Palestinian students at Loyola University Chicago have been sanctioned with probation and “dialogue training” after they peacefully challenged other students promoting Taglit-Birthright Israel in September.
Following two months of administrative punishment and an internal investigation — culminating in a four-hour-long administrative hearing on 30 October — the Palestinian students were found to be in violation of “not registering” their “demonstration” and are still at risk of further charges, according to an attorney.
However, students affiliated with Hillel, the on-campus Jewish Zionist group which organized the Birthright table and claimed that they were “harassed” and “threatened” by the Palestinian students — sparking administrative response and immediate punishment of activists with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — was only sanctioned with administrative training for violating the same rule.
Loyola’s SJP chapter was put under temporary suspension following conversations Palestinian-American students had with other students at the Birthright table at the university’s student center on 19 September.
As The Electronic Intifada reported at the time, Nadine Darwish, president of the Loyola University Chicago SJP chapter (SJP-LUC), said 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.”
In a 2 November press release, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support explains that “During the hearing, SJP-LUC students argued that their action was not targeting or disparaging anyone because of their religion, national origin or any other protected characteristic, but was an attempt to raise a political critique of the discriminatory treatment of Palestinians that Birthright stands for, and what it means for Palestinian students who are denied their ‘birthright’ despite their direct ties to the land.”
In an interview with The Electronic Intifada on Tuesday, Dima Khalidi, attorney with Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, said the administration found that the SJP members violated the demonstration policy “which is really restrictive. It basically defines a demonstration as any conversation between two or more people that’s trying to make a point … It requires that [a demonstration] be registered by the administration [and] approved by the administration several days in advance.”
Khalidi added that Hillel “had plenty of time to register their tabling event, and they failed to do so. There’s a clear case here of the administration placing very different sanctions on a very similar alleged violation, and it’s clear that there’s been a lot of pressure on the Loyola administration to do something about SJP for over a year — or at least since last spring, when SJP Loyola undertook a divestment initiative.”
Listen to the entire interview via the media player above, or read the transcript below.
At the 30 October hearing, SJP-LUC activists “responded to six charges that their actions amounted to bias-motivated discrimination, harassment and bullying, and violations of demonstration policies,” PSLS stated.
The next day, Loyola University Chicago “released its decision regarding a number of disciplinary charges against Students for Justice in Palestine, finding the group not responsible for five of the six charges against it, and only responsible for the charge of violating the ‘free expression and demonstration policy’ because they did not properly register their impromptu action to question Birthright Israel’s discriminatory policies,” the press release adds.
Zahraa Nasser, an SJP-LUC member, said in PSLS’s press release: “We feel vindicated that the hearing board understood that students were not acting on the basis of discrimination against anyone, but were peacefully making a political point at a public tabling event.
“It is unacceptable, however, that SJP and Hillel get such unequal sanctions for essentially the same violation: not registering our respective events. We also reject the notion that we need to be re-educated on how to ‘dialogue’ when our purpose was to engage in conversations about an openly discriminatory program being publicized by a student organization whose leadership upholds viewpoints we find racist and antithetical to Palestinian rights.
“It was the other side which was not prepared to answer questions about the problematic program they were publicizing.”
“Vastly uneven sanction”
Khalidi explained that this unequal punishment fits within the current pattern of administrations giving in to pressure from Israel advocacy organizations outside the universities to disrupt student Palestine solidarity organizing.
“We’re seeing administrations putting obstacles in front of student organizations, SJP organizations, that aren’t placed on any other organization,” she said. “There’s a clear pattern of SJP chapters being treated differently. And we think it’s because of what they’re saying, what they’re talking about — it’s labeled as controversial, and there are complaints about it constantly, that it’s anti-Semitic, et cetera.”
Khalidi added that the students who are most often affected by university punishments are Arab and Muslim: “The accusations against these students are often based on racist assumptions and stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims as being threatening.”
Palestine Solidarity Legal Support has sent letters to more than 140 university administrations around the country in an attempt to educate them about the pressure that Israel advocacy organizations are placing on them, “and how to resist it,” Khalidi said. Read the letter and PSLS’s press release about it here.
Transcript of interview with attorney Dima Khalidi
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Dima, essentially Loyola labeled the conversations that SJP members engaged in with the Birthright tablers as an “event,” and because it wasn’t registered beforehand, they are now being sanctioned and penalized, when as you point out, Hillel really did in fact not register their table, and are being hit with a much lighter penalty. Can you explain what’s going on here?
Dima Khalidi: Sure. A couple of SJP members, as well as Loyola students and others from outside Loyola responded to this knowledge that there was a Hillel tabling event happening by deciding to line up at the table and try to register — mainly Palestinian students decided to do this. And they learned about it the night before, so it was a very impromptu kind of action. It was ad hoc that they decided to try to explain to those tabling for Birthright Israel the discriminatory nature of that program.
So they wanted to go up there and say, “well, how come we as Palestinians don’t have that birthright as well? Even though we have a direct connection to that land.”
What you said is correct — the administration, after over a month-long investigation, charged them with six violations of university policies, and that included violating the demonstration policy which is really restrictive. It basically defines a demonstration as any conversation between two or more people that’s trying to make a point. So it’s a really expansive definition of demonstration, and it requires that to be registered by the administration, approved by the administration several days in advance. So it wouldn’t allow for something that’s a response to a tabling event, for example.
