Palestinian Refugee: Stanford students censored me over condemnation of Israel

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

11 April 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.

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