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Nov
21
2023

The Push to “Deactivate” Students for Justice in Palestine

Welcome to the Tuesday News Bulletin! Every Tuesday, we publish original reporting on Israel/Palestine by our staff and contributors, which goes directly to our newsletter subscribers. The Tuesday News Bulletin also serves as a forum for aggregating stories Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.

Newsletter
The Push to “Deactivate” Students for Justice in Palestine
Civil liberties experts say a law banning “material support for terrorism” is being used to quash pro-Palestine speech.
Alex Kane

On October 24th, Ray Rodrigues, the chancellor of Florida’s state university system, issued a memo announcing that schools in his jurisdiction must “deactivate” all chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The order—which was made “in consultation” with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis—marked the first time a state official has tried to stop the pro-Palestine student group from operating. In explaining his decision, Rodrigues claimed that the SJP chapters had violated the state’s prohibition against providing “material support” to organizations designated as “terrorist” groups by the State Department. Rodrigues noted that in the wake of the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel, National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP)—a coordinating body that supports individual SJP groups but does not control or fund individual campus chapters—said in a toolkit to help SJP chapters plan campus actions that “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.” “Here, National SJP has affirmatively identified it is part of the Operation Al-Aqsa Flood—a terrorist led attack,” Rodrigues wrote.

Florida’s ban on “material support for terrorism” is modeled on a federal law prohibiting the provision of money, training, expert advice, and weapons to designated terrorist organizations. In the past, such laws have been used to prevent money from being sent overseas to organizations linked to such groups, among other purposes. However, since October 7th—when Israel began its ferocious bombing campaign in Gaza, sparking an unprecedented student movement against the war—Israel advocates have attempted to use such laws mainly to shut down pro-Palestine speech and activism. Civil liberties experts say these activities do not violate material support laws, but elected officials, Israel advocacy groups, and at least one campus administration are nevertheless already accusing student groups, especially SJP chapters, of supporting terrorism. “We’re not going to use state tax dollars to fund jihad—no way,” Governor Ron DeSantis declared from the Republican presidential debate stage on November 8th. (Despite DeSantis’s boast, the two SJP chapters at Florida state schools remain active while the universities investigate the legality of the orders; meanwhile, the ACLU and Palestine Legal are suing the state, arguing that the move violates students’ First Amendment rights.)

The calls to investigate student activists for Palestinian rights as supporters of terrorism began in Congress. On October 16th, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging the Department of Justice to investigate student groups for potential links to Hamas and for the “provision of material support to terrorist organizations.” Four days later, Republican Senators Marco Rubio, Markwayne Mullin, Rick Scott, Pete Ricketts, and Deb Fischer wrote a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejando Mayorkas, in which they also invoked the material support law. The senators called on Mayorkas to work with the State Department to revoke the visas of foreign students who support Hamas, and to “take action” against any educational institution that recognizes SJP, which they labeled a Hamas “front organization.” A bipartisan group of 41 New York state legislators have made similar claims: In a November 20th letter sent to Governor Kathy Hochul, the legislators argued that NSJP’s post-October 7th comments constituted an admission that the group “is part of a US government-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization,” and that “student groups which explicitly endorse registered foreign terrorist organizations must be shut down at the University level.”

These accusations have been echoed by prominent Israel advocacy groups. On October 25th, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Brandeis Center sent a letter urging nearly 200 university presidents to investigate SJP chapters on their campuses for violating material support laws. Unlike DeSantis and Republican members of Congress, the ADL has a reputation as a mainstream civil rights organization and antisemitism watchdog, which could lead its call to carry weight with university administrators. “The ADL is a brand name,” a former senior ADL official, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal at their current job, told Jewish Currents. “The Jewish community is an important constituency for university administrations, and many in the Jewish community trust the ADL to be a fair umpire on the level of danger that their children enrolled in elite universities face. As a result, university administrations will take this seriously.”

To support the claim that material support laws have been violated, those accusing SJP—including the ADL, the Brandeis Center, the New York state legislators, and the Florida chancellor—cite statements made by the student organization that they interpret as pro-Hamas. Specifically, the officials and advocacy groups cite a toolkit that National SJP published as a resource for an October 12th “national day of resistance” to Israel’s bombing of Gaza. In addition to the assertion that Palestinian students are “part of” the movement to resist Israeli rule, an earlier version of the toolkit also said that the call to “free Palestine” means “not just slogans and rallies, but armed confrontation with the oppressors.” An ADL spokesperson told Jewish Currents that they viewed such statements not as “speech we disagree with” but rather as “actual threats of violence directed toward Jewish students.” “SJP on campus are echoing the position of Hamas,” the spokesperson said, calling for an investigation into the student group. But civil liberties experts say that SJP’s speech is protected by the First Amendment, and point out that the Supreme Court held in 2010 that the federal law against material support for terrorism only applies to advocacy “performed in coordination” with or “at the direction of” a designated terrorist group, and not to independent advocacy. “Students’ independent political rhetoric is not material support for terrorism,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “A blanket call to investigate every chapter of a pro-Palestinian student group for material support—without even an attempt to cite evidence—is unwarranted, wrong, and dangerous.” In a statement sent to Jewish Currents, NSJP said that the accusations are “nothing but an attempt to smear students while shifting attention away from the ongoing genocide Israel is committing in Gaza.”

