There has been a recent outrage regarding the academic boycott campaign by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) of certain classes because they promote colonial narratives and Zionist propaganda. An op-ed published in The Maroon titled “We Must Condemn the SJP’s Online Anti-Semitism” not only accused SJP of being anti-Semitic and xenophobic but also said they were harassing students in those classes, spreading misinformation, and stifling freedom of speech. This op-ed, co-written by a campus representative of Jewish on Campus, made it seem as if mentioning Palestinian struggles was anti-Semitic. As if calling out internationally acknowledged settler colonialism is harassment. As if being pro-Palestine is inherently xenophobic. This kind of rhetoric aims to guilt-trip Palestinians into repressing their struggles by framing them as the villains—when they aren’t. Classes that normalize the foundation of an apartheid regime on the exclusionary basis of other ethnicities and identities are racist. Calling out these classes is not.
This op-ed openly claimed that SJP is anti-Semitic because the campaign was posted on Instagram on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which the authors allege was done in order to “isolate and alienate the Jewish population at UChicago.” However, this claim was based on mere speculation, and no evidence was provided to back it up. SJP released the post on January 26, and International Holocaust Remembrance Day is on January 27. The authors claimed that according to the lunar calendar, the post was released on the 27th. From this, they concluded that SJP willfully intended to harass Jewish students, which is untrue. Furthermore, the op-ed claimed that SJP spread misinformation to “intimidate,” “coerce,” and even “demonize” students. The usage of this language implies that students were forced or threatened when, in fact, SJP participated in common political campaign efforts relying on social media and flyers spread on campus. Actual coercion occurs when one party exercises structural power over another. Coercion occurs when recorded history is erased through academia, when the indigenous people of Palestine are called an “Arab minority,” when settler colonialism is reduced to a “conflict,” or when genocide and ethnic cleansing is referred to as simply a “loss of Palestinian village life.”
Moreover, SJP not only fights to end colonialism, imperialism, and racism for Palestinians but also fights for the collective liberation of all oppressed peoples. This op-ed and other similar rhetoric at UChicago, however, assumes that anti-Zionism equates to anti-Semitism. This is categorically false: Zionism is an imperialist ideology based on settler colonialism. It calls for establishing a Jewish nation-state through the ongoing demolition of Palestinians’ homes and the displacement of more than 750,000 Palestinians in 1948, known as Al Nakba. This is why SJP’s usage of the term “Jewish national identity” is valid: This national identity “exists under political Zionism, which is inextricably tied to settler-colonialism.” In other words, it is derived from a Zionist rhetoric. However, Jewish national identity is completely different from the belonging felt by the global Jewish kinship, which SJP declared was “completely valid and undeniable” in their edited caption. Many Jewish organizations and movements, like Jewish Voice for Peace, are openly anti-Zionist. Many UChicago Jewish students are anti-Zionists, actively voicing their support for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions—the Palestinian-led movement whose principles guide SJP—and calling for the end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Therefore, the SJP academic boycott campaign doesn’t spread “misinformation”—it condemns the erasure of recorded history and an ongoing present of displacement and oppression.
To talk about freedom of speech is to talk about discourse between two equal sides—not between the colonizer and the colonized. However, what these classes provide is one-sided conversation from the perspective of an oppressor that has already historically silenced the voices of Palestinians to advocate even their basic human rights. Additionally, SJP reported that these classes have ties with the Israeli Institute. In a report entitled “What is the ‘Israeli Institute’ doing on our campus,” SJP revealed that there are faculty fellows in the institute who were former members of the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF). Moreover, the executive director of the institute, Ariel Roth, is also a former IOF member who developed a “security” approach to using military violence in Gaza. If classes are designed to dismiss the Palestinian identity or reduce the ethnic cleansing of their families to simply a “loss,” what “big questions” does the JOC suggest Palestinians ask? Refusing to be part of a colonial discourse that omits your voice from the start is a rightful and justifiable act of freedom of speech. Academic boycott doesn’t hinder freedom of speech. On the contrary, it urges those who have omitted the voices of Palestinians to listen. It is revolutionary and one of the many ways to speak out against injustice.
Rawan Abbas is a student-at-large in the College.