Students for Justice in Palestine hold a gathering after derecognition
Although the University revoked SJP’s status as a recognized club, community members still gathered to show support.
For the past month, tensions on campus have been steadily rising as a result of the Israel-Hamas war and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. This conflict is not a new debate at the University, but it has been exacerbated by the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel and Israel’s subsequent declaration of war against Hamas. While President Ron Liebowitz has released various statements condemning Hamas’ attacks and expressing support for the community, the University had not taken decisive actions concerning the conflict. However, on Nov. 6, the administration derecognized the Brandeis chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, eliciting strong reactions from the community on multiple sides of the issue.
College campuses have long been a setting for intense and divisive debates surrounding world issues, and the conflict in Israel and Gaza is no exception. Protesters have clashed at multiple universities, including Indiana University on Oct. 9 and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Oct. 12. Columbia University closed off its campus from the public ahead of a protest led by both SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace and a counter-protest held by Students Supporting Israel.
In recent weeks, Brandeis itself has been at the center of controversy, including when the Student Union originally rejected a resolution condemning Hamas; following backlash, the Union later released a statement condemning Hamas. In an op-ed published by the Boston Globe on Nov. 6, President Liebowitz called on universities to condemn antisemitism on their campuses by dechartering organizations that call for “violence against Jews” or support “annihilation of the state of Israel.”
“To counter this, leaders at colleges and universities must find their moral compass and no longer allow speech that constitutes harassment or threat of violence to flourish on our campuses,” Liebowitz wrote. “The logic of antisemitism is that left unchecked, it corrodes even the most basic moral standards that stand in its way.”
In a Nov. 6 email attained by the Justice, Vice President of Student Affairs Andrea Dine notified SJP that the University decided to no longer recognize their organization “because it openly supports Hamas,” which she noted has been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. government. The National SJP, she said, has called on its chapters to “engage in conduct that supports Hamas in its call for the violent elimination of Israel and the Jewish people” — tactics which the University condemns. As a result, SJP will no longer receive funding, be allowed to “conduct activities on campus,” or associate itself with the Brandeis name or logo online or otherwise.
Dine stressed that the decision was “not made lightly.” The University, she explained, is dedicated to upholding students’ free speech, values that have been codified in Brandeis’ Principles of Free Speech and Free Expression. She cited parts of the Principles that state “The freedom to debate and discuss ideas does not mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish, or however they wish’” and that “... the university may restrict expression … that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment … or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the university.” She said that any students who decide to support Hamas in any way, or “engage in conduct that harasses or threatens violence” through an organization or individually, are in violation of the University’s student code of conduct. Dine told the students that they are still permitted to form another organization if they wish to do so, as long as it complies with University policies.
This decision contradicts the American Civil Liberties Union’s article from Nov. 2 stating that the Anti-Defamation League has not provided evidence that the National SJP organization has aligned itself in a material way with Hamas. The ACLU also said that “local chapters of student groups cannot be punished for their association with national organizations.”
The ADL’s website stated on Oct. 19 that “many of the organization’s campus chapters explicitly endorsed the actions of Hamas and their armed attacks on Israeli civilians” and called for a confrontation and “dismantling” of Zionism on college campuses. They wrote that SJP’s “Day of Resistance Toolkit” made it clear “that it advocates for Hamas or other Palestinian forces to conquer all of Israel” and “for the ‘complete liberation’ of Israel and the full influx of Palestinians to Israeli land.” They also attached two chapters’ graphics, one of which was in support of the “Unity Intifada.”
SJP announced the administration's decision to derecognize the organization and the vigil’s subsequent cancellation on their Instagram a few hours before its scheduled time on Monday, Nov. 6. They wrote that the move by the University was an attempt to silence the organization and prevent them from speaking the truth. SJP also recognized the decision as a racist one that violates the University’s founding values of social justice and anti-racism in higher education.
“We thank everyone who stood with us during this beautiful journey, and we encourage you to reach out to us if you need any kind of support,” the post’s caption said.
SJP did not provide a statement to the Justice as of press time.
Derecognition differs from the process of dechartering, which the Student Union oversees. Dechartering typically happens if clubs fail to fill out forms or their executive boards fail to respond to important emails. The decision is ultimately put up to a full Senate vote, to which two-thirds of the vote must be in favor of dechartering the club.
