They advocate for Israel’s destruction, admire terrorists, and are making Jewish students feel unsafe on campuses across the country. They’re Students for Justice in Palestine—and they’re a huge problem.
With summer behind us, students are returning to campuses across North America, and a new wave of student activism is taking up positions on both sides of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The two camps may look similar in terms of funding and fervor, but they differ dramatically in one especially fundamental way: While pro-Israel activism is diverse and defined by innumerable independent groups representing every shade of religious and political nuance, the Palestinian forces are dominated by a single group: Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
SJP claims to stand for human rights, specifically the rights of the Palestinian people; and consistently portrays itself as an advocate for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and solidarity with the oppressed.
But a closer look at the group’s rhetoric and actions tells a different story.
Instead of promoting justice, SJP and/or its members spend almost all of their energy demonizing Israel, advocating for its eventual destruction, showing an unfortunate affinity for pro-terrorist figures, bullying and intimidating pro-Israel and Jewish students with vicious and sometimes anti-Semitic rhetoric, and even at times engaging in physical violence. While SJP may pay lip-service to peaceful aims, their rhetoric and actions make it hard to avoid the conclusion that a culture of hatred permeates nearly everything the group does—making the college experience increasingly uncomfortable, at times even dangerous, for Jewish or pro-Israel students. Perhaps equally disturbing is the limited response from university authorities that have an obligation to prevent such attacks and protect Jewish students.
And the risk to Jewish and pro-Israel students appears to be growing. Indeed, unless college administrators take a more active role in preventing it, SJP has a good chance of achieving its goal of turning venomous hatred of Israel and bullying of Jews and non-Jewish supporters—with all the violence and fear that inevitably accompany it—into a legitimate and accepted tactic on North American campuses.
SJP is an outgrowth of an organization called the General Union of Palestinian Students, originally founded in Egypt in the 1950s, and established at San Francisco State University in 1973. In 2001, after graduating from San Francisco State and moving across the bay, a UC Berkeley graduate student—now professor—by the name of Hatem Bazian launched his own chapter of GUPS, just as the second intifada and its campaign of suicidal terror were going full swing. He renamed the group, and refashioned it in his own image.
According to Accuracy in Academia, a nonprofit research group, Bazian’s extremist rhetoric can be traced at least as far back as 1999, when, in a presentation at an academic conference, he favorably recited a famous anti-Semitic passage from the Quran: “The Day of Judgment will not happen until the trees and stones will say, ‘Oh Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.’” (He later denied having done so.) In 2011, he helped organize the “Never Again For Anyone” speaking tour, during which the Holocaust was invoked and the Palestinians likened to the Jews persecuted by Nazi Germany. The link drawn between Israel and Nazi Germany is, of course, a staple of modern European anti-Semitism.
SJP does not appear to have strayed very far from its founder’s ideology. On the campus of the University of South Florida, for example, the SJP kicked off the new year by scheduling an event entitled “The Hidden Genocide: The Story of Palestine” Headlining the event was “Motivational speaker,” and Hamas supporter Monzer Taleb, a fundraiser for the terrorist group who has come under investigation by the U.S. government. According to one account,
Before the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) was closed by the U.S. government as a designated global terrorist fundraising entity just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Monzer Taleb (aka Munzir Taleb, Monzer Talib, et al.) was part of the infamous Al-Sakhra band, which toured the U.S. raising money for the HLF and the terrorist group Hamas. Taleb was so active in his fundraising pursuits that he was personally named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the HLF terrorism finance trial, which concluded this past November with guilty verdicts on all 108 counts for the defendants.
Having provided a platform for support of the U.S.-designated terrorist organization Hamas, and employing the shocking and objectively preposterous term “genocide” to describe Israel, the event’s description promptly shifted to the rhetoric of empathy and concern. “After a summer of atrocious massacres,” it said, “it is time we come together as a community to be part of the solution. The people of Gaza are without shelter, food, security, and freedom. They need to know their brothers and sisters in Tampa are here for them.”
The group is especially consistent in its preference for the language of victimhood. Just a few weeks ago, for example, they held a September 5, 2014 vigil for Gaza on the campus of Binghamton University in upstate New York. SJP member Victoria Brown told the campus paper that the group’s motives were purely humanist. “We feel that we need to commemorate [the Palestinians’] lives, humanize their lives,” she said. “We’re not talking about the military, we’re not talking about the army, we’re talking about children—women and innocent civilians who were massacred.” Brown’s use of the inflammatory term “massacre” is a telling one. It is standard SJP tactic to coat its hate speech with humanitarian Stevia.
