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Why demonizing SJP actually strengthens the Palestine cause on campuses

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The upcoming National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) conference at UCLA has come under extraordinary pressure. Last week the UCLA administration issued a “cease and desist” letter, falsely claiming that its use of the bear image in the conference logo constitutes a trademark violation.  A number of pro-Israel organizations, along with the Los Angeles city council and others, called on UCLA to cancel the conference.

In response, nearly 200 UCLA students and faculty signed a letter calling on the university “to refrain from interfering against the planned NSJP conference,” and Palestine Legal and the ACLU of Southern California warned administrators against racist mischaracterizations of SJP’s conference and violating SJP students’ first amendment rights. The university has backed off of its cease and desist notice, and Chancellor Gene Block has allowed the conference to go on, citing the university’s commitment to free speech. But the pressure and attacks are sure to continue.

As a professor of Middle Eastern studies who interacts regularly with students of various political viewpoints, it’s clear to me that allowing the conference to go on is further evidence that demonizing SJP actually strengthens the pro-Palestine movement on campuses. Here are three reasons why.

First, demonizing SJP by calling it a hate group doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. SJP members are exercising their first amendment rights to free speech, which includes standing up for Palestinian rights. Their criticisms of Israel and of the Zionist ideology that underpins the state are protected political speech, despite the efforts of pro-Israel groups to label them as anti-Semitic.

The SJP leadership has also clearly denounced anti-Semitism. After the horrific shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue, the National SJP’s official Facebook page posted statements of sympathy for the Jewish community and shared resources for understanding and combating anti-Semitism.

Conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is a well-worn tactic of pro-Israel advocacy groups. And it’s very effective at garnering media attention, especially in right-wing outlets.

But for college students on these campuses, the contrast between media depictions of SJP members wild-eyed monsters and their own first-hand knowledge of those students as sincere and passionate social justice activists could not be more stark. And at a time when we’re seeing the rise of openly racist and bigoted views being expressed in this country, calling SJP a hate group diminishes the credibility of pro-Israel claims.

A second reason that demonizing SJP backfires is that rather than drawing in students to learn more about what is at stake in these debates, the harsh rhetoric around Israel-Palestine debates often turns students away. Pro-Israel student activists have told me that their biggest frustration is not with the activists on “the other side,” but rather with the widespread apathy they see among their fellow Jewish students.

This is part of a larger trend. A recent study by Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education found reported that American Jewish college students generally don’t feel under attack, but many of them turn away from campus politics, and even organized Jewish life, because of harsh rhetoric around this topic. This undermines the support for pro-Israel movements on campuses.

Third, demonizing SJP members can actually draw more students to the group. Those who aren’t turned away by the acrimony tend to be the ones who are politically active and have a strong social justice orientation. They are deep thinkers and idealists who want to make the world a better place. And as they learn more about how U.S. police forces are training with Israeli forces, and how Israeli companies have received contracts to build prototypes of President Trump’s wall, the more they’re drawn to SJP chapters. They see the struggle for Palestinian rights as part of a larger struggle for justice.

Moreover, SJP boycott and divestment campaigns are launched with an eye towards dismantling structural oppression everywhere, not attacking a single group of people. Many of the SJP divestment initiatives are aimed at multi-national corporations that profit from the exploitation of the Palestinians as well as other marginalized groups. As a result, they attract students from a wide variety of backgrounds who share a commitment to justice.

That includes students of color who bear the brunt of structural oppression. For them, hearing SJP students called “terrorist supporters” bears a striking resemblance to the insults that right-wing hate groups hurl at people of color. Rather than turning away, they often stand in solidarity with the SJP students under attack.

2014 UCLA divestment campaign poster (Image: UCLA Divest/Facebook)

To be sure, social media rhetoric can get overheated, and sometimes anti-Zionist expressions can move uncomfortably towards the realm of anti-Semitism. SJP leaders recognize this, which is why they will have a session devoted to recognizing and combating anti-Semitism at this weekend’s conference.

In a recently released documentary on the pro-Israel lobby, Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is secretly recorded expressing his frustration that pro-Israel groups have failed to effectively combat SJP’s boycott and divestment campaigns.

The reason is that pro-Israel lobbyists have underestimated the intelligence and commitment of today’s college students. Students who care about politics and human rights are not going to be persuaded by scare tactics and name-calling. They need to be presented with logical arguments and solid evidence as to why they should support one side, and not just be against the other.

