I’m Thankful I Fought the National SJP Conference

UCLA Kerckhoff Hall, home to the Undergraduate Students Association Council (USAC), adjacent to where the National SJP Conference was located in 2018.

Originally titled, “I fought the National SJP Conference at UCLA, here’s what I’m thankful for”:

It’s early September, the autumn winds are quickly approaching, and Jewish university students, like myself, are treading on campus with our eager thoughts flying around like the crumpled leaves. One light social media notification leads to a dense conversation, and for me, getting a screenshot of the news that the 2018 National Students for Justice in Palestine Conference was happening on my campus — just five months after SJP students violently disrupted our joint Kurdish, Armenian, and Israeli panel event  — was a nasty, but hopeful wake-up call. Nasty, because of the history of harassment SJP has perpetrated against Jewish students and allies, and hopeful, because of the unique opportunity to break the complacency of my Jewish community.

It took a long time for my fellow pro-Israel Bruins on campus to get down to business and decide on a consensus strategy for what approaches we would and would not take to address the event. The outside community of Jewish organizations and Zionist philanthropists were aching with both livid and loud reactions at this outrage, jumping with online petitions and restless campaigns and incessantly messaging us for our responses. It only made sense since the UCLA administration had just recently covered up any disciplinary actions taken against identified SJP vandals and unlawful protesters at our May 2018 event. Now, they were seemingly rewarding the national body of this hate group, with a venue at the top public American university. No one was having it. “Shtuyot v’mitz agvanyot” (nonsense and tomato juice), as the Israeli saying goes.

When it seemed as though the time was narrowing, I received contacts from heads of various orgs., asking me what the status of things on campus were. At the time, I was Co-Director of Education for Bruins For Israel (BFI), involved with the grassroots Students Supporting Israel (SSI), was a CAMERA on Campus Fellow, and a part-time employee of StandWithUs’s high school department — don’t ask how I was able to pull that off. Sitting through various tense meetings to inform them all, including ones where I vocally contradicted my Hillel staff and Israel advocacy board at the Jewish Federation, drew me apart from other Jewish students in my community. While some of us wanted to speak out, and yet were uncertain on what exact path to take, many also simply wanted to let this charade pass by incognito, as they naively envisioned, without ‘drawing any attention’ or ‘helpful press for the bad guys’. Their mantra was that everything was “okay” on campus, or at least going to be.

I couldn’t buy it, as someone who had faced unyielding hate-mail and libelous retaliation from reporting prior SJP protesters and saw that leaving their national brand name untouched was an invitation for more entitled antisemitic acts and endorsements. Silence, although strategic for some, was enablement in my understanding. I demanded that retribution be brought by setting the terms of the conversation on campus instead of responding to it later, through publicly informing others on what hate National SJP has been about, for Bruins and Angelenos alike. This was our chance to shift the conversation for the entire country and region, and I conveyed that it was our unique responsibility to make that happen.

Along with many other courageous students, I indicated how for nearly a decade, National Students for Justice in Palestine has been freely hosting speakers in the U.S. who not only deny Jewish history, rights, and identity, but also sympathize with traditional Nazi rhetoric and promote ethnically-targeted violence. Furthermore, NSJP-featured speakers often have social, financial, political, and religious ties to Palestinian terrorist organizations, and have even been individuals responsible for Jewish civilian murder themselves, i.e. Khader Adnan (2012 NSJP Conference) and Rasmea Odeh (2015 NSJP Conference), later deported from the U.S. for denying her role in murdering two Israelis on immigration papers. NSJP may have inevitably planned to bring similar speakers again. There has been little to no transparency regarding any of their speakers or programs from year to year — intentionally so. We had to be ready to denounce those very lethal decisions. Overall, the pro-active approaches that we had taken in holding NSJP accountable made this year’s conference all the more distinct and timely for those very relevant reasons.

With the priceless help of close friends, I served as a catalyst for an action plan to ensure that if this conference was going to happen, it would not be supported by the public tuition dollars of my fellow students – at least not while simultaneously discriminating between which students were eligible or not to attend on the premise of ethnicity, religion, nationality, or ideology. I spoke to the UC Regents in their public comment session, along with the IAC for Action, shedding light on the evident dangers to students of providing such a platform and demanding the cancellation of the conference or the withdrawal of public funds, should NSJP fail to comply with UC policy of equal participation for students in this publicly-held event. This led to a “24 hour time-sensitive” inquiry on the policy itself (shucks, the Regents had no clue), whose answer was released three weeks past that deadline.