This is not the first time Israel advocates have tried to use material support laws to target Palestinians. According to Darryl Li, an anthropologist and lawyer teaching at the University of Chicago who has researched the history of material support laws, groups such as the ADL were part of the coalition that successfully lobbied Congress and the Clinton administration to pass the federal law in the first place. Li said that Israel advocacy organizations believed the law was needed to crack down on what they saw as a US network of financiers supporting Hamas; Mousa Abu Marzook, a Hamas official, said at the time that the group was raising money in the US not to support violent actions, but to fund Palestinian schools, hospitals, orphanages, and clinics by way of Hamas-controlled charities. The material support law was quickly wielded against such donations, for example in a prominent 2004 case, in which federal prosecutors indicted five staff members at the Holy Land Foundation—at the time the largest Muslim charity in the US—on the charge that they were financing Hamas. The case against the foundation rested on humanitarian aid donations it had made to Palestinians through charities allegedly controlled by Hamas. Notably, prosecutors never alleged that the Holy Land Foundation sent money to support violence, instead charging that the charities to which the foundation contributed had helped Hamas win the “hearts and minds” of Palestinians. But after a controversial trial, the foundation’s employees were nevertheless convicted for materially supporting terrorism.

Li explained that in this case and others, the law served to criminalize behavior that would otherwise have been constitutionally protected. “A person could now be charged for benign everyday activities connected to a blacklisted organization without any connection to a specific act of violence—which is terrifyingly broad,” he said.

In the past month, Israel advocates accusing SJP and others of material support for terrorism have built upon the precedent offered by the Holy Land case. During a November 15th hearing held by the House Ways and Means Committee, Jonathan Schanzer—senior vice president for the neoconservative think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies—raised concerns over SJP’s links to American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), a nonprofit that works to mobilize Muslim Americans for Palestinian rights. Noting that AMP has supported SJP with funding and training, and that multiple AMP staff members had previously worked for the Holy Land Foundation and other charities accused of fundraising for Hamas, Schanzer claimed that SJP is part of a “pro-Hamas network.” In separate testimony during the hearing, ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt pressed members of Congress to “urge the FBI and IRS to look at and conduct a thorough review of AMP and SJP.” But AMP’s and SJP’s defenders say these allegations hold no water. Christina Jump, the civil litigation department head for the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America—which is representing AMP in an ongoing case seeking to tie the group to shuttered charities that a federal judge and US officials allege were linked to Hamas—told Jewish Currents that the allegations aired during the House hearing were “inflammatory and unfounded” and a danger to “the freedom of religion and free speech rights of AMP.”

For civil rights experts, Israel advocates’ invocation of “terrorism” to clamp down on Palestine solidarity groups is reminiscent of the post-9/11 era. “This country already has a long and painful record of abusive and discriminatory material support investigations and prosecutions, disproportionately against Muslims and Muslim charities and civil society organizations,” ACLU’s Shamsi told Jewish Currents. “We must not go back to that.”

Unlike the material support cases of the post-9/11 era, which involved fundraising for overseas causes, the law’s present-day uses are focused on speech, making the prospect of criminal charges remote, according to Dylan Saba, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal (as well as a contributing writer for Jewish Currents). But the goal of such calls is not to secure indictments, said the former ADL employee. Instead, the purpose is to create a pretext for restricting speech. Wadie Said, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Law and author of Crimes of Terror: The Legal and Political Implications of Federal Terrorism Prosecutions, told Jewish Currents that clampdowns on groups like SJP pose a fundamental threat to constitutional rights writ large. “What’s being asked by pro-Zionist actors is that we suspend core freedoms the US holds itself out as the key protector of—freedom of speech and freedom of association,” he said.

Civil liberties attorneys fear such efforts to chill speech will suppress pro-Palestine activism. “Universities may listen to these calls and just decide to ban SJP chapters,” said Saba. On November 10th, Columbia University suspended its campus chapters of SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace because they had organized an unauthorized pro-Palestine walkout, which the university said “included threatening rhetoric and intimidation.” On November 14th, George Washington University likewise announced that it would bar SJP from organizing on-campus events for the next three months because the group had projected slogans on a campus building in violation of university policies. Separately, Brandeis University (a private university unrelated to the Brandeis Center) announced that the school would shut down its SJP chapter because, the administration claims, it “openly supports Hamas.” Diala Shamas, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told Jewish Currents that such accusations “raise the stakes for any student that’s considering organizing with SJP, and make students think twice before attending an SJP rally, because nobody wants to be accused of supporting terrorism.” “The goal is to make SJP radioactive,” she said.

