The state of “israel” was founded on settler-colonial violence against Palestinians. This violence has persisted throughout the state’s entire existence and continues to this day. Indeed, this year, the rate of “israel’s” attacks on Palestinians and their homes has skyrocketed, and the violence continues to increase during Ramadan—as it does every year. Just as there was a moral duty in the 1980s to oppose the brutal apartheid regime in South Africa, there is a similar duty today to oppose the oppression of Palestinians by the state of “israel.”
In the face of this, universities in the United States continue to silence Palestinians and their allies when they speak openly about this horrendous state of affairs.
This is exactly what’s happening at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), where the administration is working to stop students from raising important questions about study abroad trips to “israel” and other events platforming speakers from “israel” without acknowledging Palestinian rights.
We should be clear: this amounts to racism and discrimination against Palestinian students.
Silencing Questions from Palestinian Students
This January, the Study Abroad Office (SAO) and its “Elements in Motion” program announced that it would be holding informational sessions about a new program in israel—as if israel were just another place to visit and study, rather than the site of ongoing atrocities of racism and settler colonialism. The SAO website marketed the summer trip as being open to all UIC students, describing it as an opportunity “to learn more about how you can immerse yourself in new cultures, music, dance, and food while enriching your UIC academic experience.”
On Monday, January 23, the Study Abroad Office hosted an informational session via Zoom regarding their summer study abroad trip to “israel.” The UIC staff involved in this Zoom call were SAO Executive Director Kyle Rausch, SAO Senior Associate Director Irina Krymova, and Professor Vered Arbel, Instructor of Kinesiology & Nutrition and Faculty Director of the Summer 2023 Elements in Motion program in “israel.” Multiple members of Students for Justice in Palestine at UIC (SJP) and allies registered for the Zoom call. At the time of the info session, SJP members and allies attempted to join the Zoom call to ask questions and express their concerns.
However, things took a discriminatory turn when SJP members and allies with “Arab sounding” names were left in the waiting room and not admitted into the call, while others with “non-Arab” sounding names were easily admitted into the session. SJP members and allies that were allowed into the meeting were told that there had been a change in the Zoom link due to “technical difficulties.” So, they sent the new Zoom link to those who weren’t allowed in. But the members and allies with “Arab sounding names were still prevented from joining the meeting. In response, some students chose to change their Zoom display names to those that sounded “less Arab” and more western. Names like “Salaam” and “Jenin” were changed to “Rebecca” and “Hayley,” respectively. Once those students changed their names, they were then allowed to join the Zoom call almost immediately.
Once in the info session, SJP members waited quietly until the Q&A portion of the call, at which point they tried to voice their concerns. But they were muted and dismissed by the hosts of the call Outrageously, these students were prevented from asking genuine questions about Palestinians’ or anti-Zionists’ safety, ostensibly because they were “political” and “not appropriate” for the info session.
Following the meeting, a few students asked to meet one-on-one with Kyle Rausch and Vered Arbel. In these meetings, both Kyle and Vered claimed to have had prior knowledge of “provocative students” coming to “disrupt” the meeting. Kyle claimed that SJP members and allies disrupted the meeting to the point that they “were not able to proceed with the information session as planned.” This is not true. Students waited patiently and respectfully until the Q&A section to ask their questions. When this same student told Kyle that they felt that hosting a trip to “israel” is inherently discriminatory and that they were racially profiled by being barred from the Zoom call, he claimed that this student was “trying to push a political agenda.”
Furthermore, Vered personally reached out to a student encouraging her to meet to discuss the trip as it was “structured to be inclusive and diverse.” However, during this meeting, the professor then whitewashed the occupation of the Palestinian people as an “Arab versus Jews conflict.” She claimed that the “conflict” and the displacement of Palestinians is justified because conflict takes place all around the world, and blamed Arabs for not approving the UN’s plan of a “two-state solution” when it was proposed.
The discrimination continued in February at the Study Abroad Expo, an exhibition in the UIC Student Center East that displays different booths with information about study abroad opportunities. The Expo is open to all students to ask questions and learn more about the variety of offered trips. During this event, the President of SJP went to introduce herself to Kyle and speak directly to him. When she raised her concerns and experiences from the info session, Kyle dismissed them as lies and proceeded to walk away. The President then addressed Irina Krymova about her concerns regarding how other SJP members and allies had been treated. Irina claimed that the President was being “aggressive” and yelling. Irina also claimed that anybody was welcome to ask questions, but that those who were asking questions about Palestine were disruptive and not genuinely interested in the trip.
Weaponizing Law Enforcement Against Students of Color
A week later, SJP members went to the Physical Education Building to hand out fliers and spread awareness about their experiences with the SAO and Vered. As they were doing so, Professors Tomer Kanan and Joshua Miller called the UIC police and told the students that if they did not leave immediately they would be escorted out of the building. The students said that they did not want any trouble and proceeded to head to the first floor.
