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Injustices against Palestinian students go unreported

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MARCH 20, 2015

Update: The screenshots included in this letter to the editor have been updated to redact names.

Cal Students for Justice in Palestine, or Cal SJP, has been the target of harassment and racism in the wake of two major protests, carried out as part of annual Israeli Apartheid Week activities raising awareness on campus about the plight of Palestinians. The perpetrators of this harassment include a campus leader, one whose name The Daily Californian refuses to publish — a chilling reminder of the impunity with which pro-Palestinian students are intimidated and suppressed on this and other campuses.

On the morning of Feb. 23, more than 600 Berkeley students received mock eviction notices as part of a peaceful protest by Cal SJP. The flyers were slipped under every door on every floor of all buildings in the Unit 2 residence halls, with the exception of a single floor in one building, where the interruption of a resident adviser prevented us from exercising our right to free expression. The flyers were clearly marked as fake, with “This is not a real eviction notice” written at the bottom of the notice.

As we noted in our press release, the flyers called attention to the real eviction notices Palestinians in the occupied territories receive from the Israeli military as part of the Israeli government’s policy of expelling Palestinians from their land in order to build ethnically exclusive settlements, an ongoing project of ethnic cleansing that has seen some 27,000 Palestinian homes demolished since 1967.

Two days later, on Feb. 25, Cal SJP set up a mock wall and checkpoint reenactment in front of Sather Gate. Israel’s 25-foot-high wall, complete with electric barbed-wire fencing, runs through West Bank villages and farmlands and was ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice. Israel also maintains hundreds of transportation checkpoints in the West Bank, which allow Israeli settlers to pass freely while Palestinians can be detained for hours or even days.

Over several hours, actors playing Israeli soldiers, Israeli settlers and Palestinians repeated a short but powerful scene offering UC Berkeley students a glimpse of the systematic abuse and discrimination Palestinians face on a daily basis.

During the protest, a man arguing with a Palestinian student asked the student why the average Palestinian wants to blow himself up on a bus. The comment was witnessed by several students. This man was later identified by students present, but the Daily Cal did not allow us to print his name.

In a separate event, another SJP member received an anonymous harassing phone call that included a series of statements conflating SJP with the Palestinian resistance organization Hamas, with which SJP is no way affiliated. This call ended with an unsettling and unambiguous threat: “You better shut down, you’re next.” It is not difficult to see how a recent campaign on college campuses across the country by the David Horowitz Freedom Center — in which large posters were hung up blaming SJP for violence perpetrated by Hamas with the label “#JewHaters” — feeds this sort of violent animosity.

Targeted harassment of individuals affiliated with SJP is nothing new. Even in the weeks before our events (when the club hadn’t been active for months), one of our members received threatening and Islamophobic emails from someone unapologetic enough in his bigotry to use his real name. These emails included violent messages and highly offensive cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. It didn’t seem to matter to the author of these messages that they were sent to one of several Jewish members of Cal SJP.

That Palestinians and pro-Palestine students should be on the receiving end of racist and Islamophobic messages is certainly bad enough and demands a firm public response from the UC Berkeley administration that has yet to come. But the most scandalous abuse is surely that a campus leader was witnessed on campus spewing such a blatantly racist stereotype — and to the face, at that, of a Palestinian student with reason to fear reprisal from the Israeli government should he or she come forward.

That leader is not the only prominent public figure in the Bay Area promoting bigotry. Andy David, Israel’s consul general to the Pacific Northwest, recently spoke about the 2013 Israeli divestment vote here at UC Berkeley: “I was at an evening of the student senate at Berkeley before the vote there. It’s a senate of 20 students and there were at least two women with hijabs. Muslims aren’t 10 percent of the students at Berkeley, but they’re gaining control of the committees.” Imagine the justified outrage and shouts of anti-Semitism that would occur if a prominent Bay Area Muslim figure accused Jewish students of unfairly “gaining control” of student government at UC Berkeley.

After this onslaught of bigotry and harassment, originating not only from Internet trolls but also from campus leaders and respected foreign diplomats, members of Cal SJP (including the authors of this op-ed) visited the Daily Cal office. We arranged a meeting with two news editors to highlight serious flaws in the way the paper has reported on SJP. We hoped that, at the very least, the paper could do some reporting on the harassment described above, as well as publish an op-ed from club members about what happened.

