Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is a movement that came into prominence, as Ali Abunimah documents in The Battle for Justice in Palestine: The Case for a Single Democratic State in Palestine (2014), after the collapse of the so-called “two-state solution” in response to the escalating problem of the partitioning of Palestine in 1948. As Columbia University MESAAS professor Joseph Massad wrote about this book:
“the struggle for justice in Palestine is at a crossroads. As Israel and its advocates lurch toward greater extremism, many ask where the struggle is headed.”
The SJP movement has been under attack, as I describe here, by both Jewish Zionist organizations and university administrations, because it bucks the status quo on Israel.
The most popular attack against pro-Palestine activists in academia and elsewhere is the accusation of racism – specifically anti-Semitism. (See “the chairperson of Labour Friends of Israel falsely claiming a Palestine Solidarity Campaign supporter had abused her with anti-Semitism.”)
A lot has been written about this Zionist tactic of attack, but the understanding now is that it stems from
“conflating Israel with Jews [which] is wrong, and … it’s sometimes Israeli leaders who do this conflating.”
A familiar hasbara tactic is turning the victims of Israel’s oppression and dispossession into victimizers. Every aspect of the Palestinian tragedy has been up-ended in this way, most blatantly in the charges of racism such organizations bring against SJP as a campus group.
So paradoxically, while SJP is being attacked as a racist organization, Hillel, an international organization on university campuses that is widely perceived as Jewish but is in fact a racist Zionist organization, gets a pass.
Conflating Zionism [see ESCWA report on Israel’s Apartheid] with Judaism, President of San Francisco State University (SFSU) Leslie E. Wong has recently written in an e-mail:
“I want to sincerely apologize for the hurt feelings and anguish my words have caused [members of the SF State Hillel student community]. Let me be clear: Zionists are welcome on our campus.”
Hillel is billed as “introducing students to Jewish life”, but its core mission is to link Jewish students’ identities with Israel, regardless of their American (or other) nationality. ‘Tufts University Disorientation Guide’, for example, called Hillel a “Zionist space” and accused it of
“exploit(ing) black voices for their own pro-Israel agenda.”
But such revelations are quickly followed, as with Wong’s e-mail, with an apology to the “Jewish community”. Tuft’s Disorientation University Guide is no longer online.
A move to reform Hillel’s approach to Jewishness has not yet made much inroads.
“Some two years after the Open Hillel movement emerged to challenge Hillel International’s guidelines for Israel activities, which prohibit campus chapters from hosting speakers that support divestment from Israel or deny its right to exist, the organization is under fire again for toeing a line on Israel that some see as alienating to liberal Jewish students.”
White nationalists and white supremacists who appear on campuses, on the other hand, are quickly spotted as groups with a racist agenda:
“An old and familiar poison is being spread on college campuses these days: the idea that America should be a country for white people.
“Under the banner of the Alternative Right – or ‘alt-right’ – extremist speakers are touring colleges and universities across the country to recruit students to their brand of bigotry, often igniting protests and making national headlines. Their appearances have inspired a fierce debate over free speech and the direction of the country.”
Increasingly, social justice activism on campuses is organized, as on the Purduecampus, in coalitions:
“Purdue Social Justice Coalition is a community of students, faculty and staff of Purdue University, along with workers and citizens in Lafayette/West Lafayette who volunteer their time to make the university and city-wide community more progressive and accountable to social justice issues regionally, nationally and internationally.”
This opens a space that approaches activism against social injustice on campuses in a global, intersectional perspective.
Illustrating this concept on his blog Resist News , Purdue University professor Bill Mullen, who has himself been the subject of a smear campaign for acting as an adviser to the SJP group on his campus, quotes the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani:
“‘Everything in this world can be robbed and stolen, except one thing; this one thing is the love that emanates from a human being towards a solid commitment to a conviction or cause.’ …This site takes its impetus, its hope, from those pushing back collectively against all varieties of exploitation and oppression.”
Ghassan Kanafani also said:
“The Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary, wherever he is.”
The best antidote to intolerance of any kind on American campuses is such collective activism, work that refuses to exclude activism for Palestine.
Rima Najjar is a Palestinian whose father’s side of the family comes from the forcibly depopulated village of Lifta on the western outskirts of Jerusalem. She is an activist, researcher and retired professor of English literature, Al-Quds University, occupied West Bank.