Hyper-politicized college student programs dealing with the Middle East these days often end up as actual or virtual shoving matches between two ideological camps: those that support Israel and those that denounce her. Questions about ideology — is Israel defending itself from terrorists or murdering innocent children — morph into questions about whether the Israel’s campus advocates, or Israel’s campus enemies, were the ones to curse, hit, shove, or obstruct, or the ones to lie about some or all of the above.
We saw this recently at Brooklyn College, where four Jewish pro-Israel students were booted from a speech sponsored by a public university on the demand of a single twenty-something advocate for economic and political warfare against Israel. That (non) Student for Justice in Palestine organizer had been given control of the event, the room where it took place, and the university’s entire security apparatus.
Alone among a raft of public security and university faculty and administration, this one man claimed the Jewish students had been disruptive and had to be, and were, removed. The claims of allegedly aggressive Jews attempting to stifle debate and bar academic freedom become merged with claims of aggressive Israeli soldiers impeding innocents at Middle East checkpoints.
That story only fell apart, and the university was only forced to abandon its initial blame of the pro-Israel students — and to agree that they’d done nothing wrong — after a tape of the event surfaced that made it impossible to believe the version put out by the anti-Israel partisans. Only then did a university “investigation” follow, which concluded the Jewish students had been wrongfully ejected from the public event, which was a publicly funded call for the boycott of Israeli products. Your tax dollars at work.
Another story is now unfolding in California, where another public attack on Israel precipitated contradictory accounts of improper conduct by Israel’s advocates and enemies.
Because what happened on the ground so quickly and so often becomes grist for the ideological mill of Israel’s enemies, it’s worth bearing down to determine as clearly as possible what really happened, why, and whether it provides any guidance for how to handle future events. There will be many more. This case is also instructive for seeing who rallies to which side, and why.
This is the first article in a series looking at a specific incident that took place at Claremont McKenna College in California, and how and whether it is possible to tease out what happened and why.
The players include several perfect archetypes, and the situation is a classic one: Anti-Israel students engage in “street theater,” mimicking brutal, oppressive Israel Defense Forces soldiers. The victims, pro-Israel students, are traumatized and believe themselves unable to stand up for themselves. In this case a pro-Israel student goes to an Israeli professor seeking his help. The professor is annoyed by the street theater, is provoked by the anti-Israel students, and bad things happen, including claims by the anti-Israel students that their free speech rights were violated.
This article will lay out the basic facts, as best as they can be discerned. Subsequent articles will look at how each school made a determination about what happened, what evidence was made available, how much outside “information” played a role, and what, if anything, can be learned from this case.
PART ONE: MARCH 4, 2013
Jewish Israeli professor Yaron Raviv, walked up to a peaceful Students for Justice in Palestine “street theater mock Israeli checkpoint” demonstration at Claremont McKenna College. The professor had been watching the demonstration for awhile. He then approached the demonstrators and told them they weren’t allowed to perform and they had to leave. The professor then tried to get other school officials to shut down the pre-approved demonstration.
A kefiyah-clad Arab Palestinian student, Najib Hamideh, politely asked the professor to show his identification (it was after 5:00, and he was concerned about a visitor on campus without permission), the professor turns on him, calls him a “f[expletive deleted] little cockroach,” asked where the student goes to school, then says all students from that school are cockroaches. The professor then showed the public safety officer his school ID, and then the professor left.
The word “cockroach” is a racial slur, according to the student and his advocates, either because it’s what Israelis call Arab Palestinians, or because “language gets meaning from context” and cockroach is a disgraceful, dehumanizing term, especially when used by a Jewish Israeli professor about an Arab Palestinian student.
That’s one version of an incident that took place at Claremont McKenna College on March 4. It’s the one told by the demonstrators, the Students for Justice in Palestine.
Here’s the other version, the one told by the professor:
A professor, Yaron Raviv, gets a call from a Jewish student asking for help because student protesters pretending to be thuggish IDF soldiers are blocking the cafeteria and intimidating anyone who wants to pass through, demanding other students first show their school ID cards. The professor goes to investigate, sees students in camouflage standing shoulder to shoulder in front of the main entrance to the cafeteria, sees some other students handing out flyers, and sees students on the side crying. When the students insist the professor show his ID, he refuses and goes inside, and tells the dining hall manager that the students can protest but not block the entrance.
The dining hall manager tells the students to move, and initially they do, but as soon as the manager goes inside they get back into formation, shoulder to shoulder, in front of the entrance. The professor calls the public safety office and goes outside to speak with an officer. While the professor is walking, one of the students, Najib Hamideh, dressed like an Israeli soldier, leaves the demonstration.
The student gets in the professor’s face and says, “Who are you? Are you a faculty here? Or a visitor? Show me your ID. If you are a visitor you cannot be on campus ground after 5pm.” The professor goes up to the officer, to whom he shows his ID, the student sees it and says to the professor, “oh, you’re faculty! I will hunt you down!”
With that, the professor, a Jewish Israeli, loses his cool and calls the student a “f[expletive deleted] little cockroach.”