At the meeting, the two editors were extremely receptive to what we had to say. They acknowledged previous errors in Daily Cal reporting with respect to SJP and committed to raising the issues we highlighted with Daily Cal staff. They also acknowledged the importance of highlighting the abuse faced by SJP members, especially given that a widely respected campus leader was implicated. They stressed that reporting from Daily Cal staff would be necessary to correctly frame the issue and give the story the attention it deserved. They also said they would be able to publish an op-ed we had written. We cannot stress enough how appreciative we were of these editors, who spent more than an hour with us, diligently taking notes and recording what we had to say — we left fully confident that the Daily Cal would call attention to the near-constant bigotry and harassment faced by Muslim and Middle Eastern students.

The following day, we received these text messages from one of the editors we had met with:

text mesages


From these text messages, we understood that the Daily Cal’s managing editor believed that harassing emails aren’t newsworthy because the perpetrator isn’t affiliated with the campus. The allegations against the prominent campus leader, corroborated by eyewitnesses who spoke to Daily Cal editors, are dismissed because they wouldn’t make for a “long” enough story. The other examples we brought to Daily Cal editors, complete with documentation, were apparently just ignored. This does not appear to be a decision made by the editors we met with, who were and continue to be incredibly supportive, but rather a top-down decision by the managing editor.

These standards for what is newsworthy might come as a shock to frequent readers of the Daily Cal, who have seen recent stories about a Berkeley school breaking a record for the most people dressed up like Albert Einstein or about a board game cafe opening in North Berkeley this summer. Clear evidence of an open culture of racism targeting Muslim and Middle Eastern students isn’t as newsworthy as 300 little Einsteins! As for length, five recent articles in the Daily Cal “News” section were 463, 442, 446, 449 and 456 words long. It seems the managing editor only has staff write short stories, as long as they don’t call attention to issues affecting certain students. By saying all of this isn’t enough for a news story, the Daily Cal is unwittingly demonstrating just how pervasive and accepted anti-Muslim bigotry is at UC Berkeley and beyond.

When we followed up with the opinion editor at the Daily Cal, we learned that she would not even print our accusation against the campus leader — even in an op-ed — because the claim was “libelous and unverifiable.” We find it interesting that the claim is “libelous,” given that it was witnessed by many students, several of whom are willing to go on the record to confirm it. We also find it interesting that the Daily Cal deems the accusation “unverifiable,” given that at the time, the Daily Cal wouldn’t expend an ounce of energy reporting on the claim to try to verify it. Asking him for comment would have been a good place to start.

Possibly even more disturbing was the opinion editors’ initial refusal to print the italicized section of the following sentence, again claiming that it, too, was “libelous and unverifiable”:

The flyers called attention to the real eviction notices Palestinians in the Occupied Territories receive from the Israeli military as part of the Israeli government’s policy of expelling Palestinians from their land in order to build ethnically-exclusive settlements, an ongoing project of ethnic cleansing that has seen some 27,000 Palestinian homes demolished since 1967.

It is beyond shocking that the Daily Cal refused to print this, given that this is precisely how former United Nations special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights Richard Falk characterizes the systematic demolition of Palestinian homes in the occupied territories. This isn’t a controversial opinion but rather a statement of fact according to international law.

After receiving these appalling texts and emails, we went to speak with the Daily Cal editor in chief and the opinion editor. We were repeatedly reassured that these messages didn’t mean what they clearly meant and that stories do not have to be a certain length to be worthy of publication. They also promised us, despite continuing to decline to report on them, that the email and phone threats against us were viewed by Daily Cal staff as newsworthy. They continued to refuse to print our accusation against the prominent campus leader, repeating the unfounded claim that it was libelous. Editors did, however, finally promise to actually contact him for comment. We commend Daily Cal staff for at least speaking with the person in question. While he contested the specific phrasing and context of the quote attributed to him and while the Daily Cal still won’t print his name, we appreciate that he was held to at least this minimum level of accountability and that the Daily Cal viewed the accusations as serious enough to actually warrant its attention. Maybe he will be more sensitive when speaking to Palestinian students from now on in order to avoid another call from the Daily Cal.

The editor in chief told us she would look into why they deemed “the Israeli government’s policy of expelling Palestinians from their lands in order to build ethnically exclusive settlements” unverifiable. It is easily verifiable that not a single Palestinian citizen of Israel receives government subsidies to settle on occupied land in the West Bank. As Israel’s ruling coalition acknowledges (and, in fact, campaigns on), ethnic exclusivity is, indeed, the point of the settlements. The editor in chief also did not explain why a recently published Daily Cal op-ed — alleging that an international deal on Iran’s civilian nuclear program poses a “real and existential threat” to Israel — wasn’t held to the paper’s alleged editorial standard of verification.

