On 16-18 November, National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) hosted its annual conference at UCLA. This year’s theme was “Radical Hope: Resistance in the Face of Adversity.” Unfortunately, while the theme is certainly fitting for an event exploring the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice, many organizers, presenters and attendees came to realize that it was also unexpectedly fitting for the simple attempt to hold the conference itself at an institution of higher learning. The “adversity” against which we needed to shoulder forward just to be able to hold a convening (which should be the unquestioned right of students and community members) came from all levels, from the political to the administrative as well as in the form of intense, militant harassment and intimidation from off-campus, Zionist vigilante groups.
One of the most blatant instances of repression came from city councilmember Paul Koretz, who introduced a resolution calling on UCLA to ban NSJP from taking place, sent a letter to Chancellor Block similarly calling for the conference’s cancellation, and is cited in a news article as having taken part in the anti-NSJP protest whose participants frequently threatened and harassed conference attendees. Koretz’s quote echoes the sentiments of the more aggressive protestors and Brad Sherman, all of whom attempted to shut down the proceedings under false allegations of anti-Semitism: “We can’t tell if they’re plotting terrorism or just figuring out how to make life uncomfortable for Jewish students and supporters of Israel on campuses across the country… Whatever it is, it’s definitely anti-Semitism, it’s definitely hate speech.” As the Daily Bruin editorial board rightfully opined in a recent piece critical of Koretz’s conduct, “For years, UCLA students lived with the fact that their Los Angeles city council member doesn’t care about their basic needs. They now also have to live with the fact that their elected representative thinks some of them are terrorists… [Koretz’s] letter to UCLA also showed a fundamental lack of knowledge of the Constitution, especially for an elected official… Not representing students is one thing. Accusing them of terrorism is another.”
Waving aside the blatant contradiction of Koretz’s quote (“Whatever it is….. It’s definitely….”), this claim represents a glaring instance of dangerous and harmful rhetoric against Palestine activism being normalized and casually deployed by a political official. When politicians can take such harmful assumptions for granted and state them as common fact to the general public, it is a small wonder that our organization and advocates for Palestinian freedom and justice more broadly continue to face so much repression, hostility, harassment and even danger for our political views. What happened leading up to and during NSJP was the result of the complete normalization of Islamophobic, anti-Arab and anti-Black sentiments and assumptions. Dehumanizing language breeds dehumanizing acts. As such, every official who made such statements played into the larger cycle that often included the threat of physical violence--or even worse--befalling attendees and bears a marked responsibility for the danger we all faced this weekend.
The text of the resolution introduced by Koretz and approved by the city council claimed that the NSJP conference “undoubtedly” will promote anti-Semitism, a claim that is shocking and offensive for multiple reasons: first, it automatically equates any and all support for Palestinian freedom with anti-Semitism; secondly, it erases the vast number of Jewish individuals and organizations who engage in Palestine organizing and activism; finally, as with the administration’s cease and desist letter, Chancellor Block’s op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that legitimized fears that the conference would be “infused with anti-Semitic rhetoric” and Congressman Brad Sherman’s letter calling for the cancellation of the conference due to erroneous charges of anti-Semitism, such a claim demonizes and puts a target on the scores of students who engage in Palestine work. The false accusations of anti-Semitism only serve to unfairly stigmatize activism and organizing based on the principles of freedom and justice for all and falsely slander SJP and affiliated organizations as barbaric, savage anti-Semites. With such Islamophobic and racist assumptions about NSJP and our work being normalized from the administrative to governmental levels, it is a small wonder that hundreds of Zionist individuals felt emboldened to threaten and attack us by any means.
The resolution continues with the argument that because attendees must be vouched for by other SJP or pro-Palestinian organizations that, “most Jewish students would not be allowed to attend the conference”. The short length of this comment contrasts with how many glaring issues it harbors and how offensive it is to NSJP as well as the partner organizations that uphold its work. Firstly, as organizations grounded in comprehensive, collective principles of anti-oppression and freedom for all peoples, NSJP and the SJP chapters that participate in NSJP oppose all forms of bigotry, oppression and discrimination. Second, the statement suggests that NSJP participates in ethno-religious discrimination in its admission practices, a claim that is offensive and based in Islamophobic and racist assumptions about the organization. It is also counteracted by the vibrant diversity of individuals who have served on NSJP over the years and participated in our events (not to mention the scores of organizations that have supported Palestinian rights and collaborated on events, actions, initiatives, etc.). Indeed, the comment neglects the fact that anti-Zionist Jewish students were in attendance over the course of the conference. This line from the resolution also dangerously reifies the notion that all Jews support Israel and ignores the numerous anti-Zionist, Jewish organizations that do not let Israel speak on behalf of their religion, culture and political outlooks.
