UCLA Chancellor Says SJP Conference Will Take Place on Campus, Despite Antisemitism Concerns
The chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, expressed “fundamental disagreements” with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), but said the group will nonetheless be allowed to hold its national conference on campus this coming weekend.
In an op-ed published on Monday, Gene Block acknowledged concerns raised over “anti-Semitic statements made by some SJP members around the country,” which were highlighted in a recent Los Angeles City Council resolution that called for the conference’s cancellation.
He shared his own “fundamental disagreements with SJP,” namely surrounding the group’s support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign, which seeks to redefine Israel “as a pariah state” until it complies with Palestinian demands.
“The attempt to ostracize Israeli thinkers, and to declare off-limits even discussion with Israeli academics runs contrary to the values of inclusion, debate and discussion that are crucial to any university,” Block wrote, before pointing to the University of California’s “Principles Against Intolerance,” which warn against “anti-semitic forms of anti-Zionism.”
He nonetheless argued that while “there is fear among some that the conference will be infused with anti-Semitic rhetoric,” and that much of what will be said at the conference “may be deeply objectionable — even personally hurtful — to those who believe that a complex conflict is being reduced to a one-sided caricature,” it must be allowed to go forward on First Amendment grounds.
“It remains an awkward reality that our constitutional system, and democracy’s commitment to open debate, demand that Americans allow speech we may oppose and even defend the rights of those who might not defend ours,” Block wrote.
The chancellor and his administration were applauded on Monday by Darion Ouliguian, president of the UCLA student group Bruins for Israel, for both standing with the Jewish community but also “upholding the rights of all students.”
In a statement shared on social media, Ouliguian called on SJP’s national organization and UCLA branch to differentiate “between legitimate criticisms of Israel and anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism, and to not allow your conference to become a space full of hate but rather a space that encourages education on this topic.”
“I call on my personal friends in SJP to be reminded of our relationship, of the humanity of a Zionist,” he urged. “Allow that to take root so that we may be able to build each other up in our endeavors.”
The approach diverged from one previously adopted by Students Supporting Israel, another student group at UCLA which in May hosted an event that was forcefully disrupted by SJP members. SSI was among 31 clubs nationwide that last week condemned SJP as a “violent organization … which fuels campus anti-Semitism” and asked UCLA to cancel the gathering.
The conference has faced controversy since The Algemeiner first reported in August that it would be hosted at UCLA, with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) warning last month that some SJP members have shared “violent antisemitic rhetoric” online, and that the group’s national gathering might violate university policy as well as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act — a contention rejected by UCLA.
Concerns were also shared at the University of California Board of Regents’ public board meeting in September, with an official with the Israeli-American Coalition for Action and a junior at UCLA each accusing SJP of glorifying convicted terrorists while demonizing Israel and, at times, Jews.
Yet SJP has also received support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU) and Palestine Legal, which jointly opposed a “cease and desist” letter sent by UCLA to SJP last month over the conference logo, which at the time included both the UCLA name and a bear flying a Palestinian kite.
UCLA argued that the the logo could imply an association between SJP and the school, and that the bear — a grizzly, like the school’s mascot and the California state animal — might be interpreted “as an intention to endorse violence against Israel,” as kites have been used in Palestinian arson-attacks on southern Israeli communities in recent months.
SJP eventually agreed to remove the UCLA name from the logo, but said the school’s “racist and gross mischaracterization of our design ignores the fact that kite-flying is a common pastime in Gaza, and has long been a symbol of freedom for Palestinians.”
The incident was also criticized on Monday by the editorial board of UCLA’s student-run newspaper, The Daily Bruin, which argued that the “university’s legal challenges to the NSJP conference appeared as veiled attacks on the First Amendment.”
“The university has shown time and again that it’s fine having its campus affiliated with politically charged events,” the editors wrote. “That shouldn’t change now, despite how much criticism it may receive.”