A Palestinian American student at Florida State University filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging the university not only failed to speak out against anti-Palestinian harassment he faced after his social media postings about Israel attracted widespread criticism, but that it also took steps to embolden his harassers.
The complaint centers on the vitriolic response to social media postings by the student, Ahmad Daraldik, which came to light almost immediately after Daraldik was elected president of FSU’s Student Senate in June 2020.
The offending posts included an Instagram post from a trip Daraldik had taken to the West Bank to visit family in 2019, the summer after his freshman year, in which he shared a picture of himself standing next to a statue of Nelson Mandela with the caption “Iconic. #fucktheOccupation. #fuckIsrael.”
A second post, posted on Facebook when Daraldik was 12 years old and living in the West Bank, depicted what appeared to be an Israeli soldier with his foot on a Palestinian child. Daraldik had captioned the image “stupid jew thinks he is cool.”
A website Daraldik had created as a class assignment while in high school comparing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Holocaust also attracted criticism and concern.
The complaint states that after his social media posts were shared following his election as Student Senate president, Daraldik “faced an onslaught of racist harassment and vitriol. As anti-Palestinian lobby groups and politicians joined the fray, Ahmad was vilified, cyberbullied, and made an open target of a state-wide harassment campaign.”
The complaint alleges that the attacks Daraldik faced “demonstrate an implicit racist and false logic, namely that a Palestinian Muslim who discusses his life experience and identity does so with anti-Semitic or violent intent, rather than to call out the unfair oppression of his people or a desire for freedom, equality, and human rights that Israel systematically denies.”
“Even setting aside the implicit anti-Palestinian animus underlying the attacks on Ahmad, the explicitly racist content is enough to constitute actionable harassment based on national origin and ethnicity,” the complaint states. “Statements demanding Ahmad’s removal were replete with explicit slurs such as: ‘no tolerance for Islamic advocacy of murder;’ ‘dirty ass towel heads always hating Israel;’ ‘FSU Senate President Ahmad Daraldik must be chastised (castrated) immediately & deported to a Muslim country of his choice;’ references to Ahmad and his advocacy for Palestinian equal rights in student government as a ‘hydra’ with multiple heads and a beast that needs to be killed ‘before it multiplies;’ and ‘[l]ets go hunt and kill sum muzzlits nig.'”
The complaint also alleges that the university administration “lent its official approval” to the harassment against Daraldik when President John Thrasher issued a statement characterizing Daraldik’s rhetoric as “anti-Semitic.” The complaint says that Thrasher’s statement originally referred to “anti-Israel” rhetoric but was quickly edited after it was posted to say “anti-Semitic,” a claim found to be accurate in an investigation the university commissioned by a law firm.
After Daraldik declined a request from elected officials to grant time to two state representatives to speak at a Student Senate meeting, Thrasher also sent Daraldik a personal letter expressing his lack of confidence in Daraldik’s leadership of the Student Senate.
(The uproar over Daraldik’s posts also led to a no-confidence vote in his leadership of the Student Senate, which he survived. But he was subsequently suspended from his position in November after the Student Supreme Court determined he’d made false statements to the Student Senate and the Senate Investigative Board during a September 30, 2020 meeting. The statements were related to the denial of the elected officials request to speak. Daraldik’s suspension was overturned by the Florida State administration a month later, but the complaint notes it came too late, as the election to defend his position as president had already taken place.)
Dennis Schnittker, an FSU spokesman, noted that the “sole issue” in Thrasher’s personal letter to Daraldik “was Mr. Daraldik’s lack of respect for elected officials; the letter contains no reference to Mr. Daraldik’s religion and nor was it motivated by anything other than Mr. Daraldik’s failure to represent the university in a manner expected of student leaders who interact with elected officials.”
Schnittker said that Florida State “does not discriminate, nor does it tolerate discrimination against any groups or individuals.” He said that before filing the complaint with the Department of Education, Daraldik made a similar complaint at FSU, and his allegations were investigated by an outside law firm.
The investigation concluded that Daraldik’s speech in his social media posts “is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Likewise, Mr. Daraldik’s request that FSU take action against those who posted in response to his speech must yield to that same protection even though the speech is offensive to him.”
“In his report, Mr. Daraldik complained about responses to his own provocative social media posts, which included statements like ‘Fuck Israel’ and ‘Stupid Jew thinks he’s cool,’” Schnittker said via email. “As one would expect, the responses, many of which were by individuals not affiliated with the university, were equally provocative. No action was taken by the university against Mr. Daraldik for his speech and, similarly, no action was taken against the other individuals for their speech. While the language used is distasteful on all sides and not what the university would expect in its inclusive educational environment, the speech did not rise to the level of being actionable.”
Amira Mattar, the Michael Ratner Justice Fellow at Palestine Legal, a nonprofit legal organization that filed the complaint on Daraldik’s behalf, said the university could have demonstrated support for Daraldik.
“They could have said one of our students is facing a tremendous amount of local and international harassment,” Mattar said. “At least showing some kind of support to Ahmad publicly or privately would have been acceptable, but instead it was easier to fan the flames and to go along as the harassment campaign ballooned.”
Daraldik, who just finished his junior year, said he felt abandoned by FSU.
“Ideally, I would hope that a university would stand by a student leader who has proven himself,” he said in an interview. “I’m not an untested student leader. I’m a student leader they’re familiar with. I worked in the president’s office the entirety of my freshman year. They know what I stand for; they know I’m not someone who spews hate. I feel like they should have been able to recognize that the attacks that I was facing were because of who I am, because of the fact I’m a Palestinian, and they should have stood against that instead of affirming that and giving it their approval and saying, ‘Yeah, he’s anti-Semitic.’”
Jonathan Friedman, director of the Free Expression and Education program at PEN America, said university leaders “have an obligation on the one hand to speak out against hate when there is true discriminatory intent, but also balance their own intervention with the need to protect their students and their faculty from harassment as much as is reasonably possible.”
“No student deserves to be harassed and targeted, whether it’s with anti-Semitic remarks or Islamophobic remarks, and the university has to have an equal responsibility to protect their students against both of those kinds of remarks,” Friedman said. “I think we can also extend some sympathy to the powerful feeling that exists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Dan Leshem, the director of the FSU Hillel, said Thrasher’s statement criticizing Daraldik’s remarks as anti-Semitic was appropriate and appreciated by Jewish students who were made to feel “unsafe and unwelcome” by Daraldik’s statements and by the Student Senate’s failure to condemn them. (Daraldik names Leshem in his complaint, alleging Leshem called him an “extremist,” which Leshem denies.)
“Condemnation of anti-Semitism — by President Thrasher or anyone else — poses no danger or harm to anyone,” Leshem said. “On the contrary, condemnation of one kind of hate is not incitement of another kind, and the university has been clear that it abhors discrimination and hate speech of all kinds. I believe that President Thrasher’s statement was very much needed and greatly appreciated by the Jewish students of FSU.”