Daring to Speak Out on Campus
by Amani Al-KhatahtbehModerator Helena Cobban: We’re going to start with Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, who is the founding editor-in-chief of <muslimgirl.net>, a blog aimed at eliminating stereotypes surrounding Islam and promoting the place of Muslim women in Western society. By the way, in case you didn’t know, this whole panel is about what’s happening on the college campuses these days, which is absolutely crucial to the future of this issue. That’s why it’s particularly great to have this youthful energy here. It comes with an enormous amount of experience of organizing on campuses. Amani ran into trouble with Rutgers University trustees and its daily newspaper, The Daily Targum, which decided that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. In June 2012, the ADC named Al-Khatahtbeh its media relations specialist. So we’re delighted to hear first and foremost from Amani Al-Khatahtbeh.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: Good morning/almost afternoon, everyone. I’m really honored to be opening up this panel. It is definitely crucial to the conversation surrounding how we’re going to be talking about Israel and Palestine, and how we’re going to shape politics in the future. So I’m excited to have this panel here. I thank the organizers for allowing us this opportunity to speak on these topics with such a distinguished audience and amongst such amazing speakers that all of us have been referencing all throughout college for the work that we’ve done. So I want to start out by posing a question to the room. I want to hear your thoughts, your opinions. I want to bring up this column that just went away completely. Someone can help me with this, please?
Audio-video person: Working the audio-visuals: I got you.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: Thank you. Okay. Until it comes back up on the screen behind me, I want to read aloud what it says. It’s a column that was published in The Daily Targum, Rutgers University’s student newspaper. And it was written in criticism of a new building that Hillel was raising funds for on our campus. They had a huge building in the center of our university, and they were raising funds to make an even bigger one to be able to provide even more services to the campus community. This article was published around that time. It’s called, “Can Hillel’s funding be put to better use elsewhere?” In the column, Colleen Jolly, the writer, says:
“If you know anything about Israel, you can conclude that pro-Israel parties are good at getting money into funds, i.e., the purchases of Jewish National Fund in modern-day Palestine. On December 2nd, the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, where Rutgers University is situated, a federally and privately funded agency, raised $400,000 at a telethon held at the Douglass Campus Center. I am not 100 percent sure where this money is going, but seeing that they used the university building, my only guess would be that the university, or specifically, to the proposed Hillel building. This building is to be named after Eva and Arie Halpern.”
Colleen brought up an interesting point, right? Her column didn’t take into account how that money was being accrued or the fact that Hillel’s building was being privately funded. But it brought up some links that she saw with pro-Israel organizations and parties across the country, or what she viewed as her own experiences with them. Now, does this column have anti-Semitic undertones? Do you think so?
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: Okay. I want to keep that in mind as we look at this next column. Now, Colleen Jolly was a student. This column was published by the same newspaper, Rutgers’s daily paper, by a man who actually has an official position as a rabbi at Hillel on campus. This was published a few years prior. It was during the uproar on Operation Cast Lead. Rabbi [Dovid] Weiss says:
“Standing on the steps of Brower Commons on College Avenue campus, they held a vigil for”—referring to [BAKA], an organization that later became known as SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] on campus—“the 1,400 lives lost during the war in Gaza more than two years ago, The Daily Targum reported. Yet students and staff who came for the ambience of a peaceful vigil that night may not have known that they were involved in a vigil which mourned the deaths of terrorists.
“Included in the number of victims being mourned were a whopping 600 to 700 Hamas terrorist operatives that were also killed in the Gaza war. Student groups paying homage to known terrorists fuel fear, hatred, resentment, and divides our campus community. This kind of activity is much more common, more hostile, in radically charged campuses. University students were exposed to paying tribute to fallen terrorists under the guise of innocent civilians.”
Now, does this column seem racist?
Audience: To be honest, yeah.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: Right? I mean I’m not going to bring up anti-Semitism and how it also applies to Arabs and how this could be applicable as anti-Semitism. But it’s interesting that this [Colleen Jolly] column received an entire uproar. I actually published this column. I was the opinions editor of the student newspaper at that time. This came to my desk and I decided to run with it. We edited it. It was much more offensive before we decided to publish it. But I and several other editors went through the editing process with it, went forward with it, because I felt like there were much worse things published in this newspaper before for other groups, right? If we’re going to be boasting about freedom of speech in our college newspaper, it should apply to all types of columns that we receive. It shouldn’t be filtered based on who we’re talking about. But this op-ed turned out to be the one that launched a thousand other op-eds.
