For Jewish student groups, the increasingly contentious campus fight on behalf of Israel is one that takes place at established, centralized institutions like Hillel, with support and tutelage from deep-pocketed national groups. Its preferred mode of operation consists, for the most part, of friendly public information campaigns, earnest seminars and panel discussions, and welcoming luncheons and the occasional Sabbath dinner with guest speakers who receive generous honorariums.
But on campus after campus these days, this pro-Israel movement’s primary antagonist is a group whose make-up and tactics are almost the polar opposite.
Students for Justice in Palestine is so decentralized that its 120 autonomous chapters — most of them quite small — have only recently begun to connect with each other nationally. Activists describe the chapters as shoestring operations, funded primarily by university grants given to all registered student organizations. These grants range from several hundred to a couple of thousand dollars, enough to buy some paint and to print fliers, according to one activist. The low budgets suit these groups, which adamantly reject outside involvement and believe in decision making by communal consensus.
But SJP’s most striking contrast with campus Jewish groups is the approach its chapters take toward activism: protest tactics purposely designed to make fellow students feel uneasy.
SJP activists have set up roadblocks on campuses, which they claim resemble those Israel has put up across the occupied territories. They have built so-called “apartheid walls” on campus grounds, symbolizing the barrier Israel has erected — citing security needs — to keep Palestinians within those same territories. Another tactic involves the mock eviction of students from their dorm rooms with leaflets that mirror some of the language Israel’s military authorities use when notifying West Bank Palestinians of demolition orders against their homes.
SJP touts this approach as a way to give its target audience as close to a firsthand impression as possible of the situation Palestinians face in the occupied West Bank.
“We gave about 2,000 students eviction notices,” recalled David McCleary, an activist in the group’s chapter at the University of California, Berkeley, who participated in a February 2014 protest using this tactic on his campus. “We wanted to show people what the Palestinians have to deal with.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, recently christened SJP as “the main organizing force behind the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns” against Israel on American campuses. SJP, he noted, boasts chapters “popping up on new campuses every month or so.”
This academic school year, soon to end, has seen more anti-Israel activity in campuses than ever before. According to a running toll by the AMCHA Initiative, 15 university student bodies approved resolutions this year calling for their schools to divest their investment portfolios of selected companies deemed to be complicit in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. That compared to 13 last year.
Many student bodies have rejected these initiatives. But in most cases victory is less important than the opportunity such campaigns present to shine a bright spotlight on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and thereby influence student opinion.
SJP, which has been at the forefront of these efforts, insists it is different from other pro-Palestinian organizations in structure and in message.
“SJP doesn’t have a stance on a one-state or a two-state solution,” McCleary said, referring to the two main prescriptions for resolving Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its blockade, together with Egypt, of Gaza. “We’re less concerned with the ‘how’ and more with our goals of freedom and equality for all. If it is achieved in one state or in two states is less of a concern for SJP.”
According to Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, which recently published a report on the group, “SJP is central to the rise of the anti-Israel activity we’ve seen on campus.”
SJP’s roots trace back to McCleary’s own Berkeley campus, home to the 1960s Free Speech Movement. During the early days of the second intifada, in 2001, the new group was tied closely to the already established Palestine Solidarity Movement. But after that organization dissolved, SJP spread out on its own to campuses across the country.
McCleary, a graduate student who is himself Jewish, became active in SJP following Israel’s military campaign in Gaza last summer against Hamas. Though Israel contended that it had no choice but to respond to rockets launched by Hamas into Israel, McCleary said that the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza proved that it was instead a “mass slaughter” of Palestinians.
Even at UC Berkeley, its original home, the core membership of SJP is relatively small. It includes only some 15 students. Major campaigns bring together about 40 activists, though the group said it does not keep lists of members.
Various chapters have chosen diverse means of protesting the Israeli occupation. These vary from moves to ban Sabra humus — owned by an Israeli company — from the school cafeteria at Chicago’s DePaul University, to interrupting a speech by an Israeli politician at Brandeis, to protesting recruitment events for free trips to Israel held by Taglit-Birthright Israel.Still, it is SJP’s divestment initiatives that have turned this array of activists into a major concern for the organized Jewish community. DePaul, Oberlin College, The Evergreen State College, Loyola University, The University of Toledo, Wesleyan University, Stanford University and six University of California campuses are among the schools whose student bodies have approved SJP-sponsored divestment resolutions. All are non-binding.
