A few weeks ago, Nathan Thrall, a Jewish American writer whose work strongly supports Palestinian rights, was invited to speak to students at the University of Arkansas about a new book.
But there was one catch: To be paid for his visit, Mr. Thrall was told that he had to pledge, according to a 2017 state law, that he would not boycott Israel. He declined.
When news broke that Mr. Thrall would not sign the pledge, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders applauded the university.
“On campuses across America, pro-Hamas protesters are harassing Jews, praising terrorism, and calling for the destruction of Israel,” Ms. Sanders wrote on social media. “That is unacceptable and won’t happen in Arkansas.”
At college campuses around the country, students and faculty have been engulfed in vitriolic debates over students’ pro-Palestinian speech. There have been loud dueling protests and angry donors registering their displeasure on social media. Brandeis, Columbia and George Washington University have banned or suspended pro-Palestinian student protest groups.
At a large public university in a more conservative state like Arkansas, the debate is playing out in a somewhat different way. Well before the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, state lawmakers had tried to control the debate on the Middle East, for instance demanding in the 2017 law that anyone contracting with the state sign a pledge against boycotting Israel.
For some on campus, the incident with Mr. Thrall was the latest example of speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being discouraged, and without much of the fanfare that can attend free-expression fights at colleges elsewhere.
Two weeks ago, a panel for students featuring two Middle East experts was quietly canceled by the university after it was attacked for being antisemitic.
The incidents have left some faculty and students unsettled, asking whether academic freedom on the conflict exists and whether the university has picked a side.
“We need clarification from our administration as faculty members about what our rights are, and to what extent the administration will stand by us when we’re exercising our role as academics,” said Joel Gordon, a historian who was to speak on the panel.
Arkansas is not the only state with a law aiming to discourage criticism of Israel. In recent years at least 30 states have restricted state contractors from boycotting Israel, a response to the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement that tries to put economic and political pressure on the country.
But the law in Arkansas is among the most stringent. Those contracting with the state for as little as $1,000 must sign the pledge — an amount that often does not even cover airfare and lodging for a university speaker.
Bart Hester, a state senator and an evangelical Christian, was the lead sponsor of the Arkansas legislation. In an interview, he said that he was a supporter of free speech but that he had no qualms about the speech implications of his bill. It was an easy decision, he said, to “support Israel over terrorists.”
“If Israel is overtaken or wiped out like the Palestinians want — they want no Israel to exist, no Jewish person to exist — then that makes the Middle East less stable and the United States less safe,” he said, adding: “We know that we have a connection to the Jewish people. We serve the same God. And we have a responsibility, in my opinion, to do what we can to protect them.”
Mr. Hester said that he intended the bill to apply to companies but that he was glad it was preventing speakers like Mr. Thrall from talking on campuses.
“Keeping someone who wants to come speak on behalf of terrorists off our college campuses is a win,” he said.
Mr. Thrall would have spoken about his new book “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama,” about a deadly bus crash outside Jerusalem and a Palestinian father’s journey to locate his 5-year-old son.
“It’s telling that Senator Hester would describe an immersive work of narrative nonfiction — about a group of Palestinian kindergartners killed in a tragic school bus accident — as a defense of terrorism,” Mr. Thrall said.
Other speakers have also declined to visit Arkansas because of the pledge requirement, said Shirin Saeidi, the head of a Middle East Studies center at the university who had invited Mr. Thrall.
“We’ve been struggling to figure out a way to invite knowledgeable professors and activists and researchers to talk with us,” Dr. Saeidi said.
She said she had been trying, unsuccessfully, to get clarity from administrators about whether the law applied to university speakers, and whether signing the pledge could be avoided if the contracts were under $1,000.
For Professor Gordon, news of his panel’s cancellation came the morning of the event. The dean of the Honors College, Lynda L. Coon, had called to tell him that the event was being postponed, he said.
The cancellation occurred after conservatives inside and outside the university complained that the panel was antisemitic and would lead to indoctrination.
Professor Gordon said he wanted to address the historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the motivations for the Oct. 7 attack and the Israeli response.
He rejected the idea that his panel was antisemitic.
“Antisemitism is to hate Jews because they’re Jews,” said Professor Gordon, who is Jewish. “Just like we can say that the Trump administration was a disaster, we can say the Netanyahu administration is a disaster. It’s not anti-American. It’s not antisemitic.”
A spokeswoman for the Honors College said Dr. Coon was unavailable for an interview but pointed to a statement that said increased interest in the panel had led to a need to accommodate “a larger audience and panel” in the spring.
At the university, the issue has taken a toll on some students, who say they don’t dare stage the types of pro-Palestinian protests seen on other campuses. Private group chats among Muslim and pro-Palestinian students are on fire, but they are reluctant to speak publicly, said one student, an officer of the Muslim Student Association who requested that his name not be used for fear of public backlash.
“The boundaries are so messy of what is allowable and what is not,” he said, citing the state law and recent panel cancellation. “There’s kind of an overlying fear of saying something you’re not allowed to say and getting reprimanded for that.”
In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Arkansas anti-boycott law on behalf of The Arkansas Times, a newsmagazine based in Little Rock, Ark.
For years, the University of Arkansas’s Pulaski Technical College had published ads in the newsmagazine. But told that he would have to sign the pledge to continue the relationship, the publisher, Alan Leveritt, said that he balked. He had no intention of boycotting Israel but still refused to sign the pledge, he said, because the government should not dictate his political opinions.
“I’m a taxpayer,” he said. “My family’s been in Arkansas for God knows how many generations. Yet I can’t do business with my own state government unless I kowtow to a foreign government.”
Not signing the pledge was a difficult decision for Mr. Leveritt. The Arkansas Times, a free publication, was heavily dependent on advertising, especially from the state.
But a Federal District Court upheld the Arkansas law. And the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit — the only federal appellate court to weigh in on any of the anti-boycott laws — upheld the ruling, saying that the ban regulated non-expressive commercial activity and did not violate the First Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court let the appeals court ruling stand.
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