A civil-rights group that represents people of Palestinian descent in the United States says George Washington University is threatening to sanction one of its students for hanging a Palestinian flag from his dormitory window earlier this year. The organization, Palestinian Legal, says a visit junior Ramie Abounaja received from university police in October after posting the flag “threaten[s] to chill student speech on campus” and could be a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Abounaja, according to correspondence between him and school administrators, hung the flag in mid-October from his window, which looks down on 23rd St., Northwest. On October 26, a campus police officer came to his room saying there had been “many complaints” about the flag. Abounaja complied with the officer’s order to remove the flag, at which point the officer left. But the cop came back a few minutes later saying he needed to file a formal report. On November 3, Abounaja received a letter from GW’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities stating that he had violated the university’s code of student conduct.
In a letter back to the university, Abounaja described the episode as an embarrassing ordeal. “I felt victimized and criminalized in front of my roommates,” he wrote. “[The officer] proceeded to take my information and mentioned that over his life-long career, has never had to deal with something such as this.”
Abounaja, a biomedical engineering major enrolled in GW’s pre-medical program, was born and raised in New Hampshire to Palestinian parents. He matriculated at GW in 2013 and has been involved in several campus organizations, including the student government.
“Being a first generation American, I am grateful for everything America stands for and everything it has offered my family,” he wrote in the letter. “I have experienced my family’s hardship abroad only through their stories, known history, and the few pictures that remain. When I came to GW, I was excited to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor, to spend my time in developing countries where there are many disadvantages and a great demand for medical attention.”
A brief statement from GW states suggests Abounaja was reprimanded simply for hanging an object outside a dorm window, which it says is a violation residential conduct guidelines. The statement avoids any explicit reference about the complaints against Abounaja. But considering other flags and banners are sometimes visible on the exteriors of dorms around Foggy Bottom, an attorney for Palestine Legal says Abounaja’s experience effectively gives GW a “de facto policy of not allowing students to hang Palestinian flags without getting police reports written about them.” Indeed, a thread on the university’s Facebook page features recent photos that show dorm exteriors festooned with the US flag and banners with phrases like “Moms Drink for Free.”
“I think people’s BS detector is on high alert here as far as GW’s response goes,” says Radhika Sainath, the Palestinian Legal attorney.
So far, the university has declined to expand on its three-sentence statement:
The George Washington University is committed to fostering a welcoming and safe environment for every member of the GW community, and we encourage students to share their rich diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and views with their peers. GW has not banned any flags from its campus; however, the university’s Residential Community Conduct Guidelines prohibit the hanging of any object outside of a residence hall window (Section III. 7). These guidelines apply to all on-campus housing residents.
“The rule is really not clear,” Sainath says. “It makes it seem like you have to be throwing things out the window.”
The incident with Abounaja, who did not respond to Washingtonian‘s request for an interview, comes during a period of heightened rhetoric against Muslims in the United States. Twenty-eight governors, including Larry Hogan of Maryland, have said they will try to keep refugees fleeing war-torn Syria from being resettled in their states, while the leading Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has called for a wholesale ban on Muslims entering the country, including students and tourists.
While Sainath says American Muslims in general have experienced more negative treatment recently, those of Palestinian descent feel it more acutely—a phenomenon she calls the “Palestine exception to free speech.”
“Basically what we’ve seen is that there is this growing movement for Palestinian rights in the United States, but along with this growth we’re also seeing concerted attempt by Israel advocates and others to silence all criticism of Israel and support for Palestinians,” she says. “It really affects anyone who speaks out on the issue of Israel and Palestine who speaks critically of Israel. We’ve found in particular there are these false accusations of terrorism that can hurt students of Arab or Muslim backgrounds. These kinds of accusations can be really damaging to students’ careers.”
The United States is not one of the 135 countries that recognize the Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank as a sovereign state. In a letter to GW President Steven Knapp dated Monday, Sainath writes that the school’s codes of conduct make no explicit reference to the hanging of flags from dorm windows. She also suggests that if flags are permitted, there is a precedent for foreign standards being flown from residence halls, citing the appearance last month of an Argenitian flag off another dorm nearby Abounaja’s.
“Different messages cannot be treated in a disparate manner based on how much controversy they may provoke,” Sainath writes in her letter. “Other students’ flags and banners are routinely hung on GW residential buildings. To our knowledge, this is the first time GW has forced a student to remove a flag, issued a police report, a warning letter and threatened future sanctions. At a time when Islamophobic and anti-Arab sentiment is on rise in the United States, GW’s censorship and harassment of Mr. Abounaja is particularly concerning.”
Sainath’s letter requests that GW apologize to Abounaja, expunge the warning letter from his notice, and clarify its policy about the hanging of flags and banners. If the school does not respond by December 14, Sainath tells Washingtonian her group will consider legal action.