Refugee Denied Free Speech At Stanford

Palestinian Refugee: Stanford students censored me over condemnation of Israel


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.. 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.

Feel free to share this release.

Stanford SJP Silences Palestinian Refugees

by Alison Weir,, 4/13/2016 via email

Some people who oppose If Americans Knew are misrepresenting a recent event at Stanford University in which the Stanford SJP demanded that their invited speaker, a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, censor her talk. She refused to do so and the event was not held.

The organizer of the speaking event, the North America Nakba Tour, posted an account of what transpired.

However, to our astonishment, some opponents of If Americans Knew then tried to divert attention to me and IAK rather than keeping it on this woman and her colleague who traveled so far to tell us their story. Someone at Stanford SJP posted a fraudulent statement about the incident, both on their website and Facebook page, which we expect will be repeated far and wide by people bent on taking down If Americans Knew.

While the Nakba Tour statement already gives the basic facts, we are now augmenting this with a more detailed description of what transpired.

Below are the facts:

The Stanford SJP event was part of a tour by two Palestinian women who have recently arrived in the US from a Lebanese refugee camp to speak at events under the North America Nakba Tour. They are Mariam Fathalla (respectfully known as Umm Akram) an 86-year-old Nakba survivor, and Amena Ashkar, the 22-year-old granddaughter and great granddaughter of other Nakba survivors, who has known no other home than refugee camps.

The purpose of the Nakba Tour is to bring Palestinian refugees from camps in Lebanon to tell Americans about Israel’s mass expulsion of Palestinians 60 years ago and of their subsequent plight, voices that are almost never heard in the U.S. Nakba means catastrophe, the term Palestinians use to refer to the 1948 war of ethnic cleansing that created Israel. (For details, read the excellent book by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe and see our short brochure on it.)

Several months ago, the organizer of the Nakba Tour, Paul Larudee, asked me and many others to help with various aspects of the tour. Like others, I responded that I’d be glad to help.

On request, I agreed to help, as needed, with driving, with visits to Capitol Hill and with promoting the tour. As you’ll recall, IAK posted announcements of the tour to our list and on our Facebook page encouraging people to organize venues for the speakers.

When the two women arrived, Paul asked me to join a discussion on how to present to Americans (we both live in the SF Bay Area), since this is their first visit to the U.S. I agreed to do this and mainly emphasized how little most Americans know about this issue. The tour organizers had not had time to put together written materials to take along, so we arranged that IAK would provide these free to the Nakba Tour to make available to audiences, particularly our Synopsis factsheet, which gives important history and context about Palestine-Israel.

Since speakers can only cover so much in a 45 minute talk, it’s always valuable to provide additional informational materials to audiences. Many groups around the country use If Americans Knew materials, which are largely articles written by respected experts that IAK republishes into booklets and factsheets.  Some of the most popular are the Origin booklet (written by Jews for Justice in the Middle East), Right of Return booklet (by Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh), Synopsis factsheet, and map cards. We also arranged that IAK would provide some of my books for the Tour to sell at events, with all proceeds going to the Tour, as a fundraising contribution and to educate attendees about the history.

Paul told me that the meeting about speaking to Americans had been extremely helpful and asked me to come hear the talks in person and perhaps afterwards give feedback. I felt both speakers would do a superb job – Amena’s English is excellent and both have powerful stories – but I said I’d be glad to come along if this might be of help, and rode with them to Stanford.

The Stanford Incident

When we arrived at the venue, the Tour videographer Samir Salem and I set up the materials table in the back. Suddenly, a few students confronted me, saying I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was entirely taken aback that they were focusing on me, rather than their distinguished guests.

(By the way, this was a huge change from when I spoke at Stanford several times a number of years ago. A 2004 lecture was covered in the campus newspaper, and I was enormously touched when a student reporter told me, “That was the most powerful speech I’ve ever heard.”)

Paul tried to explain to today’s Stanford SJP students (none of whom have heard my talk or read my articles and book) that I wasn’t a speaker and that I had come at the Tour’s request to sit in the audience and hear the talks.

