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  • Theodore Horowitz '24

SJP: A Toxic Organization

Updated: May 2

Introduction

Last year, I spent a semester at the University of Melbourne. My first week on campus, I met a group of Marxists who told me that, as an American Jew, I should distance myself from Zionism. I wanted to learn more, so I engaged with them. Eventually, we landed on the subject of Hamas. I asked one of the students, “Is there anything Hamas could do that would make you turn on them?” She had never thought about it before. I would wonder about this over the next several months. What would happen if Israeli defenses failed and Hamas was given the freedom to do as it pleased on Israeli territory? How would the world react? How would my friends react? Is there a limit to what people will accept?


As it turns out, the answer is no: Hamas can rape, torture, and murder as much as they please and many anti-Israel activists will still support them. They could do it all on camera and it wouldn’t make any difference. This is not a hypothetical. On October 7, Hamas committed the bloodiest act of antisemitic violence since the Shoah. Hamas didn’t deny it. In a gut-wrenching recording, a Hamas fighter can be heard bragging to his parents, “Your son killed Jews!” That same day, Brown University’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine valorized the attack on their Instagram, posting a picture reading, “The resistance lives!” On October 8, the organization held an emergency meeting; the leaked minutes were disturbing to say the least. In the months since, they have worked to turn our college into a place hostile to Israelis and Jews with connections to Israel. The organization and many of its members have convinced themselves that October 7 was justified. They have demonized Israel and Israelis to the point where discussion is next to impossible.


To be clear, I do not believe that Palestinian activism is a bad thing. Nor do I believe Palestinian advocacy groups should be disbanded; universities should hold them to the same standards as every other student organization. Politically, I support a two state solution by which a free and democratic Jewish people can live peacefully alongside their Palestinian neighbors. There is nothing wrong with demanding that Israel make a far greater effort to protect civilian lives and there is nothing wrong with harshly criticizing Netanyahu’s government or its handling of the war in Gaza. I have had some amazing conversations with pro-Palestine activists and even some SJP members. You can be pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. But SJP as an organization doesn’t understand this. SJP promotes an “us or them” attitude that is destructive to peace. This attitude has undermined the peace process from the beginning, claiming countless lives. I find it tragic that the pro-Palestine movement has been monopolized by those who embrace this falsehood, glorifying violence and alienating those who do not.


Students for Justice in Palestine: The National Organization

SJP is a national organization with chapters across multiple colleges and universities. The national chapter is problematic. They called for a “national day of resistance” on October 12, less than a week after the October 7 attack and well before Israel launched its ground invasion on October 27. The SJP day of resistance toolkit glorified the October 7 massacre, reading, “the resistance in Gaza launched a surprise operation against the Zionist enemy which disrupted the very foundation of Zionist settler society.” They described the murder of 1,200 people as a “historic win for Palestinian resistance.” For a brief period of time, Hamas held control over Israeli territory—territory considered Israeli under the internationally recognized “green line”—and the world saw how they exercised their authority. I hope most activists envision a different sort of liberation, because SJP’s version is nightmarish.


The national organization was quick to capitalize on general ignorance surrounding the notoriously complex Israel-Palestine conflict. The day of resistance toolkit explained, “what we are witnessing now is a heightened stage of the Palestinian struggle—through tearing down colonial infrastructure and liberating our colonized land from illegal settlements and military checkpoints, our people are actualizing revolution.” None of the targets were “illegal settlements.” All remaining Israeli settlements in or around Gaza were evacuated and dismantled following the 2005 unilateral disengagement. Gaza was not under Israeli occupation,¹ and October 7 was consistent with Hamas’ policy of deliberately killing as many Israeli civilians as possible. Be’eri, a kibbutz that took the brunt of Hamas’ violence, was a “left wing stronghold''  for Jews who believed in and worked towards coexistence.² Vivian Silver, a peace activist who once served on the board of directors of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, was killed in her home. Some of the victims regularly drove disabled Palestinians living in Gaza to hospitals across Israel. SJP celebrated their murder.


Students for Justice in Palestine: Chapters Across Multiple Colleges

Many SJP chapters do little to hide their praise for antisemitic violence. George Washington University’s SJP chapter wrote, “We reject the distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘militant.’” To GW SJP, it seems any Jew living in Israel is a legitimate target. The Tufts chapter praised Hamas for their “creativity.” Hamas was smart—without their ingenious use of paragliders, they never would have been able to rape and murder so many Jews. Columbia’s SJP chapter called October 7 a “counter-offensive.” In most counter-offensives, the targets are soldiers in territories taken during offensive operations, not infants and grandmothers incapable of holding a rifle. To SJP chapters across the country, October 7 was justified because “resistance is justified when people are occupied.”³ These chapters either do not know that there were no occupation forces in Gaza, or they do not care. If SJP chapters endorse the killing of occupiers but do not understand who or what an occupier really is, then they give a blank check to violence.


