Student Justice Group Denied as Club: Why?

Updated context on the SJP decision

by Michael Jack O’Brien
Features & List Co-editor

Just as the Israeli government voted to continue the construction of settlements in the West Bank, a project that garnered international controversy, the Dean of Students at the Lincoln Center campus, Keith Eldredge, disapproved the creation of a Fordham University chapter of the national Palestinian advocacy organization Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). In an official statement, the school administration said the following: “Fordham has no registered student clubs the sole focus of which is the political agenda of one nation, against another nation. For the University’s purposes, the country of origin of the student organizers is irrelevant, as is their particular political stance. The narrowness of Students for Justice in Palestine’s political focus makes it more akin to a lobbying group than a student club. Regardless of the club’s status, students, faculty, and staff are of course free to voice their opinions on Palestine, or any other issue.” Almost immediately after the decision was made, students gathered for protest in support of the SJP, claiming that the administration was blatantly disregarding student free speech, and restricting the student government’s freedom to approve organizations.

For many students, the school’s decision appears to be an egregious overstep of authority and a crackdown on dissenting opinions within the university, a sentiment not helped by the beginning of Donald Trump’s administration and Israel’s vote to continue West Bank settlements. However, the university’s policy for approving and disapproving clubs must take into account the larger context of each proposed student organization and understands that clubs, especially those affiliated with larger national organizations, are not isolated entities.

In the case of SJP, it appears that a possible reason for the administration’s hesitation to approve the club comes from other chapters of the SJP. Currently the organization is registered in the Anti-Defamation League as an organization which behaves in a way that promotes anti-Israeli prejudice. In a 2015 report on the organization, the ADL claims that the clubs behaviors and tactics (holding die-ins, distributing mock eviction notices to students in their dorm rooms, and setting up mock “apartheid” checkpoints) have created a tense atmosphere in which students have reported feeling intimidated or harassed by SJP members.

The report continues on to claim that during the summer and fall of 2014, “anti-Israel activists” attempted to link the ongoing hostilities between Hamas and Israel to the then-recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The SJP runs what they call an “anti-normalization campaign,” the tactics of which include interrupting and silencing pro-Israel speakers. In addition to this, the ADL claims that SJP encourages students to refrain from communication and dialogue with pro-Israel group and to stage walkouts on Israeli speakers, a tactic used by the SJP chapter at Northeastern University when two Israeli soldiers were speaking on campus. Seemingly, these tactics are utilized in unison as part of a systematic effort to silence and suppress the views of the pro-Israel community, efforts which the ADL claims possesses a distinctly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment.

With the added context of the ADL report on the national organization, it becomes evident that the Fordham administration is stuck in a tight spot in which either decision, to allow or disallow the formation of an SJP chapter, would inadvertently place the school on one of two sides of a highly polarizing and culturally relevant issue. One decision portrays the school as anti-Palestinian, while the other would portray the school as anti-Israeli. It’s probable that the university has no particular qualms regarding the approval of a Palestinian activist organization, but the disapproval of the club is rooted in the SJP’s insistence on being affiliated with and receiving its resources from this particular national organization. It is important to keep in mind that for the administration, the full range of the SJP and its reported behaviors must be taken into account.

Whether or not the behaviors of the organization outlined in the report quantify as harassment or anti-Israeli intimidation is up to debate among students. It would appear that the past actions of the organization were substantial enough to be officially documented by the ADL, which stands as a possible explanation to why the administration would hesitate in approving a Fordham chapter. Moreover, the terminology used by the SJP and other publications would indicate that the administration has allegedly “banned” or “vetoed” the creation of a Palestinian club. Per the university’s decision, the words “banned” or “vetoed” do not appear. Therefore, framing the decision in such a light wrongly indicates that students are prohibited from ever attempting to organize in the future.

In any case, the Palestinian advocacy group Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights has decided to continue taking legal action against the university in the fight for the clubs approval claiming that in their decision to prohibit the club. In a letter, the advocacy group is arguing that Fordham University “misconstrues the facts, misunderstands the law, and ignores Fordham’s contractual obligations to respect students’ freedom of expression, as promised in various University policies,” echoing the concerns of many students and other groups on Fordham’s campuses.

Editor’s note: the paper, as Fordham’s free speech publication, will always support a student and student groups’ right to free speech. The purpose of this article is to provide further context for the situation.

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