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Solving the Turtle Island mystery

ESSAY | Why some American students feel so strongly about Palestine

Students gather at a protest encampment on the University of Washington campus in Seattle on April 29. Associated Press/Photo by Lindsey Wasson

Solving the Turtle Island mystery

Having lived through the Vietnam War protests, there are many familiar sights and sounds coming from the turbulent protests erupting at some of the most elite academic institutions in our country. But there was one thing I simply couldn’t figure out. How does the situation in Israel impact these students directly?

I have led many grassroots efforts seeking to sway public policy on a great variety of issues. In any effort, there are only a very few people who can be motivated simply by altruistic theory. To get a significant number of people to participate, and to get the kind of intensity it takes to move the needle, leaders need to demonstrate that the issue directly impacts the people you want to call to action.

That nexus of personal impact seemed to be missing from the American protests in support of the Palestinian cause. So, I went looking.

It became quickly apparent that a group called Students for Justice in Palestine was an integral organizer for these protests. It was founded in 1993 by Hatem Bazian, a professor associated with the University of California, Berkeley. Bazian, who describes himself as a “de-colonial Islamic thinker” has long viewed the American university campus as a key opportunity for the advancement of the Palestinian cause.

In an article titled “Israel’s Losing Battle: Palestine Advocacy in the University,” Bazian ends a narrative history for the inclusion of Palestinian issues within the leftist orthodoxy by writing:

“Just 30 years ago the political left in the United States, in its mobilization for peace, justice, and jobs, regularly debated whether or not to allow a Palestinian flag, let alone a speaker, on a stage. Today, one cannot have a political mobilization on any subject, local or global, without Palestine being a part of it—if not in the main framing, then as one of the themes. Those who would advocate or speak on the side of Israel, in contrast, are hard-pressed to be given space on such a stage because they have cast their lot with the right-wing military industrial complex and its pernicious interventions.”

He writes: “A perspective in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle has become the dominant perspective at universities.” He credits the Students for Justice in Palestine with this crucial achievement. Palestine was held up as yet another example of a victimized people that needed liberation from their colonial (Jewish) oppressors. Students, Bazarian writes, “saw the connections among the struggles” of South Africa, Central America, and, importantly, in the United States.

“The goal is to dismantle the settler project that is the United States.” —University of Minnesota professor Melanie Yazzie

Which leads us to the website of the National Students for Justice in Palestine. The first sentence under the heading “Our Purpose” grabbed my attention:

“Building on the legacy & impact of the student movement in occupied Turtle Island (U.S. and Canada), National Students for Justice in Palestine (National SJP) seeks to empower, unify, and support student organizers as they push forward demands for Palestinian liberation & self-determination on their campuses.”

I did a double take, followed by an immediate Google search. “Turtle Island”—what in the world?

I learned quickly that I had missed a key word in my search. The full phrase is “occupied Turtle Island.” Occupied is the key idea.

Just as Palestine is illegitimately occupied by Jewish settlers who need to be removed, so too Turtle Island is occupied by White settlers and others who have gone along with the illicit occupation; consequently they also must be removed.

As reported by Michael Powell in The Atlantic, pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Brooklyn chanted “We don’t want no two states! We want ’48!”—a reference to the year before the modern state of Israel was recognized. This is an explicit call for the elimination of the state of Israel, and, many believe, a call for the extermination of the seven million Jews who live there.

The same argument is being raised about Turtle Island—aka North America. Powell quotes University of Minnesota professor Melanie Yazzie, who is Navajo, “We want U.S. out of everywhere. We want U.S. out of Palestine. We want U.S. out of Turtle Island.” If that wasn’t clear enough, she made her meaning plain. “The goal is to dismantle the settler project that is the United States.”

Historian, Jeff Fynn-Paul, dissects what he calls “The Myth of the ‘Stolen Country”: “The narrative of the ‘stolen country’ or ‘Native American genocide’ does not stand up to scrutiny by any honest and clear-sighted historian. It is a dangerously myopic and one-sided interpretation of history. It has only gained currency because most practising historians and history teachers are either susceptible to groupthink, or else have been cowed into silence by fear of losing their jobs.”

How did American universities get infected with this line of argumentation? Radical professors are certainly a part of the story. One of them, Mohamed Abdou, is described on Columbia University’s own website as “a North African-Egyptian Muslim anarchist interdisciplinary activist scholar of Indigenous, Black, critical race, and Islamic studies, as well as gender, sexuality, abolition, and decolonization with extensive fieldwork experience in the Middle East-North Africa, Asia, and Turtle Island.” On Oct. 11, 2023, four days after the brutal inhumanity unleashed by Hamas terrorists on Israel, Abdou wrote on his social media account, “I’m with Hamas & Hezbollah & Islamic Jihad.”

