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'To suppress our voices'

From event cancellations to controversial proposed legislation, students supporting Palestine criticize Arizona universities and local government over threats to pro-Palestine speech


'To suppress our voices'

From event cancellations to controversial proposed legislation, students supporting Palestine criticize Arizona universities and local government over threats to pro-Palestine speech

Whenever Salam visited the West Bank, it felt "like breathing fresh air after losing breath." Her family's village, Rammun, served as her safe haven. To her, it was a home filled with welcoming neighbors who also cherished community, who treated her "as a person."

Salam, an ASU student who requested to be identified only by her first name for privacy reasons, was born and raised in the U.S., but the West Bank has long served as her home. During middle school, she lived there for two years, and she still visits every summer.

But ever since Israel declared war against Hamas on Oct. 8, the West Bank has become a different place from the one she has come to know and love. Not only have more checkpoints sprung up and more roads been closed, but the war has personally impacted those close to her.

A couple of months ago, her friend's uncle, who lived in the West Bank, was kidnapped by the Israeli army — one of numerous terrifying interactions that people in her circle have had with the Israeli military.

Salam herself is no stranger to such encounters.

As a child, Salam was tear gassed, along with her siblings and other members of her village, by soldiers in the Israeli army.

"All I remember is the noise (of tear gas) being shot out, and then all of a sudden, I was coughing and crying," Salam said. "I spilled all the water from my water bottle on my sweater and told my siblings to breathe through (the fabric) because that's what my mom told me (to do), just in case anything happened. Why does a kid need to know how to breathe through tear gas?"

Incidents like this would occur in her village when it seemed Israeli soldiers were searching for someone there in particular, Salam said.

News of the violence hasn't been isolated to the Palestinian territories. As information regarding the situation has spread, communities worldwide have responded, including on college campuses. Thousands have taken to the streets, calling for an immediate ceasefire and urging politicians, companies and institutions to divest from Israel.

As an active participant in events, protests and organizations supporting Palestine, like the Phoenix chapter of the Arizona Palestine Solidarity Alliance, Salam has witnessed the response in Arizona firsthand and other people's reactions to it.

"It's so surreal knowing that you're hundreds of miles away (from the Palestinian territories) and you're still facing so much injustice and disgusting actions for no reason," she said.

While Salam appreciates that Americans have become more aware of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories, she is concerned the conversation has shifted from calling for a liberated Palestine to platforming a mere ceasefire.

"A ceasefire is a temporary fix," Salam said. "If you get a huge, deep cut, you're not going to go (with) a Band-Aid. You're going to go with the stitches. If Palestine was liberated, there wouldn't be a need for a ceasefire."

Facing backlash

Amid the ongoing violence, pro-Palestine movements on college campuses nationwide have faced shutdowns and even threats of censorship from their universities, from last-minute event cancellations to the suspension of pro-Palestine student groups. Altogether, universities' efforts to silence pro-Palestine movements and student groups on campus amount to suppression, activists have declared at schools nationwide.

ASU is no stranger to receiving these accusations. In November, an event featuring Palestinian American Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., was suddenly canceled while College Republicans United at ASU was able to invite the controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to campus that same month.

The University is also reportedly investigating allegations that the ASU chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine threw rocks at an Undergraduate Student Government meeting over Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions legislation. These incidents have raised concerns about ASU's commitment to freedom of speech as a public university, despite the University maintaining its stance that it "support(s) students and promote(s) a safe environment where diversity is embraced and the free exchange of ideas is nurtured and encouraged," according to a 2020 statement.

Although the University of Arizona has an obligation to protect freedom of speech as a public university, Baya Laimeche, president of the SJP chapter at UA, did not expect the level of pushback that her club faced starting in October — from both students and university officials.

On Oct. 12, the chapter canceled a pro-Palestine rally it was slated to hold that day after UA president Dr. Robert Robbins released a statement the day before declaring statements made by the national SJP organization were "antithetical" to the university's values.

"I want to be clear that SJP is not speaking on behalf of our university," he wrote. "But they have the constitutional right to hold their views and to express them in a safe environment."

As a result, the club responded in an Instagram post that it did not feel safe to hold its protest due to Robbins' "inflammatory letter."

"Most of the backlash that we have faced comes with the ground of advocating for Palestine in the United States, which has always kind of been a very hostile environment," said Laimeche, a senior studying political science, Arabic, and Middle Eastern and North African studies at UA.

Since then, she said organizing in support of Palestine on campus has been difficult, as safety has been a top concern.

Elaina Sajadea, a graduate student studying public health and co-president of the SJP chapter at Northern Arizona University, said there were few pro-Palestine groups on campus, if any, when she started at the school in 2018. While the SJP chapter at NAU was founded in 2011, she said it was "almost nonexistent" until October. 

Even though Sajadea, who is the daughter of a Palestinian immigrant, said she knows many people in Flagstaff who identify as Zionist, she has also noticed many students and community members are interested in organizing and advocating in support of Palestine.

However, Sajadea feels many people who support Palestine do not do so openly out of fear for the response they'd receive from those who do not agree with the pro-Palestine movement.

"You need to be careful about the repercussions," she said.

