Genocide and Campus Bans on Speech Critical of Israel: Then and Now

Not a single day goes by now in North America or Europe without an academic being disciplined or fired outright for expressing views critical of Israel. In mid-March 2024, when the University of California Regents meet at UCLA, they will vote on a policy to ban UC faculty and other staff from publishing political statements, including those stemming from the Israel/Hamas war, on university websites and other university channels. The policy appears to be aimed at units that have posted statements on their websites criticizing Israel for its violence against Palestinians in Gaza. The clampdown on academic freedom is happening as the death toll reaches 30,000 in Gaza and as every single university and several professors, deans, and some presidents of universities have been quite literally obliterated from the landscape, not merely “cancelled” but killed.

As the world watches what the International Court of Justice has signaled may well be a genocide in progress in Gaza, the suppression of academic freedom continues apace. It is tempting to see the Regents’ proposal and other bans on political speech elsewhere as originating solely in this new situation of a genocide in progress that we can all see. Almost immediately after the Hamas attacks, the Regents, for example, began to talk about the rise in anti-Semitism and bigotry which they associated with criticism of Israel’s response to the attacks. As many scholars remind us, this is a new age of McCarthyism, a new round of the political repression and persecution of left-wing individuals.

It’s the “new” in the “new age of McCarthyism” that I want to reflect on. If the new refers to new technologies of harassment and persecution—and here specifically we can name social media—the adjective is correct. This new condition changes the intensity and extent, perhaps, although we would need the sociologists to offer some data in this regard. If the “new” refers to the new targets, now including anyone critical of Israel, anyone who believes slavery happened and has afterlives, anyone who considers gender to be a social construct and who believes in social equality, and so on, then the descriptor “new” is not as apt. People in these categories have come in for their share of persecution for a long time, as certainly all Black activists and gender equality activists know. For those who think the targeting of critics of Israel is new, this too can be easily proven otherwise. But there is something newish going on that has to do with the legal foundations on which bans rest. In short, the repression of speech critical of Israel is increasingly openly sought and legally accomplished. The state is involved at the highest levels, as when France proposes to defund feminist organizations that do not agree with the French government’s interpretation of the October 7th Hamas attacks.

I want to offer some thoughts about what’s new with respect to my own experience as a scholar who has been harassed for her criticisms of Israel for more than two decades. The conjoining of protest about Israel’s military activities with informal limitations on academic freedom in North American and Europe is several decades old now, if not longer. As a critical race scholar who studies racial violence and settler colonialism, I have long been familiar with the repression of speech that is critical of Israel. In 2002, critical race scholars who had studied the matter of Israeli state violence and who protested the Israeli military’s killing of Palestinians in Jenin in May of that year (something the Israeli state has undertaken in Jenin time and time again) could not use words such as massacre, Israeli apartheid, racism, and settler colonialism without triggering highly organized attempts to get us fired or disciplined. When, at the first ever conference of the Canadian Researchers and Academics of Colour for Equality conference, some of us succeeded at passing a conference resolution condemning the Israeli military for what we accurately described as a “massacre” in Jenin, an intense and well-organized campaign was launched against me (the conference convener and distributor of the statement). The campaign, spearheaded by a number of Zionist organizations and individuals, included death threats, calls to my home to speak to my children about my endorsement of killing “little Jewish babies,”  lawyers from B’nai B’rith and the Canadian Jewish Federation calling for my firing, donors writing to the university president announcing that they would pull their money if I were not fired, and a relentless media campaign calling me an ant-Semitic professor. Importantly, this same pattern of harassment (one that crossed borders) during the spring and summer of 2002 was aimed at other scholars of color and one manager of the Toronto Women’s bookstore, all of us racialized and actively working on issues of racial and gender justice. In my own experience, then, the targeting of critics of Israel was always simultaneously the targeting of anyone working on issues of racial and gender justice.

