Northeastern University in Boston recently sparked controversy when it suspended a pro-Palestinian student group, Students for Justice in Palestine. A Northeastern spokeswoman told the Boston Globe that the group was suspended because it flouted university rules, vandalized school property and failed to deliver a “civility statement” outlining rules for future conduct, required after the group was placed on probation last year for a walkout at a campus presentation by Israeli soldiers. “They are not being singled out,” said Renata Nyul. “There is no pressure coming from anywhere. This is simply the result of violating a series of policies and procedures that every single student organization needs to adhere to.” Student activists counter that the group was singled out because its views are unpopular and that the administration was bowing to pressure from alumni and donors. In this interview, StudentNation writer Keegan O'Brien talks to Ryan Branagan, an executive board member of Northeastern University's Students for Justice in Palestine, to get his side of the story.
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Keegan O'Brien: Before we get into the details of this story, could you start off by describing the mission of Students for Justice in Palestine?
Ryan Branagan: Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is a grassroots solidarity organization with the Palestinian struggle for liberation with hundreds of autonomous chapters in North America and thousands of student members and community supporters. It is committed to ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the separation wall. It recognizes the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality. It calls for respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return. The first chapter was founded in 2001 at UC Berkeley during the Second Palestinian Intifada (2000-2005), but since Israel's criminal 2008-09 assault on the people of Gaza in Operation Cast Lead, SJP chapters have really mobilized and increased our membership and influence exponentially.
The focus of many SJP chapters has been responding to the 2005 call of Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, on the model of the international campaign against Apartheid South Africa, which assisted the ANC's defeat of the white supremacist government in 1994. By boycotting Israeli goods, divesting our universities from companies that directly assist the colonization of Palestine and pushing for an arms sanction against Israel—à la South Africa—until it complies with international law and discontinues its war crimes and crimes against humanity, we hope to join with Palestinians and people of conscience internationally to bring down another apartheid state.
Can you tell me what happened at Northeastern University with your campus' SJP chapter? Why has the university revoked your club status? What are the charges students are facing?
Northeastern SJP's suspension comes at the end of a long line of differential treatment, academic sanctioning and censorship of our student organization on campus. After SJP organized a silent walkout of an event featuring representatives of the Israeli Defense Force in April 2013, we were put on probation, pressured to sign a "civility statement," and required to attend "leadership trainings." Despite the fact that we completed all of these and were officially removed from probationary status in the beginning of this semester, we were suspended on March 7, 2014 without a hearing. The suspension—which is in place until 2015 unless the university considers our appeal, which it has yet to do—charged us with violations that we were not responsible for or in any way connected to (such as the "vandalism" of a statue on campus of prominent Zionist Robert Shillman), old violations from our probation that we had already been cleared of or found not responsible, and new charges that had to do with a mock eviction flyering campaign we did on campus.
In conjunction with the last charges against our organization, two women of color who partook in the direct action were visited in their dorms by Northeastern police and individually charged with alleged violations that initially could have resulted in their expulsion or suspension. These attacks on our members, however, prompted widespread condemnation and we successfully forstalled administration efforts to expell these students. However, they still face the threat of "deferred suspension" and SJP remains suspended.
Can you tell me more about the mock eviction action? Why did you do it and what was its purpose?
In tandem with Palestine solidarity organizations worldwide, Northeastern SJP participated in the 10th annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) here in Boston. IAW is a week-long chorus of dissent against Israel's racist and colonial policies against the indigenous Palestinians and seeks to raise awareness for the ongoing injustices they face.
Here at Northeastern SJP, we seized upon one recent campaign that is common practice for numerous SJPs throughout North America—namely, posting mock eviction notices on students' dormitories. We feel this campaign is effective and timely reminding us of the more than 26,000 Palestinian homes that have been demolished by Israel since 1967 using American-made D-9 bulldozers, while Jewish-only illegal settlements continue to be built in ever greater frequency.
SJP distributed over 600 flyers to the Northeastern community, which clearly stated these were false eviction notices but reflected real, horrific realities for the people of Palestine. Our aim was to peacefully, legally raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians and the university's complicity in Israel's apartheid system. However, due to pressure from outside Zionist organizations and Northeastern administration's ignominious history of viewpoint discrimination against SJP, this act of civil discourse was criminalized by the university.
What influence—if any, have outside, pro-Israel organizations had on the Northeastern Administration's actions?
