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Interview with Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Berkeley

The following interview is part of a series of long-form interviews with chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine. The aim is to create a space for chapters to articulate their political perspectives and experiences on campus organizing, as part of a broader project to create a public archive of post-2000 organizing. The introduction to the series and other interviews are here.

Q: Can you describe quickly your chapter’s activities over the past year or two? What your does organizing look like? What kind of plans do you have for the future?

Cal SJP: Our activities usually fall in three main categories: advocacy for BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against the Israeli occupation), direct actions, and educational events.

Cal SJP mobilized in support of the BDS campaign happening in UAW Local 2865, the UC-wide graduate student workers’ union. Some of our members had also been active in the Block the Boat protests at the Port of Oakland in summer 2014, which raised our profile and deepened our connections with community allies. The success of that campaign and the influx of new students into our membership energized us, and we started off 2015 with a strong Israeli Apartheid Week that included a mock eviction notice action as well as a direct action on campus involving a mock apartheid wall and a mock checkpoint acted out by members and friends of the club. In the fall, we organized a campus day of action in solidarity with Palestine and put on multiple cultural events, including hosting poet Remi Kanazi. SJP has also worked on educating the campus community on the situation in Palestine today by publishing open editorials, collecting data and editing informational flyers, organizing lectures and public events, and tabling. 

Q: Q: Does your chapter focus on anti-occupation politics or broader anti-Zionist politics? If one or the other—or sometimes one, and sometimes the other—why have you made that choice, and under what circumstances do you choose to emphasize the occupation versus a broader opposition, or vice-versa? 

Cal SJP: SJP is not an “anti” organization. Our agenda is positive: we are a group that works toward realizing Palestinian civil, human, and indigenous rights. These include the right of people who were born in Palestine and their descendants to live in their homeland in freedom, dignity, and self-sovereignty. This very simple and obvious right—which every people in the world possesses—has been violated systematically since 1948. First, when Israel ethnically cleansed some 700,000 Palestinians from the territories it occupied; second, when it did not allow them to resettle (as international law requires); third, when Israel conquered additional lands in 1967; and fourth, when Israel withheld (and continues to withhold) basic civil and human rights to these people in the 1967 occupied lands.

Since the Zionist movement has consistently and systematically denied these rights from Palestinians, and since the occupation of Palestine is part and parcel of Zionism, our agenda and values indeed collide. Zionism’s core idea is establishing a Jewish state that excludes, oppresses, and denies the rights of Palestinians in various ways. Even “soft-core” Zionists, who support creating a Palestinian homeland in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, deny the right of Palestinian people to naturalize and return to their land. While we undoubtedly oppose Zionism and Israel’s occupation, we prefer to think of ourselves as a group that promotes a positive alternative vision—in which indigenous rights will be recognized and Israel’s racist foundations will be dismantled for the benefit of all people living in the area.

Q: Does your chapter build alliances with other campus groups? If so, which ones, and what guides those alliances?

Cal SJP: We have connected with many campus groups in the past during divestment campaigns. These connections must constantly be acted on and renewed. Oftentimes, as students who serve as contact people between groups graduate, the connections fall wayside. Currently we maintain working relationships, collaborating with varying frequency, with groups that represent ethnic and cultural minorities on campus- like the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), Black Student Union (BSU), and Movímíento Estudíantíl Chican@/Xican@ de Aztlán (MEChXA). In part because Palestine solidarity is marginalized in the mainstream white-dominated political organizations, we find our strongest and most willing allies in groups with explicitly anti-racist missions. The newly founded campus chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), with whom we also share members, also promises to be an invaluable opportunity for collaboration.

Q: Does your chapter have links with community groups, Palestinian or otherwise? What are your frames and points of political reference in terms of Palestinian politics?

We place particular emphasis on our connections to Palestine solidarity and Arab cultural organizations in the Bay Area community. Two of our most frequent collaborators locally are the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) and the Bay Area community chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. As an organization we consider ourselves part of the BDS movement, which is pan-ideological and leaves itself open on key political questions. We have never aligned with any political party in Palestine or elsewhere, and our members hold different views on multiple issues. We prioritize responding to and accommodating what Palestinians themselves demand over toeing any particular political line.

Q: What role, if any, do you see for student leadership within broader movement politics? Alternatively, what do you consider the specific role of students within the movement more broadly?

Cal SJP: Student activism has the inherent disadvantage that we leave our institutions and organizations when we graduate. Even those of us who will be lifelong activists would not organize with the same groups we did when we were in school. On the other hand, as young people, we are passionate, and are always learning. Students have an important place within the Palestine solidarity movement—not necessarily as leaders of the movement, but as an essential part of it. On campus, we are often closer to centers of power than we will be in the future, and our work in raising awareness and carrying out BDS campaigns is to leave these institutions as more enlightened and progressive places than we found them.

Q: Do you receive support from faculty? What form does that take, and are they involved in your organizing more broadly?

Cal SJP: There are particular faculty with a history of pro-Palestine organizing and advocacy who help us on an institutional level—helping to reserve rooms, speaking at events, and so on. It would be inaccurate to say that they are involved in our day-to-day, week-to-week activities. Unlike many student organizations, SJP has been unable to find a faculty advisor, and have had a staff advisor assigned to us.

