Last month, Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Chicago (SJP UChicago) took to social media to launch an aggressive anti-Israel campaign that targeted academic freedom at the university. The SJP’s divisive statement read, “DON’T TAKE SH*TTY ZIONIST CLASSES” and urged students to boycott courses about Israel, arguing that they “legitimize” the Jewish state through propaganda. Now, SJP is expanding its initial boycott to include academics associated with the Israel Institute, an off-campus nonprofit organization that encourages bilateral academic engagement between scholars in the U.S and Israel.
These statements from SJP seem to suggest that their boycott targets courses that take a definitive pro-Israel stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the three courses SJP cites- Multiculturalism in Israel, Narrating Israel and Palestine Through Literature and Film, and Gender Relations in Israel– do not center geopolitics in the slightest. Nonetheless, SJP resorts to attacking academic freedom and suppressing meaningful discourse to maintain a monopoly on the conversation surrounding Israel. We must stand against this fundamentally dangerous and anti-intellectual tactic that attacks the very foundation of academic inquiry and the pursuit of truth.
In their statement, SJP resorts to demonizing Israel and makes several unsubstantiated claims about the Jewish state and Jewish history. SJP goes as far as to claim that “Jewish national identity” is “a recent invention of the settler-colonial Zionist project” By doing so, SJP is effectively telling the Jewish people that their shared history and connection to their indigenous ancestral homeland is a figment of their imagination. What is now known as the West Bank and the modern state of Israel contain archaeological evidence of deep-rooted Jewish communities. Forced into diaspora and persecution, Jews have sought to return to their homeland for thousands of years. There is a reason we say “next year in Jerusalem” at the end of the Passover Seder.
Claim: Israel is a Zionist Project
Additionally, referring to a “Zionist project” and accusing the Jewish state of creating propaganda to manipulate our education system embodies antisemitic tropes that anti-semites have used for decades to dehumanize us. The problematic notion that Jews are manipulators has been used to justify ethnic cleansing and genocide for centuries.
It is not a coincidence that SJP uses this rhetoric. The foundation of modern arguments against Jewish self-determination finds its origins in the Soviet Union, where antisemitism was rampant. Stalin had a long history of pushing anti-Jewish conspiracies within the Soviet Union, even launching a Jewish Doctors’ Plot that accused Jewish doctors of conspiring to murder Soviet officials. The USSR continued to push its anti-Israel and anti-Jewish agenda after Stalin’s death, eventually using its power to make the Jewish state a pariah by labeling Zionism (Jewish self-determination) as racism, shaping the rhetoric we see today.
Claim: Israeli Jews are European Settlers
The Instagram post also broadly categorizes Israelis as “European Jewish settlers” and conveniently neglects that Jewish immigration to Israel did not involve stealing land but rather legally purchasing it. SJP also fails to mention that over half of Israel’s Jewish population is from the Middle East and North Africa.
This is unlikely to be an oversight. SJP’s rhetoric excludes the experiences of Jews who have suffered so much in Middle Eastern and North African countries that ethnically cleansed them.
Furthermore, it erases the persecution of Ashkenazi Jews whose lighter skin failed to protect them from the Holocaust just seventy-six years ago when Nazi Germany systemically murdered two-thirds of Jews living in Europe. Addressing the persecution of Jews in Europe and the Middle East would put their anti-Israel beliefs at odds with their political ideology that deceitfully classifies Jews as white colonizers.
SJP claims, “Israel uses a propaganda technique calling “pinkwashing” which exploits queer rights to hide its occupation and apartheid behind an image of progressiveness.”
This factually devoid narrative charges Israel with “pinkwashing”: the unsubstantiated and completely fabricated notion that the Jewish state only supports LGBTQ+ rights for purposes of propaganda. Their statement against Gender Relations in Israel awkwardly attacks the course’s discussion of LGBTQ+ achievements and adversity in Israel, seemingly blind to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas’s strict opposition to LGBTQ+ rights. SJP argues “there is no mention of Palestinian women, queer Palestinian couples, or queer Palestinians whatsoever.” In truth, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are both extremely repressive governments that are fundamentally opposed to LGBTQ+ rights. In 2019, the Palestinian Authority police cracked down on LGBTQ+ activism and banned Al Qaws, a Palestinian group that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights in the West Bank. The situation is far worse in Gaza, where same-sex relationships are legally punishable by prison, and being outed can mean life and death. Essentially, through repressive laws and crackdowns on free speech, it is ultimately oppressive Palestinian government policies, not Israel, that are responsible for the persecution and erasure of the Palestinian LGBTQ+ community.
Most of all, SJP’s statement is the ultimate show of SJP’s moral hypocrisy and misrepresentation of values: SJP has a history of responding to criticism from Jewish organizations with accusations of censorship; now, they are calling for a monopoly on free speech, which comes at no surprise. SJP’s claims are so ludicrous that the organization resorts to boycotting academic freedom. Ironically, SJP is calling for a boycott on all classes about Israel, not only those that relate to the conflict. UChicago has and continues to offer a number of divisive anti-Israel courses about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Still, SJP would rather limit students to a single perspective that only touches on one aspect of a culturally rich and innovative country.
Ultimately, SJP’s statement speaks to a rather frantic sense of desperation embodied by the anti-Israel movement. These fringe groups seek to monopolize discourse on Israel because they realize all too well that the truth will win out. People around the world are waking up to the fact that Israel is here to stay. Arab countries have signed historic peace agreements with Israel. It is more apparent than ever that the Jewish story is one of resilience; despite millennia in diaspora, it remains one of the most successful indigenous rights movements to date. Israel will continue to thrive for generations to come.
Please note: A slightly different version of this article appeared in The Algemeiner.