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2014-03-13

A War on Campus? Northeastern University Suspends Students for Justice in Palestine Chapter

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The Northeastern University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine has become the latest student group to face reprimand for organizing around the Palestinian cause. Northeastern has suspended the group until 2015, barring it from meeting on campus and stripping it of any university funding. The move comes just weeks after student activists distributed mock eviction notices across the campus during Israeli Apartheid Week. The notices were intended to resemble those used by Israel to notify Palestinians of pending demolitions or seizures of their homes. We speak to Northeastern Students for Justice in Palestine member Max Geller and Ali Abunimah, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of the new book, "The Battle for Justice in Palestine." His new book includes a chapter titled "The War on Campus."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Northeastern University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine has become the latest student group to face reprimand for organizing around Palestinian issues. Northeastern University has just suspended the group until 2015, barring it from meeting on campus and stripping it of any university funding. The moves comes just weeks after student activists distributed mock eviction notices across the campus during Israeli Apartheid Week. The mock notices were intended to resemble ones used by Israel to notify Palestinians of pending home demolitions or property seizures.

AMY GOODMAN: Northeastern University accused the student group of disregarding university policies over an extended period of time. Michael Armini, Northeastern’s senior vice president of external affairs, said, quote, "The issue here is not one of free speech or the exchange of disparate ideas. Instead, it is about holding every member of our community to the same standards, and addressing SJP’s non-compliance with longstanding policies to which all student organizations at Northeastern are required to adhere."

We’re joined now by two guests. Max Geller is with us, Northeastern University School of Law student and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. And Ali Abunimah is with us in studio, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, author of a brand new book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine. His new book includes a chapter headlined "The War on Campus."

Let’s go first to Boston, to Northeastern University. Max, what happened? Why have you been decertified as a student organization? And why are—what is Students for Justice in Palestine attempting to do?

MAX GELLER: We have been suspended as an organization because the administration feels that they can no longer control our activities, and this is the best option they have left.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what are the violations, repeated violations, they claim that you’ve been engaged in?

MAX GELLER: I think it’s insubordination, is what their—their claim is that we—they said it’s a pervasive rule violation. But what really happened was we distributed a bunch of fliers, and the Hillel organization on my campus lost their temper and pressured the university into calling the police on us.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Max, you’re a Jewish student, part of the Northeastern University Law School, with the group Students for Justice in Palestine. Explain this last act, that you didn’t get permission for. Explain why you did distribute these, what, mock eviction notices that you slipped under residents’ doors, students’ doors.

MAX GELLER: Yes, Amy. I mean, it’s important to understand, in the context of the greater repression of our activities, prior to our official suspension, we were suspended in everything but name. We were constantly thwarted and deprived funding. Our events were moved around, and roadblocks were put up. The only sort of—the only recourse we had, the last educational activity we could engage in, was a sort of direct action, where we didn’t need university funding or university space. We went door to door and slipped mock eviction notices under people’s door. But we were careful—

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

MAX GELLER: Because we wanted to simulate the sort of common Palestinian experience of coming home to find that your residency and existence has been criminalized.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ali Abunimah, I wanted to ask you, this—what the students at Northeastern are facing, increasingly across academia, professional organizations of professors, as well as other universities, the battle is raging now over—against the supporters of self-determination for the Palestinians.

ALI ABUNIMAH: Absolutely. What’s happening at Northeastern is part of a much bigger war on campus that’s being waged by university administrations and by pro-Israel organizations. I mean, in addition to the harassment the students at Northeastern are going through, I mean, right now I’m scheduled to speak at Northeastern on April 1 as part of this book tour, and now we don’t know: Can that event go ahead? Am I banned from campus because the student group can’t book rooms or get resources? This is what it’s about. It’s about shutting down the discussion.

And the group, the off-campus group that has been harassing students at Northeastern is an extreme right-wing group called Americans for Peace and Tolerance, founded by an extreme Islamophobe called Charles Jacobs. He is the founder of another group called the David Project, which is taking this war national. And they have said that campuses in this country are the main arena where support for Israel has to be rescued and saved. And the David Project, as I write in The Battle for Justice in Palestine, has said that the war on Palestine solidarity must effectively be a war on the broader left and progressive movement, because that’s where support for Palestine is nurtured.

AMY GOODMAN: On the—at the student level, polls show across the country that especially young Jewish students are much more now critical of the state of Israel and identifying with the plight of Palestinians.