Even when SJP turns away from the “historical struggle,” it retains its focus on the hatred of Israel and denial of Jewish history or legitimacy. Poet Remi Kanazi, for example, who frequently speaks at SJP-sponsored events, represents Palestinian culture through work that attacks Israel as a “racist, apartheid state” that is “built upon the graves of Palestinians.” In one Facebook post from 2012, Kanazi wrote,“Dear Zionists: You have never ‘defended yourselves.’ You came in, stole land that wasn’t yours & maintained a racist state through massacres and brute force.”
SJP’s support for radical, distorted, and violent views extends into the realm of concrete policy as well. Despite its stated concern for justice and human rights, it opposes any kind of collaboration or coexistence with Israel or its supporters. The SJP National website, for example, proffers what it calls “Anti-Normalization” information with links to articles that oppose working with Israel-associated organizations.
SJP also opposes the idea of a two-state solution—the only path to a final peace solution that today seems remotely plausible—and is quite hostile to the peace process in general. Radical-Left Israeli academic Ilan Pappe, for example, who opposes a two-state solution, celebrated the group’s national conference on the organization’s website by deriding “the attempt to reduce Palestine geographically and demographically under the guise of a ‘peace process.’” Instead, he spoke approvingly of SJP as part of “a new popular and successful struggle to bring peace and reconciliation to the whole of Palestine.” In the lexicon of Palestinian nationalism, the “whole of Palestine” refers to all of what was British mandatory Palestine, thus implying the eradication of the State of Israel.
SJP’s barely-concealed extremism in this regard is further underscored by its dedication to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to strangle Israel’s economy, sabotage its ability to defend itself, and destroy its standing in the international community. BDS is now the center of SJP activism, at times taking on the appearance of an obsession. As explained by the Tufts University SJP chapter’s motto, the core principles of the organization are “Peace through justice. Equality through resistance. Humanity through BDS.”
Bazian, the group’s founder, has chimed in to support these efforts, announcing an “International Day of Action” scheduled for this past September 23—the eve of Rosh Hashana, continuing a pattern by SJP of scheduling anti-Israel events on Jewish holidays—in order to advocate a complete academic and cultural boycott of the Jewish state. The event’s Facebook announcement stated that among its goals were: “No joint research or conferences with Israeli Institutions, No to University Presidents’ Visits to Israel, No Campus Police Training or Cooperation with Israeli Security.” It also called for the elimination of all study-abroad programs in Israel. The effort was clearly intended to prevent any academic interaction with the Jewish state and limit students’ and scholars’ ability to interact with Israelis in general.
The “International Day of Action” was largely a flop, though a group of students, including a member of the student government, paraded around the UC Berkeley campus chanting, “We support the Intifada,” “Long live the Intifada,” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”—again, calls for Israel’s destruction through violence.
It is worth pointing out that SJP’s devotion to the BDS movement makes the group significantly more extreme than the official Palestinian leadership. In addition to its official support for both the two-state solution and the peace process, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has repeatedly criticized BDS, and as recently as December 2013, PA President Mahmoud Abbas publicly declared that a boycott of Israel is not in the interests of the Palestinian people. The Palestinians, he said, “have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel.” In line with Abbas’ remarks, four BDS activists were arrested in July by PA forces for “provoking riots and the breach of public tranquility.” A PA official told Israeli-Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh that the BDS movement makes all Palestinians appear radical and “goes against the PLO’s official policy, which is to seek a peace agreement with Israel based on the two-state solution.” Palestinian leaders in America have followed suit. In June 2014, Ghaith al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, told an audience that BDS is “completely unacceptable” and “doesn’t fit with the idea of the two-state solution.”
It is difficult not to conclude from this that SJP’s purpose is less to advocate for the Palestinians than to damage Israel by propagating the same hate-filled rhetoric that has caused Jews in France to lock themselves in synagogues and make plans to move to Israel. Indeed, it explicitly advocates extremist measures that many Palestinian leaders believe will do their own people more harm than good. In this sense, SJP’s ideology does not seem to be generally pro-Palestinian but in fact a lot closer to the beliefs and policies of Hamas than to the recognized Palestinian leadership.
Such suspicions are bolstered by SJP’s choice of speakers and guest lecturers, many of whom are open advocates for terrorism and reject any vision of a peaceful Middle East that includes the Jewish State. Frequently, and particularly in times of war, they cross the line into overt anti-Semitism.
