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Students for Justice in Palestine Assaults Academic Freedom

avatar by Cole Knie

Opinion

An SJP demonstration at Hunter College. Photo: StandWithUs/screenshot.

Last month, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Chicago (SJP UChicago) took to social media to launch an aggressive anti-Israel campaign that targeted academic freedom at the university.

SJP’s divisive statement read, “DON’T TAKE SH*TTY ZIONIST CLASSES,” and urged students to boycott courses about Israel, arguing that they “legitimize” the Jewish state through propaganda.

Now, SJP is expanding its initial boycott to include academics associated with the Israel Institute, an off-campus nonprofit organization that encourages bilateral academic engagement between scholars in the US and Israel.

The three courses SJP cites — “Multiculturalism in Israel,” “Narrating Israel and Palestine Through Literature and Film,” and “Gender Relations in Israel” — do not center geopolitics in the slightest. Nonetheless, SJP resorts to attacking academic freedom and suppressing meaningful discourse to maintain a monopoly on the conversation surrounding Israel.

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We must stand against this fundamentally dangerous and anti-intellectual tactic, which attacks the very foundation of academic inquiry and the pursuit of truth.

In their statement, SJP resorts to demonizing Israel and makes several unsubstantiated claims about the Jewish state and Jewish history. SJP goes as far as to claim that “Jewish national identity” is “a recent invention of the settler-colonial Zionist project.”

By doing so, SJP is effectively telling the Jewish people that their shared history and connection to their indigenous ancestral homeland is a figment of their imagination. There is extensive archaeological evidence of deep-rooted Jewish communities in the land. Forced into diaspora and persecution, Jews have sought to return to their homeland for thousands of years, and there has been a continuous Jewish presence in the land.

Now to debunk some other SJP lies:

Claim: Israel Is a Zionist Project

Referring to a “Zionist project” and accusing the Jewish state of creating propaganda to manipulate the US education system embodies antisemitic tropes. The problematic notion that Jews are manipulators has been used to justify ethnic cleansing and genocide for centuries.

It is not a coincidence that SJP uses this rhetoric. The foundation of modern arguments against Jewish self-determination finds their origins in the Soviet Union, where antisemitism was rampant. Stalin had a long history of pushing anti-Jewish conspiracies within the USSR, even launching a “Jewish Doctors’ Plot” that accused Jewish doctors of conspiring to murder Soviet officials. The USSR continued to push its anti-Israel and anti-Jewish agenda after Stalin’s death, eventually using its power to make the Jewish state a pariah by labeling Zionism (Jewish self-determination) as racism, shaping the rhetoric we see today.

Claim: Israeli Jews are European Settlers

The SJP Instagram post also broadly categorizes Israelis as “European Jewish settlers,” and conveniently neglects that Jewish immigration to Israel did not involve stealing land but rather legally purchasing it. Many of course also came after the Holocaust, when no one else would give them refuge. The Nazis certainly didn’t see them as European.

SJP also fails to mention that over half of Israel’s Jewish population are not “White Europeans,” but come from the Middle East and North Africa. 

They also ignore the million Jewish refugees from Arab lands who were forced to move to Israel after being expelled from their home countries.

This is unlikely to be an oversight. SJP’s rhetoric excludes the experiences of Jews who have suffered in Middle Eastern and North African countries that ethnically cleansed them.

Addressing the persecution of Jews in Europe and the Middle East would also put the facts at odds with their political ideology, which deceitfully classifies Jews as white colonizers.

Claim: Pinkwashing

SJP claims, “Israel uses a propaganda technique calling ‘pinkwashing’ which exploits queer rights to hide its occupation and apartheid behind an image of progressiveness.”

Pinkwashing is the unsubstantiated and completely fabricated notion that the Jewish state only supports LGBTQ+ rights for purposes of propaganda. Their statement is also seemingly blind to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas’s strict opposition to LGBTQ+ rights.

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas are both extremely repressive governments that are fundamentally opposed to LGBTQ+ rights. In 2019, the Palestinian Authority police cracked down on LGBTQ+ activism and banned Al Qaws, a Palestinian group that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights in the West Bank. The situation is far worse in Gaza, where same-sex relationships are legally punishable by prison, and being outed can mean life and death.

Most of all, SJP’s statement is the ultimate show of SJP’s moral hypocrisy and misrepresentation of values: SJP has a history of responding to criticism from Jewish organizations with accusations of censorship; now, they are calling for a monopoly on free speech.

That’s no surprise, however, because the only way that SJP can win its argument is by distorting and suppressing the facts.

UChicago has and continues to offer a number of divisive anti-Israel courses. Still, SJP would rather limit students to a single perspective that only touches on one aspect of a culturally rich and innovative country.

Ultimately, SJP’s statement speaks to a rather frantic sense of desperation embodied by the anti-Israel movement. These fringe groups seek to monopolize discourse on Israel because they realize all too well that the truth will win out. People around the world are waking up to the fact that Israel is here to stay. Arab countries have signed historic normalization agreements with Israel. It is more apparent than ever that the Jewish story is one of resilience, and that Israel will continue to thrive for generations to come.

Cole Knie is a 2021-2022 CAMERA Fellow at The George Washington University.

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