The administration at Fordham University has prohibited the formation of a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter on campus in a McCarthyite attempt to clamp down on Palestine activism.
In November 2015, a group of Fordham students submitted their application to form a campus SJP chapter, a student organization working to educate fellow students and build solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation and apartheid. Thirteen months later, on December 22, 2016, the dean of students sent them a letter effectively banning the creation of an SJP on Fordham’s campus.
“Normally,” explained student activist Sapphira Lurie, “the application process would have been completed by the start of the next semester, and SJP should have been able to begin functioning as a student group in January 2016.” Instead, the initial application was followed by months of silence, then numerous meetings, repeated questionings of the student organizers that turned into political interrogations, and bureaucratic maneuvers dragging out what should have been a straightforward decision-making process.
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After months without hearing any response, the student activists reached out to the director of student leadership in early 2016 to ask about the status of their application. In late April, they were told by the director of student leadership and the head of student government to edit the wording of the proposed constitution, and that they would be approved to function as a student group by the fall.
At the start of the fall semester in September, they reached out to the administration for permission to host events. The plan for the semester was to organize educational events that addressed the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, its siege and military attacks on Gaza, and the apartheid system within Israel proper, while also highlighting Palestinian cultural resistance.
But the group was again put through a bureaucratic back-and-forth, told that the constitution needed to be reviewed once again, and that the dean of students had more questions. In subsequent meetings, the students were pressured to change their group name, and informed that Jewish faculty would be consulted on the approval of the group.
They were also told that the group registration process had been written incorrectly in university-published forms, and that the students would have to attend a student government hearing the following month. This was clearly an attempt to excuse the atypical and egregious treatment of the Palestine student activists.
It was only after a hearing at the student government on November 17, 2016, that SJP was finally approved to become a student group. However, soon after the approval, Dean of Students Keith Eldredge requested to meet privately with the student group to personally review and approve SJP’s constitution.
“In his 10 years working at Fordham, he’d never done anything like this before,” said Lurie, who had joined the effort to found the SJP earlier in the fall. At this point, she and the rest of the group assumed that their chapter was finally approved, and that another meeting with an administrator could not affect that.
Dean Eldredge met with the group on December 12. He repeatedly asked about the group’s stance on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, on whether they would partner with Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups, and on the use of terms like “apartheid” in their organizing work.
Ten days later, Eldredge e-mailed the students to inform them that he had “decided to deny the request to form a club known as Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham University.”
He wrote that he “cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country, when these goals clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University.” His e-mail went on to claim that the student group will lead to “polarization” on campus and that he is firmly against any group affiliated with the BDS movement.
“I was very surprised at Dean Eldredge’s decision,” commented Lurie, “because the students and faculty supported us. I was confident that he’d approve us and give legitimacy to our group and our organizing work.”
His veto of a student government decision was also unprecedented. “Even the student government generally supports us,” said Lurie. Several members of the student body were “outraged,” she said, at Eldredge’s decision and at the administrative interference that undermined the student government’s authority and their standard decision-making process.
Lurie said that she should not have been as surprised as she was by her administration’s actions:
This is just one example, perhaps a striking example, of what many have called the “Palestine exception to free speech” that has affected academics and students across the country. It shouldn’t be a surprise that we’re in a country that gives millions to Israel while also repressing activists who organize for Palestine.
Indeed, repression of Palestine activists grew widespread during the Obama administration as Israel’s fears of “de-legitimization” came to the forefront with the growth of the BDS movement and Palestine solidarity activism on college campuses across the US.
“When there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them,” Obama said in 2012 during a speech at the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC. “And whenever an effort is made to delegitimize the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them.”
Quelling the BDS movement and repressing solidarity efforts — which have contributed to the shift in mainstream opinion on Israel — had become the new frontier for Israel’s fight and a priority of major Zionist organizations. The US government voiced its approval of the repression, and numerous university administrations tacitly followed suit.
In his book The Battle for Justice in Palestine, Ali Abunimah outlines how Zionist advocacy groups like The David Project refocused their efforts in recent years to target pro-Palestine activism, most notably at American universities.
Founded in 2002, The David Project targeted individual professors like Columbia’s Joseph Massad with slander campaigns. It even published specific advice for destroying the careers of pro-Palestine professors, encouraging McCarthyite witch hunts to expel these individuals from academia.
