advocated for the human rights of Palestinians

What role does this report have, considering the context of everything that has taken place in the last year?

I mean, our goal is to highlight a whole range of issues that are also not generally in public awareness, or at least at Stanford. On the one hand, I think many of us have become accustomed to censorship and self-censorship around this topic. But Stanford professes a really strong commitment to free speech. And in California, we actually have legal obligations. Even though we are a private university. We have legal obligations to protect student speech. Given that, it continued to surprise me, although perhaps it shouldn’t, how much we heard about speech, and especially language on Palestine, being suppressed. 

So some of the examples we give in a report were a professor being told that a speaker at their conference couldn’t call for a ceasefire in Gaza, students being told that they couldn’t use the word “apartheid” in an event on Israel, staff being reprimanded for referring to the Israeli military offensive as a genocide. We kept hearing about that kind of thing, about people being explicitly told you can’t hold an event like this. You can’t use this language because that speech makes certain people uncomfortable. That kind of censorship completely cuts against the values of the university. It cuts against the law. And yet, we continue to see these patterns across parts of the university.

The term safety is also broken down in the report. What is the core definition of the term, and how is that being wrestled with, based on different members of the campus community?

It depends on what you mean by safety—and I think the people we spoke with often used it holistically. 

When they talked about feeling unsafe on campus, yes, they were talking about physical safety, and there have been experiences, of course, of actual threats to physical safety. But beyond that, they were also referring to how they felt [about] being themselves and expressing themselves at the university. For instance, when staff members at Stanford talked about feeling unsafe. Often, what they meant was in addition to physical safety, which they also spoke about, it was also the sense that I can lose my job if I say or do the wrong thing on this issue. This constant sense of, Can I do this? Can I say this? Can I go there? Can I witness this protest, or am I going to suddenly get in trouble because I showed up to some event on campus? 

We were careful in the report. We say that we don’t mean safety in the sense of intellectual safety, like not having your ideas be challenged. In fact, I think one of the things that we saw as a problem was the fact that there was a reluctance to have people’s ideas challenged on campus. So it’s not that people should feel safe in the sense that they should be surrounded by sort of communities of people who agree with them or back them up whatever they say or think—intellectual disagreement and debate is one of the purposes of the university. It’s how we get to the sense of truth You should feel like you can belong at an institution and not be afraid that you’re going to lose your job or be attacked.

If both these camps of protesters feel unsafe to some degree, how do we think about that? 

We don’t need to see this as some sort of zero-sum scenario where, it can only be one group or the other that has experienced insecurity in a volatile political period. I don’t think it has to be that, okay, well, if Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim communities are feeling [unsafe], then that somehow negates the experience of Jewish or other communities on campus. In part, it is a function of a really charged political controversy and the way it’s manifesting in various ways on our campuses and our communities.

One of the terms that also shows up in the reports is “civil discourse.” What do you mean by that, and how protesters do or do not engage in it?

We all value respectful, constructive disagreement across differences and arguments based on facts and evidence. At some level, that is what universities are about. But the problem is that increasingly, people are using it in different ways, which is either to denigrate campus activism and protest—specifically pro-Palestine protests or other activism by students of color—or they’re using it to replace DEI as a framework because they think that DEI was too focused on group-based oppression, or for whatever other reasons stemming from this conservative political backlash. 

So in that sense, I find this new focus on civil discourse quite problematic. Because, in my view, we should be honoring nonviolent student protests, including civil disobedience, and we should be teaching our students about oppression and inequality. And for me, those things are fundamental to how we progress towards a more just and more equitable society. Civil disobedience, social movements, activism—that is often how social change has happened in this country. And if you don’t teach about racial injustice and other forms of oppression, then you are in a weaker position to address it.

We suggest in our report a different term, which we call “vibrant discourse,” which encompasses the idea that we should have robust disagreement and debate on important political and social questions, and but part of having that is to create the space to actually have those discussions and not have a climate of censorship or fear. And vibrant discourse is not incompatible with peaceful civil disobedience. In fact, it thrives on that

For those who have no affiliation with Stanford, what do you think is the significance of all this? How is what’s happening at Stanford arguably affecting everyone who is off campus?

I think it’s part and parcel of some of the biggest questions we’re facing right now. How do you create a truly vibrant and rich space for discussing really difficult issues? And for me, [that’s especially important] at a time of really significant human rights violations.

I mean, we’re in the middle of a hugely devastating war with nearly 40,000 people killed, and what is our obligation as universities at this moment? Our report is focused on Stanford, one campus community, and all these questions. But, as a university community, if we cannot speak forthrightly about human rights violations at this level, then what does it mean for our future as a society? 

For me, it’s a deeply felt sense that we could be on the brink of major crises in our democracy. In fact some would say we already are. There are so many existential challenges facing our world right now, whether it’s climate change or genocide or anything else. And if as universities, we are suppressing students and faculty and staff from speaking out about these issues, then how are we going to move forward as a society? What is left of free speech, if we can’t have it in our universities?

And during the course of this report, I was shocked again, although I don’t know if I should have continued to be shocked, by how the very resistance to the words apartheid or genocide—like you just can’t say certain things, and the argument about why was not that it was an inaccurate picture of what was happening on the ground, but the idea that it would alienate or hurt certain people, and that idea you can’t talk about human rights violations because of who it might upset. That is so antithetical to what we ought to be at universities and the kind of climate that we should have in a democracy. 

I think at the end of the day,  that’s the real question, and it’s a question for our entire society. It goes beyond Stanford, and it even goes beyond universities. But it’s sort of the canary in the coal mine.