Northeastern students fighting back against ban on campus Palestine group

As The Electronic Intifada reported earlier today, Boston’s Northeastern University has suspended the on-campus Students for Justice in Palestine and launched police investigations into students. The administration also threatened two students with suspension or expulsion for distributing mock eviction leaflets on campus, a popular direct action many Palestine solidarity groups undertake during the annual Israeli Apartheid Week of events. The two SJP members who were threatened with expulsion-level charges are the only women of color in the group that distributed the leaflets.

A copy of the mock eviction notice — which clearly states that it is not a real eviction notice — can be viewed at the end of this post.

Students say the explicit threats of expulsion of the two women has apparently been rescinded due to the outpouring of pressure by SJP activists and supporters of free speech around the country.

One of the two women members of Northeastern SJP who is facing suspension — or expulsion-level charges — told me that the university is currently responding to emails of concerned supporters of the students saying that the allegations of the threat of expulsion were false, “however, if this is the case, then it remains to be seen why they chose to inform us of expulsion and suspension-level charges being brought against us,” the student said. She did not wish to be named as the investigation and charges are pending.

As Max Blumenthal reported in Mondoweiss, before the suspension, a Northeastern administrative official told students to express how the mock eviction action “has impacted [them]” by urging them to contact the administration — as well as the local Hillel organization. Hillel is “an explicitly pro-Israel Jewish communal organization committed to countering SJP-related activism,” Blumenthal added.

Shutting down discourse

Late last December, Northeastern’s president Joseph Aoun issued a statement that echoed dozens of similar condemnations against the American Studies Association’s recent adoption of the Palestinian-led call for academic boycotts of Israeli institutions.

Aoun stated: “Academic boycotts are antithetical to the core values of educational institutions, which are committed to the free exchange of ideas. Political differences indeed heighten, not diminish, the importance of unfettered discourse among scholars.”

However, as Northeastern SJP member Max Geller points out in the following interview, Aoun’s willingness to stifle the academic freedom of Palestine solidarity activists and silence the “unfettered discourse” between students on campus on the Palestine issue lays bare just which group’s academic freedom the university wants to protect, and whose they are eager to shut down.

Last year, Geller told The Electronic Intifada how he had received death threats over his advocacy work as a member of SJP. The persons behind the threats were linked to the Orwellian-named right-wing Zionist group Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a Boston-based outfit run by Charles Jacobs, who has orchestrated a litany of attacks on Northeastern SJP members and faculty supportive of Palestinian rights.

In a press release emailed to The Electronic Intifada, Northeastern SJP states:

Northeastern SJP will not be silenced or intimidated and will fight the spurious allegations that the Northeastern administration has made against us. We call on all Northeastern students and faculty, and all those who believe in free speech and the universal application of human rights, to stand up and show your support for our struggle. An injustice against one student or student group is an assault on all of our freedoms.

Pattern of suppression

The SJP member facing charges who did not wish to be named said that Northeastern University’s attempts “to silence student voices on campus are in line with a concerning, but unfortunately well-precedented, pattern of suppression that is taking place on college campuses all over the country.”

She added:

As Northeastern is run in the style of practically all universities today — that is to say, like a corporation — the institution has a vested interest in complying with the agendas of big time donors, regardless of whether or not much of their money also happens to be going to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim organizations.

It is incredibly disheartening to see the amount of suppression facing Palestine solidarity activists at the university for the use of nonviolent actions intended to raise awareness and generate discussion on campus with claims that they create a “threatening environment.” All the while, they have done nothing to speak out against hate-mongering groups such as Americans for Peace and Tolerance, which have time and time again targeted and threatened individual members of the Northeastern community, professors and students alike.

In the one instance in which Northeastern did address the claims made by Americans for Peace and Tolerance, they made no mention of the racist or threatening language aimed towards Muslims, Arabs, and activists, but chose instead to speak about all that Northeastern has done in terms of bringing Israeli speakers to campus, educational opportunities for students in Israel, and its Birthright program, featuring a statement of endorsement from Barry Shrage, President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

This willful ignorance in the face of racist intimidation is the sort of thing that creates a “threatening environment” on our campus.

“Violent reality”

The student added that the reaction by Hillel — which complained that some students were “alarmed and intimidated” by the mock eviction notices — points to the broader issue: no one should be comfortable hearing about Israel’s demolitions of Palestinian homes. She said:

It should not make anyone comfortable to know that Israel acts in contempt of international law. I would hope that no one feels comfortable or good or even indifferent when forced to contemplate, if only for a few moments, the violent reality facing Palestinians every day. Seeing the public reaction the law few days has confirmed that a dialogue is indeed taking place on campus, despite the fact that Hillel seems to maintain that this is only the case when comes about in a way that is favorable to them.

I also interviewed Northeastern SJP members Max Geller by Skype and Tori Porell over email earlier today.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: What’s your reaction to Northeastern’s attempt to silence SJP after the administration has been willing to bow to pressure from outside anti-Palestinian political groups?

Max Geller: Disappointment. Not only do outside groups and wealthy university benefactors have a disproportionate amount of influence on student speech rights — because, to be clear, they should have no influence on student speech rights — but when the university president says that “all academic boycotts undermine academic freedom,” reasonable minds can differ on such an idea, but it is impossible to reconcile such an allegiance to academic freedom with a suspension of our student group.

Tori Porell: When outside political groups began attacking the university, its student groups and its own students, Northeastern should have stood up for what is right and defend them from these often vicious attacks. What they chose to do instead was capitulate in the face of the potential for losing a couple of donors and attempt to silence SJP in an attempt to make the situation go away.

What they did not expect, however, is that we will not be going away without a fight. Just as in all of the struggles that came before us, we know that the administration trying to silence us now will soon realize that they are on the wrong side of history.

