Resist Congressional efforts to silence free speech on Palestine

Editor’s Note: The following statement is from the Rutgers Faculty for Justice in Palestine chapter in response to a letter from U.S. Representative Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, criticizing Rutgers University for creating “a pervasive climate of antisemitism,” and an alleged “failure to protect Jewish students.” The Foxx letter is part of a nationwide effort to silence campus Palestine solidarity activists and limit progressive pedagogy on Palestine.

U.S. Representative Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, sent a letter on March 27 to officials at Rutgers University castigating “senior administrators, faculty, staff, academic departments and centers, and student organizations” for creating “a pervasive climate of antisemitism,” and an alleged “failure to protect Jewish students.” 

This letter is a small part of a larger assault on progressive pedagogy and activism at college campuses which is currently sweeping the country. The House Committee, aiming to silence campus supporters of Palestine, has already targeted some of the nation’s most high-profile private universities and is now turning its attention to public institutions, starting with Rutgers University.

The Rutgers Faculty for Justice in Palestine (FJP) chapter emphatically rejects this transparent attempt to defame growing support for Palestinian rights at Rutgers and across the country as anti-Jewish. We affirm, moreover, our steadfast support for the Rutgers faculty and students who have been maliciously targeted by Foxx in her letter — including Professors Noura Erakat and Sahar Aziz, the Center for Security, Race, and Rights (CSRR), Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and others — and call on all Rutgers faculty, staff and alumni, and, above all, administrators to resist this blatant attempt to silence free speech and curtail academic freedom at New Jersey’s flagship university.

The 14-page letter fails to supply any evidence to support its underlying claim of “pervasive antisemitism” at Rutgers. Instead, it amounts to a diatribe against constitutionally-protected speech: namely, critiques of and opposition to persistent Zionist racism, dispossession, and blatant disregard for Palestinian life that began before 1948, and continued during the Nakba (“Catastrophe,” in Arabic), when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes. These critiques include opposition to the current Israeli genocide in and ethnic cleansing of Gaza, which UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese has correctly designated “an escalatory stage of a long-standing settler colonial process of erasure.”

Unable to refute these critiques, enablers of the Israeli state – condemned by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and B’Tselem as an apartheid regime – are increasingly determined to silence Israel’s critics altogether through smears and specious definitions of antisemitism. This, not protection of Jewish members of the Rutgers community, is the real aim of Rep. Foxx’s intervention.  

Rep. Foxx’s absurd letter would be easy to dismiss were it not so dangerous to academic freedom and free speech. Her slanderous attacks, along with her demand that the university turn over, among other documentation, “Posts by Rutgers students, faculty, staff, and other university affiliates on social media platforms” calling out “Israelis, Israel, Zionists, or Zionism” should send chills down the spine of all defenders of civil liberties.

It should be noted that Rep. Foxx’s reactionary fixations extend beyond Palestine. An open admirer of segregationist Senator Jesse Helms, in 2021 she called on the U.S. Department of Education to denounce critical race theory (CRT) urging that CRT “and related policies and materials should not be referenced, referred, or recommended to any students, teachers, or educational agencies.” In 2022 Foxx voted against the Respect for Marriage Act, which sought to codify same-sex and interracial marriage rights in federal law, and in 2019 she vehemently opposed the Equality Act, a bill that sought to extend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include bans on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Indeed, Rep. Foxx’s letter to Rutgers administration is but one episode in the broader propaganda assault on higher education activism and critical pedagogy. Those leading this effort are prepared to use any pretext, no matter how small or even manufactured, to preserve the power of privileged groups in the face of growing pushback from marginalized and oppressed communities.

Rutgers President Holloway must refuse to cooperate with Rep. Foxx’s McCarthyite witch hunt. The university cannot declare that “All members of our community enjoy the rights of free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment” while caving to outside   pressure to crush dissent. It cannot claim to deplore “all forms of racism” while complying with an inquisition against those who decry Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians (“human animals,” in the words of Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant).

Rep. Foxx’s letter is a reaction to surging support for Palestine on college campuses across the country. In response, powerful pro-Israel partisans – in both parties – are trying to intimidate and muzzle Palestine advocates, through both outright suppression and pressure to self-censor. Rutgers FJP, part of a national network of over 80 chapters, condemns these attacks on our protected speech and on our support for a free Palestine with equal rights for all. We not only have the right to condemn a genocide in which the U.S. is complicit; we are right to do so. We are proud to stand with growing numbers of Palestine supporters, including Jews, who will not be silenced—or silent.

On behalf of Rutgers Faculty for Justice in Palestine,

David Kurnick, Professor of English

Donna Murch, Associate Professor of History, Chapter President of the Rutgers New Brunswick AAUP AFT and member of the National Executive Council of the AAUP AFT

Judith Surkis, Professor of History


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