Fordham University unfairly blocked four students from forming a pro-Palestinian group because deans worried the group would “stir up controversy” and use the term “apartheid” to describe Israel, a new lawsuit charges.
Students Ahmad Awad, Sofia Dadap, Sapphira Lurie and Julie Norris allege they followed the private Jesuit university’s guidelines for forming their group, Students for Justice in Palestine, but were stalled at every turn by Dean of Students Keith Eldredge, Dr. Dorothy Wenzel and Director of the Office of Student Leadership and Community Development, among other higher-ups.
The process, which should have taken a matter of weeks beginning in November 2015, instead took months and months, they say.
“As a Palestinian on campus, I was denied the opportunity to advocate for freedom for my people,” said Awad, who is a senior. “Instead of encouraging our human rights advocacy, the university sided with those trying to silence our voices.”
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During a meeting on Dec. 12, Eldredge asked the students whether they would advocate for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement meant to economically isolate Israel — and whether the effort would spell the dissolution of the Jewish state, according to the suit.
Eldredge also asked whether the students would use the term “apartheid” to describe Israel, and whether they would work with national advocacy groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street and Seeds of Peace, according to papers.
The students said they supported the movement known as BDS and were open to collaborating with other advocacy groups.
Nevertheless, on Dec. 22 — after receiving approval from the student government to form the group — Fordham’s deans informed the students they would prohibit Students for Justice in Palestine, the suit says.
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“I felt disgusted,” Awad says in an affidavit. “For nearly four years I had heard Fordham administrators speak about Jesuit values, about creating moral people, being kind and taking care of those less fortunate. When I received this decision, I understood this message did not apply to Palestinians. I felt defeated.”
A letter from Eldredge explained the university’s decision.
“While students are encouraged to promote diverse political points of view, and we encourage conversation and debate on all topics, I cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country, when these goals clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University,” Eldredge wrote, according to papers.
“There is perhaps no more complex topic than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is a topic that often leads to polarization rather than dialogue. The purpose of the organization as stated in the proposed club constitution points toward that polarization. Specifically, the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding.”
The suit says there’s no factual basis for the support of the BDS movement representing a “barrier” to on-campus dialogue.
“Even if the expression of views seeking justice in Palestine or demanding respect for human rights through BDS is considered polarizing or offensive to some, it is protected speech; indeed, it is the ideas that challenge us and foster debate that need to be protected most,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Deputy Legal Director Maria LaHood, who is representing the students.
A Fordham University spokesman did not have an immediate comment.
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