Twenty-one-year-old Brooklyn College student Serenity Adams faced a disquieting surprise when she arrived on campus last Wednesday morning. Plastered to a recycling bin in front of the entrance to the cafeteria, and in several other spots across campus, were posters decrying about a dozen “terrorist supporters” at the school — all students and faculty who have previously come under attack for their pro-Palestinian activism or scholarship.
Brooklyn College was just one of several institutions targeted this week by a campaign launched by the California-based David Horowitz Freedom Center. The organization, which was revealed earlier this year to have connections to top Trump officials Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions, is a three-decade-old right-wing think tank that has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-black movements.” The poster has the look of a “Wanted” sign, with sketches of the faces of two faculty members appearing toward the bottom of the page, alongside the names of nine current or former Brooklyn College students.
“When I first saw the poster, I was distraught,” says Adams. (She requested that the Voice identify her by a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation.) “All sorts of thoughts and emotions were going through my mind, but I can’t say I was entirely surprised.”
Thomas DeAngelis expressed more surprise to find his name on the poster, especially since he graduated from Brooklyn College in 2016. (His reaction to spotting a photo of the poster online, he says: “What the heck!?”) But this was an experience DeAngelis, who is now a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, had already been through once — his name was listed on another David Horowitz poster that appeared on campus last fall.
Activists and civil rights attorneys say the posters are just the latest attempt by right-wing Zionists like Horowitz to defame and endanger pro-Palestinian organizers, especially Muslim students and students of color. For students and faculty, the issue isn’t only organizations like the David Horowitz Freedom Center, but the tepid response from university administrators. At best, say advocates knowledgeable about the repression of pro-Palestinian organizing, schools are leaving students and faculty to deal with the fallout from these kinds of attacks on their own; at worst, the schools are actively creating the political climate in which these kinds of targeted campaigns are possible.
A native of Forest Hills, Horowitz came from a family of schoolteachers and Communist Party members. As a young man, Horowitz was a committed progressive — co-editing the leftist magazine Ramparts, working in partnership with the Black Panthers, and even growing close to the group’s co-founder Huey P. Newton.
After the murder of Ramparts bookkeeper Betty Van Patter in 1974, which he blamed on the Panthers (Van Patter had kept the party’s books as well, and reportedly was about to expose its tax problems), Horowitz abruptly changed course and adopted increasingly right-wing views. In 1985, he came out in the Washington Post as a Reagan supporter; in 1988, he founded the Center for the Study of Popular Culture alongside former Ramparts co-editor Peter Collier; by the 1990s, he was spending much of his time critiquing “political correctness” in American universities through his tabloid monthly Heterodoxy.
After 9-11, Horowitz sharpened the focus of his attacks on Palestinians and American Muslims. “It’s time to let the profiling of potential terrorists — and that does mean Islamic and Palestinian terrorists — outweigh the objections of the ACLU and other leftist groups,” he wrote on his website FrontPage Magazine shortly after the attacks.
For Horowitz, the Muslim enemy responsible for destroying the Twin Towers was the same enemy fighting for statehood in the Palestinian territories. “Americans need to understand that in radical Islam America and Israel are facing the same enemy,” he wrote in a March 2002 FrontPage article. “Yasser Arafat and the PLO invented suicide bombing of innocent civilians, created the first terrorist training camps, and are hand-in-glove allies of al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.” By 2006, the CSPC had been reorganized as the David Horowitz Freedom Center, as its chair, Jess Morgan, said at the time, because “freedom itself was under assault from the new totalitarianism of terror.”
In Horowitz’s mind, the so-called Muslim threat is everywhere, but Americans of color are especially worthy of suspicion. In 2012, his organization published a pamphlet by “anti-Sharia” crusader Frank Gaffney entitled “The Muslim Brotherhood and the Obama Administration.” Horowitz has deep connections to other Islamophobes. A 2011 report by the Center for American Progress (a second report was published in 2015) connected David Horowitz to a “tightly linked network” dedicated to spreading “misformation and hateful propaganda about American Muslims and Islam,” and also named his organization as a key funder of Islamophobia. For example, the Freedom Center funds the website Jihad Watch, which is run by the anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Robert Spencer.
In recent years, the David Horowitz Foundation has engaged in a sustained campaign against campus pro-Palestinian activists, even developing a “Top Ten Worst Schools That Support Terrorism” list (Brooklyn College made the cut). This fall, posters from the David Horowitz Foundation specifically naming pro-Palestinian activist students and professors, and accusing them of being terrorist supporters, have appeared on campuses across the United States, including the University of Chicago, University of California-Berkeley, and San Francisco State University.