This was the result. This was a public statement issued by the editor-in-chief, who was my boss at that time. This decision was made completely without my consideration at all, even though I was the editor of that page. In it, he says basically that they had decided to take down the article. “Looking back, elements in that piece relay discriminatory undertones that do not reflect the values and goals of our organization. These elements, which I personally find distasteful and irrelevant, greatly overshadow any sort of argument the author was trying to make.”
What happened was, as a result of that op-ed by Colleen Jolly about Hillel’s building, a series of actions were taken by the newspaper that were not taken when it came to the way that the newspaper published articles about other entities, other parties in this conversation around Israel and Palestine. They removed Colleen Jolly’s column from the website completely, which was almost unheard of. They even issued a retraction in the corrections of the printed newspaper the following week. They released a public statement, which takes a lot to get from our editorial staff at The Targum. On top of that, something that happened behind the scenes that didn’t receive much visibility at all…by the pressure of Hillel around this column, they were able to get the board of trustees to implement sensitivity training to every incoming editor on how to identify anti-Semitic undertones in columns that they’re editing. Then on top of that, in case you thought that wasn’t enough, they also decided, the board of trustees told the editorial staff that from that year forth, any column or letter to the editor, anything that was submitted to them that was on Israel or Palestine had to go straight to the board of trustees for their approval.
Now, number one, I’m pretty sure that’s literally the definition of censorship, if you want to open it up in a dictionary. Number two, if we’re talking about anti-Semitism, and that was the charge, what in the world does that have to do with the Israel-Palestine conflict? This really powerful influential organization on campus, Hillel, basically used this opportunity on this uproar around this column to create more pressure on the newspaper to censor itself on Israel. Because pro-Palestine sentiment on campus was getting a lot of traction.
It certainly did when I assumed office. I became the first Palestinian opinions editor that the newspaper had in its history. We’re talking about the oldest collegiate paper since the United States became the United States. I was also the only Arab editor for my entire editorial staff, so I guess that was kind of, you know, a sensitive thing in the office. On top of that, I was told by people that had worked there before that I was the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman that they had as an editor in the newspaper as well.
When I assumed my position, what exactly was I coming into? When I was a freshman at Rutgers, the newspaper had a really awful, awful reputation for being very pro-Israel, very slanted. The opinions page only showed these really strong columns like the one you saw from Rabbi Weiss that were very distorted and showed only one side, one point of view to things. There was a lot of controversy on campus even then. These are statistics that were put together by students and faculty alike. They went back through an entire year-to-two-year span in the newspaper of the opinions page before I assumed office. This was two years before I received my desk as the opinions editor. They put together how many opinions articles were definitely published that are pro-Palestine, how many were published that were pro-Israel, and how many were neutral. As you can see, there are almost twice as many op-eds published that were pro-Israel than pro-Palestine.
This is what I was dealing with. Honestly, this was a huge motivation for me when I got invited to apply for the position. I was like, “Wow, this is something that I’ve been wanting to change since I was a freshman. So now I’m a junior, why not,” right? I went for it, and I got elected for the position. Lo and behold, immediately, literally, my first month in office—this is probably even the first week of me being the opinions editor—I was charged with bias immediately. Literally, one of the first op-eds that I published was submitted by a Hillel member on campus. It was about Iran, and Israel’s interests in U.S. policies in Iran, why the U.S. should be against Iran, etc., etc. The editorial process, like I mentioned earlier, goes through a series of editors.
This particular column received the exact same treatment any other column did. We put it through the editorial process, fact checked it. We edited it for length so it can fit into the paper so that we can even publish it in the first place. Immediately, that student and other really influential and vocal members of Hillel made a very public complaint against me that I was biased. I’m not entirely sure that I would have been accused of that had I been any other identity than an Arab-Muslim woman in that position.
Things started really heating up when it came to Targum on campus. I was under a lot of scrutiny. The spotlight was literally on me for what was being published, how it was being published, and the treatment that the op-eds were receiving. One Hillel member, who had the position of being the Israel chair—so I’m assuming his position has something to do with promoting pro-Israel relations on campus or something—he actually started an entire blog dedicated to me and started having Hillel members that submitted op-eds also submit those same op-eds to him.
Then he made a blog where he would show what the original version was and what the edited version looks like. Then any edits that were made—that weren’t always mine, but they’re pretty typical, very usual edits—he would politicize them and attribute some great underlying intention behind it and really, you know, trying to rev up the sentiment around me that I’m like this biased, unreliable editor, and I shouldn’t be in my position. Interestingly enough, no other editor on our staff received that same type of treatment, that same type of scrutiny. No one else was really considered for whether they’re approaching the topic sensitively or not.
