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AUSG Chooses Hate Speech Over Free Speech

The student government constantly posits that it’s working to support students. Which ones?

 

As an opinion column the Agora employees a staff with differing views and political positions. Like all Agora articles, this is an opinion piece reflecting the views of the author.


“We are meeting in the green space behind Katzen.” The afternoon of Wednesday, April 10th, the American University Student Government sent an email blast with a historic invitation: to protest American University itself. The protest was in opposition to new policies enacted by the administration in January banning protests from being held inside university buildings, and requiring materials posted in campus spaces to only contain basic and relevant details on upcoming events. AU’s decision sparked immediate debate around campus on the balance between education and community the university must uphold. AUSG’s hamfisted foray into this issue has only solidified its status as a campus punchline. 


Protest organizers chose Katzen specifically because it was hosting a welcome ceremony for AU’s incoming president, Jon Alger. Masked students waving signs entered the building through a side door during the reception after the ceremony, before positioning themselves at the building entrance. I was an attendee at this function, and saw Alger whisked away by staff towards a back exit shortly after the protest began. Making already-exasperated university staffers, and the new president, even more annoyed and frustrated hardly seems like the best way to build bridges between campus stakeholders and ensure mature dialogue. The student government wants to burn bridges, not build them. Many of those bridges were internal. An AUSG officer who did not participate in the protest commented that it “was not entirely well thought out and in essence was a bit selfish to the students who attended the event” to meet with the incoming president and school alumni. As the outgoing AUSG president stood on stage for the welcoming ceremony, much of the incoming executive board instead busied themselves with disrupting the same event. 


Members of AUSG organizing the effort intentionally disregarded why AU officials decided to change school protest policies: students are being threatened. “Recent events and incidents on campus have made Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome,” read AU’s January policy announcement. The exploding antisemitism that accompanied the ongoing Israel-Hamas War has affected college campuses across the country to a historic level. Polling conducted soon after the war began found that 73% of Jewish college students experienced or witnessed antisemitism this school year. Only 33% felt emotionally safe on campus, and less than half felt physically safe. Parents and families of prospective and current college students are even more worried. Among Jewish parents, 96% are concerned about campus antisemitism, and over two-thirds say their high schooler has dropped colleges from their application list over antisemitic incidents on campus. It is easy to ignore this reality or tokenize voices who deny it. As future Eagles begin sending their deposits, what campus will they arrive on in the fall?


Jewish students at American are experiencing these national trends. Days before AU released their new policies on protests, an advocacy group filed a federal Title VI complaint with the Department of Education over the state of antisemitism on AU’s campus. Students have been verbally and sometimes even physically harassed in classes,  dorms, and campus buildings. Many feel isolated from former peer groups. Protests in November that disrupted class and blocked access to academic buildings were discussed in the complaint at length, with some students having  “panic attacks for fear for their safety.” Those fears were deemed credible by the FBI, who sent officers to protect a Jewish-Israeli student during their piano recital in December after they were physically assaulted and received death threats. Various stakeholders in the AU Jewish community shared complaints with me about the legal action being unhelpful in rectifying the situation. Nevertheless, it punctuated the dire nature of the campus climate, one underscored by countless meetings and discussions both among students and with staff. During one roundtable between Jewish students and AU Administrators, every student present raised their hands when asked if any had stepped back from one of their extracurriculars due to feeling unwelcome. Conversation at another meeting involved a resident assistant who was eventually fired after posting bizarre political rants about “Ashkenazi Jews” to social media. AUSG has plenty of time to devote to performative activism, but not for working with Jewish students on campus who have been impacted by the antisemitism platformed by that activism. 


One AUSG officer was particularly worried about AUSG’s role in the Katzen protest: to launder the opinions of other student organizations. “[AUSG] didn’t want others to get in trouble,” they recounted, and so only AUSG’s name was promoted as the event organizer. Exactly which student groups worked with AUSG is unknown. It can be reasonably assumed that members of the Sunrise Movement, Young Democratic Socialists of America, and related organizations have been involved based on their comments to student media. The officer definitively mentioned Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), whose recent probation became the new protest policy’s first disciplinary action and has been loudly opposed by the student government. SJP responded to the probation with a conspiratorial rant about “Zionist donors and influence” and the Anti-Defamation League (a Jewish anti-discrimination advocacy group) working “behind closed doors” to silence them. The source who exposed these shadowy dealings was revealed to be American University’s own Matt Bennett, Chief Communications Officer, who spoke with a Jewish news website along with AU’s Jewish Studies program director Pamela Nadell about the new policies. Interviewer Gabby Deutch noted that “American’s actions stand in contrast to those undertaken at many other universities, which… have not yet announced any new policies focused on combating antisemitism.” Protest organizers frequently talk about making the administration “uncomfortable.” So far, they have made the administration simply annoyed and frustrated, but many students on campus are deeply disturbed.