Screenshot of National SJP’s webpage for the application process/eligibility requirements for their 2018 conference. Such requirements included, “being verified and vouched for by an SJP (or otherwise named campus Palestine solidarity group) to which you belong or have recently belonged…”

What we became certain of is that inconvenient or decisive change for the administration comes far from easy. Getting any considerable administrative response took real pressure. This began with the release of a viral video of me speaking at the UC Regents, an Op-Ed article in the Daily Bruin, outreach by Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), and more notably, the snowball effect of Congressman Brad Sherman (D) writing a letter to our Chancellor in opposition, to get things moving. A cease and desist letter was also addressed to NSJP from the UCLA administration for their misuse of UCLA’s name in their 2018 conference logo. The logo design included a deceptive effort to legitimize Palestinian arsonist terrorism with imagery (admittedly) symbolic of a Palestinian incendiary kite (side note: the letter became an absurd hot topic in student government with allegations of “administrative overreach” — a big conspiracy stemming from SJP’s guilt and fear). Despite these dramatic developments, we were eventually affirmed by the support of a unanimous LA City Council vote to demand cancellation of the 2018 NSJP Conference, and with due time, Chancellor Gene Block finally wrote his controversial but calculated Op-Ed in the LA Times, admitting that despite protections of free speech for the NSJP conference, he famously implied that he would not endorse any vitriol emerging from its facilitation. The conference would indeed go on, but it would not be paid for by a single one of our public university dollars, nor would it go lightly unopposed.

National SJP 2018 Conference Logo, before and after the UCLA cease and desist letter. Visible within the image is the alleged likeness of the “Bruin bear” and a Palestinian (incendiary) kite, thus far deliberately used in the burning of over 9,000 acres of Israeli villages and nature reserves in 2018.

The date of the conference was approaching, and as we (in various Zionist student groups) collectively determined that protesting during this weekend event might invite unintended misconduct from passionate students and reflect poorly on our cause to delegitimize NSJP, we decided to focus instead on a week of proactive programming that would positively exemplify our unshakeable connection to Israel. Outside community members had organized, in their own discretion, to protest the conference – our evaluation was to focus on our own programming. For BFI, this meant a “Why I Love Israel Week”, and for the more candid Students Supporting Israel (SSI), this was “Israel Pride Week” — both with various outdoor tablings, indoor activities, and united campus celebratory events. In retrospect, using BFI and SSI National materials, among other organizational resources, strengthened our ability to combat NSJP and educate many students on our campus. In conjunction with providing informative tools against this national hate group to common students, creating Zionist art and clothing also contributed to inspiring pride within our community during that difficult and emotional time. 

Various Jewish student leaders united on the day of our Israel Pride Celebration in front of the UCLA Student Activities Center (November 18, 2018). I stand in the top right with a poster that says “Proud To Be An Israeli Bruin”.

The weeks immediately leading up to the conference brought tremendous trauma, anger, fear, and motivation for justice. Following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and our campus vigil, where administration was present and friends of mine made a heroic effort to simultaneously condemn the impending NSJP Conference in their speeches, I faced my own transitional breaking point. I willingly resigned from my position with Bruins For Israel in order to speak more profoundly about the effects this conference would have. I was more passionate than ever to fight the legitimization of the hatred of Jews in its many forms, and particularly violence against Jews like my family in southern Israel and could only do this freely if I didn’t have to sublimate my stances into a more timid “larger group voice”. I later accepted the position of President for SSI at UCLA following that week, which came rather suddenly as a real offer during this auspicious time. This alienated me from some pro-Israel students for a while (especially those who aimed to keep any responses to NSJP minimal, out of fear), but looking back, it was the necessary move in order to stand up effectively against antisemitism and spearhead positive change.

In more detailed reflection, part of our strategy within SSI leading up to the conference, as well as during, required serious audacity and commitment. Aside from tabling campaigns with graphics and flyers quoting SJP founders, organizers, and speakers to bring awareness, we held events that encompassed open discussions and safe spaces, opportunities to create Jewish and Zionistic poster art, and featured “Building Bridges”, a panel speaker event with Israeli Jewish, Lebanese, and Israeli Arab Zionists, like Jonathan Elkhoury and Ali Adi (a strong message that week), which instilled a lot of hope, pride, and comfort for us on campus. It also left a defining imprint, which demonstrated that contrary to the NSJP 2018 conference theme, Zionism is an “insurmountable force”, like the fact of Jewish eternal resilience, and that we weren’t going to go anywhere, no matter what they tried.

