Northeastern University’s administration recently suspended its chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a recognized student group whose mission is to educate about the plight of Palestinians living under more than half a century of Israeli occupation. The administration also initially threatened some members of SJP with expulsion from the university.
As a former executive director of Northeastern University’s (NEU) Hillel Foundation and its university Jewish chaplain, I am especially sensitive to issues involving NEU’s Jewish students, Israel and anti-Semitism.
Not in spite of this, but because of this, I am deeply troubled by Northeastern’s actions. The university contends that its decision was based specifically on SJP not having followed explicit university rules and, more generally, by its acting in ways considered “uncivil” — in particular creating an atmosphere that caused some students, specifically Jewish students, to feel “unsafe.”
In reality, these are justifications that are patently untrue and meant to confuse at best, or, at worst, totally obscure the true motivations for the university’s actions.
NEU points to two particular cases, in which it claims that SJP acted counter to university procedures and expectations. According to the administration, SJP “disrupted” a pro-Israel policy program — a talk given by Israeli soldiers — without receiving prior authorization as required by university rules on political actions.
And, more recently, SJP was accused of breaking procedure by distributing leaflets under dormitory doors with a mock warning that the residents were to be evicted.
SJP did, in fact, notify the authorities about their members’ intention to walk out of the Israel program. In response, the group received an email message from the administration that acknowledged what the SJP activists planned to do and asked only that they act “civilly.”
As the SJP members walked out, only one shouted a few not uncivil words before leaving.
No one was prevented from entering the event, nor was it in any way “disrupted.” It is questionable whether a group of students leaving an event can be classified as an “action” requiring university permission. But in this case, the response of an officer of the university certainly demonstrates that the school was aware of what was planned.
The situation of the “eviction” notices is somewhat more complicated. But it is clear that NEU’s reaction to it was irresponsible.
The distribution of the flyers cannot be seen as targeting any particular student group (i.e. Jewish students), since SJP would have no idea where particular students were housed. The flyers were placed at all doors in the facilities.
As for “frightening” students by making them think that they were really being evicted, the flyers were clear that this was a mock eviction exercise meant to highlight the reality of the evictions given to Palestinians before their houses are demolished or turned over to illegal Israeli settlers.
Finally, many groups on campus, including Hillel and other pro-Israel groups, regularly distribute flyers supporting positions or announcing events. The university, appropriately, seldom asks for prior permission nor does it censor the content of these communications.
In fact, the accusations were not generated from students but substantially from persons and groups outside of the university. It is well known that the extreme right-wing Zionist political group Americans for Peace and Tolerance and its president Charles Jacobs have, for some years, waged a pronounced attack on NEU and certain faculty members who they portray as anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic.
To its credit, the university has been supportive of its faculty. But in SJP’s case, it has unfortunately succumbed to the illegitimate accusations and pressures of these outside groups and the significant donors they have managed to rally.
Longtime, respected faculty members are difficult to undermine, but the vulnerable students of SJP have not been as easy to protect.
Why am I, a former Hillel director, so concerned about this situation? Why would I care about a bunch of undergraduate students who are part of an organization whose core purpose is to support Palestinians and criticize the State of Israel?
Do I have any objection to the university exercising its obvious right to regulate the behavior of sanctioned student groups?
First, the university’s decision is, simply, wrong.
Its contention that the issue is not one of “freedom of speech” but adherence to school rules is an absurd contention given SJP’s actions.
There is, for me, something else at work here. Judaism teaches us that there are times when ethics and morality come into conflict with self-interest. With only a tiny number of exceptions, we are called on to do what is morally right even if it leads to an outcome that we do not see as what is “best” for us.
There is little doubt in my mind that that the university’s treatment of SJP cannot be defended. In this case, however, I don’t see any contradiction between what is right and what is in Jewish self-interest. While I have serious concerns about Israeli policy vis-à-vis the treatment of Palestinians and the occupation, whether these issues are right or wrong should be irrelevant in this case.
We Jews have learned the hard way, over generations and centuries, that any time rights are curtailed one can rely on our being amongst the top of the list of those targeted. Wherever some group is persecuted, it is only a matter of time before Jews will be too.
The lesson should be — and historically has been — that we Jews must always support any group that is unfairly targeted. That’s why Jews in the US have overwhelmingly supported the rights of minorities and persecuted communities.
That’s why I am convinced that for the sake of both our Jewish values and our long-term survival, the ill-conceived treatment of Northeastern University’s Students for Justice in Palestine is, in the final analysis, not only wrong but ultimately, as my grandmother used to say, “bad for the Jews.”
Martin R. Federman is a Jewish educator who was the executive director of the Hillel Foundation at Northeastern University in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He is currently an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace and co-chairperson of American Jews for a Just Peace-Boston.