The direct influence outside Zionist organizations have on the administration is clear. As I wrote in an article for the pro-Palestinian blog Electronic Intifada, anti-Palestinian groups like the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have been threatening the Northeastern administration with legal complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ostensibly to review the federal funding of the university in light of alleged "anti-Israelism" and "anti-Semitism" of SJP. These accusations and legal complaints have been waged before—from Berkeley to Columbia University—and every single time the case has been thrown out as illegitimate. In fact, I'd say it's near slander—and that's the point. The ADL and ZOA know that this legal strategy is a losing one, but pursue it anyway to pressure administrators to suppress voices for Palestinian liberation on campus.
Moreover, there is a fundamental conflict of interest when it comes to the donors of Northeastern University. For example, multimillionaire Robert Shillman, CEO of the Cognex Corporation, is also a major donor to the ZOA, and was cc-ed in its letter to the Northeastern administration threatening legal action. On campus we also have Raytheon Amphitheater and a partnership with that corporate war profiteer, which not only manufactures the Tomahawk cruise missiles that the American military uses to kill innocent civilians in Iraq and Libya, but also sells AGM-65 missiles to Israel, which it uses against Palestinians in Gaza.
The Ruderman Foundation is also a major donor to the university, and is colluding with the administration on April 1, 2014 to bring six members of the Israeli Knesset to campus, including members of far-right racist parties like Dr. Shimon Ohayaon of Yisrael Beitenu. Yisrael Beitenu was foundered by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has been described as Israel's Jean-Marie Le Pen and a neo-fascist, and is known for threatening Palestinian MKs with physical violence.
How has your organization responded to the university's actions? What are your plans for moving forward? And what has the response been like from other students and organizations on campus, the larger Boston community or even nationally and internationally?
Despite the numerous hurdles and acts of suppression the administration has attempted to leverage against SJP, our campaign to fight their attack on free speech has so far been remarkably successful. This is due not only to the incredibly brave and determined activists I have the honor of working with, but also the international outpouring of support we've received from people as far away as Mexico, Australia, Palestine and Italy. Within three days of our suspension, over 6,000 people signed our petition in support. When we called for a march on campus to deliver the petition to President Aoun's office, over thirty student and community organizations ranging from Jewish Voice for Peace to Youth Against Mass Incarceration to Women's Fight Back Network came out en masse; between 250-300 people assembled at 10:00 am on a cold Tuesday morning. Moreover, our student allies have been gracious enough to help us remain a force on campus, reserving rooms and hosting teach-ins in solidarity.
We're most excited about prolific Palestinian-American author, journalist and activist Ali Abunimah's visit to Northeastern University on April 1, which our comrades at the Progressive Student Alliance are hosting. All of this has been incredibly humbling and inspiring, and I think there's a clear message being sent to the administration: SJP is not alone in caring about justice in Palestine, free speech on campus or social movements. Singling us out is not only wrong, but futile. The administration will not stop our organizing, nor will it stop free speech. We fight this unjust attack with every fiber of our being until victory, and we're never going to stop until our university completely divests from Israeli apartheid.
As you know, Northeastern's SJP is not the only SJP to experience harassment and repression from campus administrators in recent months. Why do you think we are seeing campus administrations work so hard to disrupt SJPs work at Northeastern and at other universities?
While campus suppression of pro-Palestine speech is hardly unprecedented in the United States, I think the most recent wave of attacks—from the unprincipled assault on the American Studies Association by hundreds of campus presidents (including Northeastern President Aoun), to the censorship of Columbia SJP at Barnard, to the attack on Professor Iymen Chehade's academic freedom—is a testament to our growing strength. With divestment resolutions passing at Loyola, narrowly losing at UCLA and mobilizing hundreds at the University of Michigan despite defeat, it's becoming increasingly clear that Zionist attempts to stamp us out are failing. The fires of rebellion are spreading, and they're scared.
What do you want other students and activists to learn from your struggle?
Hopefully, this shows to the disempowered and the pessimistic a basic truth: struggle works. Social movements can influence social change, and we all have a role to play. However, especially with the diverse group of supporters who have joined us in the trenches, I think it's time to start making the connections. These neo-liberal universities are built on stolen indigenous land and profited from the holocaust of enslavement—America, like Israel, Australia and Northern Ireland, is a settler state. Were we to move against only Zionist settler colonialism or only American patriarchy, we'd be missing a crucial chance. This movement for BDS against Israel should lead to a wider movement against all settler colonial states, all forms of oppression, against capitalism itself. We have a chance right now, but it's on all of us to start using our university educations to think critically about our society and fight for real emancipatory change.
To sign the petition for Northeastern SJP, please go here.
Click here for more information about Ali Abunimah’s “The Battle for Justice in Palestine” book tour stop at Northeastern.