This weekend, the second national conference of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) will take place at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. SJP is a nationwide network of student-led organizations advocating for human rights and equality in Palestine and Israel. There are over 50 chapters across the country and the number is increasing. Some work to raise awareness of the issues Palestinians are facing, while others have moved to the more rigorous action of implementing the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign called for by Palestinian civil society in 2005. But while SJP is growing, our opponents still have access to far greater resources and support from outside organizations, as well as the sympathy of many university administrators and local and state politicians.
The first national SJP conference took place at Columbia University last year. We expected 100 attendees and were delighted when some 350 supporters turned out. Since then, many new chapters have been started with new challenges and new accomplishments. This year’s edition will offer workshops addressing various topics, including dealing with opposition groups, mobilizing BDS campaigns, starting new chapters, and building bridges in local communities.
As students and recent graduates, SJP members are particularly sensitive to the plight of Palestinian students who are denied their right to education because of restrictions on movement and other obstacles imposed by Israel. Palestinians from the occupied territories who wish to study abroad face great difficulties getting permission from Israeli authorities. In particular, students from Gaza, including Fulbright Scholars, are frequently prevented from traveling to pursue their studies at institutions of higher learning in the West Bank and elsewhere. In the West Bank itself, approximately 500 Israeli checkpoints, roadblocks and other obstacles to movement make it difficult for students to freely access schooling.
Sadly, the United States under President Obama has made itself complicit in Israel’s denial of Palestinian education rights. A few weeks ago it was reported that the State Department, under pressure from the Israeli government, had decided to cut a program providing scholarships to Palestinians in Gaza to study at West Bank universities. The program was initiated amid much fanfare by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just two years ago. A few days after the end of the scholarship program was revealed, the Obama administration had to step in to ensure that Palestinian students would be able to take the SAT test (two weeks late, as it turned out) after news reports revealed that Israel was holding up a shipment of exams and threatening not to release them in time.
In seeking to increase awareness of these and other difficulties endured by Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation regime, SJP members are reaching out to other students, faculty, and the community at large. On the BDS front, we have been successful in persuading professors to sign petitions urging pension giant TIAA-CREF to divest from companies that profit from the occupation. Having support from faculty is crucial to our movement, as they often act as mediators with university administrators and provide advice on how to navigate the system. We’re also extremely proud of the alliances we’ve built with other student groups, particularly with Latino and African-American organizations. One of our biggest successes in this regard has been the strengthening of our partnership with MEChA (National Movímíento Estudíantíl Chícan@ de Aztlán), which passed their own public resolution calling for BDS against companies whose products enable Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.
Our progress, however, has come with a cost. Many SJP members and chapters have been targeted by opponents who wish to silence us. The most glaring recent example of this was the California state legislature’s approval in August of a bill (HR-35) that sought to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Although non-binding, HR-35 reflected an alarming trend among politicians from both major parties who want to suppress legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. In response, the University of California Student Association (UCSA) passed a resolution condemning HR-35, while California Scholars for Academic Freedom warned that HR-35 posed “a clear threat to academic freedom in the University of California and the California State University systems.”
Since its creation, SJP has been a haven for young Palestinian rights activists across the United States. With our current direction we hope to foster more public support so that we can continue helping young activists become tomorrow’s Palestinian rights leaders and advocates. However, the road will not be easy and we cannot do it alone.
Haneen Ali is a recent graduate and member of Students for Justice in Palestine, and co-founder of the SJP chapter at the University of South Florida (USF).