Last June, a few days after Palestinian-American Ahmad Daraldik was selected as Florida State University’s (FSU) student senate president, he noticed an Instagram post authored by a fellow student. It was a screenshot of Daraldik’s own Instagram photo of himself near the Nelson Mandela statue in Ramallah from the summer of 2019, captioned with the words: “Iconic. #fucktheOccupation #fuckIsrael.”
“I see it screenshotted and twisted to say, ‘Oh my god, look at him, he’s antisemitic,’” Daraldik recounted during an April 14 online discussion on censorship of Palestinian rights organized by advocacy groups Palestine Legal, Adalah Justice Project, Jewish Voice for Peace, and others.
The Instagram post marked the beginning of a 10-month saga that saw Daraldik barraged with racist messages, denounced by his own school president, and removed from his presidential post — a stark example of how Palestinians in the public eye are treated by Israel advocates and university administrations.
But now, Daraldik, an FSU senior and the first Palestinian to be elected as president of the school’s student senate, is turning the table on FSU. On April 13, Palestine Legal, a group that works to protect the free speech rights of Palestine advocates, filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Education on Daraldik’s behalf, charging the Tallahassee-based school with fostering a hostile environment of anti-Palestinian racism.
“It’s one attempt to receive justice and get accountability for the people that came after me for no just cause,” said Daraldik.
Asked for comment on the filing of the complaint, Dennis Schnittker, Interim Assistant Vice President for University Communications, told +972 Magazine: “The university has not received nor seen the complaint. Florida State University does not tolerate discrimination against any groups or individuals. Florida State has always aspired to be as inclusive as possible and values diversity as greatly contributing to the richness of our academic enterprise.”
The complaint is the first time Palestinian rights advocates have used Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to charge a school with allowing and fostering anti-Palestinian racism. The law prohibits universities that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
Title VI complaints have often been filed by Israel advocacy groups against campuses on the charge that they foster an antisemitic environment because of Palestinian rights advocacy. Palestine advocates say those kinds of complaints target First Amendment-protected speech, while Daraldik’s complaint centers on what Title VI is supposed to address: discrimination on the basis of national origin.
“Holding an event or a documentary on campus does not discriminate against you on the basis of national origin or race,” Amira Mattar, a fellow at Palestine Legal, told +972 Magazine. “But calling a Palestinian student a ‘dirty ass towelhead’ [as Daraldik was] is discrimination. [Title VI] is a tool to protect students like Ahmad, but it’s been flipped on its head to target legitimate activity on campus.”
Social media posts against Daraldik escalated when other students highlighted a Facebook post he made when he was 12 years old, in which Daraldik posted an image of an Israeli soldier with his foot on a Palestinian child. Daraldik wrote: “stupid jew thinks he is cool.” Daraldik later apologized, explaining his comments were made “from the perspective of a Palestinian child who lived under military occupation.” Daraldik has lived on and off in the West Bank, which has been under Israeli military occupation for nearly 54 years.
Israel advocacy groups — ranging from the Anti-Defamation League, to StandWithUs, to the FSU student group Noles for Israel — harshly criticized Daraldik’s posts, with some calling for his removal as president. Elected officials also weighed in, with one, State Representative Chip LaMarca, publicly raising the possibility that the Florida state government would cut its funding to FSU, a public university, if Daraldik was not removed as president.
(Daraldik was ultimately removed in November 2020, stemming from a meeting in which Daraldik told the student government’s attorney general that he doesn’t “appreciate” threats from him, which the student supreme court said constituted “false charges” against another student government official.)
Daraldik informed the FSU administration about the racist, harassing threats he was receiving, but he and Palestine Legal contend that the administration did nothing about it. Instead, on June 18, 2020, FSU President John Thrasher released a statement condemning what he said was “offensive anti-Israel rhetoric online” from the FSU student senate president. That same day, Thrasher changed his statement from condemning “anti-Israel” rhetoric to criticizing “anti-Semitic rhetoric.”
The school’s seeming indifference to the racism Daraldik faced online, combined with the university president weighing in to call Daraldik antisemitic and a school investigation that was launched against him, form the core of Palestine Legal’s Title VI complaint. Resolution of these complaints often takes months, and the process sometimes ends in an arrangement whereby a school agrees to institute new policies that address racism and discrimination.
Daraldik is one of the most high-profile examples of a Palestinian student facing harassment and censure for his criticism of Israel. Indeed, a well-funded industry exists across the United States to police and ultimately silence thousands of other Palestinian students, faculty, and their allies on campus. One of the most well-known example is Canary Mission, a website that functions as a blacklist of Palestinian rights advocates by listing their names, photos, and social media posts, which often results in a torrent of harassing messages sent to students featured on the site.
But Daraldik and Palestine Legal hope that the filing of the Title VI complaint puts FSU and other schools on notice.
“It’s a message to the administration that you can’t throw Palestinians and their allies under the bus just because you’re facing pressure,” Mattar said. “Students have every right to participate in campus life without being called ugly names.”
Correction, April 20, 2021: This story was updated to clarify that Ahmad Daraldik was selected as student senate president at Florida State University.