As the October 7 attacks began to break headlines in the US, I hoped that pro-Palestine activists would try and distance themselves from what was clearly a massacre and to separate Hamas from Palestine. SJP went in the opposite direction: they took steps to associate themselves and their movement with Hamas and the October 7 attacks. Take, for example, the symbol of the paraglider. Throughout the massacre, the internet was flooded with videos of Hamas fighters flying in paragliders. Given this context, the meaning behind the paraglider is obvious—it represents Hamas and the October 7 attacks. Over the following weeks, SJP chapters and their allies would make extensive use of this symbol. Protesters at George Mason University chanted, “they’ve got tanks, we’ve got hang gliders.” Bard’s SJP chapter declared that liberation “requires confrontation by any means necessary,” in a now-deleted Instagram post covered in drawings of paragliders. The national SJP organization included a template poster in their SJP day of resistance toolkit displaying a drawn-on Hamas soldier in a paraglider. The Rhode Island School of Design chapter of SJP used this template on October 9 to advertise the day of resistance on Instagram. The message was clear—SJP carries the spirit of October 7.⁴


Dialogue with Zionists is against the organization’s platform. SJP chapters across the country have historically opposed “normalization” between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli advocates; normalization, according to the University of Minnesota SJP chapter, being participation “in any project or initiative or activity, local or international, specifically designed for gathering (either directly or indirectly) Palestinians (and/or Arabs) and Israelis, whether individuals or institutions; [sic] that does not explicitly aim to expose and resist the occupation and all forms of discrimination and oppression against the Palestinian people.” The NYC SJP organization’s first topic in its “Points of Unity” is “Anti-Zionist/Anti-Normalization,” and it reads, “We reject any and all collaboration, dialogue, and coalition work with Zionist organizations through a strict policy of anti-normalization and encourage our comrades in other organizations to do the same.”


Given SJP’s rhetoric, it is unsurprising that the organization has been linked to the rise in antisemitic incidents on campuses across the US. In 2015, the AMCHA produced a comprehensive report which investigated antisemitic incidents in over 100 universities with significant Jewish populations. Of the three forms of antisemitism investigated, the study used the most unambiguously antisemitic type, the “targeting of Jewish students,” as a “direct measure of anti-Jewish hostility at a given school.” The study found that the presence of one or more anti-Zionist student groups⁵ is “strongly correlated with the targeting of Jewish students for harm.”⁶ Whereas incidents in which Jewish students were targeted occurred in 57% of the schools with active anti-Zionist groups, they only occurred in 8% of schools without such groups. As antisemitic incidents skyrocket in the months following October 7, college communities should think more seriously about the impacts of their SJP chapters.


Brown SJP’s Problematic Relationship with Violence

Though it may seem tame when compared to the students at Columbia and Cooper Union, Brown’s SJP chapter is no less pro-October 7. On October 8, Brown SJP held an emergency meeting. The minutes were shared in the Brown SJP general group chat. An SJP member quickly deleted the message attachment once they had realized their mistake, but not before a concerned student had downloaded and shared them. 


The minutes display a disturbing attitude towards October 7 and violence in general. They show that the group repeatedly visited the idea of "recognizing that this was in fact a victory;" no dissent was recorded. They show that students criticized a document titled “Guidance on the Right to Resistance” for “trying to promote non-violence” and for its “tone of mourning;” once again, no dissent was recorded. In the minutes we see students insisting upon the “difference between an ‘innocent’ civilian and a settler,” and asserting that it is “demeaning to Palestinians to imply that ‘violence against human beings is bad;’” once again, no dissent was recorded.


The general consensus of SJP’s leadership (and other group members in the room) seems to have been that the massacre was a good thing and that the victims were “settlers,” not civilians. There is no indication that anybody in the room contested these statements. I had never before seen my peers attempt to justify, let alone glorify, a recent intentional massacre of civilians. If the object is to murder a group of civilians, then you are in the wrong.


Brown SJP only slightly stepped back its praise for Hamas in its October 11th “Statement on the Recent Events in Palestine.” SJP declared that it stands “in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance.” It portrayed recent events as a natural reaction to Israeli “settler colonialism,” resistance to which is “not only just, but enshrined under international law.” The actions taken by Hamas on October 7 were neither just nor protected by international law. International law does not permit the deliberate targeting of civilians under any circumstances, nor does it permit the use of rape as a weapon of war. 