Q: What is your relationship with the administration, past and present, both positive and negative? And also with student government?

Cal SJP: The university administration’s attitude toward our group has ranged from hostility to indifference. At times, the university criticized and sanctioned us openly; at other times, it chose to ignore us and our allies’ voices. In 2001, right after the first SJP chapter in Berkeley was founded, and following a memorial of the Deir Yassin massacre and a building occupation, the university, then led by Chancellor Berdahl, decided to ban us from campus. Our chapter suffered and was only able to reorganize several years later. While Berdahl’s successors were not as militant in their opposition to our activity, they have time and again shown their general antipathy.

In 2013, after the Berkeley student government organization (ASUC) voted in support of BDS, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau issued a response that was critical of BDS, and surreptitiously connected our mobilization for BDS to an alleged hostile atmosphere in campus that led to one of our activists being physically attacked. We should probably mention here that cases where a Chancellor comments on the decisions on an elected student body are very, very rare, and that in this case in particular, the ASUC did not ask Birgeneau for his opinion on the issue. Two years later, after they left office, Birgeneau and his vice chancellor wrote a more openly anti-BDS piece, where they “urged” UC Berkeley Anthropologists to vote against the American Anthropological Association BDS resolution, awkwardly arguing that there were more Muslim casualties in Syria than in Palestine. Berkeley’s current Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, who supported BDS when he was professor at Columbia University, was quick to rescind his support upon arriving to California in a rather confused interview where he conflated BDS and anti-Semitism.

As advocates for Palestinians’ human and civil rights, we face concerted campaigns of intimidation, which target us as a group and as individuals. The administration has failed to protect our group and provide its members a sense of security that would allow us to exercise our free speech. Two noteworthy examples the administration has not at all reacted to are the AMCHA initiative and the Canary Mission Project.

The AMCHA initiative is led by a Hebrew teacher from UC Santa Cruz, named Tammi Rossman-Benjamin. Rossman-Benjamin compiles and publishes blacklists of undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty who advocate for Palestinian rights. She has falsely accused our group of anti-Semitism and called to sanction us and silence our voices. She has lobbied in Sacramento and other place in the country; we also know she has been in touch with UC administrators. The administration has so far not done anything to make Rossman-Benjamin, who is a UC lecturer, stop attacking and intimidating university students.

Canary Mission  is an organization led by anonymous organizers, which acts using the very same methods. It compiles blacklists of students who mobilize for our cause, many of them SJP members. The organization deceptively stigmatizes us as anti-Semitic, and calls potential employers to not hire us when we graduate. The administration’s deafening silence at this unapologetic attack on university students who organize for human and civil rights is dismaying. As students of this university we expect the administration to vouch for our right to exercise free speech peacefully, and do everything it can to delegitimize such attacks on this university’s students.

In line with the administration’s non-reaction policy, it has also ignored a complaint that our organization filed two years ago against Tikvah—a student group advocating Zionism on campus—after its members interrupted an educational event that we organized. A couple of years earlier, when Palestinian students had interrupted an Israel lobby political event at UC Irvine, the university and the district attorney office pressed charges against them. We would very much like to understand the exact reasons for this very discriminatory enforcement of the campus code. Why is it that Pro-Palestinian activists are prosecuted for actions that don’t even lead to a disciplinary hearing when Israel lobbyists do them? Unfortunately, UC administrators have been suspiciously silent on the topic.

UC and Berkeley administrations have deliberately ignored BDS resolutions that the student associations of six UC campuses (UCB, UCSD, UCLA, UCD, UCI, UCR) have passed. We can hardly think of other precedents (except, of course, the UC administration’s loyal investment in South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s) where the UC ignored such overwhelming student support of a certain cause. We expect the administration to be responsive to students’ voices on this issue, as it should be in any other cause.

Most recently, Chancellor Dirks wrote an op-ed in J Weekly responding to allegations brought by ZOA that a student was pushed at one of our events. Dirks responded publicly months before any investigation of the event took place (email proof of this can be provided if needed), and included several clear falsehoods, one of which has since been begrudgingly corrected after we repeatedly pressed the issue. Dirks claimed that, in addition to the Zionist student group Tikvah, SJP had refused to meet with administrators. He said this despite the fact that we had been meeting with his Dean of Students for months, and the fact that we had finally been able to schedule a meeting with the Chancellor’s Chief of Staff, a meeting we sought. The Chancellor’s Media spokesperson contacted Jweekly and had the entire sentence removed (including the as-far-as-we-know correct information about Tikvah refusing to meet with administrators). The op-ed also said that Chancellor Dirks had ordered his Chief of Staff and Vice Chancellor of Equity and Inclusion to meet with us to discuss our language choices and tactics. This meeting had, in fact, been scheduled at our request, and our language choices and tactics were never discussed. The meeting was about harassment and intimidation faced by members of our group and members of the Muslim Student Association, not about alleged harassment and intimidation engaged in by our members. We have since met again with the Chancellor’s Chief of Staff, VC of Equity and Inclusion, and the Dean of Students, again to discuss our concerns, with our language choices and tactics never being discussed. The Chancellor’s Chief of Staff and Media spokesperson refused to ask J Weekly for a correction of this lie (email proof can be provided if needed). You can see the original op-ed here, and the corrected version here. 

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