Palestinian UIUC Law Alum Testimony Against the Dangers of IHRA

Members and supporters of SJP at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign demonstrate their support for a Free Palestine
Members and supporters of SJP at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign demonstrate their support for a Free Palestine. | Photo: Students For Justice In Palestine (SJP) at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

By Palestine Legal

June 09, 2023

Palestine Legal is publishing the following testimony by Rifqa Falaneh, a Palestinian law graduate from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, about the dangers of the distorted definition of antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

We are sharing this testimony as part of our ongoing advocacy work against the Israel lobby campaign to have the IHRA definition adopted by federal and local governments and legislatures, private institutions including employers and social media companies, as well as by universities and other public institutions.  Contact us if you have a testimony you would also like to share.

Testimony by Rifqa Falaneh

“How about instead of including Zionism in your mission statement, you write something that will make Jewish students feel more comfortable?” the dean of my law school told me in a meeting after Bar None, a civil rights organization I founded, released their mission statement:

“We recognize structures such as capitalism, White supremacy, Zionism, sexism, queerphobia, Islamophobia, and antisemitism as systems of oppression that must be dismantled.”

My three years at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) College of Law have been steeped in isolation, due to administrative backlash against student advocacy in support of Palestinian freedom. In addition to our dean of students falsely conflating my organization’s work with antisemitism, as a pro-Palestine organization, we have continuously faced discriminatory barriers that do not apply to other groups on campus.

This has included, being unable to host groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Black Students for Revolution at the law school, being forbidden from writing “a space for people of color” on an event description because it “excluded others,” being subjected to new guidelines such as requiring a disclaimer on every email and flier that the “opinions and statements of student organizations do not represent UIUC Law,” and not being able to send more than one email per week to the student body.

The intense backlash Palestinians and organizations that engage in Palestine advocacy face on campus is one that others do not regularly experience. This is rooted in part in the ongoing campaign led by Israel lobby groups to promote a distorted definition of antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) that intentionally conflates anti-Zionism and all forms of support for Palestinian rights, with anti-Jewish sentiment. This conflation prevents Palestinians from being able to speak to their histories of dispossession and about the ongoing apartheid, land theft and other violations of international law committed by the state of Israel.

Likewise, the attempts to incorporate the IHRA definition, along with its contemporary examples, into Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 represent a dangerous threat to Palestine student organizing across the country. Doing so would increase the Zionist tactic of filing Title VI complaints against speech and advocacy in support of Palestinian rights.

In a climate that is already repressive against Palestinians, incorporating the IHRA definition would be even more devastating for Palestinian student organizers as it would instrumentalize and accelerate the use of false accusations of antisemitism to attack Palestine advocacy. As Steven Salaita once said, “Universities are meant to be cauldrons of critical thinking; they are meant to foster creative inquiry and, when at their best, challenge political, economic, or social orthodoxy.” Not only does the use of the IHRA definition threaten free speech and academic freedom, it is also not a reliable tool to adjudicate whether something is or isn’t antisemitic.

Organizing with SJP on our campus, we have consistently been met with repeated threats from the pernicious Zionist presence among university administration and the student body. Throughout the history of our campus chapter, we encountered multiple instances of SJP leaders and members being stalked, harassed and filmed without consent by Zionist students. The leakage of private information, such as phone numbers and home addresses, of not only Palestinian students but also their family members has exerted a material threat against our SJP chapter. These harassing acts perpetrated by Zionist student groups are systematically reinforced by the university administration; the same people who claim that they stand for diversity, equity and inclusion on campus are the ones who uphold the ongoing cycles of silencing and threatening Palestinian students.

During March 2021, SJP organized a divestment campaign with the simple goal of placing a referendum question on the student ballot: “Should the University of Illinois divest its stocks, funds, and endowment from companies that profit from or engage in human rights violations in US Prisons, at the US-Mexico Border, and in Occupied Palestine?” This simple endeavor of collecting student opinions was repeatedly met with opposition by Zionist student groups and most aggressively from the administration.

Before the student government reached a conclusion on whether to include our proposed divestment question on the ballot, UIUC administration claimed that even if the student government approved the question, the office of Student Affairs would block the question from being included on the ballot. In response, our SJP filed a FOIA against the university for emails regarding divestment and discovered an email from a Jewish United Fund lawyer to the chancellor that stated: “To be clear, I am writing to request your written confirmation that the referendum question will, indeed be suspended and withheld from the ballot.” At that point, no matter how much students campaigned, the word of an outside affiliate would carry more weight than ours.

While these efforts for Palestine at UIUC are difficult enough, the incorporation of IHRA into civil rights laws and anti-discrimination policies, including Title VI enforcement regulations, would only further reinforce a system that already stands against us. Adopting the IHRA definition to allow students to file discriminatory complaints goes directly against our First Amendment freedom of political speech and should not be incorporated into civil rights law.

Despite the concerted administrative effort to halt our organizing and silence us, we continue. We continue because Israel is murdering Palestinians every day through its ongoing settler colonization of Palestine. So to us, none of what we are doing on campus comes close to the struggles that Palestinians are facing on the ground.

On every corner of this campus, Palestinians are met with persistent reminders of our marginalization and erasure. We are reminded every time we register for new courses, hoping none of our professors hold a bias against our Palestinian identity or our calls for liberation. We are reminded each time we grudgingly mail out our tuition checks, knowing the university willingly invests in companies that fund lethal Israeli military weapons. We are reminded when the university repeatedly conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism, further legitimizing a censorship tactic that threatens Palestinians from speaking their experiences.

Whether it’s at UIUC Law or the undergraduate program, our fight for Palestinian liberation will not be watered down.

Palestine Legal is an independent organization dedicated to defending and advancing the civil rights and liberties of people in the US who speak out for Palestinian freedom.

Palestine Legal ©2016

Reposted with permission from

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply