By Zayd Sifri, Israeli Occupation Archive – 21 Oct 2011
Palestine solidarity activists have come under increasing scrutiny on university and college campuses. About a year ago, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) was placed on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of most threatening groups to Israel in the United States. Around the same time, it became apparent that students from University of California Irvine would be facing criminal charges for interrupting a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. Universities in the United States also became subject to investigation under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act for anti-Semitism.
In the face of these obstacles, students have been steadfast in their efforts to provide an alternative to the biased narrative on Israel-Palestine on their campuses. This weekend, (SJP) hosted their first national conference at Columbia University in New York City. Over 350 SJP members from across the country attended the three day conference, which included workshops and guest lectures of whom were prominent professors from around the country.
Part of the intention of the conference was to establish the structure of a broad network of SJP organizations. “I was always of the mind set that having a national structure might distract students from local grassroots work. Until it became clear that students were being targeted for their activism on a national level,” explained SJP member and organizer of the national conference Dina Omar.
Discussions about a creating a national conference began two years ago, when students from around the United States met at an event in Chicago and formed an ad hoc group to facilitate future national events. Visions for the project varied from the beginning, but several points of unity were established. SJP organizer Sami Kishawi from University of Chicago said, “we all had our own unique ideas but everyone wanted to have the most effective coalition possible”. Hamzah Baig SJP President at UCLA envisioned a national structure that builds a center for dialogue and, “Gives more support for students on their own individual campuses who have been facing opposition”.
Beyond providing a center for discussion between chapters, the national structure could also be used to mobilize resources for SJP chapters. Kishawi explained, “The national structure could help provide basic material aids like posters for instance”. Similarly, local chapters could be aided in bringing guest speakers at events. Kishawi added that any future national body “will eventually mold itself according to what students want”.
In an article published in 1982, California based activist Kathie Sheldon discussed the idea of creating a national student movement for divesture from companies doing business with South Africa. Sheldon wrote, “Because each college or university has a different bureaucracy for making divestiture decisions, coordinated efforts of students at different institutions are virtually impossible. Although people can (and do) build networks around the issue in general, it is difficult to sustain a sense of national or even regional movement”. Despite the clear differences between contexts, Sheldon points to a relevant question. In being an organization that is characteristically grassroots based in its work–and subsequently dependent upon local factors–what function can a national SJP organization serve?
While nothing has officially been put into action, Omar believes that the structure will remain flexible to serve the needs of local SJP chapters, which will also remain autonomous. “Embedded within the national structure will probably be a clause or stipulation that the states that the structure will not supersede any local organization or chapters. I also think that that is what keeps us unique as grassroots organizers who are engaged in original work” Omar explained.
On a symbolic level, the conference reads as a victory for Palestine solidarity work in the United States. From a practical perspective, organizing a national structure will provide SJP chapters with resources that will enable students to continue to be effective in educating their campuses on Israel-Palestine, in spite of the forces that oppose them.