The debate among Israel support groups now is over how to counter this. While Foxman called for the community to deal with the challenge in a “calm and rational way,” conservative commentator David Horowitz, who heads the Freedom Center, confronted SJP head-on, with advertisements tying the group to Hamas — a charge the group denies — and an opinion piece calling on UC to ban the Berkeley chapter, which he accused of spewing “obnoxious hatreds.”
In some instances, university authorities have acted against SJP chapters. At Northeastern University in Boston, a mock eviction drive accompanied by fake notices slipped under the doors at student residences led to suspension of the campus SJP chapter, though the group was later reinstated. At Loyola, students faced disciplinary measures after disrupting registration for free Israel trips by Taglit-Birthright Israel.
Supporters of SJP view these cases, and many others that have not been reported, as free-speech violations and as a sign of being targeted by the organized pro-Israel community. “What we’re seeing is legal bullying,” said Liz Jackson, a staff attorney at Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, in Oakland, California. Jackson said that in the first four months of 2015, 102 students sought legal help after being accused of anti-Semitism or of breaking school rules because of their pro-Palestinian activity.
Several SJP activists approached by the Forward declined to be identified, citing their fear of retribution by pro-Israel groups if they spoke out on behalf of the organization. There is no evidence of such retribution.
Much of SJP’s activity is still centered in California and on the West Coast, but the organization has been demonstrating increasing presence in Florida, at Columbia University, and the University of Michigan, among others. While each chapter maintains its full independence, SJP groups have recently been working to strengthen cooperation. A national umbrella organization brings activists together for an annual conference. There are also several regional coalitions.
SJP has built its power in part by partnering with other groups rather than by expanding its own operation. On campus, the pro-Palestinian student organization has engaged black, Latino, Armenian and Muslim American groups to join its activities and, perhaps more important, to oppose the work of pro-Israel organizations led by the Israel on Campus Coalition.
The only Jewish group consistently welcomed by SJP is Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that, like SJP, supports the use of boycott and divestment to pressure Israel.
“There’s an enormous amount of cooperation,” said JVP’s executive director, Rebecca Vilkomerson. “I think they are the most effective student organization on this issue.” Though there have been exceptions, SJP avoids working with Jewish groups that oppose divestment and boycott of Israel, arguing that this would be perceived as legitimizing Israeli policies.
Within its own ranks, the group attracts many students who are neither Palestinian-American nor Muslim — a point of particular pride among its members. In fact, several activists said that, based on their unscientific impressions of participants at the national conference, Jews make up the second largest ethnic group in SJP.
One such activist is Tom Pessah, an Israeli Jewish doctoral candidate at Berkeley who recently returned to Israel, where he teaches sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“I was looking for a group that’s not only Jewish,” Pessah said, explaining his chosen avenue for opposing Israel’s policies. His nationality and his past service in the Israeli army raised some questions among his fellow SJP members at the beginning, he said. But Pessah quickly overcame the initial suspicion. He became one of the group’s key activists, participating in events during so-called Israeli Apartheid Week, and was part of SJP’s drive to push forward the UC Berkeley divestment measure.
“I don’t think there are many social groups that are as diverse as SJP,” Pessah said. During his years at Berkeley, the scholar said, he forged long-lasting ties with SJP activists. At the same time, Pessah attended Hillel’s Hebrew hour while studying on the campus.
While the Jewish community views SJP’s positions toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as representing an extreme anti-Zionist approach, the group defies the usual criteria for judging anti-Israel organizations: It has, most notably, avoided endorsing a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
This separates SJP from other organizations that Israel advocates deem extremist based on their explicit calls for ending Israel’s separate existence as a Jewish state.
At the same time, SJP chapters have endorsed the right of return to Israel for Palestinians who were forcibly expelled or who fled during the 1948 war that established the state, as well as for their descendants now massed in refugee camps. Most supporters of Israel view this as a move that would inevitably bring about an end to Israel’s Jewish national identity.
“Our goal is to change the discourse,” Pessah explained. “We want to end the occupation, to bring equality to Palestinians and Israelis, and we support the right of return. But that doesn’t contradict Jewish rights.” Other activists stressed that they do not support Hamas and are not backed by the organization.
Nevertheless, as a decentralized organization, SJP encompasses chapters and individuals with a variety of views. The general ideological guidelines are anything but binding. In one case, a social media posting by Vassar SJP included Nazi imagery, leading to a school investigation into the group’s activity. In another, a Tweet by a New York University SJP activist denied Israel’s right to exist.
Both postings were quickly removed. SJP chapters said that they did not reflect the groups’ positions.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.