Now, as a result, for a number of times throughout my term, I was threatened for termination by the board of trustees. What wasn’t disclosed is that one member of the board of trustees is actually the mother of one of the leading officials of Hillel—entirely. That was something that they kept secret from us. Obviously, things already behind the scenes are politicized. The very close ties the board of trustees had with Hillel, they used that to try and increase pressure on me to decide what my editorial decisions were.
Things really popped off when I published an op-ed that was pro-Palestine, because we had published one that was pro-Israel the day before. When I published the pro-Palestine one—that was probably the popping off point where everyone really attacked me for being biased. That particular official in Hillel, whose mother was on the board, she said that she had submitted a letter and I hadn’t picked hers over the pro-Palestine one and I should, because she’s a Hillel official, even though a pro-Palestine letter was published before hers.
They wanted to create a rule where any type of pro-Palestine letter was published, a pro-Israel letter had to be published alongside it—a major double standard, because countless pro-Israel letters were published without any kind of consideration towards the opposing side. They were telling the board of trustees, “We have to tell this editor, you know, she has to publish Hillel letters on Monday because that’s when the newspaper gets the most circulation. She has to publish pro-Israel letters alongside pro-Palestine letters.” Multiple times, they told me if I didn’t do exactly what they said, they were going to fire me.
I had many opportunities to expose what was happening behind the scenes. But this is an issue that I think Dima [Khalidi] is going to speak a lot for, with students on college campuses, is that they’re in a very vulnerable position. For me, I had to risk losing my job, which was my paycheck. I had to risk a reputation in my school for being editor if I got fired or if I got terminated. I was really confused. Also, when I reached out to the board of trustees before I realized this was all happening/coming from them, I expressed my concerns that I was being discriminated against. They responded to me by saying basically that I’m the one that should be worried, that I’m the one that they’re concerned with about bias, that I’m the one that is the problem. I started also wondering like, “Wait, am I doing something wrong?”
Then this was compiled. The same survey that was conducted years before I became the opinions editor, they conducted the same one for my term exactly. The op-eds that are published pro-Palestine and pro-Israel and neutrally on this topic during my term, and they found that again, even with a Palestinian Muslim-Arab woman as the opinions editor, there were still almost twice as many pro-Israel letters published during my term as pro-Palestine letters. But this is something that all the blogs and newspapers are writing about this issue. It was something that they never considered or covered in any of their coverage, which I think speaks a lot to it.
For the end of my term, every editor gets the privilege of having a farewell column. That’s their opportunity to, you know, talk very emotionally about how much The Targum gave back to them, what they learned from their experience, etc.. I finally had made it. I was at the finish line. I was like, “Yes, I didn’t get fired, I survived,” you know.
I was like, “This is a perfect opportunity for me to tell other students what exactly is happening behind the scenes. This is what I experienced.” I wrote up an entire column basically detailing exactly what happened from A to Z. My own editorial staff censored me. I didn’t even have to rely on the board of trustees anymore. My own co-editors, who witnessed everything that was happening, they told me, “No. We can’t publish this because it’s going to make our newspaper look bad.”
I was like, “All right. You’re going to censor me. I’m going to go to The Huffington Post.” Then the Huffington Post decided to publish it. [Audience applause]
Now, this is my first time writing for a major publication like this. I was very relieved, because I was almost in tears when they were censoring me. I was like, “Wow, this is literally happening again even as I’m about to leave.” Thankfully, it turned out for the better, because this issue ended up receiving a national audience. It getting published in the Huffington Post is even the reason why I’m here today. The ADC, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, it’s the largest civil rights organization in the country for Arab-Americans, they saw this. They reached out to me because they felt like I was being discriminated against. Then only a couple of months later, when I was about to graduate from college, they reached out to me and recruited me to be their media relations specialist. [Applause] Now, I’m in DC, where these decisions are happening. Now, my time is up so I just want to wrap up with this HuffPo article. It was followed up by the Foundation for Individual Rights of Education.
They wrote a blog about it. In the blog, they said, “Targum readers think that they are getting news on controversial topics from independent student editors. But instead, they seem to be getting the perspective of unknown members of a board of trustees working behind the scenes.”
Now, if college campuses are a microcosm of society, I hope that everyone keeps this in mind when we think about what’s really happening with our news today. Thank you.
Helena Cobban: Thank you so much, Amani. It really is wonderful for me to be here with three amazingly talented young Palestinian Americans. When I came to this country 30 years ago, it was very different, and here we see leadership being formed amongst a new generation of Palestinian Americans.