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‘Cockroach’ as anti-Arab Slur and other Narrative Creations

Two Claremont Colleges conducted investigations: Pitzer exonerated its Students for Justice in Palestine members and pilloried a Jewish Israeli faculty member from the other school, while Claremont Mckenna found the Pitzer students and the faculty member behaved poorly.

Najib Hamideh and other Students for Justice in Palestine bar students entry to Claremont McKenna College cafeteria in "Israeli checkpoint street theater demonstration," March 4, 2013

Najib Hamideh and other Students for Justice in Palestine bar students entry to Claremont McKenna College cafeteria in "Israeli checkpoint street theater demonstration," March 4, 2013

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A recent article in The Jewish Press laid out the framework of a March 4 clash between a student who had been involved in a street theater demonstration – a “mock Israeli checkpoint” – and a Jewish professor.  What could have been merely a tense situation became toxic largely because the professor is Israeli and the student is an Arab Palestinian.

The sensationalized news hook was that the professor called the student “a f[expletive deleted] cockroach.” As some also reported, the professor said his inappropriate language was provoked by the student saying to him, “I will hunt you down.”

Facts that are only now coming to light suggest that there is more – and maybe less – to the story. Working carefully through the details reveals important facts about the way anti-Israel groups act and are treated on American college campuses today.

The goal of the anti-Israel student demonstration, led by the Students for Justice in Palestine, was to show how abusive and intimidating the Israeli Defense Force is for Arabs who have to go through checkpoints.  The SJP students played the role of the “bad guys,” the IDF soldiers, and the Claremont colleges students trying to enter the dining hall were forced into the role of Arabs passing through the SJP’s idea of Israeli checkpoints.  Those students were subjected to a gauntlet of students dressed in combat fatigues, standing shoulder to shoulder, demanding that identification before being allowed in to Claremont McKenna’s Collins Dining Hall.

This “street theater” demonstration was only one of several Claremont SJP’s Israeli Apartheid Week events for the day.  An earlier one allegedly involved blocking the entrance to a Pitzer classroom building.  One person who refused to be named or to participate in this article claimed that the SJP students yelled “F[expletive deleted] off Jews!” to Hillel students who tried to enter the building.

The Jewish students who encountered the SJP “checkpoint” outside of CMC’s dining hall were overwhelmed.  Several began to cry, and one of them sought out the help of an Israeli CMC economics professor.

The professor went to the site of the demonstration.  He did not attempt to shut it down, but instead sought to have the demonstrators move from in front of the doorway, so that the students could enter the dining hall without having to participate in the SJP enforced role-playing. The SJP students initially moved from the doorway and removed the ropes they had put up, but soon after they moved back into position.

The blow-up occurred when Yaron Raviv, the Jewish Israeli economics professor, and one of the lead SJP students, Najib Hamideh, had a nasty verbal exchange.  Exactly what was said, in which order, remains in dispute.

Raviv claims that as he walked away from the SJP demonstration towards an arriving public safety officer whom he had summoned because the demonstrators were blocking the entrance, Hamideh came after him, demanding that the professor produce his ID. When the professor finally took out his CMC identification to show it to the public safety officer, the student exclaimed,

“You are faculty! I will hunt you down!”

The professor, feeling provoked, foolishly responded, “You are a f[expletive deleted] little cockroach.”

To which the student said, according to Raviv, “Now I’ve got you.”

Hearing the student say this, the professor says he realized he had a problem, and left the area after telling the Jewish student who had originally sought his assistance that the public safety officer would handle the problem going  forward.

The student’s version is that the professor tried repeatedly to shut down the demonstration, that the demonstration was orderly and that he had been very polite towards the professor.  Hamideh claims he came up to Raviv as the professor approached the public safety officer whom Raviv had called.  He also claims that he was only concerned that there was someone he didn’t know on the campus, and so he asked the professor for his identification, and then, with no provocation, Raviv called him a f[expletive deleted] cockroach and referred to all the Pitzer students as cockroaches.

THE COLLEGE INVESTIGATIONS AND REPORTS

The entire incident, from the beginning of the “street theater” demonstration until the crowd cleared, occurred in the general area of Claremont McKenna’s Collins Dining Hall.  Accordingly, CMC has jurisdiction to decide what happened, and in particular whether the demonstration violated any of the Claremont Colleges’ rules.