Two of the most frequent guests at SJP events during the 2013-2014 school year were Max Blumenthal and Ali Abunimah. Both reject a two-state solution and regularly employ radical, inflammatory rhetoric. In August, 2014, Abunimah was so appalled by a campaign for the UN to recognize Judaism’s holiest day (alongside 10 other holidays already recognized) that he tweeted, “Making Yom Kippur a UN holiday to honor the genocidal ‘state’ of Israel would be sure way to increase global anti-Jewish sentiment.” Last year, Blumenthal mocked Jewish ritual by sharing a picture online that showed him praying to a distorted image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Asked about Blumenthal, Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz called Blumenthal “an extremist bigot whose greatest appeal is to anti-Semites and others who apply a double standard to the Jewish state…. No decent person should ever support the views expressed by Max Blumenthal.” His recently published book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel was so offensive that it was dubbed “The Israel Hater’s Handbook” and worthy of the “Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club” by Eric Alterman of The Nation. Abunimah’s book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine, calls for an end to Israel’s existence.
As inflammatory as it is, however, the rhetoric employed by Blumenthal and Abunimah is relatively moderate compared to some of SJP’s other guests.
In a 2006 speech at UC Irvine during “Israel Apartheid Week,” co-sponsored by SJP and the Muslim Student Association, SJP speaker Amir Abdel Malik Ali explicitly called for war and, apparently, mass murder, saying of Israel, “The truth of the matter is your days are numbered. We will fight you. We will fight you until we are either martyred or until we are victorious.”
In an equally chilling statement in 2010, Malik Ali asserted his support for terrorism. When questioned by Roz Rothstein, of the organization StandWithUs, he answered as follows:
Rothstein: Do you support Hamas?
Malik Ali: Yes.
Rothstein: Do you support Hezbollah?
Malik Ali: Yes.
Rothstein: Do you support Islamic Jihad?
Malik Ali: Yes.
Rothstein: Do you support jihad on this campus?
Malik Ali: Jihad on this campus…? As long as it’s in the form of speaking truth to power, yes. And the reason why I said it’s not a good idea to sit down with Zionists, is because when you sit down with Zionists, for cookies and cake, and talk about issues, that kind of thing, right, it gives the impression that Zionism is like, it’s okay, that it’s okay. Now, you Jews, in all due respect, you wouldn’t sit down with Nazis for tea and cake. No you wouldn’t!
Malik Ali is far from the only pro-terror SJP speaker. In 2012, for example, SJP invited Islamic Jihad terrorist Khader Adnan to headline an SJP-sponsored event at American University. Adnan, who was at one point the official spokesman for Islamic Jihad, is a supporter of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks on civilians, and has accused the Palestinian Authority of being a collaborator with Israel.
Nor is such rhetoric limited to SJP’s outside speakers. Indeed, the group’s own leadership has displayed an attitude toward violence that seems disturbingly close to pathological. In December 2013, Mohammad Hammad, president of San Francisco State University’s General Union of Palestinian Students—the chapter kept its original name from 1973—posted a picture of himself wielding a knife on his Tumblr page. “I seriously cannot get over how much I love this blade,” he wrote in the caption. “It is the sharpest thing I own and cuts through everything like butter and just holding it makes me want to stab an Israeli soldier.” According to CBS News, Hammad has come under investigation by anti-terrorism officials and the FBI for activity that included serious threats of violence.
In the face of such a torrent of incitement, should it be surprising to see members of SJP engaging in actual physical aggression and violence against Jewish or pro-Israel students? On March 5, 2010, Husam Zakharia, the president of the UC Berkeley chapter of SJP, rammed pro-Israel student Jessica Felber with a shopping cart. Felber was holding a sign reading “Israel Wants Peace.” He was arrested; but in a 2012 decision dismissing her lawsuit a judge ruled that the SJP leader’s actions constituted “free speech.” Precisely how physically attacking another human being constitutes protected speech was left up to others to decide.
In August 2014, Temple University student Daniel Vessal, who is Jewish, was hit in the face by someone who was with a group of students, many of whom were confirmed as SJP members. Two witnesses heard members of SJP call him a “kike” after the attack. “Before this I just thought Students for Justice in Palestine was crazy,” Vessal told me soon after the incident, “but I didn’t know it would lead to violence.” SJP at Temple scrambled to downplay the incident, but nonetheless felt the need to issue a condemnation, albeit a backhanded one. They condemned the attack “just as we condemn the violence that is committed against Palestinians by the state of Israel on a daily basis.” Indeed.
