College Group Pushes for Justice in Palestine, Others Push Back



Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at John Jay College, at their first fall semester event. Photo: Valerie Prassl.

There was increased security last month at John Jay College for Criminal Justice on West 59th Street, for the first fall event of the John Jay College club, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)  — “Beyond 1967: Respecting Palestinian Right of Return,” a discussion about Palestinian refugee rights and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of the most complex and most discussed disputes of recent times.

SJP was founded last spring semester, and its mission statement defines the club as a “diverse group of students and faculty, organized on democratic principles to promote justice, human rights, liberation and self-determination for the Palestinian people,” but its existence engenders as much disagreement as the subject on which it focuses.

“When I was considering colleges, I was looking out for Palestinian activist groups. There was no such group at John Jay College but I thought that would give me the opportunity to start a student movement,” said Leena Widdi, the 19-year old daughter of two Palestinians and founder and president of SJP at John Jay College.

Across the nation, the number of college students forming groups to support Palestinian issues is increasing. SJP, which has been in existence in the U.S. for 11 years, today has branches at almost 50 colleges and universities, offering speaker series, educational events and film screenings.

But Palestinian organizations and their activities on campus are often met with concern and opposition. At John Jay College, participants in the October panel, held at the School’s Black Box Theater, had to register on a guest list in advance due to enhanced security restrictions. Widdi said that restrictions were enforced due to tensions with Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life at John Jay College. “Representatives of Hillel complained previous to our event. They feel uncomfortable with our organization and our activities,” she said.

Representatives of Hillel at John Jay College were not available for a comment, but Ariel Brickman, the Israel Coordinator of the Hillel chapter at Columbia University, said that the relationship between those two groups is tense: “Representatives of Columbia’s SJP refuse a working relationship with a Zionist group,” said Brickman. “And Hillel has Zionism in their mission statement.”

Brickman, an undergraduate at Columbia,  considers SJP’s methods inaccurate. “I personally believe that SJP disables any sort of constructive discussion. Students hear a one-sided version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “ she said.

But SJP also receives Jewish support. Shuki Cohen, who teaches psychology and is an Arab Jew who grew up in Israel, is the faculty advisor of SJP at John Jay College. “When Leena Widdi approached me to join SJP, I was very happy. It might only sound weird on paper to have an Israeli Jew as faculty advisor for a Palestinian organization. But in reality it isn’t. SJP is a social justice movement, and social justice is a Jewish endeavor,” he said.

The Palestinian Community at John Jay College is small — there are about ten Palestinian students, and about eight active members of SJP, said Widdi.

“We are trying to get more people involved in our cause. I have many friends that are interested in Palestinian issues, but they don’t know much about the conflict. We are trying to spread the word,” said Widdi.

Carlos Guzman is not of Palestinian descent, but supports Palestinian rights. He is half Ecuadorian and half Japanese and started to deepen his knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2008. He is now the president of SJP at Hunter College on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “Most of the Zionists come to our events to disrupt, they don’t want people to know the reality. Israel is an apartheid state and the occupation of the Palestinian territories is illegal,” he said.

“Students Confronting Apartheid“ was the title of the first SJP national conference held at Columbia University in October 2011. The second SJP national conference was held at the University of Michigan last week, from November 2-4 and was titled “From Local Roots to Nationwide Branches: Bridges Student Movements.”


The language SJP uses is considered inflammatory among many student clubs committed to social justice, whether their members are Jewish or not. “SJP calls Israel an Apartheid state. We don’t accept that,” said Brickman. “When people take there own narratives, and bring them into a larger context – that’s where it becomes problematic,” she said.

The Vanguard Leadership Group, a society for African-American students at historically black colleges and universities, has also criticized the characterization.

Still, Brickman says representatives of both sides can work together productively. “The Avi Schäfer fund brings together undergraduate student leaders from both groups, and it is working well.”

The Avi Schäfer Fund aims to improve discussion on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on North American college campuses. Their Student Leadership Colloquium, a yearly conference, invites student leaders from Ivy League colleges to working toward change in  the Israeli-Palestinian discussion. The next Leadership Colloquium will be held from January 25 to 27 at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.