However, the decision to derecognize SJP as an organization was made by the Division of Student Affairs and did not go through the dechartering process, Student Union President Noah Risley ’24 told the Justice in a Nov. 6 text exchange. As of press time, the Justice did not receive a response from the Dean of Students’ office or Student Affairs.
Clubs have been derecognized before, but under different circumstances; for example, the Archon Yearbook was derecognized last semester and received no funding prior to the Union dechartering them this semester.
Union President Risley told the Justice in an in-person interview on Nov. 6 that their current plan is to work with the club support team and SJP to see if the organization wishes to either reorganize or amend their constitution in an effort to be recognized by the University again. The organization, they clarified, has not been dechartered by the Union.
On Nov. 6 at 6:30 p.m., students gathered in the Shapiro Campus Center’s atrium with no official plans other than to give students a space to speak in support of Palestine, hold space for the mourning of the Palestinian war victims, and recount their own experiences. The gathering was officially unaffiliated with SJP. “I don’t think any of us came here with a plan … [we’re] just here to remember,” one participant said.
Police were stationed outside the building with at least one officer inside.
The demonstration began quietly, with a few students on a raised step alongside the building’s main staircase holding two Palestinian flags. It opened with a moment of silence in memory of the Palestinians that died as a result of the war in the past month. As people began to speak, community members, including but not limited to undergraduate students, graduate students, and alumni, continued to gather in the atrium, up the stairwell, and on the walkways above.
Early on, students on the main level gradually took a seat on the floor until most were seated.
Many students chose to speak in front of the crowd and voice their support for Palestine. A common sentiment amongst the speakers was indignation and anger towards the University’s choice to derecognize SJP in what many felt was a response to the vigil, whose stated purpose was to mourn the loss of 10,000 Palestinians. They questioned how their mourning could be considered harassment or violent. Some felt SJP was being discredited simply because they were advocating for Palestinian people. One student said, “The first job of the University is to make its students feel safe, accepted, [and] loved. What are we doing now?”
Those advocating for Palestinians felt frustrated that their activism was commonly deemed “antisemitic” by other members of the Brandeis community. A participant stated, “Our mourning does not come at the expense of the Jews,” and another acknowledged that Jewish attendees were risking a lot to be there. The student said that Jewish students would face “propaganda” telling them they are traitors to their religion for attending, but they stated that wasn’t true. Another speaker also declared that being pro-Palestine does not mean one hates Jewish people, which received much applause. A few Jewish students also spoke and expressed their support towards Palestinians and the movement.
Participants also expressed outrage at the University’s continued support of Israel’s violence against people in Gaza and the “unjust murders” of thousands of civilians. Most attendees referred to the violence as a genocide. To many of the speakers, the fact that Brandeis claims to value social justice felt insincere and comical. One student stated that the University was a “disgrace” to social justice due to their constant and explicit support of Israel. “Free Palestine!” was repeatedly declared by many speakers and repeated by much of the crowd.
According to one Palestinian student who spoke at the event, there are only three Palestinian students currently attending the University. The student told attendees their 36 family members who lived in Gaza had been killed, and their immediate family living in Jerusalem had also been attacked in their home. The student repeatedly expressed their gratitude towards everyone who attended the gathering. They said that they had hated their time at Brandeis thus far, and SJP was the only part of their experience giving them the courage to continue living in the U.S. The turnout meant everything, they said.
Another Palestinian student gave an emphatic speech that received much applause and cheers from the crowd. They said that they were “done with the Zionist forces at this school,” and said that in their four years at the University, they had “never been more disgraced at Brandeis” than they were for the cancellation of the vigil.
One of the last few speakers, who had also spoken at the beginning of the demonstration, called for attendees to show up at the front of the Bernstein-Marcus Administration Center on Friday at 3:30 p.m. to call for the University to reinstate SJP and rescind their support of the Israeli “occupation and genocide.”
At the end of the demonstration, attendees listed off the names and ages of many of the Palestinians who were killed over the past month. After a few more people spoke, the crowd began to disperse.
The event was ultimately over an hour in duration.
