Barnard College Censors Students for Justice in Palestine
The decision reflects the unfair treatment pro-Palestinian campus activists face across the country
This Monday, to kick off End Israeli Apartheid Week, the Barnard-Columbia chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine hung up a banner in front of Barnard Hall, featuring a map of historical Palestine. In response, students and parents from campus organizations like Lion PAC and Columbia Barnard Hillel immediately began a concerted email campaign, demanding the sign be removed because of its “anti-Semitic” content. And so, despite the fact that SJP obtained official permission to put up the banner, even explaining the message of their sign beforehand, Barnard President Debora Spar made the decision to tear down the banner the next morning.
The banner, as shown below, depicts a map of historic Palestine to affirm “the connection that Palestinians living in the diaspora, the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and as citizens inside of Israel, feel for one another, despite their fragmentation across time and space,” said SJP organizer Feride Eralp. Nonetheless, Columbia Barnard Hillel President Hannah Spellman claimed that such a display was “offensive and threatening” because it did not include Israeli territorial markings. Yet, despite the obviously contestable meaning of the sign among the student body, Barnard’s administration promptly decided to rip off the banner, effectively violating their own space policies in order to favor the demands, and artistic interpretations, of pro-Israeli campus organizations. Did the banner, which had already been approved, become “anti-Semitic” and “threatening” in the eyes of administrators over night?
“It has been a long-standing tradition to allow any recognized Barnard or Columbia student group to reserve a space and hang a banner promoting their event,” acknowledged Barnard President Deborah Spar in an internal email to Lion PAC (SJP received no such personal email). But nonetheless, she declared, after thanking students for their demands, “We are removing the banner from Barnard Hall at this time and will be reexamining our policy for student banners going forward.” Such a response came as a shock to SJP activists, who were not even informed until campus media picked up on the story.
“People have suggested its not fair to have something so politically charged next to a Barnard logo, but if so, then there needs to be consistency,” said SJP activist and Barnard sophomore Shezza Dallal. “Feminism, Pro-life-these are all very politically charged topics, why were their banners kept up, but ours is brought down now? You cannot just accord freedom of speech until it makes certain people feel uncomfortable.”
Another student, who wanted to go by Khan, complained that both the Columbia and Barnard administrations consistently privilege the needs and beliefs of some student groups over others. “Barnard’s conduct on this was extremely swift. We went to bed having put them up, and in the morning they were gone,” she said. “When we want to get something done, we are not considered a priority. For the Muslim Students Association it has taken two years for us to get a regular religious life advisor, but when one individual, former Hillel president or not, made a Facebook status, all of a sudden this blows up into immediate action.”
Many students felt that the censorship is symptomatic of larger structural disparities and institutional dominance. Columbia and Barnard’s Hillel Center for Jewish Student Life, for example, has its own enormous building on campus, from which it regularly hosts organizations and events explicitly justifying Israel’s occupation of Palestine and arranges hundreds of students’ free trips to Israel as part of the “Taglit Birthright” program. The program has received much criticism for the unapologetically propagandistic image it presents of the Israeli occupation, not too mention its clearly offensive premise that any Jewish American has a right to visit and live in Israel, while millions of dispossessed Palestinians continue to languish in refugee camps across the region. Yet Columbia and Barnard continue to actively support these programs and institutions every year.
In her email to Lion PAC, Barnard president Deborah Spar claimed that the censorship was necessary because her administration’s approval of one hand-painted sign, depicting a map of historical Palestine, gives “the impression that the College sanctions and supports” SJP activities. What impression then do the multimillion dollar Birthright trips, officially associated with Barnard, give in comparison? While one student organization can’t even put up a map of many students’ homeland, another is encouraged to promote and expand programs, which normalize the oppression of the Palestinian people and strive to create a new generation of Zionist apologists.
The decision is part of a national crack down on Students for Justice in Palestine. Today, for example, Max Blumenthal reported in Mondoweiss that the Northeastern University administration suspended their SJP chapter for the year and is threatening two activists with expulsion and NYPD style interrogations for the high crime of leafleting mock eviction notices, drawing attention to the Israeli practice of placing demolition notices on Palestinians’ homes about to be bulldozed. Surprisingly, the Northeastern Hillel chapter railed against these flyers because they “alarmed and intimidated students,” but did not release a follow up statement condemning the state of Israel for the alarm and intimidation stemming from actual Palestinian evictions every day.
In his report on the administrative crackdown at Northeastern, Blumenthal explains, “The suspension of Northeastern SJP is the culmination of a long-running crusade against the group led by powerful pro-Israel outfits based in Boston,” including Charles Jacobs, the founder of the anti-Muslim non-profit Americans for Peace and Tolerance. In the past, Jacobs has claimed that Students for Justice in Palestine are “anti-Semites, Israel haters” attempting to “justify a second Holocaust, the mass murder of Jews” and possessed with “an irrational, seething animus against the Jew of nations, Israel.”
“I stand with the SJP students at Northeastern,” said Columbia sophomore Ferial Massoud. “This is a part of a larger agenda on the part of universities to crack down on pro-Palestinian activists, which is preposterous not only because of the unjust bias of the administration, but more importantly because the university is one of the only places today where students are supposed to have freedom of expression.”
At Barnard and Northeastern, SJP activists were disappointed by this absurd rationale for their censorship, but nonetheless refused to be silent. In the last few days alone, Northeastern SJP students have raised thousands of signatures to drop the absurd charges against the two targeted students, and at Barnard students have decided to go out onto campus everyday to share their experiences with the larger community. “As long as injustice exists we’ll continuing speaking out, because we refuse to be censored,” declared Barnard first year and SJP organizer Jannine Massoud. “It is our duty to speak out because so many Palestinians cannot still to this day.”