ALI ABUNIMAH: Exactly, because young Jewish students in this country, like all young students, identify with universal human rights and equality. And that’s why we’ve got legislatures in New York, in Illinois, in Maryland, even the United States Congress now, considering bills to penalize universities if students or faculty express support for the Palestine solidarity movement in the form of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It really is a free speech emergency. And just this week in New York City, at Columbia University, at Barnard College, students had gotten permission—they had gone through all the authorizations to put up a banner that said, "Stand with Justice in Palestine," and the university administration took it down after complaints from pro-Israel groups and basically said, "We’re not going to allow any more banners." Free speech is losing out to support for Israel on our campuses, when administrations are left in charge of people’s rights. That’s why we have to stand by the students at Northeastern and all over this country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and meanwhile, Israel has launched its most intense bombing of the Gaza Strip since the assault of late 2012. Around 30 Israeli attacks have hit Gaza since Wednesday, following a barrage of Palestinian rocket fire. No casualties have been reported on either side. The group Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks in what it called a response to earlier Israeli strikes that killed three people. More rockets have now been fired from Gaza as the flare-up continues for a third day. Ali, could you talk about this latest—this latest escalation in the actual conflict there?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, you mentioned the November 2012 assault by Israel, which killed 170 Palestinians. That ended with a ceasefire agreement between Israelis and the Palestinian resistance factions in Gaza. Israel has incessantly violated that ceasefire and has been escalating its so-called targeted killings, extrajudicial executions, in recent weeks. And I think what we saw yesterday was an attempt by Palestinian groups in Gaza to say, "Look, if Israel keeps violating the ceasefire, we have the capacity to hit back." But I don’t think there’s anyone in Gaza that wants to see a total breakdown of the ceasefire agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the so-called peace talks between Israel and Palestine that John Kerry is presiding over? How much faith do you put in them, Ali?

ALI ABUNIMAH: As much as John Kerry, which is none. I mean, John Kerry was caught by a reporter the other day, in a private moment, saying that his talks with Netanyahu were going absolutely nowhere. I think the significant thing and what’s really happening now is, you know, look at the fact that when Netanyahu was speaking to the Israel lobby AIPAC, he spent a third of his speech condemning the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, because this is really what’s changing the equation. It’s grassroots activism in this country, in Palestine and all over the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, it’s an interesting quote. When the prime minister of Israel addressed AIPAC, he said, "Those who war the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot. They should be exposed and condemned. The boycotters should be boycotted." I want to go back to Max Geller. The equating of those critical of the Israeli state or the Israeli military with being anti-Semitic or being a bigot, your thoughts on that?

MAX GELLER: I mean, especially in the university context, it’s deeply troubling. It’s deeply troubling to demonize a viewpoint before one can debate it, especially in a university context. The Israeli-Palestinian question remains difficult to answer. And if those answers are not going to come from the academy, I don’t know where they’re going to come from. And to render a certain subject taboo is to deprive the students on campus of important perspectives when they—crucial to making informed decisions. It’s very troubling.

And, Amy, I think it’s really important to understand that Northeastern students put up fliers where they’re not supposed to every day. Every day, every student at Northeastern walks by fliers that weren’t authorized to be put up. But the only time you ever hear about students being disciplined for it is when the content contains pro-Palestinian messages.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Max, what are the plans for your group? Are you going to challenge this ban at all, or how are you going to continue to function or operate in the future?

MAX GELLER: Well, I’m pleased to say that the outpouring has been overwhelming. We received in less than 24 hours over 3,500 signatures to our petition. And we are right now considering the most spectacular way of delivering this petition to the president’s door. We have had student groups who are pretty apathetic. I mean, the—politically speaking—the debate team has offered to engage in a walkout of class on SJP’s behalf, and it’s been really inspiring and moving. But we are still trying to figure out the best way to sort of catch this lightning in a bottle and force the university’s hand.

AMY GOODMAN: Ali Abunimah, we just have about 45 seconds. The title for your book is The Battle for Justice in Palestine. Do you hold out any hope?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, I hope people will look at this book, because while I think the battle is raging in Palestine and in this country and on campuses and everywhere where people are gathering, I have a lot of hope. And in the end, this is a book about what the future looks like, a future based on equality, anti-racism and decolonization in Palestine, where everyone can live, because people are sick and tired of this conflict and the violence that comes with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Ali Abunimah, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, his new book is called The Battle for Justice in Palestine. And thanks, Max Geller, Northeastern University School of Law student, actively campaigning with Students for Justice in Palestine, known as SJP.

And that does it for our broadcast. Happy Birthday to Aaron Maté! As I said, we’re on the road: tonight, Flagstaff; tomorrow night, Santa Fe; Saturday night, I’ll be in Denver, Colorado; and then March 29th, St. Louis. Check our website at democracynow.org.

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