Students for Justice in Palestine becomes flashpoint in college antisemitism, free speech debate

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College group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is at the center of a hurricane over its responses to the Israel-Hamas conflict, banned and chastised at universities across the country after its statements and protests have drawn accusations of antisemitism.

SJP wasted no time after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel to spring into action, organizing a “Day of Resistance.” Chapters of the group said the world had witnessed “a historic win for the Palestinian resistance: across land, air, and sea, our people have broken down the artificial barriers of the Zionist entity.” 

The blowback has been swift, sparking First Amendment debates and arguments over what constitutes antisemitism.

Columbia University has banned an SJP chapter, as well as Jewish Voice for Peace, through the end of the semester. 

“This decision was made after the two groups repeatedly violated University policies related to holding campus events, culminating in an unauthorized event Thursday afternoon that proceeded despite warnings and included threatening rhetoric and intimidation,” said school Vice President Gerald Rosberg.

George Washington University suspended its SJP chapter this week after three of its members projected messages on a school building that included “Glory to our Martyrs.”

And Brandeis University has also banned SJP after saying the group “openly supports Hamas,” but the school indicated that the decision was tough because it is dedicated to upholding the principles of free speech.

Florida, meanwhile, has ordered its state universities to ban SJP chapters, claiming without evidence that the organization was giving material support to terrorist groups. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a GOP presidential candidate, said it is “not a First Amendment issue” because “these groups, Students for Justice [in] Palestine, they have said that they are in cahoots with Hamas.”

Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy for the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free speech group, said her organization is “not surprised” over backlash to SJP because “their speech right now is the unpopular speech,” noting that schools are under immense pressure to combat perceived antisemitism. 

While Morey acknowledges the language of SJP is very distressing because its members are “endorsing what a lot of people think is terrorism,” she said that type of speech is “all protected.”

“There is zero evidence that any of these SJP groups have gone, to my knowledge anyway, have gone beyond the line of protected speech,” Morey said.

FIRE is not going after Columbia for banning SJP because it believes the school banned them for violating policy, not in direct response to their message. But Morey said her organization has sent a warning letter to a dozen schools telling them not to punish students who express pro-Palestinian sentiment. 

“They’re just saying very controversial things about their sort of generalized support for Hamas or for Palestinian uprising. And while that’s very upsetting to people, it’s not unlawful, and the vast majority of all public institutions have to give students their First Amendment right to say those types of things,” she said. “Most private schools make similar promises and should also honor students’ expressive rights — to express views that are controversial right now.”

Republicans, on the other hand, are threatening to defund schools that don’t take stronger action against students and groups who voice support for Hamas, a designated terrorist group.

Antisemitism on college campuses has skyrocketed since the Oct. 7 attack, with the House holding two hearings on the problem in the following weeks. 

In a House hearing Tuesday, a Yale student said there should be some consequences for SJP groups, especially ones that commemorate the terrorists who died attacking Israel. 

In response, Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) said, “Specifically, colleges don’t have to sanction or subsidize or condone these groups that are obviously hate groups, antisemitic groups.” 

SJP, which did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment, has called efforts to censor its chapters “racist” and pushed back on claims that its views have crossed a line. 

“There have been these inflammatory allegations made to say that SJP supports terrorism, but, again, that’s not true,” said Lina Assi, advocacy manager for Palestine Legal, adding there is an attempt to “criminalize” and “justify repression” of SJP chapters “despite their speech being protected under the First Amendment.”  

Palestine Legal has received 600 requests for legal assistance since Oct. 7, according to Assi, and the group has written a letter to the Department of Education detailing incidents of Muslim and pro-Palestine students getting attacked on campuses. The department released a letter reminding schools of the duty to protect Palestinian students. 

“I think, outside of the context of Oct. 7, and the statements following that, there’s this broader and longer timeline of pro-Israel groups attacking SJP chapters for the things that they say outside of [the] crisis moments,” Assi said. “They take issue with the fact that they’re advocating for the freedom of Palestinians from an apartheid regime.”

Jewish groups dispute such claims, saying SJP contributes to antisemitism on campus. 

SJP is responsible for leading many of the violent rallies we’ve been seeing on college campuses since the onset of the war. The organization is a major distributor of misinformation about Israel and the Jewish people, sparking these acts of aggression towards college students,” said Liora Rez, executive director of Stop Antisemitism, adding SJP is not a good representative for Palestinians. 

“We’ve seen time and time again that wherever SJP exists, acts of antisemitism occur. Their violent rhetoric and misinformed beliefs about Jewish people and the state of Israel provide a foundation for antisemitism to spread,” Rez added.

She said Stop Antisemitism supports all SJP groups around the country getting suspended, blocking any anti-Israel rallies and expelling students who support antisemitism as potential ways to combat the issues on campuses.

“If you’re an organization whose members violate the safety of Jewish people, you should be removed from campus,” Rez said. 

Assi, however, believes blaming Palestinian groups is ignoring the real cause of antisemitism that is hurting campuses. 

“The issue of antisemitism has been an issue that, again, like anti-Palestinian racism, precedes Oct. 7. And it’s a real issue that needs to be addressed, especially in the context of the rise of right-wing white supremacist sentiment in this country,” Assi added. 

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