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When Palestinians Speak Up: Scandal at Berkeley's School of Law

When Palestinians Speak Up

by WILL YOUMANS

To be Palestinian in the United States means to have no voice. Representations of the Palestinian cause stem more frequently from TV pundits and other elite media sources than from Palestinians themselves, whether here or there. The form and shape of those representations have conditioned those in elite institutional settings to a level of comfortable complicity. Inherent in this, is a nearly programmatic aversion to any genuine Palestinian voice that enters their daily life.

This is how a social anthropologist might explain what I have witnessed at UC-Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law in the past month.

On October 9th, the newly formed Law Students for Justice in Palestine sponsored a talk by Na’eem Jeenah of the Palestine Solidarity Committee in South Africa. LSJP secured formal endorsement from many student groups, including the Native American, African-American, and Chicano (La Raza) groups. It also received endorsement from the Berkeley Law Foundation, the oldest public interest law student group in the country.

Jeenah delivered a convincing argument about the parallels between Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and South African Apartheid policies towards blacks. He was a tireless anti-Apartheid activist for more than a decade, and lost his brother in the struggle.

A few ardently pro-Israeli students were in attendance. One of them distributed an article or two, and an attack piece on Jeenah.

Afterwards, a petition emerged in protest of the BLF for endorsing the event. Unsurprisingly, it was the initiative of the same industrious individual who passed out the literature beforehand. The petition quickly garnered over 100 signatures, roughly 10% of the law school’s student body.

The petitioner and its signatories were considerably lax on the evidentiary standards for being intelligent people who study them all day. The petition featured not one direct quote. The petitioner’s documentation of the event? He had none.

The petition was based only on crude paraphrasing that revealed either the author’s inability to understand the arguments or an agenda-ridden maliciousness. Humorously, it cited true statements as false. Yet, students and faculty agreed to the petition without even bothering to check the facts. Liberal supporters of Israel grant themselves a progressive exemption, but in this instance, they took an intelligence one as well.

The petition featured an example of one of Jeenah’s arguments as, “Israeli law does not allow marriage between Muslims and Jews.” This was given to demonstrate the wicked duplicity of the speaker. The only problem is that it is true. The law is in the books under the personal status religious law. Jeenah stated that Israel will recognize mixed marriages if they occurred outside of Israel. The petition was not too keen on relaying the nuances.

The rest of the petition is really not worthy of review. Most of it simply comes down to the same issues that have always been debated. Thus supporters of Israel simply did what lawyers never do, they signed on without examining. How could so many people support such a shoddy petition without even having attended the event? Of course, one professor wrote that the paraphrased statements were “objectively verifiable lies,” as if the Palestinian narrative is non-existent and Israel’s side of the story offers mathematical precision and certainty. The words “anti-Semitism” were enough to compel some people to sign on.

The debate that came with the petition focused on BLF’s role, rather than the accuracy and legitimacy of Jeenah’s talk. The petition gave way to a boycott of its annual auction, which raises money for a scholarship offered to disadvantaged communities. Several professors publicly supported the boycott and withdrew their donations. Mysteriously, the dean of the law school could not make it despite tradition. He came down with acute case of “Zionitis,” aggravated by a running condition of chronic cowardice.

The reason given was that BLF violated its mission statement, which centers around public interest law and helping disadvantaged communities. For the lawyers in the crowd, it is “objectively verifiable” that Palestinians are a disadvantaged community. Others protested that the BLF should not support anything controversial, as if race-based scholarships, or any public interest issue, are without opposition.

This whole scandal demonstrates the impact of Palestinians speaking up in a quiet and cheerful little elite institution. The law school is so accustomed to having no Palestinian presence that this whole debate has marginalized the two Palestinian students and several others who organized the talk. Not a single professor or student who agrees with the petition has talked to the organizers. They proceed as if these troublemaking Palestinians are a nuisance who upset the delicate state of silence that kept supporters of Israel at home at Boalt. How else could they formulate the elaborate opinions that fill their offices and e-mails without even talking to the people who brought the speaker?

At a BLF meeting, a board member who voted against endorsing Jeenah’s talk said that they considered Boalt Hall a “safe haven” from criticism of Israel on the main campus. This captured everything, completely. This whole controversy is about maintaining that safe haven, even if that means vilifying advocates of the Palestinian cause in such a way that discourages them from speaking out again.

What they fail to understand is that all these silencing tactics are like water off a duck’s back. The Palestinian narrative runs on truth and important universal principles, not the wealth and prestige of its adherents. Supporters of Israel are too quick to sacrifice their rational faculties as Israel’s discourse of operating with an enlightened security imperative crumbles, and the dissonance between supporting Israel and claiming to be progressive comes to the fore.

WILL YOUMANS is a third year law student at UC-Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. He can be reached at: youmans@boalthall.berkeley.edu.