The Murky Nature and Outcome of SJP conferences

About a month ago, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor hosted a Palestine Youth Movement  From the scant photos that were posted on the organization’s Facebook timeline, it did not seem well attended. Nor does anyone on the outside really know what was discussed, though the theme of the conference was “The Right to Return.”

The conference was not covered by the Michigan Daily and had weak coverage in the Detroit Jewish News, who covered it mainly from an angle that Hillel administrators seemed more irked that dozens of outside Jewish organizations were voicing concern about the University of Michigan hosting such a conference than what Hillel could have done better to organize and counter the event with simultaneously organizing strong pro-Israel programming on the same weekend of the conference.

Since then, a number of anti-Israel events and actions have taken place on campuses from Syracuse, Brown, Harvard to the University of Illinois and my own alma mater, Rutgers University.  It is difficult to pinpoint that these conferences cause an uptick in anti-Zionist activity on campus, because unless you are approved to attend such conferences, no one else really knows what transpires at them.

Let’s take a look at the cloaked nature of pro-Palestinian programming on campus by looking at last month’s Midwest SJP conference as an example:

Just before the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the University of Michigan, which last year drew ire from the Anti-Defamation League for its weak stance against a series of anti-Semitic incidents, hosted a Midwest regional conference for Students for Justice in Palestine.

In response to this upcoming conference, the University Administration released two statements that could not be more vacuous or detached from anti-Israel incidents that transpired there last year. In the fall of 2018, two faculty members denied students letters of recommendation for their desire to study abroad in Israel. In another, a mandatory Penny Stamps School of Design lecture included a satirical slide that included the word “genocide,” while juxtaposing portraits of Benjamin Netanyahu and Adolf Hitler.

Rick Fitzgerald, assistant vice president for public affairs at the University of Michigan, told the Jewish News Service that the university was aware of the conference being hosted “by a recognized student organization on our campus.” “With more than 1,300 student groups on the Ann Arbor campus, events organized by students—many open to students from other campuses—happen with some regularity,” he added.

This is a banal fact that anyone could have found on the Maize page listing UM campus organizations.

But here’s the catch: How many of the 1,300 student organizations on campus have links to terror organizations?

Two of the conferences’ sponsors, American Muslims for Palestine, and Samidoun have known ties to terror organizations such as Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP) and Hamas, according to a report entitled “Students for Justice in Palestine Unmasked” by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Last fall, AMP with NSJP organized anti-Israel conferences and rallies in New York and Chicago. At a November 2019 rally in Times Square, protesters chanted for an end to the Zionist state, chanting for “intifada revolution in every classroom and vowed to shut down every Zionist activity on every campus across the country, “an intifada on every college campus.”

AMP in December 2019 sponsored a conference in Chicago where controversial activist and Bernie Sanders’ campaign surrogate said on a podium that Zionism and the State of Israel were built on white supremacism.

Midwest SJP was also sponsored by Samidoun, an organization SJP claims is committed to freeing political prisoners in Israeli jails. Samidoun is in reality affiliated with the PLFP which is designated as a terror group by the United States, European Union, Canada, and Israel. Recently, Mastercard, Visa, and American Express all blocked donations to Samidoun due to its terrorist ties. If credit card companies refuse to do business with a group that supports terrorists, why would this university?

And what of the value of freedom of speech that the university administration holds so dear? In another statement given to The Michigan Daily about the conference, Fitzgerald wrote that the University is forbidden, legally and on principle, from declining speakers based on the “presumed content of speech,”  that  “Freedom of speech is a bedrock principle of our community and essential to our core educational mission as a university.”

The Keynote speaker of SJP Midwest was UC Berkeley faculty member and SJP founder Hatem Bazian, who has often been filmed encouraging lecture halls full of students to chant “Intifada” at SJP conferences. Did such a call for intifada occur in a closed lecture hall on campus? It is tough to verify. That’s because of the tight clampdown on restricting press access as well as prohibiting recording any of the workshops. Intifada can be interpreted in many ways, but it most notoriously used to describe waves of terror against Jews or the Jewish State.

If Michigan administration officials had bothered to check out Midwest SJP’s registration process and the online materials promoting the regional event, perhaps they would have seen that this conference was anything but promoting free speech.

The conference website listed no named location for the conference. That would only be revealed to approved registrants. The website listed no board of directors, nor was there any indication that the event was co-sponsored by any university departments.

There was also a secretive registration process where a potential conference attendee had to be pre-verified. In order to be accepted to attend the conference on a publicly funded university, it was mandatory that a registrant “fill in a reference that can vouch for your solidarity with Palestine.”

In other words, dissent, a different opinion, perspectives or even refuting pro-Palestinian narratives of oppression and occupation would not be tolerated.

A friend of mine in the Detroit Metro area pre-registered for the conference. When she could not name another person attending the event in a screening phone call, SJP Midwest rejected her application. However, they still asked her if she would like to donate the $25 registration fee to help pay for the conference.

For an organization that so wanted to get its message out, there was little follow up information or news about the conference take-aways when it ended. How many attended and from what colleges? What distortions of history were taught to unsuspecting youth sold to come to a conference that promised to teach them about community organizing and standing up to social injustice and imperialism?

It is not clear if the Midwest SJP conference and the latest spate of anti-Israel activity on the collegiate level are connected.

But University administrators, especially those running public institutions, should pay closer attention to what conferences they host if they truly want to make statements that purport that their campuses are “no places for hate” towards its Jewish students.

About the Author
Stacy Gittleman is a freelance writer and social media manager from Metro Detroit.