Campus activists working with Students for Justice in Palestine and similar groups are gearing up for a national Students for Justice in Palestine meeting to be held at Columbia University in New York City on 14-16 October. Hundreds of students from around the United States are expected to attend.
The Electronic Intifada recently interviewed three organizers of the conference — Aman Muqeet, a graduate student at Florida International University; Gabriel Schivone, an undergraduate student at Arizona State University; and Tanya Keilani, a graduate student at Columbia University — about the conference goals and objectives, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement at US campuses and the challenges activists face from Zionist groups and school administrations.
Maureen Clare Murphy: How did the SJP national conference get organized and why is it happening now?
Aman Muqeet: The movement started building off last year’s US Social Forum in Detroit. … Then the Anti-Defamation League made that statement that SJP is one of the ten most anti-Israel organizations in the United States. After that, [SJP activists] came together and made a statement which was signed by 67 SJPs from the US. And that was the point of unity where the 67 groups came together and signed on this. Our conversations [about the national conference] culminated I would say eventually in January or late December, when Gabriel actually had made a conference in Arizona. All the conversation, all of this happened online, in email and developed [eventually] to have it at Columbia University.
Tanya Keilani: A few members from Columbia SJP went to the BDS conference in Montreal [in October 2010] and we also saw students from other SJPs there, for example Hampshire SJP. It was also that conference that allowed us to start having these conversations and provided us with an opportunity to meet other students who were working on similar campaigns, who were dealing with similar challenges and struggles and had the same goals, and that’s been really exciting. With this culmination of these meetings that are happening in different places and these conversations that are happening online, it’s been an amazing thing to be able to speak with students who really share this commitment to justice in Palestine.
As an undergrad I was actually part of another group in Texas, the Palestine Solidarity Committee, which is based in Austin at the University of Texas, and that’s been around since 1982. It’s been very interesting being here at SJP in Columbia and communicating with other groups who may not be SJPs but are kind of operating basically in the same way. … I remember being in undergrad and feeling pretty isolated in Texas and not really having any sort of contact with SJPs outside of our state. This is a really great opportunity for us all to really come together.
Gabriel Schivone: When I attended the BDS conference at Hampshire college in November 2009, I saw first-hand and was able to interact and observe SJP — [there were] upwards of fifty schools coming together to try to answer and try to figure out things on a national, centralized sort of level.
MCM: Palestine solidarity organizing on campus is much more visible than when I was a student ten years ago. What factors do you attribute to this upswing in awareness in Palestine solidarity organizing on US campuses?
AM: After Operation Cast Lead [Israel’s winter 2008-09 attacks on Gaza], the movement started building. I don’t think [momentum should be] credited to Operation Cast Lead, but I think after Operation Cast Lead, things have been moving forward very fast.
TK: We’ve also been seeing all these BDS victories. I feel like that’s also been a really big push for students. BDS is something we can all come together around. Just having a little bit of success here and there, even if it’s small, really pushes us to work on these campaigns and make sure that we have a presence on each campus and make sure that we have a consolidated movement.
I remember as an undergrad we never mentioned BDS until the [2005 Palestinian civil society call] came out. Then it was something that we discussed and thought, you know, is this something we want to take on, how do we feel about this. At the time that was a really scary thing to think about taking on BDS, and now that’s very different. It’s definitely a challenge and it’s nothing that SJP groups look at as an easy task. But it’s definitely something that more and more SJP groups are on board with and feel like is a necessary part of their programming for the year.
GS: More and more other groups have been taking BDS on as well, as we can reconcile BDS and the tactics of education and outreach, fitting in very comfortably to why we were formed in the first place. We’re seeing that in the short term, if there’s no direct victory at first, there are still very small ones, like Tanya was saying. Like the East Timorese guerrilla leader said, to resist is to win — and that education and outreach in order to mobilize public opinion is exactly what we’re all about.
MCM: What outcomes do you want from the conference, and do you anticipate that the SJP chapters will have a more centralized structure after the conference?
GS: [The conference aims toward] campaign building — sharing our individual experiences and tactics and strategies, and hearing others and trying to develop things like a centralization of political power — brain power. Not necessarily structure; but maybe that’s something we have to take up at the conference. The SJPs up to this point have been a really decentralized system of freely-associated chapters, which doesn’t really have to change and it’s nothing new — the labor movement or the anti-war movement against US aggression in Vietnam [was built on this model], for example. They’re a bunch of movements or organizations and groups, but the power centralized as a national force and that’s why it was able to gain so much ground and have an effect on policy.
