Middle East studies in the News
UT-Austin Rejects Discrimination Claim By Anti-Israel Students Who Disrupted Event [on Ami Pedahzur]
You may recall the disruption of an Israeli Studies event at UT-Austin on November 13, 2015, which we have covered extensively. (See list of posts at bottom.)
The event was led by well-known and highly-regarded UT-Austin Professor Ami Pedahzur, who is Israeli, and the guest speaker was an Israeli professor teaching at Stanford University. The event was organized by the Israel Studies Department.
As the event started, a group of students from the UT-Austin Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) disrupted the event, shouted, refused to sit and participate, and acted in a generally intimidating manner, including chanting "Long Live the Intifada."
Such a chant about the bloody suicide bombing and current knife attacks, when directed at Israelis, reasonably could have been viewed as an attempt to intimidate, at best, or a threat, at worst.
The disruption was led by law student Mohammed Nabulsi, graduate student Katie Jensen, and former graduate student Patrick Higgins.
[Katie Jensen at UT Austin Israel Studies Protest]
Prof. Pedahzur became concerned when he later learned that Nabulsi and Higgins used online pseudonyms of known terrorists. Prof. Pedhazur wrote about his concerns, and that is when the second round of trouble started.
[Mohammed Nabulsi and Patrick Higgins, via Facebook]
The students involved, led by Nabulsi, put together an edited video purporting to show Prof. Pedahzur being aggressive, and then launched a media campaign to villify Prof. Pedhazur. They also hired legal counsel to file a discrimination complaint with the university, again in a very public manner. The complaint was not made public.
[UT-Austin anti-Israel protesters with Attorney Brian McGiverin]
The University then held some sort of investigatory function, again in a non-public manner. My Texas Open Records Requests seeking the complaint and the evidence, including the unedited video, were rebuffed by UT under the claim of student privacy. We may have to litigate that, and I'm in the process of obtaining counsel. The students' attorney never provided the complaint, despite my request.
So we don't know what has gone on in the investigation, but the University just announced on its website that it has rejected the complaint and cleared Prof. Pedhahzur completely (emphasis added):
Statement on University Review of Nov. 13 Incident
March 9, 2016
AUSTIN, Texas — The University of Texas at Austin's executive vice president and provost has issued a final report regarding a Nov. 13, 2015 incident at which members of a Palestinian student group demonstrated during an academic event hosted by the university's Institute for Israel Studies.
The provost accepts the finding of the university's Office for Inclusion and Equity (OIE) that the university faculty member who organized the event and responded to the students' demonstration did not violate the university's Nondiscrimination Policy and did not engage in harassment of the student organization.
The state's open records laws prevent the university from publicly releasing certain information from investigations where the claims alleged are ultimately found to be unsubstantiated. A summary of the university's investigation is available upon request.
Below is a statement from UT Austin President Gregory L. Fenves:
Now that the provost has accepted the findings of the OIE report, I want to express my strong support for Professor Ami Pedahzur.
Over many years, Dr. Pedahzur has fostered open, responsible dialogue, often on contentious political issues, including those involving Israel. He is known for working in a constructive and proactive manner with people from across the political spectrum. Dr. Pedahzur hosts speakers representing a wide range of views to foster in-depth inquiry. His classes attract students from diverse backgrounds. I look forward to Dr. Pedahzur's many future contributions in teaching, scholarship, and public service at UT.
Free discourse is vital to The University of Texas. As a university committed to knowledge and discovery, UT is steadfast in its support of inquiry and debate. Yet free speech also carries with it responsibility. The expression of free speech is not a license to drown out the speech of others, or to shout down ideas one disagrees with. As the University of Chicago states in its "Principles of Free Expression," a university "has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it." In this spirit, I appreciate Professor Pedahzur's work to foster debate and protect freedom of speech for all, including the diverse students he teaches and the visiting scholars he hosts on campus.
I will attempt to obtain the public summary the statement says is available. (Update – here it is):
The most interesting part is that it leaves open the possibility that there is a separate Dean of Students investigation into student conduct.