Using the new policy to simply place SJP on disciplinary probation also sets AU in contrast to other institutions. Universities nationwide have begun banning their SJP chapters from campus for using protests to promote hate speech. George Washington University suspended theirs in November after members projected “antisemitic phrases” on the school library, including the infamous “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” That slogan recently reverberated across AU’s campus while protestors blocked Glover Gate and forced campus shuttles to reroute. The chant was condemned by a bipartisan House resolution in April that discussed the slogan’s historic use by terrorist groups as a “call to arms” against the global Jewish community.  Columbia University’s suspended SJP chapter recently hosted an event featuring a speaker who discussed their “friends and brothers in Hamas, Islamic Jihad.” Student organizers were suspended and evicted from university housing. While leading its peers on combating antisemitism, AU has also been more accommodating of campus activism than other universities.


This nuance has hardly placated certain members of the student government, who organized a follow-up protest on New Eagle Day. The appetite for consistent protests does not seem very large. A protest organizer claimed 100 people assembled at Katzen to disrupt the event. For an organization claiming to represent over 7,000 undergraduate students, gathering 100 people after forcibly advertising to the entire school seems underwhelming. An email update from AUSG mentioned that 500 students gathered on the quad just one academic year ago to protest the sexual violence crisis on campus. This tracks with a lack of interest in the happenings of student government. Only 18% of eligible undergraduates voted in the most recent cycle. Beneath the grandiose quotes to overtly friendly student media, the uncomfortable truth is that AUSG is barely more than another campus club; a failing clique of itself and a handful of like-minded groups. 


This descent has been chronicled for years. The Agora’s own Katherine Sciackitano published a two-part expose aptly titled “The Fall of AUSG” in April 2022 detailing a series of uniquely AU scandals that led to the university downgrading the student government from a half-million dollar slush fund of “petty, abusive, and annoying… useless, self-enriching… LARP-ers [Live Action Role Players] and ‘House of Cards’ wannabes” into simply a $100,000 slush fund of mostly the same types of people. One of the largest changes took effect this school year, with most of AUSG’s former budget going to newly independent campus boards and initiatives. 


Still under the AUSG umbrella are the undergraduate councils, quasi-independent programming boards who derive funding from the wider student government. This reliance leads to council members feeling stuck. “That bureaucracy (reports, town halls, budget concerns, stipend allocation) is often difficult to fulfill” commented a council officer. “It’s a cycle of we [the council] need this from you [executive board and student senate] ok here’s what we need for that to get done, no response.” AUSG believes their time is best spent cosplaying revolutionaries. Their recent Instagram feed is almost exclusively dedicated to protest ban content, punctuated by election/application updates. A recent announcement for sexual violence awareness month bizarrely lists sexual-violence denying SJP as an event partner. 


AUSG dropped the pretense and continued to double-down on its support for hateful rhetoric, recently listing AU SJP as a co-sponsor of a nonbinding student senate resolution that concluded pages of falsehood-laden rambling by demanding the university sever real or perceived connections with Israel including study abroad programs and the Center for Israel Studies. Just weeks ago, AU SJP promoted a “resistance teach-in” alongside an image of a terrorist who used grenades to attempt armed hijackings of civilian planes. One attempt almost became a suicide bombing except the explosives failed to detonate. The use of such imagery becomes even more sinister in the context of AU SJP publicly celebrating the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. Their story posts as Hamas’s October 7th atrocities were ongoing proclaimed a “war of liberation” and SJP made sure to preemptively defend themselves with “let them call it terrorism.” This is pure, unrepentant, glorification of violence from a group that has quickly become an auxiliary member of our student government. 


The resolution passage on April 21st  in a cowardly secret ballot signified a turning point for the AU community. Testimony during public comment revealed that supporters intentionally conspired to hide the resolution from Hillel, the largest Jewish student association on campus. Hillel is not a club, but a quasi-university department administered by professional educators who sought to protect students by not directly commenting on campus issues. That silence was broken with a short statement posted to Instagram, which directly accused AUSG and its allied organizations of  “normalizing hateful rhetoric… dividing the campus community” and ultimately “contributing to the marginalization of Jewish students.” AUSG resolutions are rarely adopted by the school, and President Burwell immediately rejected the possibility in a mass email to students. 


