Brown Students Shut Down Trans Activist’s Speech—Because Israel

Trans activist Janet Mock was chased away from an engagement at Brown University. Not by anti-LGBT forces—by students who saw even her slightest tie to Israel.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

This month, a student group at Brown University launched a petition to pressure Janet Mock into canceling her scheduled lecture on the Providence, Rhode Island, campus.

One might assume this cohort was virulently homophobic or transphobic to discourage the transgender activist from serving as the keynote speaker selected by Moral Voices—a group whose mission for this academic year was to raise awareness about “violence against LGBTQ+ individuals and communities,” according to a statement by one of its co-chairwomen.

No, based on their petition’s aim, these students apparently believed it was better for Mock not to speak at all than to do so at an event connected to the Hillel chapter for the Ivy League college and the Rhode Island School of Design.

That the event was not about Israel or the Middle East, or that its sponsorship by other progressive groups on campus—including the Brown Center for Students of Color, Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, LGBTQ Center, Sexual Assault Peer Educators, Office of the Chaplains, and the Rhode Island School of Design’s Office of Intercultural Student Engagement—didn’t sway these students from arguing that Mock’s appearance would be implicit support for… some Zionist conspiracy?

The petition posted on Change.org—which Brown’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) later identified themselves as at least partially responsible for when defending it in a Brown Daily Herald opinion piece—argued that Mock shouldn’t speak at the event because Moral Voices (although privately funded) operates through the Brown-RISD Hillel. According to these students, “Hillel as a corporation has consistently defended and even advocated for the Israeli state’s policies of occupation and racial apartheid. Israel’s violent policies center on colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and genocide of native Palestinians,” and charges that it “has guidelines set in place to ensure that no speaker hosted by Hillel is allowed to rigorously critique Israel.”

Curiously, the last allegation actually links to a part of the Hillel International website that specifically states:

Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner. We encourage studentsinquiry as they explore their relationship with Israel. We object to labeling, excluding, or harassing any students for their beliefs and expressions thereof. As an indispensable partner to the university, Hillel seeks to facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning.

So, not exactly damning proof that Hillel International hinders free speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or other issues. But on the Brown/RISD Hillel site there’s a link the local chapter of J Street U that cheerily boasts among its past achievements encouraging U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) “to support continued aid to the Palestinian Authority.” Clearly, Mock was not being invited to speak by some right-wing, extremist organization or, for that matter, one that pressures students to embrace a single, hardline view.

Instead, the group of students thwarting Mock’s scheduled lecture—those belonging to SJP—do, in fact, pressure people to conform to their mind-set on the Middle East and quash intellectual diversity.

Sadly, Mock caved to the pressure. Though the petition drew just 160 signatures, Mock canceled days before she was expected to speak on March 21 because, “We feel the focus of Janet’s work was lost leading up to the proposed event,” her representative reportedly told the Moral Voices organizers.

Way to go, student activists at Brown! You succeeded in creating a hostile environment that led to a trans woman of color being discouraged from sharing her voice and opinions. This all helped the Palestinian people how, exactly?

Brown President Christina Paxson expressed disappointment. “I respect her decision to avoid having her talk be overshadowed by an issue unrelated to her work. However, I am disappointed that a valuable learning opportunity was lost,” she said in a Sunday email to the student body.

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In that same email, Paxson also referred to campus housing facilities that had been defaced. According to the Brown Daily Herald, “Gay will die” and “Holocaust 2.0” were written on hallway walls.

“I want to emphasize that there is absolutely no evidence that the cancellation of the Mock event is related to the homophobic and anti-Semitic graffiti that appeared,” Paxson wrote. “However, taken together, these two events are deeply troubling. They come at a time when the nation and colleges across the country are grappling with concerns about injustice against individuals based on religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender expression.”

In their op-ed, SJP members defended their group’s “my way or the highway approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the initial the petition stressed, the students’ objections were not over Mock but rather her willingness to take part in an event even slightly tied to Hillel. In other words, they wanted Mock to speak—but only as long as she agreed to the terms they dictated. It’s hardly the stuff of international diplomacy; has digging in your heels and refusing to let people share their opinions ever brought about peace or stability?

Part of the arguments that these students used to dissuade Mock suggested that speaking at the Moral Voices campaign would ultimately hurt the LGBTQ community, serving as “part of Hillel’s [and Israel’s] pinkwashing campaign.” Confused about the connection? Many critics have tried to flip Israel’s record on LGBTQ rights, claiming that it touts these accomplishments as a way to distract from its treatment of Palestinians, aka “pinkwashing.” To that regard, James Kirchick wrote in Out in 2007 that, “The harassment and torture of homosexuals is a tried-and-true practice of the Palestinian Authority, and a burgeoning gay underground of refugee Palestinian homosexuals thrives in Tel Aviv, the gay capital of the Middle East.” So, make of the pinkwashing claim what you will.

Aside from the fact that pinkwashing is too often invoked when it is convenient for critics of Israel—the same ones rarely point out that many of Israel’s neighbors jail people for being gay—there’s an unhelpful, forced quality to tying all social movements together. “If you support X, then you must support Y” doesn’t always work, especially with nuanced social issues. For example, last year, students at New York’s Barnard College argued that full sexual-assault advocacy necessitated holding SJP’s highly critical view of Israel. As The Daily Beast’s Lizzie Crocker wrote, “The implication is that to be anti-sexual assault at Columbia, one must also be anti-Israel. Conflating those issues under a larger umbrella of oppression waters them both down individually.”

This thinking—that it’s better to destroy any group or event that doesn’t precisely echo its line (which, by the way, is often the Jewish state’s demise) than to make any progress in promoting dialogue and, maybe, peace in the tumultuous Middle East—is a frustratingly self-righteous and self-damaging approach. It’s an illogical framework—that it is better to harm those who don’t completely agree with you than it is to attempt to reach your purported goal of a better, more peaceful life for Palestinians or, for that matter, “fighting for a more just and equal society,” as the Brown SJP’s website states.

So there’s a certain irony that SJP has such a strong foothold on college campuses when there is a fervent anti-intellectualism beneath the tactics it supports, especially the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

It’s not just student groups backing the economic and political sanctions on Israel; academic organizations themselves are fast approaching BDS, too, with one of the most recent being the National Women’s Studies Association. In December, the group decided that, “As feminist activists, scholars, teachers, and public intellectuals who recognize the interconnectedness of systemic forms of oppression, we cannot overlook the injustice and violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, perpetrated against Palestinians.”

That’s all well and good, but in specifically endorsing BDS, it meant NWSA cut off academic ties with Israel, too. That included not allowing professors, researchers, or other academics who receive funding from Israeli universities, museums, or other institutes from participating at their events. In short, it effectively silences any and all voices with the slightest drop of an Israeli connection.

As disturbing as it may be to single out people from one country that harshly, the more upsetting part is the deeply anti-intellectual quality to such academic boycotts. Erasing and devaluing the research, work, and opinions of any person with an Israeli affiliation violates the spirit of debate, exploration, and learning that one would think is the cornerstone of modern universities.

But if even professors are embracing this seemingly contradictory approach, no wonder some students at Brown thought pressuring Mock was the logical move to help bring about peace.