Letter to the editor: Concern about the disbandment of SJP
Hello Brandeis University administration,
As a recent Brandeis alumnus, I am writing to express my concern over the de-chartering of the student group Students for Justice in Palestine.
The history of war in Israel/Palestine is complicated, and it is undeniably tragic to read headlines about the conflict from here in the states -— especially for those with loved ones living in the region. I do not mean to dismiss the pain of the Jewish community at Brandeis and beyond.
At the same time, I find it hard to mask my frustration as I fail to comprehend how a secular university could rationalize silencing only one side of the debate about this conflict by banning student groups in support of Palestine while voicing clear institutional support for the state of Israel. This is especially disturbing as the University’s decision to de-recognize the group came as a reaction to their planned “Vigil for Palestine” where students wrote on fliers that the event was intended to “mourn 9,000+ Palestinians killed in Gaza.”
To explain my confusion, I want to dive into some history: At the end of the First World ar, Palestine was among the several former Ottoman Arab regions that were made mandated territories by the League of Nations. Palestinian people were already arguing in favor of their own independence to the United Nations with the support of other Arab nations including Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria in 1947.
Meanwhile, growing antisemitism in Europe led to an influx of Jewish migration to the region, which eventually sparked international political discussions about establishing Israel as an independent Jewish state based on religious and ethnic claims to the land. The U.S. was the first nation to recognize Israel as an independent state and home for displaced Jewish people in 1948 — which was a decision fueled, in part, by antisemitism and president Truman’s hope that Jewish people in the U.S. would immigrate.The dispute between Arab Palestinians who wanted independence and Jewish Israelis who settled on the land led to the 1948 Palestine war, where over half of the Arab population was displaced from Palestinian lands.
Jewish immigration to Israel has continued since, with 3.2 million Jewish people moving to the newly-established state by 2017, creating a country composed mostly of immigrants from the Jewish diaspora. The motives behind U.S. support of Israel have shifted throughout history, but it would be difficult to argue they were ever purely altruistic, and instead support has primarily been seen as a financial investment for the states.
The Arab majority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the Arab Palestinians living outside the area — many in nearby countries such as Lebanon — have a long history of strong opposition to Israeli control, fearing eventual annexation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel. Many Israeli settlers support such an annexation and think those lands properly belong to Israel. In 2005, Arab concerns were partially quelled when Israel completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and handed over control of the territory to the Palestinians, but the Israeli settlement population in the West Bank nearly doubled between 2005 and 2019. Armed with aid from the U.S., Israel continued building a powerful military and gained greater political control and recognition.
Hamas is a terrorist group that has been active in Israel/Palestine since 1987. The horrific events of Oct 7 do not exist in a vacuum, and instead were preceded by years of history and conflict. Hamas does use extreme, violent tactics for the political purpose of preventing Israeli control of Palestine, specifically in Gaza and the West Bank, but the group grew its popularity among Arab Palestinian people by providing essential education, hospitals, and social services where governance has collapsed.
In my view — which I imagine is shared with the students formerly involved with SJP — by taking extreme measures to protest against the state of Israel in favor of returning land to Arab Palestinians displaced by the war of 1948 and throughout the following conflicts, Hamas is a group attempting to take steps towards decolonization in the only way possible.
Israel abstained from voting in favor of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza leaves Palestinian Arabs with few outlets for defending their bodies, their land, and their basic human rights. Israel has a much stronger military force and more political stability than the Arab Palestinians left in Gaza and the West Bank, and years of outspoken opposition has not prevented Israel from continuing to assert political dominance over the region. Both parties have used violence to assert their claims to the land, so why is it okay for one side — Israel, advocating for Jewish control of the land — to use violence, but not the other — Hamas, advocating for Arab control of the land?
I agree with the University administration that students expressing outright antisemitic beliefs or advocating for violence against Jewish people outside of context absolutely should not be protected by the University’s free speech allowances. Everyone should feel safe on campus, and no one should face hate for their religion. However, equating support of Hamas or more broadly support for Palestine with “antisemitism” is a gross oversimplification which ignores the colonial history of Israel and the political motives behind Hamas’s violent acts — which, as it probably goes without saying, are not holistically supported by Arab Palestinians in the conflict region and beyond. Students can support Palestine and voice opposition towards Israel without supporting Hamas’s terrorist tactics ... but they shouldn’t have to. Moreover, equating a vigil to mourn the lives lost in Palestine to antisemitism is completely nonsensical. Innocent people and civilians died; students should be able to mourn this loss together on campus.
Arab and Middle Eastern students are deeply personally affected by the turmoil of this war and threats to the physical safety of loved ones in the region in a way similar to Jewish students. Why is discourse promoting — directly or indirectly — the annihilation of the state of Palestine to be tolerated, when discourse promoting the annihilation of the state of Israel is strictly forbidden? There is suffering on both sides! This does not make sense to me at all.
De-charting SJP was a public display of the University’s willingness to silence part of the history in the Israel-Palestine region. Without groups like SJP on campus, only half of the story is told. While Jewish groups with Zionist ideologies are protected and continue to be funded by the University, Brandeis is the first private institution in the U.S. to ban speech in support of Palestine, and the decision has not come without pushback as free speech experts publicly warn about the danger of the decision. These are not the kind of headlines I expected to see from my “social justice” alma mater.
To be clear, I will not be giving any more of my money to Brandeis University until it upholds the value in its motto: “Truth, even unto its innermost parts” by allowing the expression of multiple viewpoints on campus. Frankly, I am feeling embarrassed to be a Brandeis alum. This is a shame, because I had wonderful professors and I learned a lot during my time on campus. But if I knew the University administration would be shutting down student groups planning vigils for Palestinian lives lost back when I was a senior in high school, I am certain I never would have considered attending. Perhaps it was my mistake back then for failing to do enough research on Brandeis University’s rich history of touting social justice values without really reflecting them.
I wish you and your loved ones peace, and hope you will reconsider the decision to de-charter Brandeis’s chapter of SJP.
Maggie Del Re
Class of 2023