Friday, November 18, 2016

#empogmgmu Part Two: George Mason University and Freedom of the Press

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In this second post, I'm going to fast forward 225 years or so, to a university in Fairfax, Virginia called George Mason University - named after the George Mason that I previously discussed. This is a public university, part of the Virginia public university system. In the spirit of its namesake, it declares itself to be inclusive and accessible.

Any university that is inclusive is bound to have a very broad range of interests, and the challenge to any university is the need to allow all of those interests to be represented. And this challenge was certainly faced earlier this month, when the George Mason University Students for Justice in Palestine hosted the SJP's National Conference.


Announcing the 2016 National SJP Conference on November 4th-6th, hosted by George Mason University Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) in Fairfax, VA and the DMV! Our theme this year is "Critical Mass: With Our Roots in Resistance, Forging a Just Future."

Let your fellow SJP members know to RSVP on this page and to share! This will be the inaugural NSJP conference following the introduction of the new national structure. The conversations we have will be important and pertinent to the student movement, so we want to see as many faces as possible! Let's keep growing and building together as we strive for a free Palestine. See you soon!

Conference Information:

(Drop-down menus below the "2016 Conference" header include the registration form for attendees, travel stipend information, solidarity housing/homestay information, etc.)

In Solidarity,
National Students for Justice in Palestine Steering Committee

Now perhaps this may surprise some people, but not all university students are enthused about the SJP's goals. And some people outside of the university are not enthused either.

What? People outside of George Mason University are weighing in on an event taking place at the university? Well, doesn't that make them - OUTSIDE AGITATORS? You know, those people who don't know their place and stick their noses in other people's business.

If anyone knew the trouble that outside agitators could cause, George Wallace certainly knew about it. First off, a couple of facts about Wallace. First, despite Keith Ellison's misunderstanding, Wallace was a Democrat, not a Republican. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, a Republican couldn't win an election in Wallace's Alabama. Second, Wallace's views bounced back and forth throughout his life. Take the George Wallace of 1958:

In 1958, George Wallace ran against John Patterson in his first gubernatorial race. In that Alabama election, Wallace refused to make race an issue, and he declined the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. This move won Wallace the support of the NAACP. Patterson, on the other hand, embraced Klan support, and he trounced Wallace in the election.

When Plan A doesn't work, move on to Plan B. While Wallace didn't change parties like Donald Trump did, he changed positions on issues such as segregation, becoming (for a time) the George Wallace that we all know and hate.

And during his initial terms as Governor, Wallace certainly had issues with outside agitators.

Despite growing conflict over race and civil rights, Wallace wrote [a Michigan resident considering her 1964 Presidential primary vote] that “we have never had a problem in the South except in a few very isolated instances and these have been the result of outside agitators.” Wallace asserted that “I personally have done more for the Negroes of the State of Alabama than any other individual,” citing job creation and the salaries of black teachers in Alabama. He rationalized segregation as “best for both races,” writing that “they each prefer their own pattern of society, their own churches and their own schools.” Wallace assured Martin that Alabamans were satisfied with society as it was and that the only “major friction” was created by “outside agitators.”

Some people, however, disagreed with Wallace and thought that outside agitation was just fine. A few of them changed their minds, however, when Martin Luther King Jr. stopped outside agitating in the South and started outside agitating in places like Chicago.

Fast forward to November 2016 and the National SJP Conference. Such a conference would attract attention of the press that George Mason himself so strongly championed, so Jonathan Bronitsky of Tablet sought press credentials.

On a beautiful, cloudless, and unusually warm November morning, I went to the registration desk and asked SJP communications personnel for comment, but I was told that both organizers and attendees would only speak with “registered media.” I explained to a recent graduate from Tufts University, who was in charge of NSJP’s media email account, that I was a freelance journalist. I gave her my business card and pulled up my website on my iPhone to provide her with a sense of my writings. She was genuinely sympathetic, interested, and instructed that I apply for a credential through NSJP’s website. I did, but my application would soon be denied. The Tufts alumna had indeed explained upfront that approval was unlikely because my request was “the day of” and her organization was worried about infiltration and negative press. She specified that a “right-wing publication,” which had tried to link SJP with Hamas, also sought a credential.

So the National SJP was stingy with its press credentials. Or was it?

Through conversation a few paces outside the conference area, I learned that a reporter from The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, applied for a credential two weeks prior to the event yet was turned down. A reporter with Ha’aretz was approved—but he was not permitted to enter the conference. Conversely, a freelance reporter with Mondoweiss, a progressive and anti-Zionist website, received a credential 11 days prior without even asking for it: NSJP had actually taken the initiative of mailing it. Also, a reporter and a cameraperson with Al Jazeera showed up without advance notice and were swiftly given credentials...

OK, not a problem. Bronitsky may not have been able to get inside the event, but he could certainly ask questions outside of the event - right?

I requested comment from 20 attendees and, unfortunately, all of them declined. I even offered to keep everything “on background.” Some, it was clear, were eager to share their thoughts. But after every time I went up an attendee, an NSJP organizer—whom I can only describe as a “spotter”—would sprint from her lookout post at the conference’s entrance and warn that I was, again, “outside media.”

Shut out of the National SJP conference, Bronitsky went across campus and covered another event.

Mid-afternoon, pro-Israel advocates gathered for the Turning Point USA-organized demonstration at the entrance of the NSJP’s conference. For about 20 minutes, they chanted Zionist slogans, mocked the “illiberalism” of SJP’s brand of “social justice,” and sang “Hatikvah.” They also carried signs that read, “Jewish Lives Matter—Say NO to HATE,” “Know the Truth: BDS = HATE MOVEMENT,” “Say NO to Anti-Semitism,” “HATE GROUP: SJP – HATE MOVEMENT: BDS,” “Why Won’t SJP Boycott Syria, Russia, and Iran?” and “SJP Calls Murder of Civilians ‘Resistance.’” SJP activists reacted by locking arms, facing away, and repeatedly directing each other to “not engage.”

Now if you were to conclude that the Jewish organizations on campus were all behind this demonstration, your conclusion would be incorrect.

Lending credibility to a growing sense that the Jewish-American community’s preeminent organizations are allergic to confrontation were the preemptive actions taken by the Hillel at George Mason University Hillel. It launched a website, “Embrace Diversity,” and held a series of alternative events that promised to “provide safe engaging spaces for Jewish and pro-Israel students.”

Now is this truly a freedom of the press issue? As I've noticed previously, Constitutional protections limit what the government can do, but do not limit what private organizations can do. In the same way that private citizen Donald Trump could yank press credentials on a whim, private organization SJP can refuse to grant press credentials on a whim. The fact that the event was held at a public university does not necessarily mean that private organizations using university facilities have to behave like a government.

You know, I wonder if Donald Trump heads the National SJP. There are some parallels between the two that go beyond their attitudes toward the press. Both love Syria, for example.

But I digress.

We've seen a lot of players on campus - the National SJP, the organizations that actively oppose them, and the organizations that want everyone to be happy and play nice together. One of the latter groups, George Mason University Hillel, posted this as things were starting:

We have learned that offensive Islamaphobic signs were posted on campus yesterday by individuals unaffiliated with George Mason Hillel. George Mason Hillel condemns this act and any efforts to demonize any racial or religious group. We are committed to creating a campus climate where all feel safe and secure, where diversity is celebrated, and where political differences are communicated civilly and respectfully.

Because George Mason is, after all, inclusive and accessible.

Now these signs were not posted by the protesters cited above. They were posted by a DIFFERENT outside agitator.

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