Fordham University is a Canary in the Zionist Coal Mine

Fordham University students demonstrate on behalf of freedom in Palestine and free speech on campus.
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American Zionists were silencing free speech rights long before Twitter canceled Donald Trump’s account. House Resolution 246 - Opposing efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement targeting Israel  passed in July 2019 on a roll call vote of 398 to 17, with five abstaining, and 12 not voting. That was one thing Democrats could agree with Donald Trump on, even though they always hiked his “defense” budgets, which included appropriations for Israel , by tens of billions of dollars. In 2017, Congress refused to pass Trump’s “defense” budget until it included a $455 million increase for Israeli missile defense. Principal beefs of HR 246’s proponents were that BDS does not recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state and “promotes collective guilt, mass punishment, and group isolation.” (Unlike the State of Israel.) Although not legally binding, the resolution emboldened Zionists with BDS in their crosshairs.

“In 2017, Congress refused to pass Trump’s “defense” budget until it included a $455 million increase for Israeli missile defense.”

In 2017, the same year that Congress demanded the $455 million hike for Israeli weapons of mass destruction, a group of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Fordham University in New York City went to court because the university had refused to register their chapter as an official university club on the grounds that SJP might bring disruption to Fordham’s campus. They cited instances of SJP disruptions on other campuses, including the University of California-Irvine, where students protested outside a film showing in praise of the Israel Defense Forces ; NYU, where Palestinian rights activists disrupted an outdoor rave held to commemorate Israeli independence, with one activist burning an Israeli flag; Northeastern University, where members distributed mock eviction flyers to students to dramatize what it’s like for Palestinians to be evicted from their homes; and Loyola University, where students protested the promotion of “birthright trips” to Israel on campus.

The allegedly threatening mission of the Fordham Students for Justice in Palestine is “to build support in the Fordham community among people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds for the promotion of justice, human rights, liberation, and self-determination for the indigenous Palestinian people.”

Fordham’s Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students Keith Eldredge reportedly said offhand that the group “might stir controversy.” In an official statement overruling the student government, which had approved the club’s registration, Eldredge said that “After consultation with numerous faculty, staff and students and my own deliberation, I have decided to deny the request to form a club known as Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham University. While students are encouraged to promote diverse political points of view, and we encourage conversation and debate on all topics, I cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country, when these goals clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University.”

That was the first time Fordham’s administration had overruled a decision by its student government about registering a student club. It won Fordham a spot in the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in its list of the “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” in 2017 2018 , and 2021 . FIRE, the Center for Constitutional Rights , and Palestine Legal  all sent letters to Fordham with their concerns about free speech rights on Fordham’s campus.

What’s at stake in registration?

Registration seems to mean that the club can hold meetings on campus as “Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham,” although I’ve thus far been unable to get an answer about that from the Fordham Communications Department, where Communications Director Gina Vergel deferred and sent the question upstream to Bob Howe, Assistant Vice President for Communications and Special Adviser to the President, who hasn’t yet responded.

Official administration comments to the media are no doubt of particular concern because the students filed a lawsuit which is now working its way through the appeals process. A New York State judge ordered Fordham to officially recognize the club in July 2019 but not because of the students’ constitutionally guaranteed free speech rights since Fordham is a private Jesuit university.  Justice Nancy M. Bannon wrote instead that, “Since there is nothing in the record of Dean Keith Eldredge’s determination supporting his authority to reject an application of a student club because it criticized the policies of only one nation, the determination must be annulled as arbitrary and capricious.”  Fordham appealed and won, and the students have now appealed that decision.

Fordham is a canary in the Zionist coal mine

What makes this case a canary in the Zionist coal mine? It’s the first lawsuit in the country that challenged censorship of students advocating for Palestinian rights, and it’s generated countless headlines in New York City and beyond, with students, faculty, and alumnae all taking stands. “Canary Mission ,” an anonymously operated Zionist website says that it “documents people and groups that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews,” and they have included at least four of the student plaintiffs on their students blacklist. Their profiles on canarymission.org  are: Sapphira Lurie  Sofia Dadap Veer Shetty , and Julie Norris . Most of the other students on this list are also members of Students for Justice in Palestine, and the site also includes blacklists for professors, professionals, and organizations. Black Agenda Report hasn’t yet made their organizations list, but BDS, Code Pink, Jewish Voice for Peace, Mondoweiss, Palestine Legal, and Aljazeera English have.

Both parties to the lawsuit have indicated their determination to keep fighting, so the case could go all the way to the Supreme Court—if the Court agrees to hear it.

Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize  for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at ann(at)anngarrison.com.

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