Rashad Nijim hails from California but also holds citizenship in Palestine, where his parents are from and where he takes frequent trips, especially during the summer. But when he gave Utah Valley University administration a flag of Palestine to display in the Hall of Flags alongside the flags of other students’ countries, he was given the run-around for months before being told that, among other issues, the flag would be offensive to Israeli students. Now, Nijim has taken his message to an online petition site and is rallying to get the administration to celebrate the diversity of all of its students.
Nijim, a 21-year-old aviation administration student at UVU, says he doesn’t understand why school administrators thought a flag would open up an Orem front in the Middle East conflict when he says the flag is just a representation of his people and his culture.
“Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map and that might offend someone, yet its flag is right next to Israel’s in the Hall of Flags,” Nijim says in disbelief.
The debate started in late 2011 when a friend of Nijim’s in the student government recommended he donate his flag to the university’s Hall of Flags, which displays dozens of flags in a long windowed hallway connecting the school’s Pope Science Building and Business Administration Building. When Nijim offered to donate the flag, he says, school administrators told him they would get back to him. After a few months of not hearing back, Nijim reached out to administration again, only to be told, he says, that the school wouldn’t display the flag since Palestine lacked recognition by the United Nations.
When the United Nations granted Palestine nonvoting observer status in November 2012, Nijim asked once again for his flag to be displayed. A meeting was eventually arranged between Nijim and Stephen Crook, the director of International Student Services.
Nijim says Crook offered a number of reasons why the school couldn’t display the flag, including that there wasn’t room in the Hall of Flags—a point Nijim disputes. He says Crook also said that for the flag to be displayed, Palestine would have to be recognized as a country by the U.N., not just as an observer.
Nijim takes issue with that stipulation, since the hall displays the flags of Guam and Puerto Rico, which are territories of the United States and not U.N.-recognized countries.
He says he was also told that the flag might offend Israeli students or conservatives in the community, especially since Utah is proudly “pro-Israel.”
“Which offended me, because he tried to say my flag would offend people,” Nijim says.
City Weekly asked Crook for comment, but a UVU spokesman responded for him.
Nijim then took his battle online, creating a petition on the website Change.org, where it’s received more than 70 signatures. Nijim also distributed a separate petition on campus that he says has garnered more than 140 signatures from his fellow students. And after posting his story on the social media website Reddit, Nijim has even attracted support from people around the country.
“It spread really, really rapidly,” Nijim says. “A girl interning for the United Nations even called me and wanted to help me out.”
But as much as Nijim would like school officials to see the flag as a representation of his culture and nothing else, the flag does seem to invite heated debate. Even on the Reddit site where Nijim posted his petition, commenters were quick to spar over the entrenched politics of the Middle East conflict. One commenter supported the petition, saying that Palestine has “been a nation far longer than the occupiers in the West Bank”—a jab at contested Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. Another commenter responded to a different user’s comment, writing, “The Arabs have plenty of land to ride their camels around, the Jews can have their own tiny country. Take your anti-American liberalism elsewhere.”
After being rebuffed by Crook, Nijim was able to meet on April 16 with a vice president of the university, who told him he would look into the issue and offer a response in the next few weeks. Nijim says the vice president said that part of the problem is that there really is no written policy regarding what can and can’t be displayed in the Hall of Flags.
“This is the sort of situation where having a firm policy, and one that makes sense, is always the best thing to have,” says Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit that advocates for free speech and other civil-liberties issues in colleges and universities. Shibley says it’s best to have a policy set up before an issue arises like the dispute Nijim is having with UVU administration, as a policy written after the fact might appear to be written to exclude anyone affected.
Chris Taylor, a spokesman for UVU, says what Nijim characterizes as refusals to display the flag by staff were only informal discussions, part of an ongoing process.
“No formal decision has been made by the institution,” Taylor says. “It’s a matter that will be referred to UVU’s Center for Global & Intercultural Engagement Advisory Council for further consideration.”
Shibley points out that the university’s decision on which flags will be displayed in the Hall of Flags would constitute “institutional speech” and therefore wouldn’t leave Nijim with much of a legal action against UVU. Regardless, Shibley says fear of causing offense is bad policy when it favors one group over another, no mater if the discussions are formal or informal.
“It’s not a principled thing to do when you’re a government body like a state college,” Shibley says. “It’s not the place of government to look out for what might be offensive.”
Nijim says he is excited that his activism may help push UVU into crafting policy for the Hall of Flags. He just hopes in his case, the new policy will consider the students over politics.
“They group people in a political pool instead of saying, ‘Oh, you’re from this country? Then you should be able to represent where you’re from,’ ” Nijim says. “They say they are trying to engage people, but they’re turning people away.”