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.
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.