TK: We have clearly-defined goals that we have come up with together as the national organizing community. In addition to movement building and campaigns, two more goals are political development and skill development. Political development is very important for us because as students, we may be in different places in our lives and in our ways of thinking about Palestine. This is a really great way for us to come together and critically think about these issues and how they affect us and how they affect the world. [It also encourages us to] envision our futures and think about activism and where we feel like we best fit and how we can use our resources properly. And how we can think about what’s happening when it comes to, for example, issues like statehood, when it comes to BDS, and how we want to think about these things. How we want to work with other people or not work with other people.
As far as skill sharing goes, that’s something I’ve always really valued because I’ve been doing Palestine activism for a while now. I remember starting out as an undergrad and feeling very overwhelmed but also very committed. It’s important for students in different places to really emphasize self-education and peer education, and we have a lot of different skills that we can all bring together. We don’t operate in a structural way. Zionist organizations have a lot of centralized leadership which gets their tips from other organizations, from staff people who have handbooks given to them each year and are told what to say and what their argument should be. We operate in a grassroots, organic, collective sort of way and that’s our strength. But it also means that we do have to be committed to teaching each other, working with each other, and sharing those skills.
AM: The Zionist organizations have a lot of money. Most of the Palestine solidarity groups don’t have much money. And we are working on a very, very tiny budget. Michael Oren came to FIU and they spent $20,000 on that event. So we are working on very, very small events but are having much bigger turnouts and are making a lot of difference.
MCM: Can you briefly describe what campus solidarity organizing is looking like at your different schools and other US campuses?
GS: I’m from Tucson, on the US-Mexico borderland. A lot of what we were doing consciously over a year at the University of Arizona, where I was at before, was foundational cross-movement building and organization between migrant justice, indigenous resistance and the Palestine justice movement. Building solidarity roots and highlighting each other’s struggles, especially highlighting significant parallels as well as discussing significant differences in the realities of the death and suffering. The mechanisms of oppression and responses like resistance, activism, protests to them, between and among all of our movements together. That’s been a lot of what we’ve been doing in Arizona and we managed to make some noise in the last year with that.
TK: One of the main groups we work with [in New York] is LUCHA, which is an immigrant rights group. As is the case with Arizona, we find that our struggle has a lot in common with other struggles and so immigrant rights is also something that we can relate to. New York is a place for immigrants from everywhere; in the case of Arizona and Texas, my solidarity work with Palestine was more based in the Latino community. Here it’s very different, but many of the issues are the same.
MCM: As the Palestine solidarity movement claims more and more victories along with that comes the backlash and SJPs have been a main target of that backlash. Aman already mentioned how the Anti-Defamation League named SJP on its list of the top ten anti-Israel groups in the United States. The Electronic Intifada recently reported on how the Israeli government has sit in on meetings to undermine the boycott measure passed at Evergreen State College. And last December SJP activists initiated a letter signed by dozens of campus groups protesting FBI repression of the solidarity movement. What kind of challenges you have personally faced in campus organizing and what are SJP chapters doing about it?
AM: Zionist groups like Christians United for Israel, and Hillel and the other organizations step up when you have an SJP on the campus. They start having more events and they start becoming more active. We’ve also taken our student government head-on because AIPAC had sponsored some of our student leaders on free trips to Israel. That’s one way [they are working], they’re sponsoring student government leaders and other students who they think might be useful for them.
TK: We do face intimidation, we do have people come into our events, whether it’s Pamela Geller, whether it’s Campus Media Watch. They do take notes, they do take photographs, they do try to intimidate us. And it doesn’t work. But it is a challenge that we face and we also have issues coming from the administration. Sometimes the administration will work with us and other times they won’t. We’ve had some difficulties in the past year with Columbia working with [Zionist organizations], trying to let them know where we’re at. I think a lot of Zionist groups try to make sure that they’re on the side of the administration and that the administration is not on our side, and so that’s one of our biggest challenges here.
At Columbia, one thing we’ve recently dealt with is the fact that the Zionist group here sponsored a dinner with the Black Student Association. It was a nice little meeting and they had speakers and it was done in private. We don’t have the ability to invite people out to a fancy dinner and let them know that they should be a part of our cause. But at the same time that’s not really what we’re looking for. We’re looking for real solidarity.
Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Intifada.