Columbia University President Nemat "Minouche" Shafik prepares to testify before a House committee on Capitol Hill on April 17.

Columbia University President Nemat "Minouche" Shafik prepares to testify before a House committee on Capitol Hill on April 17. Francis Chung/POLITICO via AP Images

Asked to defend Abdou’s comments in a Congressional hearing, the president of Columbia University, Minouche Shafik, declined to do so, saying that he was being terminated at the end of the year.

One would have to ask why Columbia ever hired a self-described anarchist who claims, on the University’s own website, to have done fieldwork in “Turtle Island.” One might think that the Turtle Island reference—meaning that the countries called the United States of America and Canada are improperly and illegally occupied and should be returned to Native Americans—was something that just slipped through the cracks and can’t be cited for general University policy. Think again.

No less than four separate “land acknowledgment” statements appear on the official website of Columbia University.

The “Lenape Land Acknowledgement” posted on Columbia University’s School of Nursing website is prefaced with the “commitment to resist powers that have stolen not only land from the Lenape and other Indigenous people but also the rights of all disenfranchised people to control their own lives.”

The statement in full reads as follows: “We acknowledge the traditional ancestral, unceded territory of the Lenape People on which we learn, work, and gather today at Columbia University School of Nursing. Lenape means real person, or original person, and it is important to remember that Lenape, collectively, are a living and breathing community. Let us honor their legacy. Let us commit ourselves to the struggle against the forces that have dispossessed the Lenape and other Indigenous people of their lands. We stand strong in our commitment to support and defend all marginalized people of this land who have been stripped of their rights to self-determination.”

Although their wordings differ, Columbia has at least three other Land Acknowledgements on their various websites. And the law school’s Land Acknowledgement is posted as a formal display in the lobby of Jerome L. Greene Hall. It was posted on Oct. 9, just two days after the devastating Hamas attack on Israeli civilians.

Such statements are not just found at Columbia. This same practice is present at Harvard; Yale; MIT; GeorgetownUCLA; the University of Texas (which actually uses the term Turtle Island); the University of Virginia; And the list could go on for pages.

Several websites give instructions to read the land acknowledgments at the beginning of public meetings held at the university.

It boils down to this: Universities have been dominated by the framework of critical theory for several years. Students have been taught that there are victims and there are oppressors. Palestinians have had their lands stolen and occupied by Jewish settlers. Native Americans (only a few of whom ever used the term “Turtle Island”) had their lands stolen and we likewise are illicit occupiers.

Who can be surprised when students act on what they have been taught.

While Abdou, at Columbia, clearly embraced the Oct. 7 violence of Hamas on Israel, some professors seek to distance themselves from express or implicit calls for violence. Powell, writing in The Atlantic, describes the views of Nick Estes, a professor at the University of Minnesota and a Native American activist: “Native activists and academics say they have in mind not a bloody Indigenous uprising but a socialist revolution against liberalism and capitalism, to demolish national borders and police forces, and upend a racist system that, in Estes’s words, seeks ‘to kill us off, confine us to sub-marginal plots of land, breed us white.’”

Who can be surprised when students act on what they have been taught. Were the universities expecting that they could teach this form of moralistically wrapped sedition and yet no one would act on what they had been taught? They have been sowing dragon’s teeth for years and now act surprised that they have dragons occupying their campuses.

A word is needed about free speech. I am one of the staunchest defenders of free speech for all in this country. I absolutely believe that people who disagree with me should have the right to deliver their messages without government censorship of any kind. But I believe that there are historically grounded limitations on free speech. Obscene speech is not protected. Nor fighting words. Nor defamation. And very few other exceptions.

One of these exceptions involves the advocacy of the violent overthrow of the government. Title 18 Section 2385 of the United States Code makes it a federal crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the United States government. This includes advocating the “duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety” of such an overthrow. Some of the speech coming from these professors and likely from some of the protestors deserves careful review to see if they have crossed this line.

The First Amendment of the Constitution does not protect those who advocate the violent overthrow of the United States government. And calls for the decolonization of Turtle Island drive right up to that line, and likely cross over it.

In light of all of this, one should surely ask, why are taxpayers funding higher education when the vast majority of institutions claim we are illicit settlers living in occupied territory?

The radicals are not just the students in tents. And it’s not just the most vocal and radical professors. Administrators who run institutions that deny the legitimacy of our national existence have lit the fuse. We should hold them responsible for the explosion they have ignited.

Michael Farris

Michael Farris is a lawyer and former president of the Home School Legal Defense Association and former president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom.


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