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Why was the Nakba Tour Canceled at Stanford?

Palestinian Refugee: Stanford students censored me over condemnation of Israel

Free Palestine Movement | April 11, 2016

In an interview, Amena El-Ashkar, a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, states that she refused to speak at Stanford University after students told her she could not express her views about Israel.

I’m coming here to say that Israel has no right to exist. [The students] said we could discuss this kind of thing with each other, but not in front of American people…

Ms. Ashkar’s talk is one of several on a national “North America Nakba Tour,” a tour designed to educate Americans about the enduring effects Israel’s mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948. Ms. Ashkar and Mariam “Umm Akram” Fathallah, an 86-year-old survivor of the expulsion, had planned to speak at Stanford University on 6 April 2016. Ms. Ashkar was born and raised in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, where her ancestors were banished during the expulsion, or Nakba, of 1948.

Stanford Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which was hosting the talk at Stanford, told Ms. Ashkar that their existence as a campus organization depends on not challenging Israel’s “right to exist,” and told her not to address the topic. Ms. Ashkar refused to censor herself and was shocked that an organization named “Students for Justice in Palestine” would insist on such a requirement. Although some of the students admitted to sharing Ms. Ashkar’s views, the students cited the hostile administrative climate at Stanford to justify censoring their guest.

I told them, it is a fight, and any fight is going to have sacrifices. In Lebanon, we have Palestinian clubs… which do not take funds from the University. We pay it ourselves.

Stanford SJP released a false statement attributing the cancellation to concerns about Alison Weir, a pro-Palestinian commentator who was in the audience. Ms. Weir was subject to widely disputed — and widely rejected — accusations of anti-Semitism by other Palestinian rights organizers last summer, revealing deep-seated divisions within the Palestinian rights movement. Although Tour organizers had informally asked Ms. Weir to give Ms. Ashkar public speaking advice, and Ms. Weir had offered the Tour some generic informational materials — none of which are authored by Weir — Ms. Weir is not one of the national organizers of the North America Nakba Tour and was not a planned speaker. Weir offered to sell copies of her own writings at the event to raise money for the Tour, but complied when Stanford students asked her not to sell them. The statement alleges that Ms. Weir refused to leave when asked, which Weir and Tour organizers deny. No security personnel were called to remove Weir or anyone else from the audience; instead, the speaker herself felt alienated and called off the event.

Ms. Ashkar explains that disagreements about who was in the audience were not why the talk was canceled. Instead, Ms. Ashkar says that she herself called off the talk when the organizers demanded that she censor herself.

The existence of Israel, as I told the SJP, means that I have no right to exist. Because I am a refugee in a Palestinian camp inside Lebanon. The Lebanese government doesn’t want me, and we cannot return. So what are we? Are we going to stay stateless refugees generation after generation?

One of the informational flyers provided by Weir, but authored by former PLO legal advisor John V. Whitbeck apparently sparked the feud with similar arguments. The flyer states, in part,

To demand that Palestinians recognize “Israel’s right to exist” is to demand that a people who have been treated as subhumans unworthy of basic human rights publicly proclaim that they are subhumans. It would imply Palestinians’ acceptance that they deserve what has been done and continues to be done to them. Even 19th-century US governments did not require the surviving native Americans to publicly proclaim the “rightness” of their ethnic cleansing by European colonists…

North America Nakba Tour organizers call on Stanford SJP to retract its false explanation and issue a public apology for their behavior to Ms. Ashkar. They have also asked concerned citizens to consider donating to the Tour and attending Tour events in lieu of the cancellation. Paul Larudee, a Tour organizer, and Ms. Weir have separately authored their own accounts of the incident.

Paul Larudee | April 7, 2016

Last night, Mariam Fathalla and Amena Elashkar were scheduled to speak at Stanford University, sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine. The previous day, I had asked Alison Weir, who has been giving talks on Palestine for 15 years all over the country, to meet with Amena and give her advice on reaching American audiences since this is Amena’s first trip to the U.S. It was an excellent, fruitful meeting.

I then said it would be valuable if Alison could hear Amena’s presentation to see if she would have any suggestions. Alison is extremely busy but agreed to come down to Stanford with us for that purpose.

When Alison learned we did not yet have any written materials along to provide the audience, she brought some along with her for us to use and also gave us some of her books that we could sell to help raise money for the tour. We had already discussed that IAK would supply their excellent written materials for the tour.

We had no idea that Alison would turn out to be an issue, or that the Stanford SJP would object to what Amena might wish to say.

Alison is an extremely committed and popular antiracist writer, speaker, and activist, and people even follow her work in refugee camps in Lebanon.  While some groups oppose her and If Americans Knew, most people working for justice in Palestine feel she is one of the top writers and speakers on this issue.

In any case this should not be an issue for the Nakba Tour; Alison is not one of the national organizers of the tour, and she was not intended to be one of the speakers or to have any role in the presentation at Stanford. She was simply there as a favor to us, as described above.

However, some members of the SJP immediately objected to Alison’s presence, perhaps assuming she was going to speak, and also to the presence of her book and the If Americans Knew materials. We immediately explained that Alison was not to be a speaker and was just there to sit in the audience, and that we had invited her to come with us. We also agreed to remove the books, but said we were disturbed that they also wished to censor the materials we could make available on our own tour. In all my years of activism, I’ve never heard of such a thing.

Amena then began discussing the situation with the students, and was extremely upset when they told her that she could not speak truthfully about her feelings and the feelings of the thousands of dispossessed Palestinian refugees living in camps about their situation, about the Nakba, and about whether or not Israel has “the right to exist” that Israel partisans claim.  This was not an issue at the two previous talks.

When it became clear that they wished Amena to censor her excellent talk, she refused to do so and the event was canceled.

We think it is extremely important that people hear from Amena and Mariam. They represent millions of Palestinian refugees whose rights and views have been trampled upon and who are often ignored. Thank you for helping us bring their voice to the discussion. It is long past time that they are heard.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.

– Paul Larudee, Tour Coordinator

April 14, 2016 Posted by | Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Full Spectrum Dominance, Solidarity and Activism | , , , , , , | 1 Comment