Perhaps the most egregious clause of the resolution, states that it is inappropriate for UCLA to host this conference in light of the Tree of Life shooting and the arson at synagogues in New York. This claim is frankly ludicrous and only makes sense for individuals who take for granted the Islamophobic and racist assertion that any and all work for and mention of Palestine is inherently anti-Semitic. When these rationales are rightfully exposed for the offensive and reductive racial stereotypes they ultimately are, it becomes clear how absurd, offensive and even dangerous it is to hold NSJP and the SJPs and other Palestine organizations who take part in and support NSJP’s work accountable for such white supremacist acts of violence. Condemning the Zionist colonization of Palestine, the military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights, as well as the crippling blockade of Gaza and the rampant, indiscriminate injuries and killings that the Zionist state has inflicted upon scores of Gaza protesters simply for walking into an invisible zone along Israel’s militarized fence has nothing to do with ethno-religious bigotry and discrimination. For, despite what the Israel lobby and apologists for Israeli state violence argue, the struggle for Palestinian freedom is a political issue about the land and freedom of the Palestinian people. To try to delegitimize political speech through the charge of bigotry is shameful at best, but when it is weaponized by those in power to covertly service their own biased agendas, it is frankly dangerous. This danger was made all too clear on the final day of the conference, when frightening numbers of militant and aggressive counter-protestors roamed the campus and repeatedly engaged in harassment of conference attendees, including sneaking past the security provided by the university to enter the main venue (which had been closed off for the safety of all). Given how freely UCLA admin and the Los Angeles City Council perpetuated harmful demonizations of Palestine work all throughout this process, it is no surprise that these counter-protestors and militant Zionist groups felt emboldened to take such actions with the presumption of impunity.
In his letter to UCLA Chancellor Block calling for the cancellation of NSJP, Brad Sherman wrote, “while UCLA has a responsibility to allow freedom of speech, our campuses should never become an environment where Jewish students are harassed, bullied or prohibited from learning.” The irony of this clause is not lost on us as the same logic clearly did not apply to Arab, Muslim, and Black students who were faced with egregious displays of xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia and even threats of physical violence on the last day of counter-protests. The Islamophobia present in policies such as the Muslim ban, does not just magically appear. Instead it is symptomatic of the sustained dehumanization and animalization of brown and Black people that counter-protests and government officials directly contributed to. On this final day of the conference, NSJP attendees were greatly outnumbered by the presence of various counter-protestors, and the fear for our safety was so great that attendees literally had to be escorted moving from room to room or going to their cars. Attendees were spit on, physically threatened and driven away from campus sites by militant Zionist antagonists and repeatedly had their photographs taken against their will. Invasive and relentless photography of attendees was a constant and came from a range of individuals, some of whom were clearly unaffiliated with UCLA and others who very well may have been students given that we were frequently also photographed from student government buildings. At best, this practice is invasive harassment, but at worst it represents UCLA students and militant, off-campus agitators conspiring to reveal student information to the McCarythist blacklist site Canary Mission, which demonizes and attempts to prevent employment opportunities of student activists simply for their political views. The latter possibility seems all too likely, especially given how the photography was often coupled with physical threats being screamed out at attendees who simply tried to move from one area to another without being harassed. If this weren’t enough, the soundtrack to these grave physical threats and routine invasions of privacy were the relentless, aggressive chants of the various groups determined to sabotage the proceedings by any means necessary, which frequently included racist and Islamophobic rhetoric. The chants accused attendees of being “terrorist sympathizers” for their interest in the Palestinian struggle, a claim that is not only racist but greatly disturbing given the long history of repression of Palestine activism in the US due to immediate, knee-jerk associations of such work with various forms of deviance. Activists for Palestine have long been automatically constructed as “security threats” simply for their political views, and often especially if they are Arab, Black, and/or Muslim--the racial component of this state-sanctioned repression thus cannot be overlooked, and it was on full display at this final day of the conference that administration and government officials attempted to prevent through the weaponization of similar tropes and crude racist caricatures of us and our work.
Zionist protesters also played into an Orientalist tradition that paints Palestine as both misogynistic as well as queerphobic as they chanted both “women’s rights for Gaza” and “gay rights for Gaza”. This chant perfectly encapsulates Zionist tactics of imperial feminism as well as pinkwashing, in which Israel leverages its alleged support of both women and LGBTQ+ folk to mask the atrocities- including gendered, homophobic and transphobic- violence they commit against Palestinians. This operates on two levels. First, it hyper-imposes Israel as a safe haven for queer populations through a process of pathologizing Arabs as inherently homophobic and misogynistic. Through this, it erases the ways in which Zionism brutalizes Arabs on a daily basis as well as queer communities otherwise. In other words, it completely diverts attention from the colonial occupation that directly subjugates, murders, and injures Palestinians in order to legitimize itself in addition to its own homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny. Second, it erases the ways in which militarism is the true core of any pseudo-progressive rhetoric Israel claims to uphold. All of Israel’s advents for women as well as the LGBTQ community can be tied directly back to military science or service. Thus, their intention behind meta-narratives of acceptance and tolerance can be traced back to colonial and imperial agendas.
