Victories For Palestine Continued On US Campuses In 2020

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Above photo: Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine Facebook.

Despite the challenges of remote learning, campus activism for Palestine charged forward this past year.

Despite the challenges of online/remote learning, campus activism has not stopped over the past year. National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) is currently planning their 2021 conference, celebrating 10 years of this annual reunion of SJP chapters from around the nation. And many student chapters have passed significant resolutions around some major issues, from censorship, to the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, to divestment and, most recently, the training of campus police by the Israeli military. As we wrap up 2020, here is a representative sample of campus activism since the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year, pointing to what can be expected in 2021.

In September 2020 NSJP, together with Palestine Legal, put together a two-part webinar on legal self-defense for Palestine solidarity activists (September 16, and 23) and both NSJP and Palestine Legal continue to offer resources, consultations, and support for student and faculty organizers, as well as other allies.

As most learning transitioned to online platforms because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the censorship of Palestinian speech became most obvious when three tech giants, namely Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube, censored an open classroom organized by San Francisco State University’s Professors Rabab Abdulhadi and Tomomi Kinokowa, which featured Palestinian activist Leila Khaled. While the online muzzling of the Palestinian narrative is not in itself a new development, with Facebook being notorious for consistently taking down posts that are even mildly critical of Israel, the coordinated complicity of three platforms raises worrisome questions about public education depending on private companies for contents delivery.  As Professor Saree Sakdisi of UCLA tweeted: “This is what happens when we subcontract our universities to Zoom: they decide which events are acceptable and which aren’t. It’s outrageous.”

To protest this censorship, on October 23, exactly one month after the censorship of Abdulhadi’s event, faculty at a number of universities across the US and Canada participated in a USACBI-sponsored day of action entitled “We Will Not Be Silenced,” which featured a message from Leila Khaled. And sweet victory was celebrated at Abdulhadi’s campus when SFSU passed a divestment resolution on November 18. Of the 20 votes, 17 were in favor, two abstained, and only one was opposed to the resolution. Those in favor represented important allied groups, such as the Black Student Union, the League of Filipino Students, and the International Business Society.

Prior to that, the academic year had started auspiciously, with students at two universities passing a divestment resolution within a week, first at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and, six days later, at Columbia University.  Later that month, the Butler University student government struck down two resolutions that would have hindered campus activism for Palestinian rights, one condemning BDS, and the other adopting the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism, which could criminalize criticism of Israel.

The attempt to suppress speech and organizing around justice for Palestine under the guise of combating antisemitism was again publicly denounced in December by University of Illinois faculty and staff, who explained in an Open Letter that the conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism is misguided, censors Palestinian speech, and does nothing to actually combat antisemitism.

Also in December, a student referendum at Tufts University passed overwhelmingly in favor of ending the school’s police training with Israel. It is important, again, to note that Tufts SJP, which led the effort, had successfully put together a coalition of over forty student groups who voted in favor of this resolution, proof that activism for Palestinian rights, and critical of Israeli abuses, is growing on many campuses across the nation.

Finally, National Students for Justice in Palestine, recently announced that it will be holding its ten-year anniversary gathering, the 2021 conference, virtually from February 19-28. As the NSJP leadership explained in its announcement: “Over the past decade, students from across North America have challenged administrations and mobilized grassroots power for justice in Palestine. We have passed over 70 divestment resolutions, coordinated local and regional campaigns, and have shifted and set the narrative for Palestine liberation on campus. With over 220 chapters across North America, our movement is more powerful now more than ever.”

As we close this calendar year, and launch into a new one, it is useful to chart the growth of NSJP, reflected by the different themes over the decade, as the student group has proven to be an influential leader in the broadening of the struggle for justice.  (These ten conferences were all held in October or November, whereas the 2021 will take place in February, as mentioned above). So, for the record:

  • In 2011, National SJP held its first annual conference, bringing together representatives from local chapters from across the nation. This first national gathering was held at Columbia University, with the theme “Students Confronting Apartheid.”
  • In 2012, NSJP met for the second time, at the University of Michigan, to focus on “From Local Roots to Nationwide Branches: Bridging Student Movements.”
  • In 2013, the students met at Stanford University, the theme being “From Margins to Center: Connecting Struggles, Forging a National Movement.”
  • In a clear articulation of the growing intersectionality of NSJP’s global vision, the 2014 meeting, at Tufts University, was entitled “Beyond Solidarity: Resisting Racism and Colonialism from the US to Palestine.”
  • At San Diego State University, in 2015, the theme was “From Campuses to Community: Building a Vision for the Future.”
  • By 2016, the focus shifted to the imagined future, with “Critical Mass: With Our Roots in Resistance, Forging a Just Future,” held at George Mason University.
  • A just, free future for both Palestine and North America was again the theme of the 2017 gathering, at the University of Houston, with “A Reimagined World: Dismantling Walls from Palestine to the Rio Grande.”
  • The 2018 gathering will long be remembered as the one that “almost didn’t happen,” as Zionist groups pressured the host campus, UCLA, into cancelling it, going so far as to claim the kite in the NSJP logo was a symbol of violence. As testimony to the activists’ resilience, the conference proceeded to be the largest NSJP gathering so far, until the title “Radical Hope:  Resistance in the Face of Adversity.”
  • Finally, in 2019, NSJP held its annual reunion at the University of Minnesota, with “Beyond Struggle: From Roots to Branches towards Liberation.”

The theme of the 2021 conference has not been publicized yet, but it is a safe guess that it will be about resilience, continued growth, intersectional struggle and, of course, hope. Because we are overcoming.