Palestinian students at Loyola University Chicago are under investigation by the university administration after they peacefully challenged other students promoting Taglit-Birthright Israel, the students said in a statement Wednesday.
The Loyola University Chicago’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter was put under temporary suspension on 19 September following the discussions at the Birthright Israel table inside the student center earlier in the month. The suspension was lifted a week later. The university has not made it clear on what particular grounds the suspension was imposed.
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) members say that they are “deeply concerned” by the ongoing investigation, which alleges “misconduct” after complaints were made by students at the Birthright Israel table.
The students tabling for Birthright, which sends Jewish young adults on all-expense paid trips to Israel to encourage affinity with Zionism, claim they felt “threatened” and “harassed” by the Palestine solidarity activists.
It is a claim that has been used on campuses throughout the United States to conflate criticism of Israel or solidarity with Palestinians with anti-Semitism and hate speech that would necessitate university intervention and punishment.
Nadine Darwish, president of the Loyola University Chicago SJP chapter, told The Electronic Intifada on Wednesday that the Palestinian students were “simply asking if they could register [for the Jewish-only Birthright trips] — it was civil, and there was no harassment, no slurs being thrown around.”
“The accusations are both exaggerated and inflammatory, attempting to label SJP as an aggressive group motivated by animus against Jewish students, and intent on causing them harm,” SJP at Loyola adds in their press release.
Darwish said that SJP members recorded the interactions and sent the videos to the administration to demonstrate that their discussions at the table contradict the claims made by the Birthright promoters.
SJP at Loyola states that on 9 September, approximately fifteen Palestinian students decided “on an ad hoc basis” to “peacefully line up at the Taglit-Birthright table and ask if they, as Palestinians whose families were expelled from villages inside present-day Israel, could also register for a Birthright trip.”
“Taglit-Birthright Israel is an Israeli government-funded program that sponsors free trips to Israel exclusively for Jewish students on the basis of a claimed ‘Birthright’ to the land, despite the fact that Israel is built upon the dispossession of indigenous Palestinians,” the students note.
“Any Jewish student worldwide can register for the program, while indigenous non-Jewish Palestinians are not only ineligible for the program, but often are denied the right to live in or even visit their homeland freely,” the statement adds.
Birthright Israel boasts that it has sent more than 400,000 Jewish young adults from 66 countries to Israel.
Darwish told The Electronic Intifada that when the students hosting the Birthright Israel table “had their privilege challenged,” they interpreted that as an immediate threat to their safety and reported it to the administration.
“It shows that when people in privileged situations have their privilege challenged, they feel it as a threat. It reflects their racism against Palestinians on an acute level — really, it’s a microcosm of what happens every day in Palestine,” she said.
In their statement on Wednesday, SJP at Loyola says that pressure on the administration “to investigate, punish and even ban SJP comes from students who actively promote Israel on campus, and from off-campus organizations that intervened in democratic student processes in favor of divestment last year. Actively pro-Israel students themselves have made clear their intention to ban SJP from campus by continuing to complain about its activities.”
Earlier this year, Loyola’s student government twice passed a resolution introduced by SJP calling on the administration to pull its investments in US companies profiting from Israel’s occupation, but the resolution was ultimately vetoed by the student government president Pedro Guerrero following pressure from off-campus groups.
SJP has reached out to Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, which works directly with students facing intimidation and calls to curb discussions on Palestine at US campuses. In a statement released on Wednesday, the legal support group says that it along with the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Chicago and local attorney Rima Kapitan sent a letter to Loyola administrators raising concerns about the suspension and investigation.
Loyola’s administration said in an emailed statement to The Electronic Intifada today that they had received the video evidence and “it is being considered and included in the review process.”
When asked if it is university policy to conduct investigations into student conduct when two groups of students disagree on a human rights or political issue, director of communication Steve Christensen replied that “any reports of student misconduct” instigate an investigation process as per protocol.
Meanwhile, Darwish said that if Loyola conducts a fair investigation, “the students being investigated shouldn’t face any punishment.”
“College students were challenging their fellow students’ views,” she explained. “I challenge my classmates and my professors all the time. It’s what a college campus is for.”
The full press release from Students for Justice in Palestine at Loyola can be read here.