Midwest Campus Activists Vow To Keep Struggling For Palestine Despite Threats
Published in partnership with MintPress News.
MINNEAPOLIS — As tensions increase in the West Bank and Gaza, activists for Palestine on American college campuses are also facing threats of violence and oppression.
Students for Justice in Palestine, a group with chapters on college campuses throughout North America, opposes the oppression of Palestinians. Last month, as Muslims throughout the Midwest faced increasing violence, three chapters received disturbing threats after publicly expressing their support for the cause.
In early October, when a video went viral that showed Fadi Alon, a Palestinian teen, being hunted and killed by Israeli settlers, the SJP chapter at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities took to their Facebook page to express solidarity with the slain youth. (MintPress News founder and editor-in-chief Mnar Muhawesh serves as an advisor to SJP UMN chapter.)
When police later accused Alon of perpetrating a knife attack, a post on the Facebook page for another campus organization, Students Supporting Israel at the University of Minnesota, accused SJP of supporting “terrorists.”
Before the post on the SSI page was deleted, it was shared on some national pro-Israel pages, and SJP members found themselves flooded with abusive messages. (Video evidence released since the killing has cast doubt on police claims about Alon.)
Mondoweiss, a site that covers Israel and Palestine, reported that on Oct. 15 a tense discussion during a SJP rally at the University of California, Santa Barbara, turned violent when a supporter of Israel realized he’d been filmed:
One student forcibly takes a cell phone from another student who is arguing that Israeli forces shouldn’t have left a thirteen-year-old, who had reportedly stabbed an Israeli, to bleed in the street.
The video then cuts out [at 4:48], but Daniel Mogtaderi, the student criticizing Israel, says that the pro-Israel student went on to shove him multiple times. Mogtaderi says the assailant strained his back, forcing him to go to the hospital.
On Oct. 19, a few days after the SJP chapter at the University of Illinois at Chicago performed a die-in on the university quad for a day of action, a member received an email in his private inbox which threatened to make the symbolic act into the scene of an actual murder.
Sent from an email account whose name referenced Hamas and signed with the hashtag “#jewhater,” the anonymous writer warned:
If there is one more demonstration from your petty organization, consider it to be your real bodies falling next time.
… Don’t underestimate the Jewish presence on campus.
The abuse and threats come amid an atmosphere where college activists who promote peace and justice in Palestine and expose Israeli apartheid are increasingly under pressure. A website launched this year calledCanary Mission hosts profiles of pro-Palestinian activists (including this reporter) with the express purpose of ruining their careers. In September, Palestine Legal, an organization that offers support to student activists, jointly issued a report with the Center For Constitutional Rights that documented 140 incidents of threats or suppression on college campuses in the first six months of 2014.
MintPress spoke with representatives of both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities chapters about their experiences in campus activism and why they’re continuing their work despite the threats. They asked that we use only their first names, citing concerns for their personal safety.
Threats made SJP UIC ‘more tight-knit’
Anwaar, campus liaison for the University of Illinois at Chicago’s chapter of SJP, suggested that the movement’s increasing effectiveness in grabbing the public’s attention is one factor contributing to the increasing harassment of the group’s members. Over the past year, she said her chapter, in particular, has transitioned from primarily hosting social gatherings to engaging in more activism and direct action.
In September, SJP UIC hosted a successful lecture from Bassem Tamimi, a Palestinian activist who has been repeatedly arrested and persecuted by the Israeli government. Even more importantly for their visibility and effectiveness on campus, the group joined UIC’s Black Student Union to co-sponsor a September vigil for victims of police brutality in the U.S. and Palestine.
“There’s so many parallels that can be drawn,” Anwaar told MintPress about the growing solidarity between the movement for Palestinian freedom and the black struggle for equality in the U.S.
Nationally, connections between the two movements have also deepened. For example, in January, protesters from Ferguson took a historic 10-day trip to Palestine.
The latest harassment came after the group’s Oct. 14 die-in, which Anwaar said was held in the college’s quad, one of the most highly visible locations on campus.