They were also charged with harassment and bullying with disruptive conduct, with bias-motivated misconduct. And this happened because the students tabling at the Birthright table accused them right away of threatening them, and saying things that were motivated by bias towards them as Jewish people.
So, again, after a month-long investigation, the charges finally came down, and the students were put through a four-hour-long hearing about these charges. Only last Friday, the decision came down and they were found not responsible for five of those six charges. The one charge that they were found responsible for was not registering their demonstration. And as I said, it would have been impossible to register the day of, having only learned about it the night before.
Whereas Hillel had plenty of time to register their tabling event, and they failed to do so. So there’s a clear case here of the administration placing very different sanctions on a very similar alleged violation, and it’s clear that there’s been a lot of pressure on the Loyola administration to do something about SJP for over a year — or at least since last spring, when SJP Loyola undertook a divestment initiative.
This has to be put within that larger picture of the huge amount of pressure on Loyola. To their credit, they didn’t buy the allegations of harassment and bias-motivated misconduct, which I think would have been really devastating. So there is that affirmation that their action was politically motivated, it was in fact to expose the discrimination and bias of programs like Birthright Israel, and not motivated itself by discrimination against anybody.
NBF: How can you measure the uneven punishments here in terms of what students have been up against across the US, as administrations routinely take the side of Israel-aligned organizations, as you mentioned, which have, as in this case, falsely accused SJP members of discrimination and bullying and harassment when they’re just engaging in political debate?
DK: Yeah. We really do see this around the country. There are incessant complaints against SJP and other Palestine solidarity advocacy groups on campuses, and they’re very similar to the accusations against Loyola. Any actions, any activities that are perceived to criticize Israel, or that support Palestinian human rights, are complained about, are labeled as anti-Semitic or are said to be threatening to Jewish students, or make them uncomfortable.
So the real difficulty with these kinds of allegations that we’re seeing everywhere is that the universities are obligated to investigate. When students come to them and say “we’ve been discriminated against, there are these horrible things happening to us,” they can’t ignore it. And they especially can’t ignore it when there are several Israel advocacy organizations out there threatening Title VI complaints, for example — complaints under the Civil Rights Act against the university if they don’t do something about it.
It’s not just the university saying, “oh, we don’t like this speech and we’re going to treat it differently,” it’s really a result of the enormous pressure being put on the university to do something about it. It’s legal pressure, and it’s political pressure. It’s really a problem around the country, and it also manifests itself in other ways.
We’re seeing administrations putting obstacles in front of student organizations, SJP organizations, that aren’t placed on any other organization. There’s a clear pattern of SJP chapters being treated differently. And we think it’s because of what they’re saying, what they’re talking about — it’s labeled as controversial, and there are complaints about it constantly, that it’s anti-Semitic, et cetera.
NBF: Will SJP at Loyola appeal this decision? What’s the next step for them, from a legal and civil rights perspective? How significant is this sanction in terms of the impact it will have on SJP at Loyola and other SJPs for that matter?
DK: Yes — they were given 72 hours to appeal their decision, which they did yesterday. So they are appealing the sanctions, and the sanctions placed on them were probation for the rest of the academic year, which means that they are at risk if there are any other violations of school policy, they’re at risk of further sanctions, and possible suspension, but they were also sanctioned to do an inter-group dialogue.
So they are appealing both of these sanctions, saying that they’re unwarranted given the really negligent sanction that was placed on Hillel for essentially the same violation. And Hillel is just required to meet with school officials, to go over the school policies and what their responsibilities are.
They’re appealing this, and it will be up to the dean to decide on their appeal request. I think for Loyola SJP, this is going to be an ongoing battle as it is for most SJPs around the country. They win or partially win one battle, but it’s clear that the pressure continues. And in Loyola’s case, they saw a Hillel student publicly saying on social media, for example, “we want to shut SJP down.” And that is their goal — their goal is to really silence these groups and shut down their activism.
So it’s going to be an ongoing struggle, but it’s also one of education of the administrations. The more that administrations see that these kinds of allegations are baseless or unsubstantiated, the less likely they are to accede to these demands, and to put SJPs through these kinds of grueling investigations. That’s my hope, anyway. And we, PSLS with CAIR-Chicago [Council on American Islamic Relations] and a local attorney have been helping Loyola SJP through this. And we’ve written to the administration, talking about these larger issues and giving them this larger context, and really saying, you have to understand the implications of this — of restricting this kind of speech on campus.
And also highlighting the fact that the students who are most affected by this are often the Arab and Muslim students — that the accusations against these students are often based on racist assumptions and stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims as being threatening. The whole description of the event was laughable if it wasn’t so starkly racist, in a way — that these threatening Muslim Arab students were surrounding the Birthright table.
I think that it’s important to highlight all of this to the university administrations, and to educate them about the pressure that’s being placed on them, and how they can resist that. So a letter that we recently sent to a whole slew of university administrations tries to make these points as well, and tells universities that they have to understand the kind of pressure that’s placed on them, and their responsibility to protect students’ speech is really paramount in these situations.