'We're not going anywhere'

Along with the University's responses to students' expression of support for Palestine, Salam believes state legislators' reactions to pro-Palestine student groups at state universities, including controversial proposed legislation like House bills 2178 and 2759, are "100% forms of censorship."

HB 2178, which was introduced in January, would allow students at Arizona's three public universities to designate which campus clubs their $35 semesterly student fees would support.

HB 2759, introduced in February, would ban student organizations that "(promote) a foreign terrorist organization in any manner that places a Jewish student in reasonable apprehension of imminent physical injury" from being formally recognized by their universities.

According to the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, HB 2759 was held in the Education Committee on March 13, with the organization welcoming the defeat of the bill in a statement released March 22.

Some advocacy organizations supporting Palestine, like CAIR-Arizona, were concerned HB 2759 would have targeted pro-Palestine student groups. In November, Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson, who was among the lawmakers who introduced the bill, responded on X to a post highlighting Columbia University's suspension of SJP, saying she "expect(ed) Arizona universities to do the same."

The way state legislators openly identifying as Zionist, like Hernandez, are treated, as compared with the way those who support Palestine are treated, also raises ethical concerns in the wider discourse surrounding the Israel-Hamas war, Salam said.

"When (state legislators) call for a Zionist state of Israel, that's not (seen as) wrong," she said. However, Salam added that when those of Palestinian descent, like her, and other supporters of Palestine chant "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," some consider it to be a call for violence.

On Oct. 24, ASU released a statement declaring that it had co-founded a coalition of higher education institutions condemning Hamas' attacks against the people of Israel on Oct. 7.

"We Stand Together with Israel Against Hamas," a statement released by the coalition read. "We are horrified and sickened by the brutality and inhumanity of Hamas."

While the University also wrote in the Oct. 24 statement that it believes "the Palestinian people are not represented by Hamas," in the months since, ASU has not issued any more statements mentioning Gaza or the Palestinian people.

"We talked about Oct. 7, well, let's talk about Oct. 6 or Aug. 22," Salam said, referring to incidents in which Israeli forces killed Palestinian civilians.

"We've had to remain vigilant about standing up for our right to freedom of expression on college campuses," said Finn Howe, president of SJP at ASU, a club dedicated to "promot(ing) justice, human rights, and self-determination for the Palestinian people," according to its Sun Devil Sync page.

Many students and community members with ties to ASU who support Palestine, including Howe, have criticized the potential impact that HB 2178 would have on SJP chapters at Arizona's public universities and other clubs representing marginalized students.

"That is a sort of challenge we faced, as well as trying to protect our academic freedoms and from those in government," Howe said.

In December, the SJP chapters at all three public universities in Arizona condemned the state House's Ad Hoc Committee on Antisemitism in Education on Instagram for not inviting them to a meeting about antisemitism on school campuses. At the meeting, SJP chapters were a "focal point," as the "hearing was held to provide a pretext to introduce legislation to de-charter and withhold funding from our chapters on Arizona university campuses, violating our rights to expression as well as due process," the statement read.

"There are many testimonies of people calling for our organization to be silenced, removed from campus, and really, to suppress our voices," Howe said.

Even though numerous speakers at the committee meeting criticized SJP for sparking hate on school campuses, Howe said SJP has made numerous clear statements against antisemitism.

"Students for Justice in Palestine is irrevocably committed to preventing religious and ethnic discrimination of all kinds, including antisemitism," the December joint statement read. "We reject the notion that criticism of the State of Israel or Zionism as a political ideology constitutes antisemitism."

The three SJP chapters at Arizona's state universities are constantly collaborating by creating joint statements, such as their December one about the committee meeting, and showing solidarity for one another despite being over 100 miles away from each other, Laimeche said.

"Every time there is some sort of attack on Israel or active resistance from the Palestinian people, the consequence is almost always devastating for the Palestinian people if we're talking about proportionality," she said. "We started organizing after Oct. 7 to call an end to the bombings and to stop what we anticipated would be a genocidal attack."

If HB 2178 and HB 2759 were passed, Laimeche said she's unsure how SJP UA can continue to function. 

"I don't know what they think they're accomplishing (if they ban) us off campuses except for showing their true colors that they will not support Palestinians in any capacity," Laimeche said. "We're not going anywhere. The students that are a part of SJP are not a part of it because it's just another club, they genuinely believe in Palestinian liberation."

For Laimeche, the most devastating part of organizing in support of Palestine is having to stand by as she sees her Palestinian friends suffer in a way she didn't know was "humanly possible."  She said the former vice president of UA's SJP chapter, who graduated in May, has lost over 30 family members since October.

"Having to witness that from the people that I'm very close to and have known for years has taken a toll on me," she said.

As a result, Laimeche said UA's SJP chapter has launched a campaign to establish a cultural center for Middle Eastern and North African students. This center would serve as a mental health resource for Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students at UA, according to Laimeche.

"SJP has taken the role of supporting, but we're just students as well," Laimeche said. "The overarching feeling that we have gotten in the past months is that Palestinians are not safe anywhere — not on their own university campuses in the U.S., not in Palestine."

This article was updated from the print version to reflect the current status of HB 2759.

Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen

This story is part of The Development Issue, which was released on April 3, 2024. See the entire publication here.

Reach the reporter at and follow @FatimaGabir on X.

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