“People were coming from all over, wondering why the quad was so quiet and why so many people were standing around,” she recalled.
Five days later, an SJP board member received the abusive email in his personal inbox. “He was alone when he received it, and he really had no idea what to do or how to react,” she said. Anwaar said the board member spent hours with campus police that night answering questions. The subsequent investigation revealed only that the email had been sent from a college WiFi connection.
Although a culprit may never be identified, Anwaar felt the email produced the opposite effect of what the sender may have intended. In meetings with the dean and other college administrators, the university has reaffirmed its support for the group’s right to protest safely and without fear of threat. She also says the email strengthened the group’s bonds and made them more determined than ever to carry on their work, with many new members joining from the campus’ large Muslim community:
“It’s brought us closer together. As a network at school, we’re a lot more tight-knit than we were at the beginning of the semester. And we feel like all have a support group on campus, people feel like their voices are finally being heard.”
In the near future, the SJP chapter at UIC plans to begin offering regular, free “Palestine 101” lessons to give students an alternative perspective on the region’s history.
At UMN, ‘We always want to look at the bigger picture’
The angry Facebook post from Students Supporting Israel came as a bit of a surprise to the SJP chapter at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, according to Rula, the chapter’s president. She explained that the two groups had started out the year in relative peace after a campus administrator facilitated a mediation meeting.
“It was pretty civil overall,” Rula told MintPress. “We experienced more hatred in past years from older SSI members who co-founded the group.” Before these co-founders graduated, and prior to the mediation meeting between the two groups, she said SSI would regularly take photos and taunt Palestinian activists at their rallies. “They did whatever they could to silence our group and our voice on campus.”
SJP has targeted Zionist events on campus, such as protesting at events promoting “Birthright” trips, which encourage American Jews to travel to Israel. SJP encouraged UMN students to either boycott the trip or, if they chose to go, to depart from its official itinerary to learn more about the plight of Palestine.
This year’s apparent truce ended after SSI retaliated against SJP’s support of Fadi Alon. Rula said that in addition to the post to the campus SSI page, the accusations of support for terrorism also ended up on some Facebook pages associated with the StandWithUs movement, a national Zionist movement. Even after SSI deleted the post, SJP UMN was inundated with a flood of hateful messages on the chapter’s Facebook page. Rula elaborated on why SJP supports the Palestinian teens killed by soldiers and illegal settlers:
It’s horrible what’s happening, but we always want to look at the bigger picture. There are many reasons why young Palestinians feel the need to retaliate. First of all, there’s no proof that Fadi Alon did retaliate and did stab this boy, but if he did, and like the others that actually did, there are always reasons why these crimes are happening.
Among the many reasons driving young Palestinians to attack Israelis, Rula listed violence by the “Israeli military, house demolitions, imprisonment, blockades and restrictions on movement.” She also emphasized that regardless of their crimes, these teens should not be executed on sight. SSI and national supporters of Israel are “always saying that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. But killing someone who is reported to have committed a crime instead of punishing them under judicial law, and through a trial, that’s not a democratic society.” In addition to the hateful messages, Rula said group members have also received support from local activists. For example, on Oct. 8, Jewish Voice For Peace Twin Cities wrote on their Facebook page:
Jewish Voice for Peace Twin Cities strongly supports the student leaders in Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP UMN) at the University of Minnesota in the face of intimidation and attacks on social media. … It is critical that the University of Minnesota Administration protect the rights of student groups such as SJP whose viewpoints may be unpopular or controversial on campus to speak out and educate the community , especially about an issue that affects so many in SJP leadership personally and compels the hearts of many of us in the broader community.
Rather than intimidate her group, Rula said the incident renewed members’ dedication to their cause. “It reminds us to continue to doing what we do, to continue to not allow them to silence our voice on campus, considering how many people just honestly don’t know what’s happening in Palestine.” On Oct. 30, SJP UMN held a solidarity rally for Palestine.
Although members sometimes worry about the effect of harassment, she said their sense of shared purpose keeps them going:
“At the end of the day, there is really nothing to be worried about because we truly are promoting justice. And not only justice for Palestinians, but for all humans.”