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The Repression of Pro-Palestinian Education and Resistance

On Texas Governor Greg Abbott's Executive Order

April 22, 2024

On March 27, 2024, Texas Governor Greg Abbott passed an executive order aimed at “addressing acts of antisemitism in institutions of higher education.” As one would expect, the first thing mentioned in this executive order is Hamas’ attack on October 7, 2023, disregarding decades of colonial dispossession before this date and omitting the anti-Palestinian racism students and faculty experience within and beyond institutions of higher education in the United States. It makes evident that neither the government nor its liberal institutions value Palestinians’ lives, their grief, and their aspirations to live with dignity on the land from which their parents and grandparents were violently dispossessed before, during, and after the Nakba in 1948.

Instead, Governor Abbott claims that, since October 7, there has been a “proliferation of antisemitism at public universities”, especially within “radical organizations.” Certainly, antisemitism is on the rise, but it is on the rise within far-right, white Christian nationalist organizations. It is clear that antisemitism is being weaponized to disregard the real rise of anti-semitism, silence and criminalize pro-Palestinian speech, discredit critiques of the Zionist settler colonial state of Israel, and deflect attention from the ongoing genocide in Gaza.

If Governor Abbott truly cared about racial harassment and the safety of students, there would be a stronger push to investigate actually existing hate speech and dehumanizing rhetoric on campuses. What we are seeing instead is the weaponization of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, initially issued to protect racialized students and faculty, in order to systematically criminalize student organizations. Anna Rajagopal argues that “campus offices of ‘equal opportunity’ have lately served as a mechanism of repression of pro-Palestine student and faculty voices, as Zionists use formal discrimination complaints alleging ‘antisemitism’ to revoke the free speech of organizers”. Student organizations such as Palestine Solidarity Committees and Students for Justice in Palestine are being criminalized for organizing protests, speaking out against the genocide in Gaza, and amplifying the cruel reality that nearly one out of every twenty Palestinians has been killed or injured, over two million have been displaced, infrastructure has been destroyed, universities and mosques have been bombed, and productive agricultural areas have been razed and transformed into Israeli military outposts.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories Francesca Albanese wrote in Anatomy of a Genocide, the “facts and analysis presented in this report lead to the conclusion that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold indicating Israel’s commission of genocide is met. More broadly, they also indicate that Israel’s actions have been driven by a genocidal logic integral to its settler-colonial project in Palestine.”

However, Governor Abbott does not care about facts. The only thing that matters is to continue on the libelous path of defaming student organizations and faculty for expressing their rights to free speech and academic freedom—a right they are exercising in their collective efforts to put an to end the genocide and the violent Zionist colonial occupation of Palestine.

In the executive order, Governor Abbott further asserts that student organizations are inciting violence through their antisemitic rhetoric expressed by chants such as “From the River to the Sea,” stating that this chant “has long been used by Hamas supporters to call for the violent dismantling of the State of Israel and the destruction of the Jewish people who live there.”

The governor thus gives the following directives:

  1. Review and update free speech policies to address the sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts on university campuses and establish appropriate punishments, including expulsion from the institution.
  2. Ensure that these policies are being enforced on campuses and that groups such as the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine are disciplined for violating these policies.
  3. Include the definition of antisemitism, adopted by the State of Texas in Section 448.001 of the Texas Government Code, in university free speech policies to guide university personnel and students on what constitutes antisemitic speech.

These directives do not only explicitly name student organizations; they also accuse them of antisemitism. This executive order thus puts a target on student organizations, and it encourages universities to punish them accordingly. Adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-semitism also means that any serious critique of Israel will be forbidden in public universities. As the IHRA’s examples suggest, referring to Israel as a racial project is anti-semitic. Scholarship on Zionist settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing, dispossession, apartheid, and genocide are off limits. Although students appear to be the primary targets of the executive order, there will undoubtedly be serious consequences for faculty who teach the reality of settler colonialism. It is clear that this executive order seeks to create a culture of fear, silence, and complicity, rather than to protect students as it claims.

I have several questions that universities should seriously consider before modifying their free speech policies: When the International Court of Justice finally determines that Israel committed genocide, what arguments will politicians and university administrators use to retroactively justify their actions as the genocide unfolded before their eyes? What justifications will they have for criminalizing students and faculty who courageously spoke out against genocide when it was most urgent? What excuses will they make for their unwavering support of the genocidal, settler colonial state of Israel? How will they be held accountable for their silence and complicity?

Historicizing Higher Education

Abbott’s executive order must be contextualized against the historical function that universities have played as colonial institutions. Situating universities historically helps us understand the ways in which they have justified and continue to justify colonial domination and capitalist exploitation. By designing curricula aligned to political, economic, cultural, and ideological interests, Western universities have rationalized racial and colonial violence.

This executive order seeks to create a culture of fear, silence, and complicity, rather than to protect students as it claims.