While we still have no explanation for why fact-free op-eds from a certain side of the ideological spectrum are apparently not held to similar standards of verification, we did receive this message from the editor in chief Wednesday:

“After examining op-eds printed by other newspapers that used the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ specifically in reference to actions taken by Israel against Palestinians, we found there was precedent to print the phrase, and would run it in an op-ed.”

We wish Daily Cal staff would have originally agreed to print the phrase because it is an easily verifiable fact, but this is still a welcome change.

While the Daily Cal continues to show reluctance to report on bigotry faced by Palestinian students, it completely ignores the fact that the University of California currently invests in companies such as Caterpillar, which produces armored bulldozers used by the Israeli military to raze Palestinian homes in the West Bank, and Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the Hellfire missiles used by Israel to deliberately target Palestinians in Gaza.

For these reasons, Cal SJP will continue to vocally support the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it respects Palestinians’ human rights. The UC Student-Workers Union, the UC Student Assembly and seven of nine UC undergraduate senates have passed resolutions calling for divestment from companies complicit in the occupation, but the UC regents continue to ignore students’ voices. It would be much more difficult for the UC regents to ignore the clear consensus of the UC student body if the Daily Cal and other campus newspapers amplified voices supportive of Palestinian rights, instead of dismissing them as not being newsworthy.

While we are disappointed with the leadership of the Daily Cal for the reasons outlined above, we recognize that the Daily Cal isn’t the only institution responsible for shaping campus culture and policy. The administration has a chance to make good on its recent commitment to creating safe spaces for Middle Eastern and Muslim students by investigating and condemning racist harassment targeting SJP members, including harassment by a leader at the top level of the campus community. The UC Berkeley student senate, the ASUC, has taken well-publicized steps recently to combat anti-Semitism at UC Berkeley in response to an anonymous act of anti-Semitism at UC Davis. Cal SJP hopes administrators, student government representatives and the campus press will take similar steps to combat the clear pattern of public bigotry against Middle Eastern and Muslim students here at UC Berkeley.

— Kumars Salehi and David McCleary,

graduate students at UC Berkeley and members of Cal SJP

Editor’s Note: The Daily Californian is committed to reporting on issues at UC Berkeley and in the Berkeley community through our articles, photos and videos and by furthering conversation on these issues in our opinion section. In all of our coverage, we aim to be fair, accurate and thorough. This applies to everything we publish, including op-eds and letters to the editor. Opinion submissions are reviewed and edited in conjunction with the authors prior to publication.

In the case of the opinion piece submitted by two members of Cal Students for Justice in Palestine, or Cal SJP, a pro-Palestine advocacy organization, a quote the authors attributed to an individual associated with the campus could not be verified. Later, we confirmed that the individual contested the quote and the context in which it was said. The Daily Cal said the sentence needed to be removed before publication. After we informed the authors of our edits, they initially opted not to run the piece.

When SJP members contested another edit and said it should be reconsidered, we looked into the matter further and ultimately decided the phrase could be printed.

I have met with SJP members multiple times to hear their concerns about the Daily Cal’s coverage and institutional practices. For instance, an SJP member alerted us to the fact that no photo was attached to coverage of an SJP event two weeks ago. In fact, a photo of the event had been taken and, while the photo was cropped, edited and uploaded to our website the night of the event, it was not attached to the article by mistake. Once I was alerted to the oversight, the photo was attached.

SJP members had another concern about our news reporting policies after they received text messages from the news department that stated that the reason we would not write a particular story was because it was not “long enough” and that we could not write a story because one of the subjects of the story was not connected to the campus. Neither are reasons that we would not run a story. We believe that our coverage of SJP has been fitting of our journalistic standards, but we do not believe that the text messages reflect our overall philosophy or values.

When community members approach us with concerns about our coverage or institutional practices, we work to answer every concern in a complete and timely manner. We welcome comments about our coverage, and when errors occur in publication, we investigate them promptly and thoroughly.

We value hearing from our readers and take the feedback you provide seriously. We remain committed to serving the Berkeley community and writing about the most important issues. If there are any concerns or articles that you, our readers, would like us to know about, please email me at [email protected].

— Chloe Hunt,

editor in chief and president

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.

MARCH 20, 2015