Brown SJP’s problematic behavior is not contained to their behind-closed-doors meetings and Instagram posts. Protesters at a December 11 rally jointly held by Brown SJP and the Palestine Solidarity Caucus chanted “resistance is justified when people are occupied.” On February 2, SJP and affiliated groups hosted a rally where students chanted, “Yemen, Yemen, make us proud, turn another ship around,” a reference to the recent terrorist attacks against merchant vessels conducted by the antisemitic and violently oppressive Houthi group. 


Brown SJP’s History of Shutting Down Opposition

For a group supposedly concerned about censorship, SJP and its members have proven dedicated to silencing voices that conflict with their narrative. When the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity scheduled an event featuring Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, SJP and the Palestine Solidarity Caucus placed pressure on the university to cancel the event via an online petition, and SJP’s Instagram demanded that Brown “drop the ADL.” Regardless of how SJP feels about the ADL’s views on antisemitism, pressuring Brown to cancel events that the organization disagrees with is hypocritical.


Anti-Israel activists at Brown have demonstrated their tendency to censor their opponents through the volume of half-torn posters of kidnapped Jewish civilians scattered throughout campus. SJP took this a step further. During an October 25 rally jointly held by SJP and the Palestine Solidarity Caucus, posters were placed next to the few remaining kidnapped posters, labeling them as “Israeli propaganda,” meant to “manufacture consent for Israel’s ongoing occupation and genocide of Palestinians.” To SJP, our pain is propaganda. 


Brown SJP’s strategy of disruption and censorship is not new. In 2016, Brown/RISD Hillel invited Black trans activist Janet Mock to campus as part of the Moral Voices program, a Hillel-based and privately funded initiative meant to raise awareness for various social justice issues—in this case, “violence against LGBTQ+ individuals and communities.” SJP, through an online petition and repeated emails and phone calls sent to Janet Mock’s manager, pressured Mock into canceling her lecture. Her representatives told the Moral Voices organizers, “we feel the focus of Janet’s work was lost leading up to the proposed event.” SJP thus hijacked an unambiguously helpful event—one sponsored by the Brown Center for Students of Color, Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, LGBTQ Center, and Sexual Assault Peer Educators. 


Creating a Hostile Atmosphere Through Demonization

The greatest indictment against SJP can be found in the impact they have produced on campus. Through consistent demonization, SJP has created an environment hostile to Israelis and Jews with connections to Israel. SJP’s narrative creates an Israel that is tied to all the evils of the modern world. Israelis are settlers. Israelis are colonizers. Israelis are genocidal, as are their Zionist supporters, and, really, anyone who gets in the way of BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions). These talking points appear time and time again. When Brown Students for Israel (BSI) invited an IDF reservist and October 7 first responder to campus, SJP protested outside of Hillel and claimed on their Instagram that BSI had brought to campus a “military agent involved in an ongoing genocide.” If the speaker has any associations with the IDF, as do most Israelis given Israel’s policy of mandatory service, then—according to SJP—he is a war criminal.


Over Thanksgiving break, a Palestinian Brown student was shot in Burlington, Vermont. This was a tragedy that shook the university. In a speech at the vigil, an SJP speaker stated, “We insist in the most urgent possible terms that the way for Brown to condemn anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian violence is to stop profiting from the violence against Palestinians like Hisham. Any institution or person who does not support Palestinians and our struggle for freedom and to live in dignity is complicit in the attempted murder of Hisham, Kinnan, and Tahseen, and you guys know the students who signed the statement doubling down, and supporting Israel, and censoring us.”⁷ The speaker identified a specific policy (divestment), framed this policy as a prerequisite for supporting Palestinians, and then claimed that those who oppose this version of supporting Palestinians are complicit in a recent attempted murder. He identified a specific group of Brown students as exemplars of those who have blood on their hands. Intentionally or not, he put a target on the back of a publicly known group of Jewish students in front of a crowd of hundreds.


SJP’s talking points are echoed on Brown’s anonymous social media app, Sidechat. On October 9, a Brown student posted “There is no such thing as an innocent Israeli.” Another student later posted that they “genuinely believe that Zionists at Brown do not see non-Jews as human beings. They are literally an ethnic cult who will kill children and then claim they are the victim.” After the shooting in Burlington, Brown students were quick to blame campus Zionists. When one student posted that Israeli, Jewish, and Zionist students are praying for the victim’s speedy recovery, another responded, “F--- that, our ‘Zionist classmates’ have these boys’ blood on their hands.” This post received over 400 likes. BSI had initially posted a statement on their Instagram condemning the shooting and stating support for the victims, but they were met with such vitriol that the group soon took down the post. One Instagram user who follows Brown SJP, Columbia SJP, and National SJP replied, “F--- you, keep his name out of your mouths. Your supremacist cause is the reason he got shot. Y’all are beyond delusional. You f---ing pigs.”