It is equally important to recognize that universities both justify and actively participate in domination. Take, for instance, Department of Defense contracts or research and development projects linked to technology designed for exploitation, dispossession, surveillance, and war. In 2023, for instance, Howard University received a 90 million dollar contract to further its diversification of STEM fields linked to national security. Perhaps it is appropriate to borrow Angela Davis’ notion of the democratization of racism to this democratization of colonial dispossession. Anyone can participate.

When we also historicize the small gains that have been made within universities in terms of curriculum and governance, we realize that these changes are due to social movements. For example, student activists in the 1960s created the Third World Liberation Front to align their pedagogical and political project with the decolonization movements in the Global South. It is because of their struggle that we have ethnic studies programs, although the initial intention was to structurally change the university by creating a Third World College. The sociopolitical context of decolonization and liberation thus created the material conditions for alternative knowledge practices to emerge in academia.

Similarly, the current sociopolitical landscape in which social movements have emerged has positioned dissident voices and radical programs within academia as potential threats to its dominant interests. After all, Western academia was designed to reproduce coloniality, not unsettle it.

Because of these activist struggles, universities are undeniably sites of contestation. Social movements and massive protests have emerged at unprecedented levels, as we have seen with the Black Lives Matter movement and the reactionary “whitelash” against critical race theory. We are seeing this same process with Palestinian, pro-Palestinian, and anti-Zionist faculty and students, who have not only spoken out against the genocide in Gaza, but have also organized Faculty and Students for Justice in Palestine chapters and started to participate in organizational work beyond the university.

Within this shifting sociopolitical landscape, we are seeing a second reactionary wave against decolonization and everything related to the Palestinian struggle following the first backlash against Critical Race Theory. There is a dangerous conflation between on one hand, anti-semitism and anti-Zionism and, on the other, the portrayal of decolonization and liberation movements as genocidal in intent and action. Abbott’s executive order adopts this dangerous conflation, criminalizes those who speak out against genocide, and violates academic freedom and free speech, not to mention university autonomy. It makes the silencing and criminalization of pro-Palestinian protests more systematic and coordinated across state institutions, as it is legitimized through law and institutional regulations on free speech.

Dissident voices that interrogate how discourse shapes action have challenged the portrayal of Palestinians as human animals or as children of darkness that must be eradicated. In particular, politically committed decolonial scholars have critiqued these dangerous narratives to disrupt the naturalization of the colonial rhetoric justifying incalculable death and destruction in Palestine. The increasing challenge within academia—and most importantly, through collective action beyond the university—and the recognition of the colonial projects and capitalist interests universities serve, make it easier to understand universities’ easy capitulation to external pressures such as those imposed by Governor Abbott’s executive order.

On the other hand, this executive order reveals that the small pockets of insurgent voices within academia are perceived as threats primarily because they have the potential to articulate themselves with broad-based social movements. And this is indeed a threat to academia’s anti-intellectualism and political indifference. As Edward Said denounced long ago, “Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position, which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take.”1Edward Said, The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Liberation 1969–1994 (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 100. This avoidance relationship points to the Palestine exception that exists even within so-called critical, antiracist, decolonial, postcolonial, and anticolonial academic circles.

When it comes to concrete discussions of decolonization in Palestine, some academics have distanced themselves from what appears to them as too controversial, complicated, and nuanced to be able to speak on the matter. These are of course mere excuses for their cowardly behavior, silence, and indifference. Ultimately, their careers are more important than speaking out against genocide. For them, decolonization is a metaphor, a text, a distant past one can study and publish on to advance their careers. It has nothing to do with actual systems of colonial domination responsible for systematically displacing and killing Palestinians.

Precisely because academia has historically done more to reproduce systems of domination, we should not be surprised that there is a systematic and coordinated attack on dissident voices collectively refusing to be silenced. One thing that should give us hope, despite everything, is that billionaires, politicians, and university administrators do in fact see us as a threat. They spend time and money to discredit us and our political commitments and projects. It is therefore crucial that we realize that we are living within a conjuncture that demands that we double down on our collective efforts rather than succumb to the pressure of reactionaries. We must realize that there is real fear of our collective efforts in a neoliberal world that only values possessive individualism and indifference. There is real fear that our collective efforts will permanently unmask what liberal institutions have always represented. Ultimately, there is a real fear of what can be achieved when intellectual work remains steadfast and fearless; that neither suspensions or defamation will silence us; that we will not only speak out against genocide and settler colonial dispossession but also organize within and beyond academia.

Because the intentions of executive orders such as Governor Abbott’s is to create a culture of fear, silence, and complicity, we must do everything we can to organize and to resist what is undeniably the rise (or perhaps unmasking) of a fascist state that will do everything to defend Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza. As faculty, we must do everything we can to work alongside pro-Palestinian student organizations. It is the least we can do.

 

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