Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is an oxymoronic synonym for SSI: “Students for Slandering Israel.” A tacit collaborator with BDS, the international movement that reviles Israel and calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the Jewish state, SJP was established at Berkeley (where else?) in 2001. Within a year its activities led to a university ban prohibiting on-campus protests.
A decade later at Brandeis, SJP protesters interrupted a speech by Knesset member Avi Dichter to accuse him – and implicitly Israel – of torture and crimes against humanity. Earlier this year, the Northeastern University chapter of SJP was suspended for a year after its members were charged with “intimidation” of students.
In preparation for its October annual conference SJP presented an agenda for its role “in the struggle for the liberation of Palestine.” Highlighting its focus on “the ongoing colonization and occupation of indigenous lands and peoples,” it promised to explore “how settler colonialism is racialized and gendered and disproportionately affects women and children. We will also look into the increased violence against Palestinian women and women refugees and migrants in Israel.”
SJP assertively promised to provide “the necessary knowledge and tools to counter efforts by Zionist organizations to normalize and whitewash the Israeli occupation as a means of undermining student groups organizing on campus around Palestinian rights.” More generously, it pledged to “focus on continuing to combat all forms of Judeophobia/anti-Semitism and conflation of Zionism with Judaism.”
The latest SJP chapter to make news, as far away as Israel where Ha’aretz broke the story, is located at Wellesley College, which has a history of anti-Semitism as old as the institution. Wellesley SJP identifies itself as “a group of students dedicated to raising awareness about the dire situation in Palestine.” Its favorite recent tactic has been posting signs on campus asking “What Does Zionism Mean To You?” Among the written responses: “genocide,” “apartheid,” and “murder.”
The faculty leader of Wellesley SJP is Sima Shakhsari, an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies who has endorsed a boycott by anthropologists of Israeli academic institutions. Her clarity of thought may be gleaned from her statement on the College website describing her current research: “[My] book provides an analysis of Weblogistan as a site of cybergovernmentality where simultaneously national and neo-liberal gendered subjectivities are produced through online and offline heteronormative disciplining and normalizing techniques.”
Professor Shakhsari’s research, she informs readers, “is connected to the larger discursive context of the freedom movements in the Middle East and democratization projects in Iran, [and] examines the way that Iranian transgender refugees are nationalized/denationalized, sexed, gendered, and raced in multiple re-reterritorializations as they transition across national boundaries, online and offline ‘frontiers,’ sexual norms, religious discourses, and geopolitical terrains during the “war on terror.”
Her Wellesley student acolytes have (preposterously) accused their classmates of “trying to shut down discussion of Israel/Palestine.” Wellesley SJP claimed that its campus posters merely “created an open discussion” for a “respectful” glimpse of “the diversity of our community.” It even quoted a Jewish SJP member who praised the organization for creating “a comfortable space for me, as a Jewish student who stands for Palestinian human rights.” With a final rhetorical burst of self-righteousness, it asserted: “Comments that portray Wellesley SJP . . . and its anti-Israel criticisms as ‘menacing threats to safety and security’ are anti-Arab and reinforce a racialized image of the Other.”
Wellesley SJP members are evidently diligent students who have learned circumlocution from their mentor Professor Shakhsari. Indeed, their rhetorical tropes sound like they were borrowed from someone with an ingrained fondness for such academic gobbledygook as “heteronormative disciplining,” “cybergovernmentality” and ‘reterritorializations.” But it gets worse. Professor Shakhsari’s classroom lacerations of Israel, combined with her grade retaliation for students who do not parrot her bias, have already become known to College authorities. Whether they will respond appropriately at reappointment and promotion time remains to be seen.
Wellesley SJP is shocked (shocked!) to be blamed for poisoning the campus atmosphere with anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. But they know how to play “gotcha,” claiming “It is the small minority of Palestinian and Arab students on our campus who often feel most marginalized as the result of the policing of discourse.”
As a wise, perhaps even heteronormative, sage once said: “If the shoe fits, wear it.”
Jerold S. Auerbach is Professor Emeritus of History at Wellesley College, where he taught between 1970-2010.