That long-awaited November weekend, the conference went by relatively quickly from Friday through Sunday. As I donned my full indigenous Israeli garb, sudra and tallit, on the campus walk to Shabbat Shacharit at Hillel, I found that NSJP attendees heading to the conference center would peer across at my strange audacity, but yet stay cautiously ‘in their lane’, quietly, for fear of disciplinary consequences. However, things weren’t all quiet on campus — our “Multicultural Shabbat” dinner and united “Israel Pride Celebration” didn’t deter their program in the Ackerman building from inciting a united “intifada” chant from SJP members, among other chilling antisemitic content leaked later in videos online. For those unaware, the Second “Intifada” or Palestinian ‘uprising’ in Israel from 2000-2005, was a series of primarily suicide bombings and other deadly attacks targeting buses, restaurants, malls, and other community centers — with conservative numbers estimating at least 71% of victims to be unarmed Israeli civilians.

 

Audacity was also manifested in the fact that it took a little civil disobedience to expose the two-faced malevolence that National SJP endorsed in its “activist trainings” and programs. Although no UCLA students participated in documenting and protesting the inside disgraces of the conference, bold leaders of today’s global grassroots Zionist movement stepped in on their own will, getting through initial security and making their case. The calls for genocidal violence normalized in the main conference hall by a new generation of university students and influencers warranted a brave moral response, which was done without interrupting any programming (there was a break) and without inflicting any harm to people or property. There was even an invitation to discuss grievances and Israeli-Palestinian struggles in a civil manner — obviously rejected.

Students Supporting Israel refused to stay silent as SJP hosted their national conference at UCLA, promoting the…

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Students Supporting Israel – SSI‎‏ ב- יום ראשון, 18 בנובמבר 2018

The implications of such an act are disputed until this day, even within our movement. However, in understanding that legality has sometimes historically been a product of power, rather than justice, the righteous indignation of Jews speaking out at our own marginalization was and continues to be a necessity in correcting the fundamental human inequity of the antisemitic paradigm. That decisive moment of documenting and demonstrating against such prejudice — which I personally have defended as righteous amid many criticisms — also made history. Other than empowering young Jews to stand up for themselves despite immediate ramifications, it gave the public the chance for a transparent verdict in judging the duplicitous nature of NSJP’s unfounded hatred — the very hatred that has been concealed and normalized under the false guise of “social justice”, plaguing institutions nationwide at least since 2001 and the following formation of the shameful BDS campaign.

Looking further, some leaks revealed how racist and genocidal speakers like Hatem Abudayyeh and Samer Alhato had attended the 2018 conference, despite prior SJP UCLA claims during USAC (undergrad. student gov.) council that said speakers were either ‘disinvited’ or “never invited in the first place”. Palestine Legal, a pro-bono anti-Israel law group which closely aided SJP UCLA students during these meetings, clearly failed to warn their students about making false guarantees while being recorded on USAC live. Fiery debates and superfluous excuses proceeded during council regarding Alhato’s plain bigotry and Jewish students grew even more tired with each degrading insult, invalidating expression, and gaslighting comment. Our student council was largely ambivalent or torn amid the real sense of antizionist numbers in the room, and when it came down to it, they largely dismissed bravely vulnerable Jewish voices for the expedience of appeasing the self-righteous antisemitic majority (conscious or unconscious) that had filled the room. Though unsurprising that these scandals occurred and occurred uncorrected, especially given previous NSJP messes, it was a scary time for many Jewish students at UCLA who learned quickly how normalized incitement to violence against Jews was covertly being endorsed and trained to students to disseminate on colleges nationwide.