CMC’s Dean of Students, Mary Spellman, conducted an investigation during the course of which 11 witnesses were interviewed including several SJP students, the Dining Hall manager, the public safety officer, Raviv, Hamideh and several others. The CMC review also included a number of relevant documents.

On April 19, Pamela Gann, president of Claremont McKenna College, released the results of CMC’s review which found that: (1) The professor’s conduct was inappropriate and below the standards of CMC behavior, but given the context and everything that had transpired, his behavior did not constitute harassment.  (2) The SJP demonstration violated the CMC and 5C Demonstrations Policies.  Both bar “actions in which there is a deliberate disruption or an impedance of access to regular activities of the College or of the College Community, including those which restrict free movement on the campus. (3) The faculty member had not inappropriately interfered with the demonstration and had not tried to shut down the demonstration.

Although these are the findings by the college with jurisdiction, the public narrative is a very different one. That is due to a publicity campaign instigated almost immediately after the event, one that continues to this day, not only by the SJP students, but by a Pitzer faculty member who reframed the incident as one in which the CMC professor’s statement was recast as viciously racist, that the CMC professor had engaged in a blatant effort to violate the “free speech rights” of the SJP students, that the SJP students had not “blocked” the CMC dining entrance, and that CMC is a biased, anti-Arab Palestinian institution.

The Pitzer professor, Dan Segal, became the “faculty advocate” to Hamideh, but in addition to acting as a supportive adviser, he affirmatively and immediately re-framed the incident  and “informed” the Pitzer faculty of that narrative.  As a faculty advocate Segal was bound by confidentiality rules governing internal investigations. But Segal instead chose to aggressively promote his version of the narrative to other faculty members, to students and to the media.  His version of the incident was delivered through emails to Pitzer faculty and to other media outlets, as well as in emails and telephone conversations with this reporter.

The narrative promoted by Segal, and less aggressively by the SJP students, was that the March 4 incident was about two things only: the effort to restrict free speech and the racist verbal assault of an Arab student by an Israeli professor.

Dan Segal was not present at the demonstration and only learned about what happened there several hours later, from the SJP students.  He learned about it after yet another Claremont Israeli Apartheid Week event that evening, a special showing of the anti-Israel film “5 Broken Cameras.”  This film and its relevance to this incident will be the subject of a later article in this series.

According to Segal, and therefore what appeared in most of the media accounts, was that what happened on March 4 was that: a “staunch Zionist” Jewish Israeli professor intentionally interfered with, and tried to block the free speech rights of pro-Arab Palestinian students at a pre-approved demonstration at CMC; that Prof. Raviv’s exclamation to Najib Hamideh was a racist slur; and that CMC is biased against Arabs .  Finally, Segal inspired other Pitzer faculty members to express outrage that Claremont McKenna had focused on whether the SJP students violated CMC’s policy on demonstrations, rather than focusing on a “staunch Zionist’s” racist attack on students exercising their free speech rights.

When asked by The Jewish Press why he described Raviv as a “staunch Zionist,” Segal responded: “because [Raviv] served in the Israeli military.”

Segal stated as fact things about which he had no independent basis, discussed the incident with outside media before and during the interview process, and also released to outsiders documents that were part of the investigation process.  He also sought and provided information about Pitzer’s internal investigation from Jim Marchant, Pitzer Vice President for Student Affairs, information that probably should have remained confidential, but which at the very least is or should be embarrassing to Pitzer.

Other than Pitzer’s Dan Segal, no one from either Claremont McKenna or Pitzer would discuss with this reporter any of the confidential aspects of the investigation or provide any of the relevant documents.

But Segal was very eager to share.  His eagerness to be an advocate to Hamideh was undoubtedly motivated by his very real perception that evil Zionists are out to demonize Arab students and deprive them of their constitutional rights, and that Claremont McKenna College is a “biased institution” which issued a “materially misleading” report.

