Conversations calling for Palestinian freedom and a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel have ramped up since the initial attacks by Hamas in October. Many believe Israel’s response to the events on Oct. 7th were justified, while others believe it is an excessive use of force.
The aftermath of a multigenerational conflict has reignited conversations about the United States’ relationship with the Middle East, especially in academia. Protests supporting both Palestine and Israel have made their way to Arizona's college campuses and responses from stakeholders at both the state and university levels have brought criticism.
In mid-October, a pro-Palestinian student organization, the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), canceled a planned protest on the University of Arizona campus after UA president Robert Robbins issued a statement. Following his statement, The group said they “no longer feel safe holding the rally on campus".
Other protests have continued, pushing for a ceasefire and the re-examination of UA’s relationship with Raytheon, a U.S. defense contractor that provides weapons to Israel’s defense system.
Last semester, Arizona State University canceled an in-person speech by Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian-American, saying the event was “planned and produced by groups not affiliated with ASU and was organized outside of ASU policies and procedures.” Tlaib was invited by ASU’s SJP chapter and other pro-Palestinian groups.
In response to growing tensions, Speaker of the Arizona House of Representative Ben Toma, formed a bipartisan ad-hoc committee to discuss anti-semitism in Arizona's classrooms. Democratic Representative Alma Hernandez was a committee member and said that it was clear that cases of anti-semitism have grown since the Oct. 7th attacks.
“I am all for allowing people to exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of speech,” Hernandez said. “However, there is definitely a fine line between hate speech and freedom of speech and I think one of the things that we've noticed, especially in this committee hearing from not only students but rabbis, and people that work in the community is it's a problem.”
Hernandez, who is Jewish and identifies as a Zionist, said “students can host events and rallies and support a cause without celebrating the murder of Jews, without celebrating the murder of innocent civilians and without praising Hamas.”
“The students should be able to say that they stand with Palestinians, and they are there to be the voice for Palestinians. That is okay. What I don't find okay is when the students start chanting, ‘from the river to the sea,’ which essentially means just getting completely rid of Israel and I find that problematic.”
In December, a flyer containing Hernandez’ address circulated in her neighborhood, encouraging neighbors to “have conversations with the Tucson representative about how she might better use her platform for peace” and claimed she is “actively working to silence pro-Palestinian colleagues on a local and national level.”
Since the December hearing, SJP chapters at all three of Arizona’s public universities have criticized the bipartisan hearing, saying that “this hearing was held to provide a pretext to introduce legislation to de-charter and withhold funding from [their] chapters on Arizona university campuses.”
Mohyeddin Abdulaziz, who is the founder of the Arizona-Palestine Solidarity Alliance, questioned the committee hearing saying it did not bring all perspectives.
“To use anti-semitism, which you call it weaponizing anti-semitism, against advocates of Palestinian rights is a real problem,” Abdulaziz said. “I welcome any hearing on any subject but it means to hear the opposing points of view. We're not against discussing antisemitism; it should be discussed. We're not against discussing Islamophobia; it should be discussed. All of these are important issues.”
In higher education institutions, Abdulaziz says it should be a place for people with opposing views to share what they think in a safe space.
“[Universities are] supposed to protect those students and to make them feel safe to express their opinions, even though the leadership of the university doesn't agree with it, or other student groups don't agree with it. But by accusing a student organization of [antisemitism], you made the gap between the holders of these opposing views much wider. That's simply silencing them. The university should not be in the business of silencing opposing points of views.”
Former UA James E. Rogers College of Law dean and free speech expert Toni Massaro says the discussion of free speech, hate speech, and academic freedom on campuses is much more complicated than what it seems.
“I think one thing that's worth disentangling is academic freedom, and something many people wrongly think is coterminous with it, which is freedom of speech,” Massaro said. “They're not the same thing. There are so many ways in which speech on campus, academic freedom on campus are not, neither is boundless.”
Massaro says academic freedom is more a duty to the public, while free speech is an individual right.
“Within the field, you have freedom to teach, and to research without interference from appointing authorities. It didn't mean that you could do or say anything, and call it academic freedom,” Massaro said.
Even then, it depends on context, location and many other contributing factors, Massaro said.
Last semester, a University of Arizona faculty member and a staff member were placed on administrative leave after audio recordings of a lecture about the Israel-Hamas conflict went viral on social media. Community Liaison Rebecca Zapien and Director of the Early Childhood Education Program Becka Lopez held a class discussion for a College of Education course about cultural pluralism for young children.
The two were put on administrative leave following an investigation that looked at whether they violated policies regarding political activity, lobbying and standards of conduct. By the end of the semester, both were taken off suspension.
The Buzz Extra: two UA faculty and staff detail their recent suspension
AZPM spoke with the two about what happened, how they felt, and whether they believed it is possible to hold class discussions regarding social justice on these types of topics.
Zapien believed that their discussion was no different from other contentious topics.
“It's very clear that the curriculum you pick, the things that you engage in, the children that you serve, the youth that you serve, all of it is political and the idea that the institution is suddenly engaging in a way where they're saying that we're engaging in political activity, it's like this double-edged sword of when they choose to apply that…In this instance, it was political, because we are engaged in content that humanizes people who are not being humanized. I don't know that that is like really digging into a certain political agenda. Like as an individual in the world, I don't believe that to be true.”