SJP reinstated at Northeastern

April 29, 2014

Alpana Mehta reports on the campaign that won reinstatement of SJP at Northeastern.

SIX WEEKS after Northeastern University's unprecedented suspension of the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (NU-SJP), members of the group were informed on April 22 of their full reinstatement as a campus club. The university also promised the NU-SJP chapter increased funding for future semesters.

This victory is an inspiring achievement, especially considering the relentless attack by the university that has gone on for more than two years.

NU-SJP was suspended on March 7 for allegedly violating campus codes of conduct while distributing mock eviction flyers highlighting the expulsion and displacement of Palestinians from their homes.

Two of the group's youngest members, both women of color, were threatened with expulsion from school, and police individually harassed them, along with other NU-SJP members of color or members with Arabic-sounding names. The publicity and climate of fear perpetrated by the university also led to death threats against chapter members.

The official suspension of the club came less than a month before a major Palestine solidarity event sponsored by NU-SJP. The event featured leading Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah speaking about his new book The Battle for Justice in Palestine. It later came to light that on the same day as the scheduled Abunimah event, Northeastern had decided to host seven members of the Israeli Knesset at a town hall forum.

Northeastern students march in defense of the campus SJP chapter
Northeastern students march in defense of the campus SJP chapter

This overt attack on viewpoints at odds with those of the administration became even more glaring when Michael Lucas, notorious for his Islamophobic rants and simultaneous promotion of Israel as a paradise for gays and lesbians, was hosted on campus by NU Huskies for Israel.

The banning of NU-SJP was the culmination of a two-year assault on the rights of free assembly and dissent for Arab and Muslim activists at Northeastern. This campaign was largely coordinated by local Zionist and Islamophobic organizations, such as the Zionist Organization of America and the misnamed Americans for Peace and Tolerance, which secretly filmed Muslim students and worked with Northeastern to get respected imam and Northeastern chaplain Abdullah Farooq fired.

THE VICTORY for NU-SJP would not have been possible without sustained solidarity and a fightback from Northeastern students, and from the wider local, national and international community. At every stage in the administration's attempt to silence the campus group, it was met with protest.

The demonstration against the event with pinkwasher Michael Lucas was so well publicized that Lucas didn't even show up. Activists from QueerUp and other organizations pressured NUPride, an LGBTQ campus group, to withdraw its sponsorship of the event. In a compelling rebuke of the intense Islamophobia cultivated by the university, NUPride cited Lucas' statements against Muslims as the reason for its withdrawal.

Hearings held against the two SJP members threatened with suspension were met with 200-strong protests that compelled the university to end its consideration of any expulsion or suspension of the students.

Even the NU College Democrats submitted a letter to the university after the SJP suspension, demanding that the university denounce Americans for Peace and Tolerance and end all affiliations with it. Through it all, a coalition of organizations that included Jewish Voice for Peace, the International Socialist Organization and many local SJP chapters met regularly to strategize about solidarity efforts.

In an interview, NU-SJP president Tori Porell described the negotiations that led to NU-SJP's reinstatement:

We had a very supportive administrator who has been a long-time ally of SJP approach us to negotiate getting SJP's voice back on campus. He really worked with us in good faith and was sincere when he said he wanted to bring SJP's voice back. He worked with us to make a deal with the university to end the suspension.

But when we brought in some higher-up administrators, the process got a little complicated. They weren't necessarily negotiating with us in good faith and did some sketchy things. They had given us a draft of the letter they were going to send to reinstate us, and they said they would send an official version the next day. But the official version had some very important things removed, and some things added that we never discussed.

We weren't sure what it meant in practice for what SJP was going to be allowed to do when we were reinstated. So that was a major problem for us, and we couldn't agree to it. We got legal support involved right away through the ACLU, which contacted Northeastern immediately to make sure that they would give us the assurances we needed in order for this deal to be acceptable to us. And they eventually got a good response from the general counsel of the entire university. So that's the pay grade at which the whole decision was being made.

Tori's words to other SJPs facing similar assaults are inspiring: "Fight back. And build coalitions. That's the way to success. What they want you to do is not fight back. The minute you do fight back, you've already won, whether you win in whatever administrative sense. Building coalitions is absolutely the key and that is where the movement's headed."

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