In September 2014, members of SJP at Loyola University Chicago verbally assaulted Jewish students affiliated with Hillel who were staffing a table with literature for a Birthright Israel trip. SJP members reportedly surrounded the table, blocking the movement of the Hillel students and preventing others from approaching. One student witness told The College Fix, a news website that covers campus issues, that SJP members ambushed the Jewish students, asking them “How does it feel to be an occupier?” and “How does it feel to be guilty of ethnic cleansing?” The College Fix reported that one student expressed concerns about attending future Hillel events for fear of being attacked.
The use of harassment and intimidation is not unusual. In 2011, the group’s Northeastern University chapter chose to interrupt an on-campus Holocaust remembrance event “by whipping out anti-Israel signs and yelling insults at the audience and speakers before storming out.” One of the organization’s leaders has been spotted on campus wearing a pro-Hezbollah shirt. And during the 2013-2014 academic year, the entire group was suspended for intimidating students on campus.
SJP’s continuing violence and hate speech has had consequences for both pro-Israel activists on campus and Jewish students in general. In May 2014, SJP began soliciting support for the BDS campaign at DePaul University. Their conduct made the atmosphere on campus so poisonous that some Jewish students reported feeling directly threatened.
“When SJP started the ‘DePaul Divest’ campaign,” a student who identified herself only as Rachel said in a video, “I no longer felt safe on this campus and I no longer felt I could be a proud Jewish student.” In the same video, Ally, another student, stated, “I do kind of feel as a Jewish student that I am being targeted on campus. I feel that a lot of questions are being directed to me and I am constantly on the defensive on campus.”
This fostering of an atmosphere increasingly uncomfortable for Jewish students also was evident at Vassar College, where SJP tweeted an anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda picture from 1944, which the Mystical Politics blog described as showing a “moneybag being held in the figure’s upper right hand and the Star of David flying from the drum that is its lower body.”
At Northeastern University, New York University, and other campuses, SJP has posted mock eviction notices on dorm room doors, warning students that they must evacuate their rooms because Israel intends to destroy the premises. While SJP disputes the charge that they deliberately targeted Jews, the eviction notices themselves claimed, among other things, that Israel engages in a policy of “Judaization.” “Being very straightforward,” said one NYU student, “this made me feel targeted and unsafe in my own dorm room and I know others feel exactly the same as myself.”
Most institutions of higher education have strict and often stringently enforced codes against this kind of hate speech, intimidation, and violence. Yet in the case of the SJP, university administrators have proven ambivalent about when and where to draw the line. After the Northeastern University chapter of SJP was suspended, the group argued that its right to free speech was violated, and it was later reinstated. After the Temple University student was assaulted, the school launched an investigation and the attacker was arrested. But SJP at Temple remains a chartered and school-approved group with access to finances and school facilities. When I asked one NYU student to grade his administration’s response to SJP anti-Semitism on a ten-point scale, he responded in the bluntest possible terms:
“The administration hasn’t done shit.”
The same September week that PA President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a U.N. speech so foul and hurtful to peace it drew historic recrimination from the U.S. State Department, Abbas referred to Students for Justice in Palestine as “seeds of peace” during an address at Cooper Union in New York. But given its own conduct, it is impossible to see how SJP is the seed of anything other than more violence and conflict.
Students for Justice in Palestine patently fails, in fact refuses, to advocate anything resembling peace or a just solution to the Middle East conflict. It does not advance Palestinian human rights or the human rights of anyone. In fact, it consistently violates the human rights of pro-Israel and Jewish students. It demonizes Israel, often in racist terms, and thus perpetuates division and conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It opposes any and all cooperation or dialogue with Israelis or indeed anyone who disagrees with its radical ideology. It has shown itself disturbingly undisturbed by terrorism and those who support terrorism. It engages in and propagates anti-Semitic racism. And its members engage in acts of intimidation and physical violence, often with impunity.
Contrary to its own claims, SJP is not a voice for the Palestinians. In fact, through its “anti-normalization” ideology, its goal is to shout down the many Palestinians and Jews who do seek a peaceful future, and instead manipulate the Palestinian cause in order to promote an atmosphere of hatred, intimidation and radicalism on campus. The result is that rather than contributing to debate and dialogue, SJP seeks to destroy these bedrock values of the modern university.
The coming year, therefore, will pose a test for university leaders, both students and administrators: Will they stand for the values of free discussion and open inquiry and fulfill their role as guardians of a safe environment for students, free of bullying and intimidation? Or will they continue to allow an organization that promotes terror to terrorize our campuses under the guise of free speech? The answer they choose will have a huge impact on the nature of our campuses for many years to come.
Banner Photo: University Press / flickr