NBF: Can you talk about Hillel’s response and how SJP is attempting to address it, and really what’s behind their response?

MG: You can imagine if a pro-Israel student group — of which there are several on campus — were to do a mass flyering action, and if they were to be brought up on discipline charges, it would be over in a second. What’s really troubling about Hillel’s response is how the university’s response treated Hillel as though it were the most logical place to send students who disagreed with our politics.

The idea that Hillel has become such a political institution at our school seems to be noteworthy, a bigger deal than people are talking about. The fact that the university responded to Hillel’s request and sent an email providing them as a resource means that Hillel has a very special status. Northeastern University cannot make Hillel integrate Jews who disagree with them into their activities.

For instance, Jews like me are not welcome at the Northeastern University’s Hillel because it abides by the national guidelines [which prevent members from holding events featuring speakers who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or include Jewish members in Hillel who are anti-Zionist]. So in order to maintain this viewpoint discrimination, they are not an official university entity. However, when pro-Palestinian students distribute mock eviction flyers, the non-university institution is immediately called on to provide the face of the university’s response.

TP: Hillel’s response only makes it clear that there is no difference between them and the explicitly pro-Israel interests on campus. This issue has nothing to do with targeting Jewish students and to insinuate so is comically false. Also, the idea that students were “intimidated,” “threatened,” or “endangered” by reading a piece of paper with statements of fact is also ludicrous. Additionally, it is completely patronizing to believe that adults in college need to be sheltered and protected from uncomfortable facts about injustice and oppression happening in our world.

Refusal to confront “the actual problem”

NBF: Max, has the university administration ever taken any interest in responding to the death threats and threats of violence against you in the last year?

MG: Yes, they have. If I felt like I needed to have police officers with me every time I was on campus, the university was willing to accommodate that. Which is a really insane thing to hear. It’s a crazy proposition. First of all, I never really took those threats seriously and I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable being escorted by police when I’m trying to do anti-racist solidarity work.

So that was a non-starter. And to whatever extent my safety is threatened — when you have Northeastern police enforcing the school’s donors’ political views, to have them also be the ones who are also escorting me to class to protect me from Zionist extremists, it’s hard to imagine why I’d support that.

NBF: And, of course, these are the same campus police who went door to door interrogating Arab and Muslim students on campus in the last few days.

MG: Not just Arab and Muslim students, but they started with the most vulnerable students in our group. They tried to interrogate everybody, but they began with the youngest and the most Muslim-sounding of all of our group members. There’s a clear leadership hierarchy, and if they wanted answers, they could have come to the leadership. But instead, they went to an 18-year-old young woman’s house first, who is of Somali descent.

The university police acted as though they were investigating a hate crime, as though our political speech represented a clear and present danger to the community. Throughout the events leading up to our suspension, in order to make us feel more safe because of Charles Jacobs’ [actions], they would deploy more and more police to our events.

Instead of confronting the actual problem — the problem being Charles Jacobs and Islamophobia — the solution that they came up with was to deploy extra police to our events.

The pro-Palestinian crowd, the students we seek to educate with our events, are less likely to come if there are Northeastern police. The idea that the same police can be the ones protecting us one day from the outside threats and then treating us like a threat the next day is a microcosm of the incoherence of the university’s policy towards Students for Justice in Palestine.

NBF: What’s the significance of the possible expulsion of two women of color and police visits to Arab and Muslim students; what message is Northeastern sending to those students?

TP: Due to what I believe to be the pressure we have already generated, there is no longer a threat of suspension or expulsion towards any SJP members made explicitly clear by the university. However, by dragging these two women through an opaque disciplinary process, the university is making examples of them for any students considering getting involved with SJP. Fear of university sanction is already the most serious reason why students are hesitant to get involved with SJP, and these sanctions are an attempt to bolster that fear.

Appeals process

NBF: What can you say about the trainings that Northeastern is requiring SJP members attend in order to have the group reinstated? At Florida Atlantic University, as we remember, SJP activists were mandated to take an “anti-bias” training class designed by the Anti-Defamation League, an Israel lobby group that works hard to silence and censor those who criticize Israel policy on campuses in the US.

MG: The ADL has chimed in several times about the “hostile environment” that the pro-Palestinian minority has caused for the Jewish majority on Northeastern campus. So it wouldn’t surprise me if the ADL was involved in these trainings too.

But you have to understand, this suspension came Friday, and we’re still in the appeals process — we’re not looking down the road towards reinstatement, nor do I really have much confidence that unless there is a sustained, grassroots effort to pressure the university, and to shame them, that we’ll ever get to the point of our coercive “re-education seminars.”

NBF: Finally, how are you fighting this, and how can people get involved if they want to help shame the university?

MG: We have an online petition that has garnered almost 2,000 signatures in a little less than 12 hours. So the response has thus far been overwhelming.

We’re receiving deeply moving solidarity statements from SJP chapters all around the country, and what those statements are doing are helping us make a better case for why the average Northeastern student should take the discipline proceedings against our SJP members very seriously. is live, you can find our petitions and our sample emails to the administration there.

But really what the national campaign, the national response and the solidarity is doing is galvanizing students on our own campus to see this assault on student speech as an assault on their rights as well. That’s incredibly powerful and incredibly important.




"For instance, Jews like me are not welcome at the Northeastern University’s Hillel because it abides by the national guidelines [which prevent members from holding events featuring speakers who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or include Jewish members in Hillel who are anti-Zionist]."

Hillel's guidelines say that they "will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers" that are anti-Israel (link below). They don't say anything about banning students. I can't speak for Northeastern Hillel, but I'd be surprised if it would ban a Jewish student from, say, attending Shabbat services just because he is anti-Zionist.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).