With by now predictable regularity, student activism – and even academic debate – on the conflict in the Middle East is met with punitive sanctions and attempts at silencing.  Such attempts exist on both sides, but disproportionately punish students and speakers critical of Israeli politics. The latest episode took place this March on the Campus of Northeastern University, where a student organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, had posted (in late February) mock eviction notices similar to the ones put up on Palestinian homes set for Israeli demolition. The eviction notices stated that the recipients’ dorm rooms would be demol­ished in three days, but it also contained clarifying text saying that “evic­tion notices are rou­tinely given to Pales­tin­ian fam­i­lies liv­ing under oppres­sive Israeli occu­pa­tion for no rea­son other than their eth­nic background…to cleanse the region of its Arab pop­u­la­tion, and cre­ate space for set­tle­ments.”

The university reacted by suspending SJP and demanding, as a condition of its reinstatement next year, that “No current member of the Students for Justice in Palestine executive board may serve on the inaugural board of the new organization” and that representatives from the organization must attend university-sanctioned “trainings.” The University is claiming that its reaction was unrelated to the content of the notices, but that it simply penalized a procedural infraction: the students had not acquired the required permits for leafleting. Given that other unauthorized leafleting on Campus has not been penalized, the harsh penalties addressed at SJP appear, however, very much related to the content of the messages.

This is all the more likely given that a university overreacting to student activism in support of Palestine is the rule rather than the exception:  as Chris Hedges reports student activists at “Florida Atlantic University were stripped of student leadership positions after they walked out of a talk by an Israeli army officer and were ordered by school administrators to attend re-education seminars designed by the Anti-Defamation League. Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (CSJP) was abruptly placed on suspension in the spring of 2011 and barred from reserving rooms and hosting events on campus. …The suspension was eventually lifted after a protest led by attorneys for the CSJP.”

When universities clamp down on political expression, they violate the deep and long fought-for traditions of free inquiry that US Campuses are assumed to maintain. Certainly, the debate about Palestine and Israel is heated and emotional, but penalizing students for  engaging in it will, in the long term, harm the institution’s relationship with its students as well as threaten its very mission of engaging students with ideas relevant to the world today.

You can find the Northeastern students’ petition to reverse the sanctions here. The petition also contains contact information for University administrators that you can write to and express your position.