Berkeley students discover the limits of freedom of expression

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Tahir Mahmoud

Dhu al-Hijjah 05, 1421 2001-03-01


by Tahir Mahmoud (World, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 1, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1421)

The US media’s anti-Islam bias is well known; it is reflective of the establishment’s views. Academia in the US, however, used to pride itself on being free of such biases, yet of late the anti-Muslim virus seems to have infected these so-called bastions of intellectual freedom as well. Among American universities, the University of California at Berkeley has built a reputation as an institution where freedom of speech is cherished and protected. Yet this appears not to be the case, as the Students for Justice in Palestine (UC Berkeley) have found.

The students’ group has been holding meetings, rallies and discussions on campus about the Intifada in Palestine and the ongoing zionist occupation and brutalities. The university authorities have on several occasions attempted to disrupt such activities and place hurdles in the way of students organising peaceful meetings. Recently, the situation has become more serious. On February 6, when students held another protest against the Zionist occupation of Palestine, the university authorities, led by Chancellor Berdahl, were furious. In a letter to the Daily Californian, published on February 12, Berdahl claimed that the protest “did not conform to campus expectations and regulations and as a result created an atmosphere that many in our community felt was hostile.”

Quite aside from the fact that such vague condemnation is designed to chill future protests by not explaining exactly what “campus expectations and regulations” means, Berdahl is clearly being hypocritical. The university has rarely been concerned about whether members of the community find campus events “hostile”; otherwise, it would not have invited Madeleine Albright [former US secretary of state] to speak at commencement last spring, or allowed Daniel Faulkner’s friends and family on campus to ask us to “fry Mumia” last fall [Faulkner was the police officer killed in a shoot-out in Philadephia in 1980, for which Mumia Abu Jamal has been convicted. He is on death row and has been fighting execution on the grounds of wrongful conviction. His case has aroused worldwide interest and support]. The Chancellor’s letter is clearly an attempt to isolate and alienate students who speak out on important issues.

It is ironic that the university should seek to marginalize those voices on campus that protest the dispossession and brutalisation of the Palestinians at the hands of Israel. Palestinians who demand an end to zionist military occupation of their lands are brutally silenced: they are jailed, tortured and shot. To date, more than 400 Palestinians, among them young children, have been killed by Israeli soldiers using high-velocity rifles, missiles and helicopter-gunships. Israeli assassins routinely shoot and kill Palestinian protesters. Those calling on Israel to meet its obligations under international law, such as the implementation of UN resolution 194 and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, are similarly repressed.

There is a more basic reason why the university chancellor was so irked by the students’ protests. They touched a raw nerve by exposing the university’s financial links with zionist Israel. The university yearly invests more than US$3.5 billion in the Israeli economy, with at least $650 million going to weapons and armament-manufacturers in Israel. It is this convergence of financial interests and the university’s acquiescence in mass-murder of Palestinians that the chancellor wished to conceal.

It is also telling that the three issues that Berdahl singled out for mention in his letter (sweatshops, civil rights, and the Middle East) are all issues in which protesters had to fight for the right to be heard against the university’s intimidation and threats, and in which the university was clearly in the wrong. The Civil Rights movement was silenced in the 1960s by then University of California president Clark Kerr; the university had to be threatened with a sit-in before it changed its policy on sweatshop-labour last year; now, when challenged about its connection to Israel’s military campaign against the Palestinians, the university is again siding with the oppressors. It is not the protesters who have made the campus environment “hostile”; Berdahl has only himself to blame.

In the 1980s, students forced the university to give up its holdings in apartheid South Africa. Those students were also met with hostile opposition. Now, students are calling on the university to end its connections to the Israeli military; again, the students face threats and intimidation. Students for Justice in Palestine have challenged Berdahl to an open debate about the circumstances surrounding the protest, free speech at UC Berkeley, and the university’s continuing commitment to the Israeli military if he genuinely wants “the kinds of discussions... that are necessary” at Berkeley.

Given the Chancellor’s tirade in the newspaper, nobody is holding his breath in anticipation of such a meeting. Instead, lame excuses will be offered to duck the real issue. After all, the US itself underwrites all Israeli crimes. Little else can be expected from its major institutions.

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