Eventually, CMC informed Segal that he could not continue to serve as Hamideh’s faculty advocate because CMC found Segal had violated confidentiality requirements outlined in the CMC Handbook, Section IV, p. 5. That revocation was contested by Segal and  outside legal counsel providing assistance, the Center for Constitutional Rights.  The CCR also provided legal assistance to the SJP students who inappropriately removed Jewish pro-Israel students from a February Brooklyn College BDS event.  That removal may have constituted constitutional violations of the rights of the students who were expelled.

The only way for an outsider to determine what happened at the March 4 SJP mock checkpoint demonstration was to listen to Segal and to read the public statements issued by the two colleges, following investigations each conducted.  The Jewish Press was also able to speak with Yaron Raviv, the CMC faculty member, but he would not share anything while the investigation was ongoing, nor would he share any emails or documents that were labeled “confidential.”

Shortly after CMC issued its review and findings, Hamideh filed a formal grievance against Raviv with CMC.  On May 7, CMC rejected the grievance, allegedly because Hamideh was unwilling to abide by the confidentiality requirements of the CMC grievance process.

PITZER’S INVESTIGATION AND CONSIDERATION OF RAVIV’S GRIEVANCE

Pitzer College also undertook an investigation.  In an April 26 letter to the Pitzer College Community, Pitzer President Laura Skandera Trombley revealed that Pitzer’s findings were very different from CMC’s. Trombley honed in on the only undisputed fact – that Raviv used inappropriate language (which he had readily and repeatedly admitted) – but rejected any allegation of inappropriate conduct either by Hamideh in particular or the SJP demonstrators as a whole.

Pitzer concluded that the SJP students did not violate the demonstration policy because the students were asked to move three times, and after each time, they moved.  Trombley acknowledged that Pitzer’s findings differ from those of CMC.

Indeed.  CMC found a violation of the policy because not once, not twice, but three separate times the SJP students violated the demonstration policy against blocking freedom of movement, and Pitzer’s response was the equivalent of “why, yes, but each time you asked us to stop beating our wife we did, so we’re not guilty.”

Trombley also informed the community that Pitzer Vice President for Student Affairs Jim Marchant rejected a grievance filed by Prof. Raviv because he “determined that there was no merit to the complaint based on his investigation of the incident.”

But Raviv was not included in either Pitzer’s investigation or during Marchant’s consideration of Raviv’s grievance.  When Segal – someone who is extremely focused on process – sometimes – was asked about this anomaly, he told The Jewish Press, “that can’t be right.”

Segal said he would ask his “good friend” Jim Marchant about this issue.  Segal then contacted The Jewish Press to explain that Marchant said he “did not need to speak with Raviv” about Raviv’s grievance because Marchant “had already heard what Raviv had to say during the CMC investigation.” What?  Is that an impartial investigation by a college administrator?

Dan Segal was also happy to share a written document from the public safety officer who arrived on the scene of the March 4 demonstration after Raviv called him.  That document shows that the officer heard Raviv call Hamideh a f[expletive deleted] cockroach, and did not hear the student say anything to Raviv, and the officer did not see the SJP students blocking the dining hall doorway.  In isolation, it certainly seems to support Segal and the SJP’s version of what happened.

But CMC concluded, after speaking with the public safety officer and with others present during the critical times, times during which the public safety officer was not present, that the SJP students did – several times – block the doorway to the dining hall.  Either CMC made this determination ignoring the testimony of anyone other than Raviv or they didn’t.

But there are other parts of the Segal/SJP narrative that are difficult to accept.

First, is is difficult to believe that Hamideh left the demonstration and went after Raviv as he approached the public safety officer because, as he claimed, it was after 5:00 and Hamideh did not recognize Raviv and wanted to make sure he was someone allowed to be on campus.  First, the incident took place at CMC and Hamideh is not a CMC student, so it is not surprising that Hamideh did not recognize him. More importantly, why would Hamideh consider it his responsibility to determine whether Raviv should be present at CMC, given that Raviv was at that very moment approaching a Claremont public safety officer?

Secondly, one of the biggest issues repeatedly made in the SJP/Segal narrative is that Raviv made a racist remark.  In an effort to show that Raviv used “cockroach” because it is a racist slur against Arab Palestinians, the advocates of this theory had to go back to 1982 to find a time when an Israeli used the term to refer to Arabs.  One example.  From more than 30 years ago.

