Lately Northeastern University suspended the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. This is a letter to Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun.
Dear President Aoun:
We are writing on behalf of the Bay Area (SF) chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace to express our solidarity with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Northeastern University, and to call on you to reconsider the sanctions you have recently imposed on this group because of their advocacy for the rights of the Palestinian people.
Jewish Voice for Peace is a community of activists inspired by Jewish tradition to work for a just peace in Israel-Palestine, equal rights for the Palestinian people, and an end to 47 years of Israel’s military occupation in the Palestinian territories. In less than 10 years we have grown from a small local group in the Bay Area to a national organization with over 140,000 supporters and some 35 chapters throughout the country, many of these on college campuses.
We are very familiar with the tactics of intimidation and marginalization that some well-funded organizations use against those who speak out for the rights of the Palestinian people. We are regularly condemned as “anti-Semites” despite the fact that our work is connected to our faith, and that many rabbis who are members and advisors inform our actions. How much more vulnerable to such attacks are the SJP students at your university. If their constitutional right to free speech is not protected by university administration, the price of speaking their conscience is to risk damage both to their academic opportunities and to their reputations, as they stand at the threshhold of their adult lives.
It appears that the University is acting to punish SJP because of their political views, and not because of any breach of university policy. For example, the university makes much of the fact that individual students distributed mock eviction orders at dormitories. These mock orders were clearly marked as such, and were meant to educate students about the actual eviction orders that regularly confront Palestinians living in the West Bank, whose homes are targeted for demolition to accommodate illegal Jewish settlements built on that occupied land. In spite of the fact that this was not an SJP-sponsored action, and that many student groups, individuals, and commercial vendors regularly pepper dormitories with notices, the university singled out SJP for the most severe sanctions.
Targeting SJP for special scrutiny, with the objective of shutting down or muting their political message, is a violation of the students’ First Amendment right to free speech. It is especially alarming that such repression takes place on the campus of a university. As the American Association of University Professors has written in its report supporting free speech on campus, “Freedom of thought and expression is essential to any institution of higher learning. Universities and colleges exist not only to transmit knowledge. Equally, they interpret, explore, and expand that knowledge by testing the old and proposing the new. This mission guides learning outside the classroom quite as much as in class, and often inspires vigorous debate on those social, economic, and political issues that arouse the strongest passions. In the process, views will be expressed that may seem to many wrong, distasteful, or offensive. Such is the nature of freedom to sift and winnow ideas. ”
Recently the Federal Department of Education considered a series of Title VI complaints that had been filed against campuses of the University of California, alleging that pro-Palestinian activities similar to those at issue at Northeastern were “anti-Semitic” and created an “unsafe” campus climate for Jewish students. In dismissing all the complaints, the DOE concluded: “All these events constituted (or would have constituted) expression on matters of public concern directed to the University community. In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expression, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience.”
Accordingly, we urge you to reconsider your actions, and to meet your obligation to ensure an environment where SJP students may exercise their First Amendment rights, by providing the same protections and applying the same standards as are accorded to other students.
On behalf of Coordinating Committee
Jewish Voice for Peace – Bay Area Chapter