Opinion: Student power: Confronting collaborators and cowards at home and abroad

Asna Tabassum, a graduating senior at USC, was selected as valedictorian and offered a traditional slot to speak at the 2024 graduation. After on-and-off campus groups criticized the decision and the university said it received threats, it pulled her from the graduation speakers schedule. Tabassum was photographed on the USC campus on April 16.

Asna Tabassum, a graduating senior at USC, was selected as valedictorian and offered a traditional slot to speak at the 2024 graduation. After on-and-off campus groups criticized the decision and the university said it received threats, it pulled her from the graduation speakers schedule. Tabassum was photographed on the USC campus on April 16. Genaro Molina/ Los Angeles Times/ TNS


Published: 04-20-2024 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at robertazzitheother.substack.com

‘From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself,” Edward Said wrote in “Orientalism.” “Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.”

That refining fire of the Orientalist’s work, today fanned by increasingly ugly redefinitions of antisemitism to include everything that displeases Israel and its supporters, burns still across the American landscape.

Read: “Why the ADL is struggling to find its campus footing - The Anti-Defamation League’s new “report cards” scoring schools on antisemitism drew criticism from some of its partners.”

Today not only do Gaza and Palestine burn and crumble under the weight of American armaments but the freedom to speak freely against those horrors is itself under attack.

Today, I am tired of people not only saying they feel uncomfortable with the free speech being exercised by Americans demanding a ceasefire in Gaza and full rights for all Palestinians, but I am also tired of people trying to tell me what my own words mean, I am tired of them telling me that their free speech matters more than mine.

This week the Republican-led House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the chanting of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” alleging that the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is “antisemitic” and that its use must be condemned.

The disgusting nature of that resolution, amplified by the fact that NH Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas voted for it, is intolerable.

These are incredibly dangerous people and I for one am done with them — including with Democrats who choose, as Kuster and Pappas have done — to align themselves with a definition of antisemitism so broad as to try to limit the free speech rights of all Americans.

Indeed, as reported in the Forward, “The growing panic about antisemitism isn’t a reflection of reality: Yes, antisemitism is up — but prominent voices are confusing protest with bigotry.”

As I have written, “For myself, and for supporters of Palestinian dignity and rights, it is a means to call attention to the fact, as I interpret it, that between the [Jordan] River and the [Mediterranean] Sea Palestinians are being denied freedom, security, justice, equality...”

So weaponized has the attack on free speech become that Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, told me one morning, as I was listening to MSNBC’s Morning Joe, that the scarf I daily wear — a black and white checked Palestinian keffiyeh — is equivalent to my wearing a Nazi swastika. Greenblatt that morning painted a target on the back not only of every Arab American who wears the scarf, as I do, but on the back of every supporter of Palestinian rights, dignity, and freedom who have chosen to wear the scarf in solidarity with an oppressed and occupied people.

So weaponized have these attacks become that at schools like Phillips Exeter Academy and Concord Academy, universities like Columbia, Pomona, Southern California (USC), and Vanderbilt the rights of students not only to speak freely but to hear speech that challenges establishment narratives are being limited.

In January, “in an action mirroring dozens of other academic and institutional actions across America where the voices of the Other have been canceled and erased, particularly voices supporting Palestinian liberation and freedom, [Phillips Exeter Academy] canceled, on the eve of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, a student workshop entitled “Reflections on Palestinian-Black Solidarity for Liberation.”

At Concord Academy this week, in Concord Mass., a town where Thoreau penned “Civil Disobedience,” the school administration canceled Boston’s poet laureate, Porsha Olayiwola (who had been chosen by the students) as commencement speaker.

“I didn’t have any proof as to why they removed me, but I had an educated guess, which is my politics,” Olayiwola told The Boston Globe.

In February, students went on a hunger strike to call for Brown University to divest from pro-Israel companies and demanded the school divest from companies including Boeing and RTX, who they say profit from Israel’s military attacks in Gaza.

This week, at Columbia University, the school’s administration called upon police to remove a student encampment of large green and white tents that covered a large portion of the campus’ central quad. A banner hung across several which read: “GAZA SOLIDARITY ENCAMPMENT.” Another declared the encampment a “LIBERATED ZONE.”

More than one hundred students were arrested by NYPD officers wearing riot gear.

God bless the students!

At Pomona College, 18 students were arrested on April 5 and charged with misdemeanor trespassing. One student was arrested for obstruction of justice during student protests in response to the removal of pro-Palestinian art on the college campus.

At Vanderbilt University, three students were expelled, one suspended, and 20 given probation over their involvement in a sit-in protest in response to the school administration removing an Israel divestment question from student ballots.

Most egregiously, in a story that has garnered national attention, the University of Southern California is facing a well-deserved backlash for its decision to cancel the valedictorian speech of Asna Tabassum, a Muslim student — who had been selected by USC — at the school’s commencement ceremony in May.

USC’s provost, Andrew Guzman, said that the university canceled Tabassum’s speech because the “alarming tenor” of reactions to her selection as valedictorian, along with “the intensity of feelings” surrounding Israel’s ongoing military strikes in Gaza, had created “substantial risks relating to security.”

In a statement released through CAIR, Tabassum wrote she was “shocked … and profoundly disappointed” after being informed that she would be barred from addressing her fellow graduates at their May 10 commencement.

God bless the students.

“I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine,” Thomas Paine offered in the “Age of Reason.” “He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”

Today, I am profoundly proud of the students who stand in resistance not only to oppression and occupation, not only in resistance to forces of genocide and ethnic cleansing, but who stand in defiance of those who privilege power and profit over liberty and freedom.

Proud of those who stand, many with keffiyehs held closely, to represent themselves.