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Larry Lowenthal, adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at Northeastern and former director of the Boston office of the American Jewish Committee, said the university administration was in a delicate position and prone to criticism no matter what it decided about the SJP chapter.
“I’m all for open debate on the Middle East issue, no matter how vehement it might get,” he said. “But when dialog spills out into vehement disruption of other people’s rights, a line has to be drawn.”
But just where does “dialog” end and “vehement disruption” begin? That is very much what lies at the core of the national controversy.
In September 2011, 10 University of California-Irvine students were convicted on misdemeanor counts for disrupting a speech on campus by Israel’s then-ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren. The students took turns shouting him down and then being led out of the lecture hall, forcing Oren to curtail his one hour speech to 12 minutes. California’s state Supreme Court later affirmed the trial court’s decision.
Nothing of that sort has happened at NEU, a campus of some 27,000 students. But last year, the campus SJP chapter was put on probation for a silent walkout at the start of a presentation on campus by Israeli soldiers. A few months later, the administration accused the group of plastering a statue Robert Shilling, an NEU graduate and major donor to the school, with pro-Palestinian stickers. Shillman is also a major donor to ZOA. The Jewish advocacy group, in fact, copied Shillman on the letter of complaint about SJP that it sent to the university.
Max Geller, the leader of the school’s SJP chapter, said his organization was unfairly targeted by the administration for violating minor rules in the student handbook. He said the group distributed its mock notices generally and did not target Jewish students; it was simply looking to raise awareness about the issues.
“We didn’t get proper authorization for our fliers, but nobody gets proper authorization for fliers,” he said. “The only time the university enforces this policy is when it’s Students for Justice in Palestine doing it. It amounts to viewpoint discrimination and selective enforcement.”