However, when they reached the first floor, they found that the police were already waiting for them. The students were then told by police that they couldn’t leave the premises until they gave their student ID numbers. When one of the students said she didn’t understand why they needed this information since they were already leaving the building, the police proceeded to grab her–the only student present wearing a hijab– by her shirt and bag. Professors Kanan and Miller stood and watched while this all occurred. Rather than simply requesting the students to stop what they were doing and leave the building, these professors chose to weaponize law enforcement against students of color. Additionally, students involved who were not visibly wearing the keffiyeh, a Palestinian scarf symbolizing resistance, were not asked for identification.
Then, on Friday, February 18, Kyle Raush, the Executive Director of the Study Abroad Office, sent an email to the President of Students for Justice in Palestine, threatening legal action for “copyright” against Instagram content that the organization posted, which included his photo. These posts included some of the blatantly racist and ignorant quotes from Kyle, Irina, and Vered towards the students who expressed concern for the morality of this study abroad trip. For example, when asked if the trip organizers were going to address the current apartheid inflicted by “israel” against Palestine, Kyle answered, “No, because most countries around the world do have a significant human rights problem… We do not have the capacity to bring up every human rights violation for every country we’re going to send students to. It’s everywhere.”
Kyle’s threat was a clear attempt to silence and censor Students for Justice in Palestine at UIC after he saw how much traction the Instagram posts were getting, and how much scrutiny he was already under. Threats like the one that Kyle made towards people of color are designed to limit free speech and discourage students from political association and activism. Indeed, his threat was completely baseless and merely a tactic of fear mongering in order to maintain a clean public image. As a person in administrative power, is this a reflection of UIC’s mission and values? If administration is allowed to threaten students of color with legal action rather than provide a space for them to share their legitimate concerns, then how safe are we as students?
Since these interactions with Kyle, Irina, and Vered, affected students have submitted Discrimination Reports and expressed concerns to university administrators at an Undergraduate Student Government Diversity & Inclusion Town Hall.
More recently SJP was reported to the Dean of Students for “violating the Open Expression Policy” for posting unapproved fliers. An administrative hearing then took place on March 17 with the SJP President, SJP Vice President, Faculty Advisor, and Eric Pegues, the Interim Assistant Dean of Students. The students argued that the ruling was unfair due to the fact that UIC doesn’t hold all student organizations accountable for “posting unapproved fliers.” Also telling was the fact that the students who put up fliers did not explicitly identify themselves with SJP in any way. The fact that SJP was cited for violating administration policy thus proves that SJP is being targeted for our political commitments. During this hearing, there was no straightforward answer for the students regarding any of their concerns, leaving us with doubts about the administration’s ability to provide justice and fairness for students from marginalized groups.
A History of Racist Retaliation
Unfortunately, this problem is not new. The series of incidents this year follows the censorship of SJP members and allies from a Zoom event that took place on March 3, 2021, presented by the School of Public Health (SPH). In that event, Professor Gabi Bin Nun was invited by SPH to speak on the healthcare system of “israel” whilst ignoring the ongoing medical apartheid, not to speak of the immense physical harm regularly being meted out by the israeli state During this session, students raised concerns in the Zoom chat and were removed from the call when doing so. Afterwards, students submitted reports to the Office of Access and Equity, and OAE responded that the removal was justified due to “text shouting.” There is a full and continuous timeline of this campaign regarding the censorship of SJP and allies.
With the current situation SJP is facing, we are unsure if we can fully trust the system UIC has implemented due to past lack of investigation and consideration for Palestinans. There is systemic discrimination against the Palestinian people that continues to be ignored and not addressed with justice and equity. Serious changes need to be made and we will not stop until we feel safe and understood as students.
Currently, one of our demands is in the process of being met by the administration, as the Arab American Cultural Center is working to facilitate a “Palestine 101” discussion with important and representative faculty of UIC. This is a positive development. But it doesn’t change the fact that university staff who caused harm have not been held accountable, and their program is scheduled as originally planned despite its clear bias against Palestinian human rights and its propagandist curriculum. Moreover, Palestinians and allies continue to face threats and discrimination by UIC administrators. This is unacceptable.
The outcome we are seeking for this matter is for the school to effectively investigate this issue in an equitable manner that takes into account the racist behavior of all the faculty and administrators involved. We would like to see consequences and systemic action being taken in regard to discrimination against Arab and Palestinian students. We would also like to see the Study Abroad Office release a statement about this situation and provide support and a platform for minority populations such as Palestinian students. Moreover, the Study Abroad Office should implement a student-led committee that assists in the approval process of trips to ensure an equitable and fair environment for all students. Lastly, we demand SAO to uphold the basic principle of not conducting trips to politically tumultuous areas, such as apartheid states like “israel.”