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Interview with University of Santa Cruz Students for Justice in Palestine

Credit: Jasper Lyons, City on a Hill Press Credit: Jasper Lyons, City on a Hill Press

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? 

UCSC SJP: Over the past two years we mainly organized around passing a divestment bill through the student assembly. It initially passed but was unfairly overturned, which provided us with an opportunity to further organize the campus community in support of it. This resulted in the bill eventually being reinstated. This was at the end of 2015. Since then we have been focused on rebuilding SJP to reflect a long-term vision of organizing, putting on speakers and awareness events along the way as we attempt to do this. 

Our organizing is very cross-sectional. We put a heavy focus on building links with other student groups, especially in the push leading up to the divestment bill being passed the second time around. 

Currently, we are at a crossroads. As a result of the whirlwind of successful organizing during the fall 2015 quarter, we discovered that the traditional model of solidarity activism—focusing on putting on awareness events, speakers, disrupting pro-Israel events—simply doesn’t work for us. We are currently working out how to build campus hegemony, incorporate direct action, and develop a model of organizing where we build momentum on a yearly or even five year basis. This is opposed to the model we inherited, whose focus on academic quarters as units of time produces organizing strategies that burn members out at a high rate.

In terms of organizing, we have two different membership levels: E-board and General. E-board is our leadership, which consists of students who want to help in the organizing. We have no positions such as president and so forth. Members in the e-board change with the quarters as students’ schedules change. These students plan events and actions. This is done through committees. Students from e-board will start committees to get things done and people from our general membership join up and help plan things.

Our long term goals are to establish a core group for the next year, and increase the number of people in our general membership level. This is something that we have been working on for some time, but we are never able to really grow. We have a lot of support within the campus community but these people tend to show only for events/actions and then do not want to stick around. We are not sure whether this is necessarily a problem, or simply a reflection of our particular campus geography and of how organizing works in general.

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? 

UCSC SJP: We have only ever focused on broader anti-Zionist politics, because our group politics are further left than the broader Palestine solidarity movement. We have never been in a situation where we have to eschew a broader critique of Zionism in favor of just highlighting the occupation.

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

UCSC SJP: We tried/are working on the progressive coalition, and we have reached out to and connected with a lot of different organizations that share our general politics. We value concrete action over ideological lines, so we are open to working with groups that might have politically conservative stances on social issues but have progressive/revolutionary potential due to their experiences or position on campus. In terms of the groups that we organize with and stand in solidarity with the list includes MECHA, Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, Armenian Student Association, the Undocumented Student Alliance, African/Black Student Alliance, and the Muslim Student Association, amongst others.

At one point we tried to actually do some actions with J Street. The reasoning behind this was that we had become so powerful on campus that the norm was anti-Zionism and by participating in events with us they would be normalizing with us.

We have been having a debate recently regarding how we relate to the concept of anti-normalization. The way we see it, normalization is the process by which two groups engage as equals in some sort of interaction where the power dynamic is masked. This allows the more powerful group to dictate the outcome of the interaction for its benefit. Obviously, in the geographical context of Israel-Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora it’s easy to understand what activities constitute normalization. However, in the context of student organizing within the US, it is not so clear. Typically, any kind of events that are meant to bring SJPs and pro-Israel groups together for “dialogue” have been branded as normalization. A lot of times SJPs make recourse to this by imagining themselves to be in a position analogous to Palestinians in Palestine, a move Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins has termed “prosthetic engagement.”

However, we think the more fundamental reason that SJP/pro-Israel group interactions count as normalization is because pro-Israel groups typically have access to better funding and support from the campus administration and student body. However, this is not set in stone. On our campus, student organizing has been so successful that the student body broadly supports anti-Zionism, especially in the UCSC Student Union Assembly. This support is the product of an ally group that organized around the elections and helped a very radical group of students win seats last spring. The power dynamic switched last fall, and due to tireless organizing around this issue and others, SJP became very powerful. To give one example, last winter a pro-Israel group proposed an anti-divestment bill to the student union assembly for consideration. They were immediately lambasted for not engaging in dialogue with SJP. Furthermore, our objections to the bill were used as evidence by people that their bill was “divisive” and not conducive to peace. 

Even we were shocked by this. Terms like dialogue, peace, and divisiveness are typically used as cudgels against SJP organizing, but in this case we were the beneficiaries of this rhetoric. This was not an isolated incident. The lesson we drew from this was that with enough organizing, SJP can be the hegemonic actor. From a position of strength we can engage in dialogue with pro-Israel groups, and this will only serve to cement our position further because it highlights us as being inclusive and open to collaboration. Once a general consensus exists on campus that Palestinians are rightfully opposing colonial domination, any attempt to kill dialogue attempts with us by refusing to acquiesce to this stance gets branded as “unreasonable” and “divisive.”

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?

UCSC SJP: We have done some organizing with the group Friends of Sabeel North America, at least in terms of events. We are quite isolated from community groups, which is something we are working on currently. Our political stance is anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist. We have been having discussions about where anti-capitalism fits into this. Our reference points are the three points of unity decided by the National SJP in 2011: 1) end the entire occupation (not defined explicitly) 2) right of return and 3) supporting Palestinian political rights within Israel. 

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

UCSC SJP: We have support from our faculty to an extent. We have various professors that we are able to call upon for support, whether it be through funding for our events or to have them participate in our events. One of our goals for the future is to make more contacts with faculty.

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

UCSC SJP: We do not have the best relationship with administration. We have unfortunately been branded by the administration as trouble makers, along with many other activist groups. They have accused us of creating a tumultuous campus climate for members of the Jewish community. The chancellor, George Blumenthal, sent out an email to the student population about this and the administration later apologized for his words.

 

We have observed a split within the administration. The “internal” administration, which comprises the Dean of Students and other lower-level administrators, are tacitly supportive of SJP. On the other hand, the “external” administrators, such as the Chancellor, are stridently against SJP, the academic boycott, and divestment. We have directly observed that administrators are divided on this and work to use this to our organization’s advantage. We do not just ignore the administration. We attempt to differentiate between those who will be reasonable in dealing with us and those who are against us. We understand that at the end of the day the administration is not our friend, but there are situations where we must rely on their goodwill or cooperate with them to prevent them from lashing out at us. We have learned that it is important to root out any fissures that exist in the leadership.

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