Fight Back: Tips on Organizing for Justice in Palestine
By Michelle Zei
There’s much more to campus life than classes and parties: college is a fundamental time to question beliefs and develop social consciousness. The college campus has always been an incubator for change and a battleground for political debate. Students exceptionally passionate about socio-political issues may take the route of college activism; that is, four years full of lectures, protests, documentary screenings – and yes – bake sales.
Student leaders walk one-step ahead of the rest and proactively challenge the norm, including widely accepted misconceptions. The Palestinian struggle is currently one of the most misrepresented political issues. We see this playing out on campuses across the U.S., as SJP’s (Students for Justice in Palestine) are considered highly controversial groups. Academic suppression of SJPs reflect academia’s historic struggle to protect progressive thought and leadership.
Through lectures, events and demonstrations, SJPs strive to educate their peers about the Israeli occupation and advocate for Palestinians’ rights and self-determination. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement aims to hold institutions accountable for their connection to the occupation. SJPs contest what many students are taught: the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a feud between two equal parties rather than a military occupation and apartheid.
The 2013-2014 academic year proved to be a remarkable time for Palestinian advocacy on US campuses. In January, the American Studies Association voted to support a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Despite many universities’ oppositional statements and responses, the ASA’s decision proved that not only students but also faculty across the country are concerned about justice for Palestine.
SJP chapters such as Northeastern and NYU have been in the public eye recently for distributing mock eviction notices. The eviction notices are a creative form of protest that highlights the Israeli occupation’s continued displacement of Palestinian families and destruction of villages. While the media covers failed peace talks, not enough attention is given to the reality that Israel is still actively expanding settlements that are illegal under international law; article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention prohibits the forcible transfer of individuals by the occupying power, unless the security of the population or imperative military reasons so demand.
In March, Northeastern University’s SJP distributed mock eviction notices throughout campus. Their administration responded by suspending their chapter until at least 2015, and restricting members from obtaining leadership roles in other student organizations. Due to Northeastern SJP’s constant publicity and support from peers, Northeastern recently announced the chapter will be reinstated in September 2014.
Following this incident, NYU’s SJP placed mock-eviction notices under the doors of residents in two buildings on campus. Laura Atkins of the conservative NYU student group TorchPAC responded to the eviction notices by contacting media and accusing NYU SJP of anti-Semitism, claiming that SJP is a hate organization connected to terrorism.
Fortunately, NYU SJP co-presidents Emad Rajeh and Shafeka Hashash were quick to set the record straight and shifted the the conversation from false claims toward Palestinians that are receiving real eviction notices from the Israeli occupation.
“ABC read the entire flyer including the part that 150,000 Palestinians have been left homeless due to demolitions and they showed the flyer and a lot of the outlets showed the flyers, so this conversation is being had. It’s not just the 2,000 students that we initially intended to see the flyer but it’s now national. It’s not just charges of anti-Semitism, the flyer gets to be seen, the flyer cites the Israeli Committee on Home Demolitions as the source where the facts are from on how many houses have been destroyed and how many people have been left homeless. The whole point is to raise awareness and educate people. This action in no way compares to people actually getting evicted, it’s just to tell people what’s going on,” Hashash said.
It’s worth reflecting on Atkins’ inappropriate and false claims, as they undermine the pivotal role that Jewish students play in SJPs. Jewish voices that are critical of Israel are too often silenced by Jewish and Zionist campus groups. Too often are they judged by other Jews and called self-hating for loving not only their fellow Jews but their Palestinian brothers and sisters. Luckily, some Jewish students are taking a stand against the way even the most stringent Zionist organizations discuss the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In December 2013, Swarthmore Hillel rebelled against Hillel International guidelines by opening their Hillel to a diversity of opinions rather than only Zionist perspectives. This came after Harvard Hillel banned an Israeli advocate for Palestine from speaking.
On one hand, the outcome of the two incidents is a step forward and will strengthen the academic freedom of SJP as well as other campus organizations. However, if Northeastern didn’t fight back against educational suppression and if NYU’s SJP wasn’t prepared to defend themselves through the media, these students could’ve easily had their rights violated and their images tainted.
When public attacks and academic suppression aren’t properly challenged, student activists can feel isolated, lose enthusiasm, grow jaded, and become intimidated.
By observing the two SJPs uncompromising and proactive stances, I’ve compiled a list of quick tips for student activists:
- Find legal representation
- Campus organizations can reach out to legal organizations to ensure their rights aren’t violated. The National Lawyers Guild will witness protests and ensure rights aren’t violated.
SJP’s in particular can utilize the services of the Palestinian Solidarity Legal Support Group.
Seek allies on campus and beyond
- By reaching out to the public, NYU SJP managed to gather over 1000 signatures supporting their right to free speech.
- NYU SJP also gathered signatures from nearly 100 professors on campus
- Find organizations on and off campus that have similar goals. Students will realize that they’re not alone in the challenges they face for supporting controversial issues.
Student organizations can benefit from keeping in touch with organization alumni as well. Past members are invaluable resources for advice based on their past experiences with administration.
Keep track of all incidents
It’s important for SJPs and other groups to track when the organization is treated unjustly or members are harassed for their viewpoints.
Broadcast your story in the media
- The media’s narrative about the “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” as well as other controversial political issues, is often limited and misguiding. Work diligently to address false information and change the narrative.
- Write op-eds on campus, in the local community and globally. Social media provides the unique power to document and share information that media outlets are hesitant to broadcast.
Although SJPs don’t operate as one national organization, different chapters are united in educating students about the Israeli occupation. The First Amendment provides students in SJP or otherwise with a license to express themselves and illuminate silenced realities. Effective advocacy must grab the attention of students in the midst of their daily hustle- a difficult challenge that Northeastern and NYU SJPs accomplished. Despite negative feedback and intimidation, these groups prevailed with the support of organizations and individuals that stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand.” – Frederick Douglass
In my next article, I will look at the educational suppression that Palestinian students themselves are facing by discussing the Right to Education Campaign.