Open letter to Loyola University in support of Students for Justice in Palestine

sjployJane Neufeld
Dean of Students
Damen Student Center
Suite 300, 6511 North Sheridan Road
Chicago, IL 60626

Dear Dean Neufeld,

It has come to our attention that on Friday, October 31, Loyola University- Chicago (LUC) found LUC”s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization responsible for one technical violation of the Code of Conduct, cleared the students of the other five charges, put the organization on probation for the remainder of the academic year, and required its board members to attend InterGroup Dialogue training. We write this open letter in support of SJP”s appeal on behalf of USACBI (the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), a national campaign endorsed by over 1200 U.S. scholars.

The University brought disciplinary charges at the request of Hillel following a concerted campaign by Hillel students and Zionist community members to shut down SJP-Loyola in retaliation for their political speech and activism. After students brought a successful resolution in student government last Spring to boycott companies that participated in Israel”s military occupation, Hillel students and their supporters made comments on social media expressing the desire to “shut down SJP already” and “get #SJPLoyola1 banned from campus.” This is in itself cause for alarm since it seemed that an attempt was being made to censor a student group for its political speech

On September 9, Loyola students attempted to register for a Birthright Israel trip in order to highlight its discriminatory nature and furtherance of colonialism. Several Palestinian students and their supporters lined up with signs listing ethnically cleansed villages and pointing out that they had been denied their “birthright” to return to Palestine, their ancestral homeland. After being turned away from the registration for not being Jewish, a few students engaged in calm conversations with Hillel students to attempt to explain to them why the trips were discriminatory.

Hillel students immediately complained. Members of Hillel”s “Israeli Committee,” which included Rabbi Seth Winberg, Executive Director of Metro Chicago Hillel, sent an email accusing SJP of disrupting a Hillel program “in an attempt to intimidate Jewish students.” “Thankfully, no one was hurt,” Hillel members wrote, invoking racist stereotypes of Arab and Muslim youth as inherently violent despite the event being completely orderly and peaceful. They urged students to “[p]lease be vigilant,” and to save the campus police number in their phones so as to report SJP at every opportunity.

SJP-Loyola was then subjected to a nearly two-month-long investigation and a four-hour disciplinary hearing. One SJP board member had taken video footage of parts of the tabling event, and the footage and photos of the event belied Hillel”s claims that the event was disruptive or that Palestinian students harassed and “surrounded” Jewish students, targeting them because of religious animosity. Several witnesses also confirmed that the students simply expressed their points of view, and that Birthright Israel was selected as a target not because of the religion of their members, but because Palestinian students who may trace their ancestry to what is now called Israel cannot participate.

USACBI is alarmed by this deeply contradictory situation in which a group that was protesting racial discrimination was accused of being discriminatory simply because of that protest. There was no evidence of disruptive or harassing activity, and despite SJP having been cleared of the “bullying” and discrimination charges, we are shocked that SJP-Loyola is now being forced to attend mandatory “InterGroup dialogue” trainings in order to develop “alternatives to approaching difficult dialogues.” This supposed remedy is clearly problematic for several reasons.

First, it dictates to Palestinian students the means by which they must engage in political speech. But it is not up to the administration to prescribe the forms which political speech must take. Students should not be forced to engage in only the forms of speech that make Hillel students comfortable. The requirement constitutes punishment or remediation when the students were cleared of wrongdoing, which runs the risk of chilling legitimate speech and endorsing anti-Palestinian/Arab racism. It rewards Hillel for its transparent attempts to lobby the administration to silence SJP, encouraging students to run to the administration any time they encounter difficult political speech.

Second, the university seems to be endorsing the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simply an interpersonal dispute between people who dislike each other because of their different religions and partiesbetween parties that share a parity in power. This is in opposition to the conflict”s roots in colonialism and systematic violations of human rights between groups who are embedded in a fundamentally asymmetric relation of power. Because the mediation model obscures these imbalances of political power, the remedy imposed neither diagnoses the problem correctly nor offers a solution that will advance human rights and a more informed student body. We respectfully suggest that Palestinians, not university administrations, should decide how to represent the Palestine issue and that their right to engage in free speech and self-representation should be upheld, not trampled upon as has been the case here.

We also found that the administration”s sanction of probation to be extreme when to our knowledge, SJP has never been found responsible in the Code of Conduct before, and in light of the fact that the students merely were attempting to register and express a point of view, which they did not think was a violation of the demonstration policy. At worst, the violation was an innocent mistake, and the students should have been given the benefit of the doubt. SJP”s engagement with the Birthright project was a laudable example of campus activism, anti-racist critique, and constitutionally protected free speech, and we hope that Loyola will encourage and help facilitate that type of student engagement rather than suppress and penalize it.

We strongly urge that the administration reverse its probation of SJP and its requirement that SJP participate in intergroup dialogue. Through this reversal, Loyola would be protecting the freedom of expression of Palestinian/Arab American students, their supporters, and all Loyola students.

We look forward to your response,
USACBI Organizing Collective

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