(added) Carly F. Gammill, Esq., Senior Litigation Counsel at the American Center for Law & Justice, which represents Prof. Pedahzur, issued the following statement:
"Dr. Pedahzur is pleased that the University's investigative process has resolved this situation correctly in his favor, and that the baseless complaint filed against him has been dismissed. It is a credit to the fact-finders here that they rejected the false narrative of the complainant, instead getting to the truth of what occurred on November 13, 2015, when members of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, a student organization on campus, disrupted an event of the University's Institute for Israel Studies, confronted Dr. Pedahzur and the other attendees with the intimidating chant of "Long Live the Intifada," and then published misleading footage of their conduct that had been highly edited to give the appearance that Dr. Pedahzur was to blame for the hostile environment they themselves created.
"As attacks against Jewish and Israeli members of the campus community are increasingly finding themselves the targets of calculated campaigns of intimidation, it is imperative that administrators not allow such tactics to prevail. We applaud the University of Texas for its thoroughness in this investigation and for refusing to bend to the will of those who would attempt to harm the campus community through their false accusations.
"At the same time, we at the ACLJ, along with Dr. Pedahzur, remain committed to the principles of free and open dialog on campus, including on controversial topics such as those addressed by the Institute for Israel Studies. Dr. Pedahzur continues to welcome all perspectives and encourage rigorous and robust debate in a responsible manner by all members of the campus community."
(added) The Texas Hillel Foundation issued the following response:
We are grateful that the University of Texas took a strong stand today in support of academic freedom and against anti-Semitism. We also appreciate the University's unwavering commitment to Professor Pedahzur's work as the director of the Institute of Israel Studies at UT Austin.
The Institute plays a critical role in examining Israeli society, culture, and politics on campus. But the individuals who interrupted Professor Pedahzur's class did so with the clear intention of silencing pro-Israel viewpoints and intimidating those who disagree with their perspectives.
The University made the right decision by refusing to accept their false charges and accusations. Students, professors and scholars of all perspectives at the University of Texas deserve to work and learn in a community that promotes constructive and comprehensive discussion about important issues. There is no place within this community for anti-Semitism or hate speech of any kind. We are pleased that University officials acted to protect this type of academic environment.
Not surprisingly, Nabulsi and the other students have reacted with threats of more legal action, via The Austin Statesman:
Brian McGiverin, the lawyer for Nabulsi and the student group, said the investigation was weighted in Pedahzur's favor.
"I don't think they really did an honest investigation," McGiverin said. "They certainly talked to a lot of people, but he (Pedahzur) took actions that were rooted in part on the student's national origin. ... If he (Nabulsi) had been an Irish kid or a Japanese kid or someone from Sweden, I don't think the professor would have accused him of displaying red flags of terrorism."
McGiverin added that the investigators allowed the professor to define the context of his words but failed to give the students that same opportunity. McGiverin said he is reviewing whether to pursue a civil rights lawsuit or a federal complaint with U.S. Department of Education.
Nabulsi took to Facebook complaining about the decision, as follows in part:
Today, the University of Texas released a statement backing a report issued by the Office for Inclusion and Equity (OIE) stating that this professors decision to vilify me and my Arab and Muslim comrades as "terrorist" comparable to ISIS was not discriminatory. In so many words and in a move to victim blame, the OIE stated that the professor decision to describes us as "red flags" for "terrorism" was motivated by our actions or decisions alone.
Not only that, but the President of this University took it upon himself to reaffirm his support for the professor in question. In doing so, President Fenves sent a clear message to Muslim and Arab activists on this campus: when it suits our interests, we will throw you to the dogs.
Make no mistake about it, I am in no way surprised by the actions and statements of this University. PSC has long been subject to disparate and racist treatment by UT and the wider UT community. We are not calling for inclusion within an inherently exclusionary institution that mirrors, in many ways, the society we live in. Rather, we will continue to fight, continue to resist, and continue to work towards liberation.
It is not clear whether the University is investigating the protesters conduct to see if it violated the University code of conduct.
Meanwhile, Nabulsi has become something of a hero in the anti-Israel community, including being invited to be a keynote speaker at a recent event. Jensen also was a speaker, though not listed on the poster:
(It is likely this post will be updated as more information becomes available. We also expect to continue our coverage and investigation.)
Here are our prior posts, in reverse chronological order:
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