The student gleefully responds: “oh, I’ve got you now!”
With that, the professor turns, goes over to the student who had originally sought his help, tells that student “the public safety officer will take over from now,” and walks away.
The versions diverge on several points: (1) did the demonstrators block the main entrance to the CMC cafeteria; (2) did the professor try to shut down a pre-approved, peaceful demonstration; (3) did the student say “I will hunt you down” before the professor called him a “f[expletive deleted little cockroach," if at all, and did the professor know that the student demonstrator was of Arab Palestinian heritage.
There have been several investigations of the incident. One investigation was conducted by Claremont McKenna College, the school at which the demonstration and the incident at issue occurred and at which the professor, Yaron Raviv, is a faculty member. A second investigation was conducted by Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont University 5 school Consortium. Most of the students involved in the "Israeli checkpoint street theater demonstration" on March 4 were Pitzer students, and the one involved in the confrontation at issue, Najib Hamideh, is a Pitzer junior.
The school officials have been completely closed-mouthed, referring reporters to their respective communications officers. The communications officers, in turn, refuse to say anything more than that they "stand by" the statement issued by each school upon the completion of their respective investigations.
And even more unfortunately, the investigations of the two schools concluded with conflicting factual findings, even though, presumably, the two schools were able to share any and all information, witnesses and documents, and both schools stated that they cooperated with each other.
The next article will look more closely at the different reviews and sets of findings, but the final review for Claremont McKenna found that: (1) Professor Raviv's language was inappropriate and unprofessional, but, given the context, did not constitute a violation of the school's harassment policy; (2) the SJP event was not in compliance with Claremont's Demonstrations Policy because the demonstrators blocked access to the cafeteria and impeded with students' freedom of movement; and (3) Prof. Raviv did not improperly interfere with or attempt to stop the event.
Pitzer College, however, found that (1) there was no violation of Claremont's Demonstrations Policy, and (2) the professor used inappropriate, insulting and hostile language against the student and there has not been a public apology.
Pitzer College's finding that the SJP students had not violated the demonstration policy nor done anything that was inappropriate because they moved each of the three times they were asked to do so.
Is there anyway to determine what actually happened? Is there a way to come to a conclusion about what is most likely to have occurred, one that isn't simply based on predilections for believing either a pro-Israel or a pro-Arab Palestinian point of view?
The different pieces of information, the veracity of those who testified or who are now talking about the incident and the bases for the differences in the findings of the two schools will be examined. But there are many other issues that should be considered.
How did the Israeli professor become involved? What is his background? Was he wise to intervene or, given the refusal of the pro-Israel students to speak up on his behalf after, according to him,even though he only became involved because they sought his help - that's worthy of attention.
How and why and what does it mean that a Jewish Pitzer professor has inserted himself into the incident, acting as an adviser and advocate for Hamideh. That's worthy of attention. Are his statements and revelations entirely trustworthy? What motivates him, how emblematic is he, who counters him on the other side?
What role did the film "5 Broken Cameras" play in this drama, and how is it playing out in other areas where it is shown? The SJP students watched a screening of the film just a few hours after the street theater demonstration, the Jewish Pitzer professor talked quite a bit about the film's significance, at least one college student reporter was influenced by the film and its impact infiltrated the interview she conducted with Raviv, shortly after the incident. The impact of this film on how the Arab-Israeli conflict is treated on campuses is another lens through which we will look.
To conclude this article, it is worth looking at a piece of objective evidence which puts into question one claim made by the student, and it is the basis for the allegation of racism against Prof. Raviv, something that he says has harmed him already.
Najib Hamideh claims that when Raviv called him a cockroach, that was a racial slur. Dan Segal, an anthropology professor at Pitzer and someone who had been acting as an advocate for Hamideh, insists the term is racist, because, as he told The Jewish Press, "calling a Palestinian student a cockroach, in this racially charged atmosphere, was racist, because language takes its meaning in context." Segal insisted that given that Raviv "is a staunch, uncritical defender of the state of Israel," his use of the word turns it into a dehumanizing and demeaning term.
But that argument only works at all if Raviv knew Hamideh was of Arab Palestinian descent. Raviv insists he did not have any idea what Hamideh's racial heritage was.
Segal insists Raviv had to know. Why? "Because," Segal told The Jewish Press, "the student identified as a Palestinian, he was at a pro-Palestinian event and he was wearing the scarf [keffiya]. Segal insisted, although he admitted not being present, that Hamideh was wearing a keffiya.
Raviv told The Jewish Press that Hamideh was definitely not wearing a keffiya. How can he be so sure?
“I know he wasn’t wearing a keffiya, for sure, for two reasons. One, the student was engaged in street theater pretending to be an IDF soldier, he was dressed as an IDF soldier, of course he was not wearing a keffiya. The second reason is that Raviv saw Hamideh at the event, and “he was not wearing the scarf, the keffiya.” A picture of Hamideh at the Israeli checkpoint demonstration is at the top of this article and below.
Najib Hamideh and other SJP students at Claremont McKenna College, after mock Israeli checkpoint demonstration, March 4, 2013