Nothing that happens on American’s campus will impact a foreign war. The only substantive effect has been skyrocketing hostility towards the communities involved, especially Jews, as constant violence glorification has predictably escalated physically. The same day AUSG gathered for its afternoon of substance-free spite, a campus rabbi at Columbia University told Jewish students to leave campus for their own safety as violent protesters stormed school grounds.  In targeting a previously uninvolved organization simply because it is Jewish, the students responsible for the simmering atmosphere on this campus prove that they are fully aware of their “truly horrifying” actions. Whether from ignorance or bigotry, they simply do not care. Campuses across the country are facing the consequences of not immediately extinguishing the flames of hatred. As student agitators nationwide turn increasingly violent, institutions are grappling with the thought that maybe the well-meaning young adults speaking out for a passionate cause are simply irrational radicals suffering from years of propaganda. Elected officials from across the political spectrum are condemning this lunacy. Will the AU community heed these lessons?


The constant refrain from these groups is that they cannot possibly be antisemitic because there are a few Jews who vocally support or otherwise defend the movement. This is happily devoured by those looking for a both-sides story, and feeds into a common misconception that an antisemitic movement will flatly announce they hate Jews. The vast majority of such efforts arrive buried in euphemism and gilded with Jewish tokenization. Stalin supported “The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee” to distract from ongoing Jewish purges until its leaders were imprisoned and murdered for being “Zionists.” This phenomenon is quite literally ancient. For a more recent example, British politician and former parliamentary opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn remains close with “Jewish Voice for Labour,” even after his ouster as opposition leader for attempting to remake the Labour Party as “institutionally anti-Semitic.” The most extreme example is The Association of German National Jews,  a pro-Nazi Party group that vocally supported Hitler’s election and defended the Party against antisemitism allegations until its members were imprisoned and murdered. When students march around the quad yelling slogans that have historically been used by people who want to murder Jews, their one equally ill-informed Jewish friend congratulating them for eschewing hateful rhetoric does not change the substance of the statements. 


An hour-long conversation with a free speech protest organizer confirmed my belief that our campus is suffering from two distinct crises: hatred, and ignorance. The organizer told me that to their knowledge AUSG has not directly engaged with any campus Jewish groups about their concerns, or even knew what those concerns were. They personally were not aware of many of the stories that have been common in Jewish circles for months, including the student needing FBI protection, SJP’s terrorism support, or that AUSG’s resolution demanded the closure of AU’s Center for Israel Studies. They agreed that they do not understand how closing university departments supports free speech. The organizer commented that they didn’t know the Center for Israel Studies even existed until our conversation, and evaluated themselves as on-par with the average student knowledge-wise. We left our conversation having found common ground that AU’s new speech policies were a flawed attempt at confronting a serious antisemitism issue. There is a significant difference between the students knowingly promoting violence, and the students clouded by intoxicating vitriol. Hatred will never be eliminated, but ignorance can be solved through education and open dialogue.


The next steps have yet to materialize. A source close to the Division of Student Affairs shared that the university is currently remaking the Student Code of Conduct, and a new version will be released over the summer. By simplifying and self-radicalizing, leaders of both AUSG and allied student groups are quickly alienating any remaining potential supporters and prove why their activities must be restricted. We are not seeing the rise of a movement, but rather a last stand of extremists as they finally enter the limelight and immediately crumble as the public and erstwhile supporters realize their goals. After a full academic year of harassing students, their most substantive accomplishment to date is forcing the Wonk Bus to briefly reroute during a protest. 


Hand-wringing in emails about “injustices” and wanting “conversations with administrators” is meaningless doublespeak when your coalition relies on threats and lies to function. AU protest leaders have repeatedly shown an inability to self-reflect on their excesses while reaffirming their support for violent rhetoric and fantasizing conspiracies against them. Ultimately, issues of speech can only be resolved with speech itself. “There should be pathways to dialogue… to ensure protests have the strongest possible impact and minimal possible discomfort posed to students on campus” explained an AUSG officer from the School of Public Affairs. Those pathways are currently blocked by the antagonism of loud voices, ones slowly realizing that they are yelling alone.   



Alex Moskovitz is a third-year Data Sciences for Political Science major in the School of Public Affairs. He is a Managing Editor for the Agora.


Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

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