Student activists at Pitzer College in southern California are risking administration sanctions this week to bring attention to Israel’s violations of the rights of Palestinians.
Members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) had constructed a mock wall on campus on Tuesday as part of their actions marking Israeli Apartheid Week — a global series of events intended to spark discussions on campuses about Israel’s occupation in Palestine and the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
On 27 March, the Pitzer administration warned SJP that their plans to construct the mock wall would be “in blatant defiance” of college policy. The mock wall is a colorful, sixty-foot-long replica of Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank, emblazoned with artwork, facts and statistics highlighting Israel’s violations of human rights.
By going forward with their creative direct action, Pitzer SJP could face punishment by the administration.
The administration seems to have come under pressure by on-campus Israel-aligned students who reportedly sent a letter of complaint in February to the Pitzer College Aesthetics Committee.
The group “anticipat[ed] SJP’s proposal to display the mock separation wall and claim[ed] that the wall is anti-Semitic and would make Jewish students on campus uncomfortable,” according to a letter to Pitzer’s administration sent by Palestine Solidarity Legal Support this week.
Noah Latkin, a member of SJP at Pitzer, told The Electronic Intifada on Tuesday that “it wasn’t necessarily surprising” that the group has been singled out for scrutiny by the university.
“There was opposition to us even becoming a club,” he said. “People in the student senate labeled us as inherently anti-Semitic. We had to meet with the president of the student senate who asked us ‘how can we make sure you don’t offend people on campus?’”
Smears and attacks against Palestinian students and members of SJP are not new to students of the Claremont College consortium, which includes Pitzer.
In 2013, a professor at Pitzer’s sister campus Claremont McKenna College called a Palestinian student “a cockroach” during a mock checkpoint action on campus as part of Israeli Apartheid Week. The student, Najib Hamideh, attended Pitzer College and was a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. The professor, Yaron Raviv, is an Israeli citizen.
As they planned for Israeli Apartheid Week at Pitzer this year, Latkin said that students expected an administrative backlash. “When we met with the dean of students [before the wall action], he told us that inevitably someone was going to submit a formal complaint … insinuating that if we build this wall, we would have to go through judicial proceedings. It was an inevitable consequence,” he said.
According to Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, SJP submitted their proposal to the Aesthetics Committee in late February. The committee requested photos of panels of the mock wall about two weeks later, which SJP provided. Without communicating to SJP members that their proposal hinged on it, the committee demanded more photographs and an “idemnification” contract, “to which SJP did not know how to respond.”
“SJP did not know the College was waiting for more information, and the students received no follow-up requests from the Committee, in writing, or verbally,” the legal advocacy group added. On 9 March, SJP was told that their proposal for the mock wall action was denied.
The college’s dean then emailed Latkin, warning him of consequences that could arise for SJP if they went ahead with their action.
“We realized that our rights had been violated,” Latkin said.
No “Palestine exception”
In a press release, Liz Jackson, staff attorney with Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, said that Pitzer is violating its own free speech policies in its attempts to censor SJP’s mock wall action.
“As it should, Pitzer claims to embrace a compelling interest in unfettered inquiry and the collective search for knowledge. Under California law, there can be no ‘Palestine exception’ to this policy,” she stated.
“The accusation that displaying a mock Israeli apartheid wall would target Jewish students is an attempt to divert the conversation away from the human rights policy issues SJP is attempting to raise; SJP’s activity targets the Israeli state, not any individual,” Jackson added.
“Help us dismantle the wall”
Latkin said that it was important to display the mock wall not just to resist censorship, but because of the opportunities to educate fellow students about Israeli policies of discrimination and separation.
“People have been telling me that they’re glad [the wall action] happened,” Latkin said. He added that pro-Israel students who passed by the wall became upset by people speaking out against Israel’s policies.
“If people on campus are opposed to the wall, [we’ve said to them] help us dismantle the wall at the end of the day — but to extend that more, help us dismantle the actual wall. If this makes you uncomfortable, imagine what it’s like for the Palestinians,” Latkin said.
He added that SJP is prepared to go through administrative proceedings as necessary to defend their rights to free speech and to organize on behalf of Palestinians’ rights.
American Muslims for Palestine has created an online petition to support Pitzer SJP.