The assault on speech can last for years, heating up from time to time, especially when Israeli violence escalates. This is critical to note because it indicates that a well-organized machine lies behind the targeting and that the targeting is not merely emanating from a few zealots or hateful people. The machine swings into action even when nothing is going on that mentions Israel/Palestine. For example, three years after the R.A.C.E conference, I organized an event around my book Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping and the New Imperialism, which is about Canadian soldiers who tortured Somali youth while on a  peacekeeping mission in 1993, an event now known as “Canada’s Abu Ghraib.” I once again received donor threats by telephone, as did the office of the president of my university. The callers had assumed that the event’s title, “From Massacres to Humiliation,” referred to Israel.

The long life of the targeting affects struggles for racial justice directly. For example, Israel came up in court in 2008 when I served as an expert witness on racism—an event completely unrelated to Israel/Palestine and connected to the Sikh terrorist bombing of a Canadian aircraft. My testimony was a part of a national inquiry twenty-five years after the bombing interrogating the Canadian government’s response to the Indo-Canadian families of the victims, a response that many saw as racist. Seeking to discredit my expertise on racism, counsel for the Attorney General of Canada addressed my participation at the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa seven years earlier, in 2001, an event he characterized for the court as one at which there was a great deal of anti-Semitism. He triumphantly proclaimed that I—guilt by association in his narrative—was actually more of an activist than an academic, and very possibly an anti-Semitic one to boot. In a voice dripping with sarcasm, he asked whether sociologists actually believed that Canada was a white settler society and a settler colonial state. Of note: the national inquiry did not accept that racism had anything to do with the government’s response to the families of the victims, effectively leaving Indo-Canadians “in the vestibule of the nation.

Has anything changed in the landscape between 2002, in either Canada or the US? In 2002, the University of Toronto protected my right to speech. I can recall the Dean of Graduate Education, a Holocaust scholar, decrying my views but insisting that he defended my right to have them. In the early 2000s, universities in Canada and the United States often resorted to guerilla tactics to ban speech, looking for ways to deny rooms to protestors, warning students what would happen to their academic records if they engaged in “inappropriate conduct over Middle East issues,” and so on. There was a surface fidelity to the notion that one cannot ban speech outright. Today, the climate has changed both in Canada and the United States. Students who protest the Israeli state’s violence towards Palestinians have been charged and threatened with expulsion; faculty are fired, and some find themselves denied tenure and promotion. Most important, there is a kind of abandonment of performing the rule of law. It’s just banned speech because we say so, and every protest or criticism is automatically anti-Semitic because we say it is. In effect, there is a turn to what Agamben and other scholars call a state of exception where law has declared that there are zones where law will not exist. When it comes to criticism of Israel, law has declared a no-go zone—law will not exist to protect speech in this area. This is exactly the same legal space that, for example, prisoners occupy in American law—a space that, not coincidentally, impacts many Black people, as the legal scholar Colin Dayan has shown. This is a space where you can do anything to the body of a prisoner that you would not be able to do to any other person—subject someone to extensive solitary confinement, for example.

Banned speech has expanded to include the word “genocide” and the phrase “from the river to the sea.” Presidents are fired—for instance, Harvard’s only Black president, Claudine Gay—and esteemed scholars of anti-Semitism (no less), like Derek Penslar, the William Lee Frost Professor of Jewish History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, are pressured to leave a task force set up to study anti-Semitism and anti-Arab racism. Anyone critical of the Israeli state is in for it—even those with stellar academic reputations who are Jewish and not even known to be anti-Zionist, like Penslar. A relentless campaign to limit speech now rolls over the university landscape, turning scholarship into rubble and clearing room for an alternate story. Dispossession, as scholars of settler colonialism show, is always about the story one tells, as the land is cleared for more white settlers. Colonial projects, like all projects of rule, always go after the storytellers.

Sherene H. Razack

Sherene H. Razack is Distinguished Professor and the Penny Kanner Endowed Chair in Gender Studies. Her books and publications examine settler colonialism and global white supremacy with a particular focus on the gendered effects of anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, anti-Asian, and anti-Muslim racism as they operate in law. Her most recent books are: Nothing Has to Make Sense: Upholding White Supremacy Through Anti-Muslim Racism (2022) and Dying from Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody (2015).