The announcement of the decision to unrecognize SJP followed a controversial statement released by Hillel. In anticipation of the vigil prior to its cancellation, Executive Director of Hillel Rabbi Seth Winberg sent an email to Hillel members the morning of Nov. 5 offering “support, resources, and advice.” He expressed his pride “to be a part of such a strong and resilient community during an immensely difficult time in Jewish history” and asked students to report any “incidents or challenges” they may face to Brandeis Public Safety and the Dean of Students’ office. Additionally, he included his phone number for anyone needing to reach him and encouraged students to reach out to professors if facing academic challenges.
Winberg wrote that the vigil may exacerbate any fears or anxieties amongst students, and he urged students to react in a “constructive and positive manner” and said, “don’t give SJP oxygen.” Students should avoid “disturbing” what he described as the current, relatively quiet equilibrium on campus. The statement said a counter-protest at the vigil would encourage other students to do the same, and such conflict could have long-term repercussions on the broader campus climate. “Encouraging students to go to SJP events is fraught with uncivil activity risk,” he wrote, adding, “Who knows what will be said in the heat of the moment” and that “the press will have a heyday.”
The email stressed the importance of taking care of oneself and relying on the support and strength of the Hillel community. He concluded his statement with, “We are here for you, and we are committed to providing resources to help you be resilient while you navigate these difficult times.”
As of press time, Hillel declined to give a statement to the Justice.
Concurrent with the gathering at the SCC, Hillel hosted a dinner and discussion in the Hillel Lounge with the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Jonathan D. Sarna (NEJS), on the University’s ties to Israel. The event was announced in Winberg’s email. The email promoted attending Hillel’s event rather than forming a counter-protest.
SJP posted a response to Winberg’s statement on Instagram later on Nov. 5, a message which they described as “a hateful email against one of Brandeis’s smallest minorities.” The three-slide-long post addressed “racist and dehumanizing” elements of the email and what they described as “rhetoric that seeks to vilify or marginalize Palestinians and Palestine supporters.”
“We believe it is our moral duty to condemn such sentiments and call for a more inclusive and just approach,” the statement said.
SJP specifically took issue with how Hillel’s message seemingly delegitimizes the pro-Palestine perspective. It was, in their view, dismissive and disrespectful — as though they did not deserve to be “granted the dignity of a response or engagement.” They also wrote that Winberg’s email wrongfully insinuated that engaging with SJP was risky and “somehow contaminating,” a sentiment that they stated perpetuates harmful misconceptions about the movement and its supporters. SJP stated that such sentiments discourage the “critical thinking and intellectual growth that universities should foster.”
The statement concluded with a final condemnation of Winberg’s statement and an urge to “take all necessary action” against Winberg, who they said “should be held responsible for any attack or racist incident against any Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim student on campus.” They also asked for Hillel to “recommit” to principles of social justice and respect for all and to reconsider the organization’s stance on Israel, who SJP said “is committing genocide.”
SJP signed off with “Until Liberation.”
SJP is not the only voice deeming Israel’s actions as committing genocide. In one case, the government of South Africa recalled their diplomatic mission in Israel, describing the nation’s “bombardment” of the Gaza Strip as “genocide.” The Anti-Defamation League has countered these claims; their website states that the use of the word genocide is inaccurate and “serves to demonize the State of Israel and to diminish recognized acts of genocide.”
Since the attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel’s subsequent declaration of war on Oct. 8, over 10,000 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis have been killed as a result of the violence. As of press time, Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza has continued, cutting off Gaza City and effectively splitting the strip in two. The situation in Gaza has been deemed by many, including United Nations Human Rights Council-appointed expert Francesca Albanese, as a “political and humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions.”
Hamas is currently holding more than 240 hostages. According to NPR, there have been numerous demonstrations in Israel; some are in support of the hostages and others have been in protest of the Israeli government’s failure to anticipate and prepare for Hamas’ attacks.
Since Oct. 7, Israel has doubled the number of Palestinian prisoners in its jails from 5,200 to more than 10,000.
Antisemitism and antisemitic attacks have surged globally, with ADL reporting in October a 400% increase in antisemitic attacks in the two weeks following Oct. 7. There has also been an increase in anti-Muslim attacks, including the fatal stabbing by an Illinois man of a six year old Palestinian-American boy near Chicago.
Brandeis is the first private institution to unrecognize SJP. As of press time, the resulting consequences and controversy remain to be seen.
This is a developing story.
— Justice Editor Cayenn Landau ’23 contributed to the reporting for this article.