The Impacts of Demonization on Our Campus

SJP’s rhetoric has produced a serious impact on the campus environment. First, problematic incidents targeting Jewish and Israeli students have increased. In mid-December, Jewish students displaying an Israeli flag in their window received a hand-written threat at their home. Unfortunately this incident was followed by neither a change in course on the part of those demonizing Zionists nor a healthy dialogue. SJP’s talking points continued to make the rounds, with students asserting on Sidechat that “BSI is complicit in the shooting of Hisham and every Palestinian since its conception.” On February 11, Brown-RISD Hillel received an email containing specific and violent threats directed towards staff members and their families. SJP did not condemn this act and did not tone down their rhetoric. 


The 2016 cancellation of the Hillel-sponsored Janet Mock event likewise coincided with the appearance of homophobic and antisemitic graffiti reading “Gay will die” and “Holocaust 2.0” on the walls a dorm which at that time housed the Jewish fraternity Beta Rho Pi and the LGBTQ+ fraternity Zeta Delta Xi. The timing suggests an interesting trend: increased SJP activity often precedes unambiguously antisemitic behavior—whether it be a threatening note slid under a door, a vicious email, or a hateful act of vandalism.


Second, SJP has seriously compromised the possibility for civil conversation. College should be a place where people with opposing views discuss their positions and come to better understand one another. This is not SJP’s goal. Rather, they aim to demonize the other side to the point where conversation is next to impossible. SJP members laid out this objective as strategy in their October 8 minutes, when they declared that they would try to “center Palestine as a litmus test,” a device used to measure whether somebody’s opinions are acceptable. SJP aimed to make their side the only socially acceptable position. This is in line with SJP’s anti-normalization policies.


These efforts appear to have been successful. Many of SJP’s followers openly assert that those who they disagree with are genocidal. Zionist students have been doxxed, with their faces and/or locations being displayed on Instagram without consent. Many SJP followers are convinced that Israel is unambiguously a racist, settler colonial, apartheid state. SJP and its allies compare Zionists to Nazis. Some students claim they’re worse than Nazis. Just as I would not want to have a civil conversation with a Nazi, those who buy into SJP’s talking points are largely unwilling to have a civil conversation with a Zionist. There is no room for nuance. There is no room for disagreement. There is no room for debate. Shame.


Conclusion

Clearly, I don’t have any love for SJP. I think they’re a toxic organization that distorts history, glorifies antisemitic violence, and turns campuses across America into places hostile to Jewish students. However, I do not think SJP should be derecognized. The responsibility to call out toxic organizations should lie primarily with the student body, not the administration. Students and student organizations need to distance themselves from SJP and other groups that glorify violence. Moreover, the sad truth is that right now, SJP is the only officially recognized Palestinian advocacy group at Brown. Like Jews, Palestinians face bias and discrimination. I hope that a more moderate Palestinian student organization will soon emerge, one that protects Palestinian students while also embracing coexistence with Israelis. 


This doesn’t mean Brown should ignore what SJP is doing to its campus. The university should mandate antisemitism training for those working at the Student Activities Office, and the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity and should pursue programs similar to those announced by NYU and Columbia. Brown should also hold SJP and its leadership accountable for code of conduct violations. Brown is responsible for maintaining a healthy campus environment. It is time to step up. 


[1] Blockade and occupation are two entirely different things—under international law, occupation requires troops on the ground and military control of an area. Israel withdrew its last troops from Gaza in 2005, and Hamas has controlled Gaza since its victory over Fatah in the 2007 war.

[2] A kibbutz is a community where the income generated is placed within a communal pool.

[3] Though this section is not about Brown SJP, it’s worth noting that this example is from Brown SJP’s Instagram.

[4] It is worth noting that this symbol is also widely used by white supremacists and 4chan Nazis. It seems that both the fringe right and the fringe left can unite behind certain sentiments.

[5] The study uses SJP as its primary example of anti-Zionist student groups.

[6] The study states that “the number of incidents containing each kind of antisemitic activity was not associated with whether the school was public or private, the school’s undergraduate population, or the percentage of Jewish undergraduate students at the school.”

[7] Note that the statement did not call for censorship in any form.

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