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Students for Justice in Palestine breathes new life to solidarity activism in the US

May 3, 2014 at 10:21 am

American universities and college campuses have long served as a vibrant front in the struggle for social justice and today they are increasingly providing critical spaces of resistance in the fight against Israeli apartheid and the occupation of Palestine.

While several faculty associations in the US have recently made international headlines for endorsing the call to boycott Israeli universities and academic institutions, the US-led movement Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has also been at the forefront of the solidarity movement for Palestinian rights, and is arguably even leading the way.

SJP was first established at the University of California, Berkeley in 2001, and has since grown into a national network with over 160 branches at universities and colleges across the US. SJP held its first national conference in 2011 at Columbia University. Since then, it has held two more conferences and has established regional networks as well.

Of course, the movement has also faced many obstacles. SJP is actively targeted by university and college administrations, which face persistent and systematic pressure from pro-Israel groups, including: the Anti-Defamation League, an unabashedly pro-Zionist organisation that is well known for its advocacy for Israel and public attacks against those who criticise Israel’s occupation of Palestine, often conflating the latter with anti-Semitism; and Hillel, along with its umbrella groups. Hillel is a political organisation that is part of the Israel on Campus Coalition, whose foundational purpose is to advocate unconditionally for Israel on college campuses. With an annual budget of tens of millions of dollars, Hillel organises trips for thousands of American students to travel to Israel and/or participate in various training programmes across the US, as well as coordinates national tours for pro-Zionist speakers to speak on university and college campuses.

The organisational strength of the pro-Israel academic lobby has meant that members of SJP, much like their Palestinian counterparts in the occupied territories, are often targeted and repressed. As a result, in many cases they are forced to abide by different standards from the rest of the student body.

For example, I previously reported in MEMO on the repression that students have endured at Florida Atlantic University, where SJP members, who regularly face intimidation and even death threats, were put on probation and required to undergo a re-education programme designed by the ADL after they staged a protest against a campus event featuring Israeli occupation soldiers. Needless to say, student protests against controversial lectures are not uncommon; however, being punished for staging any such protests is very unusual.

As the Electronic Intifada reported in March, the SJP chapter at Northeastern University in Boston was actually suspended for one year and several members were threatened with expulsion after the group handed out 600 mock eviction notices under doors in residence halls in order to teach students about the experiences of Palestinians who receive housing demolition orders from Israel. Since no other student organisation had faced disciplinary action for handing out unauthorised flyers in the past, the students decided to fight back. With national and international support, they launched a successful campaign and reversed the administration’s decision. The group was reinstated last month.

However, the SJP chapter at NYU is now facing possible disciplinary action after recently staging a similar protest. The students handed out mock eviction notices to students in two residence halls; and yet as Mondoweiss pointed out, the pro-Israel media immediately reported that they were targeting Jewish students only, even though all residents of both halls had received the flyers. A local city official even called the flyers “pure hate” and a spokesperson of the university said it would be investigating the case. Much like the students at Northeastern, the students at NYU are determined to fight for their rights. They have secured widespread faculty support, as well as launched a petition.

SJP is also frequently confronted by political threats. The Socialist Worker reported last year that the California State Assembly passed the HR 35 resolution in 2012, labelling criticism of Israeli apartheid and the occupation of Palestine as “anti-Semitic” and recommending “broad censorship measures of University of California students and faculty advocating for Palestinian rights and justice”. The following year, “legislators from the California State Senate and Assembly signed a letter to the University of California Board of Regents and Chair condemning and discouraging divestment measures on our campuses.”

In New York, Brooklyn College’s SJP chapter came under fire for organising a lecture on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement featuring prominent Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti and respected critical scholar Judith Butler. When city officials threatened to cut off public funding to the college, New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the officials that, “If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.”

Since then, the New York and Maryland State Assemblies have both made unsuccessful legal efforts to penalise universities and colleges for supporting the BDS movement, and a bill was even submitted to the US Congress for debate.

Nevertheless, American students refuse to be silenced and are more determined than ever to speak out for equal rights and justice in Palestine. And as a result, SJP continues to grow.

This year, more than 25 cities in the US participated in Israeli Apartheid Week, mainly staged on university and college campuses, and SJP chapters regularly organise campus events and actions throughout the academic calendar to help educate the student body about Israeli apartheid and its occupation of Palestine as well as campaign for BDS. Indeed, an increasing number of student senates are debating resolutions demanding that their universities and colleges divest from companies that enable and profit from violating Palestinian rights.

To learn more about the growing trend of student activism in the US, MEMO recently spoke with Carlos Guzman, a student activist who has been involved for several years in various SJP chapters in New York and is also involved in the national movement.

While SJP is lacking the vast financial and institutional resources that Zionist student groups receive from the State of Israel and its Zionist funders, Carlos explains that SJP has found creative ways to raise their voices and expand their reach.

Furthermore, SJP has been able to connect student activists with solidarity organisations and groups on and off campus. Carlos says the group understands that developing local connections helps SJP chapters build meaningful relationships with other oppressed groups, because “connecting and finding commonalities in our struggles is key to paving the way for meaningful change both at home and abroad”.

In fact, reaching out to the community more broadly is so important to the student activists that some SJP chapters in New York have recently connected with a local non-profit organisation called Muslims Giving Back, joining them on Saturdays to provide food and clothing to the city’s hungry and homeless.

Carlos explains that this is a way for SJP to give back to the community, adding that: “I always say we have to ‘think globally and act locally’, because it’s true that SJP is fighting and bringing awareness about what’s happening in Palestine, but at the same time we are also aware that we have problems in our own communities that we need to address.” After all, as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once famously noted, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

These acts of local solidarity also help to confront the rampant Islamophobia that pervades American society and politics today, especially in New York, where the city’s police have been facing intense criticism for systematically discriminating against Muslims.

In addition to reaching out locally, SJP is also making global connections. While many Palestinians in America have long faced a climate of fear when it comes to speaking out for Palestinian rights, today SJP is providing an opportunity for Palestinian American students to become more active in the solidarity movement. And with the help of social media, this better connects the Diaspora with Palestinians in the occupied territories.

For example, when SJP came under attack for organising the BDS event at Brooklyn College, Carlos describes how Palestinian students at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank took pictures and a video of themselves with posters saying: “We support Brooklyn College and BDS.” He pointed out that, “Building these types of inter-Palestinian relations is important for the growth of the solidarity movement as a whole.”

Regarding the many problems that SJP continues to face, Carlos remains pragmatic and says this only illustrates that they are doing something right, further noting that: “The more pressure we put on them, the more they are going to try to silence us. And that’s what’s happening,” citing the increasing repression and discrimination that the different SJP chapters are facing.

At the same time, the repressive backlash is also generating more media attention for the cause, and even a level of support from unexpected places, like Mayor Bloomberg.

Carlos adds that: “We have the numbers. They might have the resources, the money and whatnot, but ultimately we have the numbers.” And that’s why the Zionists are so afraid.

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