The eventual result of us exposing and circulating this information with perseverance has brought the positive effect of SJP laying relatively low at our university over the past year. We’ve witnessed few SJP events being publicly shared online. Nevertheless, SJP at UCLA has coordinated specific anti-Israel events deliberately under the name(s) of partnering clubs of theirs on campus or the graduate SJP chapter. Make no mistake, this could just be a cyclical attempt where they are operating to rebuild their reputation and later attack Jewish students again. One resurgence later during that academic year actually included a student government (USAC) resolution introduced in defense of SJP from any accusations of antisemitism. This was brought just after a new council was voted in, during Ramadan last May 2019. National SJP eventually even responded to their grand unwelcome in 2018, after our hard work, with a double-dealing, desperate, and victim-feigning statement, available for reading here.

Other than that effort, however, anti-Israel student activity has been relatively covert, with its inherent pro’s and con’s. Most of what we’ve been combating lately is now institutionalized antisemitism in the classroom, coming from professors and guest lecturers — like the keynote speaker of the 2018 NSJP Conference, SFSU Professor Rabab Abdulhadi, who in a UCLA Anthropology guest lecture called Jews and Zionists — historic and ongoing victims of white supremacy“white supremacists”. After formal discrimination complaints on campus, media coverage, and general backlash, UCLA’s Graduate Anthropology Association and a segment of UCLA’s Academic Senate defended Abdulhadi and her faculty host in a statement. Thus one can see that any of these hateful examples are interlinked, with systemic antisemitic attitudes and irrationally-entrenched individuals “religiously bent” on inhibiting justice almost as a life purpose. Conclusively, we are continuing to set the stage for confronting all of these inhibitors through growing innovative strategies, programs of precedent, and coherent grassroots techniques.

An early segment of our Israel Pride Celebration near UCLA Wilson Plaza, which brought dozens of students, alumni, and other community supporters in solidarity (Sunday, November 18, 2018).

One year since the conference, beyond the thin lens of gala spotlight, awarded plaques, and convention speaking opportunities, I am thankful above all, for the very multi-pronged and diverse approaches of my fellow Jewish students and non-Jewish allies that made my UCLA pro-Israel community passionate and motivated in the first place. The fact that we don’t have a uniform way to engage students with Israel to this day is why I’d say we are so successful, bold, and collaborative. Since the NSJP Conference on my campus, and this gradual realization, I’ve rekindled friendships with former co-board members and fortunately developed new campus projects on these issues, including for pro-Israel student chapters nationwide. We’ve each grown personally and deepened our capacities to answer the challenges that are planted at our feet, while empowering incoming students of various backgrounds to do the same and continue to build a legacy. Our Jewish community at UCLA is still thriving, despite occasional discriminatory attempts to change that, and we are making history by gearing up to express what being Jewish means to us on our campus, before tragedies arise, not after. Together, we transcended the intellectualization of Jew-hatred at our campus for the entire nation, by both calling it out unapologetically and by representing our own standing identity with love and meaning.

Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) Celebration at UCLA Bruin Plaza, May 2019.

These past few weeks marked the ninth annual NSJP Conference at the University of Minnesota, reminding us of the raw importance of taking action and documenting all of the mishaps and hypocritical rhetoric that naturally emerges from a shameful and bigoted movement, like NSJP. Remarkably, an elaborate report was released on the day of the 2019 conference by the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), comprehensively documenting and sourcing SJP’s destructive agenda. In affirmation, my friends in The Twin Cities have reached out and informed me of the conference’s tight security, covered windows, concealed faces, and the usual suspicious, discriminatory and terror-glorifying contentIf the work we pioneered last year in denouncing hate shifted anything, this is a real testament to it. And if the demand of student safety on campus beckons for enough pressure to prevent NSJP from holding conferences at public institutions at all, that may be the direction to go in returning campus incitement to violence and the intellectualized hatred of antizionism to the dustbin of antisemitic history. Considering the progress made and progress yet to come, I can confidently say that the best of being thankful for standing up to hate when it arises, is found most deeply in knowing why one makes the case for standing up, regardless of if hate showed up anyways.

About the Author
Justin Feldman (Yitzchak Eishsadeh) is an Israeli-American millennial and professional speaker, engaging communities across southern California on Israeli history, contemporary political issues, and advocacy strategy. Formerly, Justin served as a CAMERA Fellow on campus and the youngest staff speaker in North America for international non-profit, StandWithUs. Justin pursues transcending boundaries, engaging Zionist mobilization, human conversations, provocative social commentary, and proactive approaches to analysis of pressing issues. He is a senior Political Science & Middle Eastern Studies major at UCLA and Senior Advisor of UCLA's Students Supporting Israel chapter.
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