By Ahmed Youssef
A few days before Christmas, Fordham denied a group of students’ request to host a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a nation-wide organization aimed at promoting Palestinian freedom and equality. Alhough the United Student Government approved the endeavor, Fordham’s administration denied the request on political grounds. This decision fueled much debate about the role of political activism on campus and called into question the level of freedom of speech afforded to Fordham students.
The club’s support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, (BDS), was cited by Fordham as the decisive factor behind the refusal. Launched just over a decade ago, BDS is a global campaign that seeks to increase pressure on Israel in light of its frequent violations of international law and general disregard of Palestinian rights. It is a stance that firmly establishes the club’s position in the contentious Israeli-Palestinian conflict, considered by Fordham to be “a topic that often leads to polarization rather than dialogue,” according to Keith Eldredge, dean of students at Lincoln Center, in a December email to students.
The intimidation felt by Fordham regarding this topic is well justified—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been raging for decades now with no clear end in sight. It has been the source of countless debates among prominent intellectuals and political leaders and it is only natural that groups advocating for different viewpoints on the issue arise in society. College campuses are no exception. Therefore, this particular proposal posed a serious test of freedom of speech for Fordham—one the ultimately failed.
Fordham is no stranger to political activism—the College Democrats and College Republicans represent two of the more prominent student clubs on campus. Cultural clubs associated with different countries are also present. In the case of Palestine however, culture and politics are inextricably linked. The country’s political status means that the struggle with Israel is an unavoidable element of being Palestinian, this has rendered the expression of the Palestinian national identity and promoting the Palestinian cause as inseparable in the divisive conflict.
Indeed, the Students for Justice in Palestine organization is currently present in more than 100 American universities, where it interacts on a regular basis with other clubs that share opposing views on the conflict. Yet, Fordham insists on dissuading its community from engaging in a dialogue on one of the most prominent issues of the international political scene, isolating its Palestinian students in the process.
The whole matter has managed to attract the attention of several outlets outside the campus gates, prompting the university to defend its decision by likening the proposed club to a lobbying group due to a perceived narrow political focus. This contrasts a statement within the regulations section of Fordham’s student handbook: “It should be noted, however, that the University values freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas.
The expression of controversial ideas and differing views is a vital part of University discourse.” This idea in the university policy makes it all the more disappointing to witness Fordham’s handling of this situation.
The issue at hand is more significant than the specific goals of one student group, as it needs to be viewed within the larger context of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is considered an irreplaceable component of a true democracy; it dictates tolerance for all opinions regardless of their nature or origin and has consequently laid the groundwork for society as a whole to take progressive steps forward throughout the modern era, and any compromise of it is a move in the face of progress.
It is the role of the university to create an environment that allows for the productive discussion of different ideas in order to benefit society.
Stifling a specific opinion on a political basis can only act as a hindrance to the kind of discourse required in any academic setting.
By refusing the request to establish a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, Fordham has simultaneously damaged its free speech record as well as turned down an opportunity to establish a meaningful dialogue on campus about a critical political issue. This is an opportunity Fordham should have been well advised to take, especially considering that the university can now count the president among its alumni. Instilling a sense of openness towards receiving and debating others’ opinions must remain one of the indelible aspirations of any academic institution, and Fordham is no exception.
Ahmed Youssef, FCRH ’17, is a computer science major from Alexandria, Egypt.