During the ensuing discussion, one or two of the students obliquely referred to the JVP-USCEIO unfounded accusations against me. They appeared not to know that these have been widely discredited and are opposed by most pro-Palestine activists, including some of the most respected and committed individuals both in the U.S. and in Palestine.

The students first objected to the books (which have been purchased by over 24,000 people and widely praised by reviewers, activists, and general readers, many saying they are “eye opening,” and “should be read by every American”), claiming they couldn’t sell things.

Next, they objected to the cards and booklets (eventually admitting it was because they contained the IAK website). Paul responded that these were the Tour’s materials and that he had never heard of speakers not being allowed to provide materials to audiences. I removed the offending books from the table and left the conversation, feeling the event shouldn’t be about me or IAK, but about Amena and Umm Akram.

At about this point, Amena entered the discussion, and students told her they objected to my views on “Israel’s right to exist” (one of our brochures contains John Whitbeck’s excellent article deconstructing this alleged “right.”).

As I’m sure you’re aware, the demand that Palestinians recognize Israel’s alleged “right to exist” is one of Israel’s major talking points, and a demand that many Palestinians reject, since it would mean that Israel supposedly had the “right” to ethnically cleanse them, the “right” to discriminate against them, and the “right” to prevent people like Amena, Umm Akram and numerous others from returning to their homes. As Whitbeck writes:

“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 as a condition precedent to even discussing what sort of land reservation they might receive.”

Amena questioned the Stanford students, who told her she could not give her views on “Israel’s right to exist.” She then said she felt “unwelcomed,” refused to give a censored speech, and the event did not go on. I was not involved in that conversation, which took place largely in Arabic, and I did not discourage her from speaking.

Nonfactual statement by anonymous individual from Stanford SJP

Someone has now posted on the Stanford SJP website and Facebook page a truly bizarre, highly inaccurate statement about the incident containing numerous false and absurd assertions.  Among these is the claim that they canceled the event because of me, that I “refused to leave” (no one ever asked me to do so), and that I have supposedly “made derogatory remarks about Arabs, endorsed speech by a former head of the KKK, denied the impact of South African Apartheid, and referred to communism as a Jewish conspiracy.” Whew!

When some individuals tried to post comments on the Facebook post objecting to the statement and giving real facts, their comments were quickly removed. At this point in time, however, perhaps a new moderator seems to have stopped removing such comments, and the thread contains a great many comments supporting me and opposing the Stanford students’ actions and statement, including the following by Paul Larudee:

“Whoever wrote this should be congratulated for cramming so many falsehoods into such a small space. If invited, I would be happy to elaborate, but why bother when the gatekeepers are removing all the evidence whenever it is posted? If they will allow this comment to remain, I suggest Long live free speech everywhere except Stanford.”

(By the way, it’s probably relevant to note that a committed Palestine activist has written to me that this Stanford behavior seems to be part of a problematic pattern with the current group, whose version of the divestment resolution takes a liberal Zionist position: ignores refugees, dates the injustice only from 1967, disavows BDS, and endorses Israeli self-determination at the expense of Palestinians.)

The Good News

Fortunately, to date the Stanford behavior has not been replicated by other groups on the Nakba Tour. In fact, Paul and others say that their reception has been overwhelmingly positive, and that individuals hosting the Tour in other locations are outraged at the Stanford group’s actions.

Meanwhile, at IAK we’re busy putting up more and more billboards (including our incredibly popular billboard supporting Flint, which has been shared by well over a thousand people on Facebook), sending out materials around the country, and preparing for my upcoming talks in Washington State, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

And I’ve just received word that a wonderful supporter, outraged by this malicious attack and extremely pleased with our work, has given us $10,000!

As we’ve mentioned previously, our IAK talks are going extremely well – to standing-room-only, receptive audiences, many of whom buy my book. (In fact, many supporters suggest that it is specifically because the talks are so effective and the book is doing so well that the attacks on us continue and escalate.)

Thank you once again for your deeply appreciated, steadfast support. This is what makes our work possible. Together, we’re going to make the difference.

Alison Weir