Chanters further screamed “Go back to Jordan,” a slogan that completely erases Palestinians from our land and ties to it by pretending that there never was a Palestinian state. The fact is, there was a Palestine well before the founding of the Zionist state that was enabled by British imperialism and, later, brutal ethnic cleansing by rampaging Zionist militias that drove many of our families from their historic homes. For attendees, many of whom were Palestinian, to have to be subjected to such chants amidst frequent and relentless physical harassment and intimidation within a context of intense academic and political repression constitutes a replication and an embodiment of the settler colonialism that drove our people from their homes and turned many of us into stateless peoples in the first place.
Repression was also on full display when NSJP organizers received a cease and desist letter from UCLA administration claiming that NSJP’s use of a bear in the logo violated UCLA’s “trademark” of the Bruin Bear, and that inclusion of a kite with colors of the Palestinian flag potentially constituted an endorsement of “violence.” As Palestine Legal and the ACLU rightly claimed in their response to the cease and desist letter, “The use of the name UCLA merely indicates the location of the conference and the artist’s depiction of a California grizzly bear in no way resembles an image trademarked by the university. Simply put, the University of California cannot claim exclusive rights to the image or concept of a bear.” Furthermore, the denunciation of the representation of a kite in the image as a potential incitement to violence is absurd and patently racist. The Gaza kite is a symbol of freedom and the inalienable Palestinian right of return. Similar perhaps to the status the monarch butterfly has come to assume in Undocumented and immigration rights struggles in the US, the kite moves freely in the air and is a powerful refutation of oppressive colonial and racist systems that seek to keep Palestinians under siege, in cages and hold them back with artificial borders and violently militarized borders and checkpoints. Yet for all of its flaws, we recognize the letter as an all-too-familiar form of administrative retaliation and attempted censorship geared toward chilling Palestine work and speech on campuses. By keeping students busy with unjustified legal complaints, the powers that be hope to silence our work.
The accusation of endorsement of violence is not to be taken lightly, however little legal merit the claim might actually have. As the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) noted in their statement to UCLA admin, “By giving any sort of validation to the accusation that SJP’s logo of a bear flying a kite is violent, UCLA plays right into [harmful stereotypes against Arabs and Muslims] and sets a dangerous precedent. Encouraging such stereotypes facilitates a climate of fear for students at UCLA who dread being targeted simply because they are exercising their constitutionally-protected right to express their political views. In particular, Arab and Muslim students and professors are at risk of Islamophobic and racist attacks.” Make no mistake, by throwing out the accusation of promotion of “violence” against Palestine activist and solidarity movements so lightly, UCLA administration is complicit in stoking the flames of Islamophobia and racism that have recently become even more normalized at the governmental level and that has seen a spike in racist vigilante violence against Muslims (or anyone presumed to be Muslim). As such, the administration’s attempts to shut down the conference through such blatantly racist and Islamophobic rhetoric cannot be disentangled from the actual physical threats of violence conference attendees also faced. As NSJP’s own statement asserts, “In an effort to suppress our work for Palestinian rights, organizations, groups, and individuals that support Israel have engaged in a hateful and targeted harassment campaign against our members on social media. We have even received death threats.”
For all of this, we are proud of our ability to persevere in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds. Over 550 students, speakers, artists and organizers attended to learn about “Radical Hope: Resistance in the Face of Adversity”, making it the largest student conference focused on the Palestinian struggle to date. No matter how severe the opposition was, scores of attendees came and learned about the Palestinian plight, and that is something that no resolution, no administrative critique and no disruption will ever be able to take away.
We further recognize that the colonization of Palestine does not end at the Palestinian homeland. The Zionist colonial project also necessitates the complete erasure and stamping out of any expression of Palestinian history and culture, not to mention of the rightfulness of the Palestinian struggle for justice and freedom. But as Palestinians continue to struggle heroically in the homeland and the world over against such erasure and repression, so too will we continue to take heart. We reject the UCLA administration and the Los Angeles City Council’s attempts to stigmatize and silence us, but we also reject their power over our ability to push forward, no matter the cost. As Dr. Rabab Abdelhadi often remarks, Palestine is a cause about “the indivisibility of justice.” And no repression, no matter from what level, can ever slow the surging momentum of justice.
Whatever we are told, however we are further demonized and slandered, we assert that the Palestinian struggle is a righteous one, and that all of Palestine and its people will be free.
National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP)
Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM)
Al-Awda: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition
American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
American Muslims for Palestine (AMP)
Graduate Students for Justice in Palestine, UCLA (GSJP)
Jewish Voice for Peace, Los Angeles (JVP LA)
Jewish Voice For Peace, New York City (JVP-NYC)
US Palestinian Community Network (USPCN)
AF3IRM Los Angeles