“It can be really terrifying to wake up and see your face on these ‘Wanted’-style posters,” says Radhika Sainath, an attorney with Palestine Legal, an organization that provides trainings, legal advice, and advocacy to pro-Palestinian activists in the United States. “Students have feared for their safety around campus and lost sleep over these posters,” she adds. “In the past, they’ve been harassed and bullied on social media after being publicly smeared in this way.”
“Ever since my name was listed on the posters, I have been followed, bullied, and harassed on social media,” UCLA student Robert Gardner penned in a 2016 op-ed for the school paper, after his name appeared on a set of Horowitz-sponsored posters. “This experience has also caused me a great deal of psychological trauma, and I worry about my well-being.” After the op-ed was published, Horowitz’s attorney wrote to Gardner and threatened to sue him for defamation.
All the nine students whose names are listed on the poster are Muslim and people of color. Many of the young people targeted fear that being portrayed as terrorists could lead to problems at the airport, or law enforcement scrutiny. These fears, said Sainath, have only been heightened given the links between Horowitz and members of the Trump administration. Palestinian students worry that the allegations may be flagged to Israeli authorities, rendering them unable to go home or visit their families.
Samir Chopra, a professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College and one of two faculty members listed on the poster, worries this campaign could affect academic careers. “The aim is to cow us, to intimidate us, to make sure we will not find jobs anywhere else if we ever want to,” he wrote in an email to the Voice.
Chopra says that he’s been targeted by right-wing Zionists since he started writing posts on his blog critical of Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories. (The other Brooklyn College professor listed on the poster, Corey Robin, has also been a vocal critic of Israel and strong supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign to use economic pressure to force Israel to comply with international law.)
“This is the third rail you are not supposed to touch,” Chopra says. Most of the names on the poster also appear on the website of Canary Mission, a shadowy online database of unknown provenance that provides extensive personal biographical information on students and faculty that engage in pro-Palestinian activism. Chopra’s Canary Mission profile, which accuses him of “defending hate speech” and “defending student militancy,” turns up with a quick Google search of his name.
As Chopra and others have pointed out, some individuals have already lost work opportunities as a result of their pro-Palestinian views. In 2014, scholar Steven Salaita had an offer of employment withdrawn from the University of Illinois after pro-Israel students, faculty members, and donors dubbed his anti-Zionist tweets “hate speech”; unable to secure a job, Salaita decided to leave academia entirely.
Students, meanwhile, say the school is partially to blame for the situation. In February 2016, DeAngelis and another student, Sarah Aly, were threatened with disciplinary sanctions and possible expulsion for disrupting a faculty meeting to share a number of demands, including more full-time faculty members of color and a return to free and open admissions. According to the subsequent Brooklyn College investigation, at some point during the action, one member of the group went off message and shouted “Zionists out of CUNY!” (or “a similar statement,” according to the college’s report). Shortly afterward, New York City assembly member Dov Hikind issued a press release alleging that a student had called the faculty council chair a “Zionist pig.”
Soon, the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America, and even the New York State Senate were lambasting the young activists. Without taking the time to fully investigate the allegations, Brooklyn College’s then-president Karen Gould sent out a school-wide email condemning the student activists for making “hateful” and “anti-Jewish” comments.
The appearance was of a school pursuing disciplinary charges because of public pressure, and while Brooklyn College ultimately issued a press release stating that the words “Zionist pig” had never been uttered, the charges of anti-Semitism on campus still stuck. Over the course of the disciplinary process, a poster of the hijab-wearing Aly was vandalized on campus (the poster was part of a university effort to promote studying abroad), with an upside-down cross drawn on her forehead and her eyes blacked out.
A few months later, the first round of Horowitz posters appeared on campus, and Gould issued a statement condemning them. “Though Tom and Sarah were cleared of the disciplinary charges against them that landed them on this poster (along with Professor Chopra, who testified on their behalf), former president Gould never apologized or retracted her accusations,” writes Sainath in an email.
Muslim students at Brooklyn College have frequently expressed concern that the school does not take their safety or well-being seriously, or privileges the perceived safety of Jewish students above their own. In 2015, it was revealed that an undercover NYPD cop had infiltrated the Islamic Society on campus and spent years spying on its members; the Brooklyn College administration never publicly condemned the spying or demanded that the NYPD change its conduct.
Says Thomas DeAngelis, “Brooklyn College is still to blame for all this backlash that we face.”
The Voice reached out to Brooklyn College to inquire if its current president, Michelle Anderson, would issue a similar statement to that which Gould made after the previous set of Horowitz posters. We also asked if the school would be taking any of the other steps suggested by Palestine Legal to support affected students, like providing legal support and online reputation management. As of the time of publication, school officials had not replied.