There’s no way around it: Israel’s occupation and oppression of the Palestinians is indefensible. It does not align with the liberal and progressive values of many of today’s college students, and no amount of demonization can erase that fact. And as SJP continues to highlight the ways in which the struggle for justice in Palestine intersects with struggles for justice here and around the world, their strength will only continue to grow.

Editor’s note: SJP at the City College of New York will be holding a protest today at 12:15 p.m. of the visit by Israeli consul general Dani Dayan to the school, due to the fact that Dayan has sought to legitimize the illegal settler movement in Palestine and sought to deny any self-determination for Palestinians. The protest will take place at NAC plaza at the CCNY campus.  

Maha Nassar

Maha Nassar is Associate Professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona and a 2018 Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.

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3 Responses

  1. Misterioso on November 16, 2018, 10:41 am

    Fascism reminiscent of Nazi Germany:

    Video: “Lieberman Quits Netanyahu For Not Being Violent Enough to Gaza,” The Real News Network, Nov. 14/18

    The Real News Network interviews Shir Hever.

    Video of interview:

    “The resignation of far-right Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in protest of the Gaza truce could trigger early elections as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already grapples with the biggest corruption scandal in Israel’s history. We speak to author and Real News correspondent Shir Hever.”

  2. JoeSmack on November 16, 2018, 12:23 pm

    Sorry, but this is brazenly naive. The reality is that Israeli propaganda has always been at odds with reality. The writer is suggesting that the more SJP’s image contradicts the propaganda, the more successful they will be. That is false.

    In reality, SJP and the Palestinian people in their entirety have always been distinct from the propaganda that has been voiced about them. Whether or not that makes a difference depends entirely on the views of the observers. Students loaded with racism and prejudice will not suddenly change their views when faced with such contradictions, and students without those prejudice would already have been supportive irrespective of what slander campaigns are used against the student activists.

    But more importantly, it is absolutely not a sign of strength that SJP is expected to maintain good optics. In any real struggle, particularly an ethnic/racial conflict, it is expected that people from one side engage in the kind of harsh rhetoric that comes with war. Likewise, it is inevitable when discussing something as delicate as race that even benign or insightful comments about racism will be perceived as “reverse discrimination” (in this case, “anti-Semitism”).

    That National SJP reblogged sympathetic words about the massacre of Jews is not notable because virtually anyone with a brain condemned that act. Even the guy who did it mentioned the “optics” of other Neo-Nazis who know it is bad press to kill elderly worshipers.

    The more indicative evidence of SJP’s views on anti-Semitism are the general day-to-day operations of SJP on campuses (and not the National branch, which is a mismanaged e-mail list-serv that throws annual parties with a dwindling number of attendees). Anyone who has traveled the lecture circuit or followed these groups on Facebook knows that SJP’s don’t just condemn anti-Semitism; they go out of their way to privilege Jewish voices, censor their own programming as a result of perceived anti-Semitism (rather than real anti-Semitism), silence Palestinians who take stronger stances, aggressively filter out the voices of Palestinians who do not live in America; avoid any sort of confrontation generally, and defer uncritically to the views of local Jewish groups that have mixed politics.

    In short, SJP’s willingness to contradict the propaganda, not just by condemning anti-Semitism when it’s in the news but by going out of its way to accommodate Jews and anti-Semitism concerns — including totally fabricated and hysterical accusations made in bad faith –doesn’t prove that it is a strong movement getting stronger. It proves it is a weak movement that is easily pushed into submission and cannot properly protect the voices of the wider community it seeks to represent. That it must win people over by avoiding anything that could even vaguely be perceived as anti-Semitic — such as harsh criticism of Israel, discussion of race privilege, or even just the kind of chauvinistic rhetoric that comes with every racial/ethnic conflict — shows that they are not strong. And if you ask many of the former student organizers who did this as undergraduates, they will tell you the same thing.

  3. JWalters on November 17, 2018, 6:14 pm

    My deep thanks to all in the Students for Justice in Palestine. Students were instrumental in ending the massive, war profiteering injustices of the Vietnam war. Most students have not been bought or compromised, and still have the common sense to know that Justice is the future of a sane world. The Zionist project is trying to take the world back 2000 years to an even more barbaric age. It is propelled solely by the power of money, not by its irrational cover stories.

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