MEDFORD — When Nanette Fridman of Newton received an email from Tufts University Hillel in early October, she was alarmed by the news it contained. Her alma mater would host the fourth annual National Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) conference October 24-26.
The group is known for its anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian college student activism.
Since June 2014, SJP has formed 28 new chapters, according to Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), bringing the nationwide total to 157. The 2014 three-day conference at Tufts drew over 500 participants, including 50 from the Tufts community.
Fridman’s first reaction was concern for Tufts students. “I had read and heard about stories of harassment, intimidation and physical violence on other campuses. Northeastern even suspended SJP because its members regularly and persistently engaged in anti-Semitic harassment of their fellow students.”
Her second reaction turned to action. Fridman, founder of Fridman Strategies, a firm specializing in strategic planning for nonprofits, emailed a few friends, including Baer, to share her concern and together they drafted a letter to Tufts President Anthony Monaco. “The goal was never stopping the conference or preventing anyone from speaking,” Fridman said.
“We believe in free speech. The best thing is for the SJP/ BDS movement folks to say the things they believe publicly so people can hear for themselves the philosophy of hate and irrationality underlying it.”
On its website tuftssjp.com, the Tufts SJP chapter identifies itself with three slogans: “Peace through justice. Equality through resistance. Humanity through boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).” As a group recognized by the Tufts student government, SJP was eligible to apply to the student-run senate for permission to host the national conference and for funds to do it. They received both.
Fellow alumna Simi Kaplin Baer, a real estate lawyer from Philadelphia, said she was “worried that there would be a formal call for divestment by the University,” referring to the SJP’s support of the movement.
Their letter asked Monaco to issue a formal statement that Tufts does not support divestment from Israel, nor sanctions or boycotts against Israel. It was sent on October 16 with 143 alumni signatures.
Monaco’s October 21 response fell short of the group’s goal. He replied that while he hoped the student groups at Tufts that hold differing ideas about the Middle East would have a constructive dialogue, it was important for him as President to refrain from taking sides in this debate.
Michael J. Granoff, Tufts ’91, lives in Ra’anana, Israel, where he manages investments in alternative energy. He was disappointed by Monaco’s reply. “The right, moral thing to do would have been to state unequivocally that SJP espouses values contrary to those on which Tufts is based,” he said, explaining, “Hamas’s charter calls clearly for the destruction of Israel and genocide of Jews. SJP supports Hamas. SJP does not condemn violence. SJP does not support two states for two peoples; they support the eradication of the Jewish state.”
Fridman, too, said that the letter was not what she had hoped for. “A stronger response would have been to issue a public release making clear Tufts’s rejection of BDS and that hate speech is not welcome on the Tufts campus in any circumstance.”
Titled “Beyond Solidarity: Resisting Racism and Colonialism from the U.S. to Palestine,” the weekend featured many workshops promoting “direct action,” defined by one workshop as “a last resort tactic that maximizes student pressure and demands attention from all stakeholders.”
Other workshops were “Israeli Apartheid: Reality on the Ground After the Protective Edge Massacre and Ending Genocide in Gaza” and “Bursting the Campus Bubble: Learning from Campaigns Beyond Campus Divestment Resolutions,” where students were taught to expand SJP’s anti-Israel strategy to offcampus activities. “False Claims of Anti-Semitism: How to Effectively Respond,” addressed whether it is okay to distribute flyers to a dorm room in a mock eviction action and how free speech rights apply to campus activism and civil disobedience.
All workshops were closed to non-registered attendees. Only SJP students, alumni and students from selected allied groups could register. At least one Jewish journalist, Daniel Mael, a senior at Brandeis who has written about the SJP for thetower. org (“On Many Campuses, Hate Is Spelled SJP”), was denied press credentials.
“NSJP does not care about human rights or the future of the Jewish people and does not tolerate dissenting opinions. Therefore, they found my presence unfit for their conference,” Mael said.
According to the ADL’s website, American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), a leading organization providing anti-Zionist training and education to students and Muslim community organizations, has placed heavy emphasis on supporting and helping coordinate the activity of SJP.
One Tufts SJP member, senior Hani Azzam, wrote on the news website, Mondoweiss.net that hosting the national SJP conference was a dream come true. “When I was a freshman, we dreamed of holding an Israeli Apartheid Week… Although our ultimate dream of a liberated Palestine remains on the horizon, our accomplishments these past four years… fuel the resilience and progression of our entire movement.”
Another attendee, Ofek Ravid, a U.S. citizen from Israel, described his experience in less glowing terms in the tuftsdaily. com. After making a point during a workshop Q&A that the BDS movement may be harming rather than helping Palestinians, he was booed and hissed at and asked to leave the building by an SJP representative. “I came to the conference with an open mind in an attempt to learn about the Palestinian struggle from activists… This movement restricts freedom of speech and undermines the Palestinian cause instead of supporting it,” he wrote.
In his letter to the alumni, Monaco made clear that Tufts is committed to providing a “range of thoughtful opportunities for our students to gain an understanding of challenging issues and develop the listening skills essential for resolving conflict.” He did not address divestment.
Two such opportunities this fall are an eight-week series of discussions sponsored by the University Chaplaincy called, “Restoring Dignity in the Israel-Palestine Conversation” and a range of Israel programming and initiatives sponsored by Tufts Hillel, including “Advocacy Training” and “Fostering Civil Campus Dialogue,” spearheaded by Rabbi Jeffrey Summit.
“Power in People” from Students for Justice in Palestine’s facebook page
No time was lost putting some of the “direct action” tactics taught at the October 24-26 conference into practice. On October 30, ICC reported that Ohio State University was the first school of the 2014 academic year where mock eviction notices were sent to Jewish students. Megan Marzec, of Ohio State University, was one of the SJP workshop presenters on October 26. Last year, 14 schools, including Rutgers and Northeastern, were targeted.
Baer is worried about the future. “I am concerned that anti-Semitic and hateful rhetoric against Israel and Jews that would not be considered ‘free speech’ were it directed at any other group is tolerated at Tufts,” she said.
Fridman is already thinking about the future with her and many of the signatories’ spring 2015 Tufts University reunion on the horizon. “We got 143 signatories over a few days just by emailing our letter to friends whose addresses we had. I know if we used a petition website or social media, we could get thousands and thousands of alumni who feel similar to us.” She received many more emails from concerned alumni since their letter was submitted.
She paused and added, “We are closely watching events on campus, and we are monitoring the Administration’s response.”