Columbia University refused to fire Professor Massad or Professor Edward Said, another well-known professor who was also targeted by Zionist organizations, officials, and the media. But the attacks spread intimidation and forced professors to self-censor when discussing the issue of Palestine.
Unfortunately, universities did not prove reliable in defending their targeted professors. Alan Dershowitz’s attack on Norman Finkelstein destroyed the professor’s career, as Chicago’s DePaul University gave in to pressure and denied his tenure in 2007.
Most recently, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign also gave in to pro-Israel donor pressure and revoked the appointment of Professor Steven Salaita. He had been attacked and vilified after tweeting his anger at Israel’s 2014 massacre in Gaza.
The Zionist battle against “de-legitimization” soon turned to targeting student activists as well as professors. In 2011, an Israeli legal advocacy group, Shurat HaDin, sent warning letters to hundreds of presidents of colleges and universities in the US “instructing them of their legal obligations to prevent anti-Semitism on campus” by, among other tactics, monitoring all campus student groups. Instead of defending their students, administrations began to take part in the intimidation across the country.
Fordham’s student activists have called the ban against their SJP “McCarthyite,” and for good reason. As Abunimah explains in his book:
There are disturbing parallels between the kinds of witch hunts against individuals suspected of anti-Israel views and the campaigns to root out alleged Communists during the 1940s and 1950s…
[It is unfortunate that] most universities then, as now, did not show great courage in standing up to intimidation by government and other outside groups, while some were actually complicit. The University of Washington’s firing of three tenured professors accused of being Communists in 1949 had a devastating effect on academic freedom nationwide…
[T]he question now is not how many professors have faced the Israel lobby’s vilification campaigns, legal threats, and attempts to interfere with their careers and in what they can and can’t teach inside the classroom and say or do outside it, but how many think they might be targeted if they don’t self-censor when it comes to the topic of Palestine and the Israelis.
This, too, applies to student activists who are intimidated and harassed for their solidarity work.
Many of us who have been involved in SJP are familiar with the Irvine 11, a group of students prosecuted in 2011 for protesting the Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s speech at UC Irvine. This case exemplified university collaboration with state repression and criminalization of Palestine campus solidarity work, in which the university surveilled student email and allowed the state to take them to trial.
Most recently, SJP students are faced with targeting by Canary Mission, a malicious website aiming to intimidate and blacklist students and faculty who are affiliated with SJP or participate in pro-Palestine activism. One of the site’s aims is to prevent student activists from gaining employment after graduation.
In New York, Palestine solidarity activists face new anti-BDS legislation signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that promises, with twisted logic, to boycott and divest from all those participating in the boycott and divestment of Israel. In one of the numerous meetings to interrogate the student activists, the head of Fordham’s student government asked the administrators if they could prohibit the group’s formation using Cuomo’s anti-BDS law to back their decision.
At Fordham, Sapphira Lurie explained, the university administration has a history of “largely suppressing and intimidating students who want to march and organize.” But on January 23, more than 70 students, faculty and community supporters protested the banning of the SJP chapter outside the Fordham Lincoln Center campus.
Speakers from SJP chapters across the city and other supporting organizations addressed the crowd. Between speakers, the protesters chanted slogans like “Free, free Palestine,” “Stand up fight back,” and “Shame, shame on Fordham U.” After the speakout, the group marched to Columbus Circle, still chanting.
Lurie is confident that SJP can win by fighting back against Fordham’s attack. “It’s a project of consciousness raising, and pressuring the university to win our demands,” she said. “We have to build with students, and with the people, continue to hold rallies, make ourselves public and make ourselves heard.”
Her confidence was boosted by the presence of numerous other student groups and the outbreak of student support for SJP. “Even though I’m extremely disappointed with the administration,” Lurie said, “I’m really proud of all the students that came out to support us and stand alongside us.”
Now that Trump has been elected, we can expect heightened repression and attacks against student activists, beginning with SJP. But as Trump signs executive orders curtailing the rights of women, immigrants and indigenous tribes alike, we can also expect greater levels of solidarity.
The Mizzou protests of 2015 brought solidarity back to the forefront of campus activism, as students challenged racist administrations while highlighting demands of working-class students against tuition hikes. And the sanctuary campus movement, which began in fall 2016, spread across the country to protect undocumented and refugee students.
The momentum and victories of the sanctuary campus movement — and the return of solidarity as a vital part of campus organizing — give us confidence that SJP will win this fight against repression.