Perhaps more importantly, while Raviv’s background is obvious as soon as he opens his mouth – his Israeli accent is very strong – Hamideh neither looks Middle Eastern nor has any accent. Raviv claims he had no idea the student was anything but American.

Further to this point, in his original description of what Raviv said, Hamideh claimed Raviv also referred to all Pitzer students as cockroaches.  If that is the case, and since only a tiny percentage of Pitzer students are of Arab descent, then Raviv certainly was not using the term cockroach as a negative term for Arab Palestinians.

Segal’s succcessful efforts to incite his colleagues against Raviv for using the word “cockroach” yielded lots of support that it is a negative term, a prominent one on the “othering” scale, but none made a connection between that term and Arab Palestinians.

Unless Raviv knew Hamideh was an Arab Palestinian, and only if the term “cockroach” was a term regularly used to refer to Arab Palestinians, Raviv’s poor judgment in cursing at a student could not rise to the level of racial harassment either under current law or in the Claremont Colleges handbook.  For Segal and the SJP students and others to repeatedly suggest otherwise is at best disingenuous, and itself might constitute slander under California law.

Segal/SJP’s effort to cast the March 4 incident as an example of an effort to deny “free speech” rights to Arab Palestinians also falls short: even the Pitzer report which found fault only with Raviv and none with SJP or Hamideh, did not find that Raviv attempted to shut down the SJP’s “street theater” demonstration. And the CMC report which found fault with both Raviv and SJP found that Raviv had not improperly interfered with the demonstration.

Finally, both Pitzer and the SJP students make much of the fact that the students met with CMC’s dean of students and obtained permission to stage the “mock Israeli checkpoint” demonstration as evidence of good faith and good performance.  But obtaining permission for the demonstration in advance does not immunize bad behavior which violates the policy at even a pre-approved demonstration.

WHO STANDS UP FOR WHOM AND WHEN

The last issue that warrants mention regarding the circumstances surrounding the March 4 SJP mock Israeli checkpoint demonstration and its aftermath has to do with who stands up for whom and when.

Although this reporter has concluded that Hamideh’s faculty advocate went beyond what was appropriate given his role, and that he affirmatively sought to influence public perception of what happened on March 4, Segal’s dedication to Hamideh’s perspective and narrative is impressive.

Sadly, the same cannot be said about the people whose experience of the SJP demonstration was so painful that several were crying and one went to seek the assistance of a Jewish Israeli professor.

Until the Jewish student contacted him, on March 4, while the SJP checkpoint demonstration was taking place, Yaron Raviv was sitting in his office grading papers.  When the student sought his help, Raviv immediately agreed to go see what was going on, but the student disappeared as Raviv approached the demonstration, too fearful to be seen with the professor.  Although that student and several other of the complainants participated in the CMC investigation, none would come forward and speak with this reporter although contact was made after the CMC investigation was completed.

To publicly tar a university professor as racist is not only insulting, it may be dangerous.  How much more so when the professor is a Jewish Israeli, the student is of Arab Palestinian descent, and the university is in, of all places, California.

And yet none of the students who sought Raviv’s assistance were willing to speak about the incident, even when those who opposed him raised their voices loud and clear in all kinds of public ways.  The professor was left, isolated and harassed, with no one to corroborate what he had to say, not even the student on whose behalf he became involved in the first place.

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About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.


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3 Responses to “‘Cockroach’ as anti-Arab Slur and other Narrative Creations”

  1. John Keytack says:

    The heading for this post is misleading. Calling an arab or a muslim a cockroach isn’t necessarily an anti-arab slur. The professor might have called anyone that under similar circumstances. For example, if someone from refers to Andrew Cuomo as human vermin that doesn’t mean it’s an anti-Italian or anti-Catholic slur.

  2. Lori Lowenthal Marcus says:

    That’s the point, John. It isn’t an anti-Arab slur, but the SJP students and Prof. Segal need to twist it into one in order to claim Raviv was being racist and not just inappropriate by losing his temper and cursing at a student.

  3. Chernasky says:

    The greatest pity is the craven behavior of the Jewish students who lacked the beitzim to force their way through these punks; ran to “daddy,”and then didn’t have the self respect to support him. “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and appeared so to them.”

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