Even if no terrorism charges are ever brought as a result of accusations of material support, law enforcement investigations of activists can still have profound consequences, according to Li, the lawyer and anthropologist. In 2010, for example, the FBI launched an investigation into activists with the Minnesota-based Anti-War Committee, who federal agents said were suspected of providing material support for the leftist Palestinian militant group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as well as Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Though no material support charges were ever filed against the activists, the FBI’s investigation led to the prosecution of Palestinian community leader Rasmea Odeh for immigration fraud. “You might have terrorism investigations that don’t result in terrorism charges,” said Li. “But once the federal government is turning your life upside down, it’s not hard for them to find some other trifling technicality with which to charge you.”

Activestills

As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.

Nasser Hospital, in the Gazan city of Khan Younis, receives wounded and dead Palestinians after Israeli warplanes bomb residential neighborhoods.

Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills


Here’s what else we’re tracking:
  • Israel and Hamas appear close to striking a Qatari-brokered deal for the release of 50 hostages in exchange for a four- or five-day ceasefire and the release of 150 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli custody. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will convene his cabinet on Tuesday to vote on the deal, which has already received the backing of the Israeli security establishment. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners, however, have said that they will oppose the deal in its current form, with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party vowing to “continue the war until Hamas is eliminated.”
  • Israeli forces are operating in and around Gaza’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa, for a second week. Only 25 medical staff remain in the hospital to take care of 271 seriously ill and injured patients, in what the World Health Organization described as a “death zone.” Around 40 people, including eight premature babies, died in the hospital as a result of the facility losing power on November 12th. Israeli forces first invaded the hospital on November 15th, claiming that they were targeting a Hamas command center in the complex, but have yet to produce substantive evidence of Hamas operations there. By way of proof, the Israeli military has released videos of modest weapon hauls, security camera footage that they claim shows Thai and Nepalese hostages being held in the hospital, and footage of what they claim is a Hamas tunnel entrance. They have also alleged that a captured Israeli soldier, Noa Marciano, whose body was found in a building next to the hospital, was taken to Al-Shifa to be killed by Hamas, though without pointing to evidence. Some media outlets that have been granted controlled access to the complex have questioned whether some of the evidence provided by Israeli authorities was staged. Human rights experts have argued that the attack may have violated international law. “Hospitals only lose [humanitarian] protections if it can be shown that harmful acts have been carried out from the premises. The Israeli government hasn’t provided any evidence of that,” Human Rights Watch UN Director Louis Charbonneau said.
  • On Wednesday, Palestinian health officials said they were facing difficulties in maintaining accurate casualty figures in Gaza because of the collapse of the healthcare system. “For the fourth consecutive day, the ministry faces challenges in updating the number of casualties because of services and communications collapsing in hospitals in the north,” the Palestinian health ministry in Gaza said in a statement. Twenty-five of the 35 hospitals in Gaza are no longer functional because of Israeli bombardment and siege. However, the health ministry continues to publish estimated death tolls. On Tuesday, the ministry said that more than 14,100 people have been killed in Gaza since Israeli bombardment began on October 7th. At least 2,700 additional people, among them 1,500 children, are missing and believed buried under the rubble created by Israeli air strikes, according to the United Nations.
  • An Amnesty International investigation published Monday found that two Israeli airstrikes conducted last month on Gaza “were indiscriminate” or constituted “direct attacks on civilians or civilian objects, which must be investigated as war crimes.” The first strike that Amnesty documented occurred on October 18th, when Israeli warplanes bombed the Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza City, killing 18 civilians who were sheltering there. The second was the October 20th bombing of the al-Aydi family home, which killed 28 civilians. In both cases, Amnesty International found no indication “that the buildings hit could be considered military objectives or were used by fighters.”
  • Earlier today, Israeli airstrikes killed three journalists in southern Lebanon. The journalists worked for or contributed to Al-Mayadeen, a television channel. “It was a direct attack, it was not by chance,” said Al-Mayadeen director Ghassan bin Jiddo, noting that the strike came a week after Israel shut down Al-Mayadeen’s operations in the country over accusations that the channel harms Israeli security and “serve[s] the enemy’s goals.” The airstrikes were the latest in a long line of Israeli attacks on journalists. On October 13th, an Israeli bombing in southern Lebanon killed Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah in what Reporters Without Borders said was a “targeted” strike. Israel has also killed more than 40 Palestinian journalists in its attacks on Gaza. In total, since October 7th, Israeli airstrikes have so far killed 53 journalists and media workers, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
  • President Biden, in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post on Saturday, said his administration is prepared to take measures against Israeli settlers who are violently attacking Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. To this end, the president—who views Israeli settler violence as a “serious threat” to his vision of a two-state solution—has directed top officials to “develop policy options for expeditious action against those responsible for the conduct of violence in the West Bank,” according to a White House memo that a US official read to Politico. . Since October 7th, Israeli settler violence has escalated at an unprecedented rate. In that timeframe, according to the UN, settlers have killed nine Palestinians, destroyed 3,000 olive trees, and harassed Palestinian herding communities so severely that 900 people across 15 hamlets have been displaced from their homes.
  • Israeli airstrikes have killed over 3,600 Palestinians in the central and southern parts of Gaza—where Israel’s military ordered Gazans in the north to move. A November 18th NPR investigation found that Israeli bombings “occur daily in the areas Israel has said are ‘safer’ for civilians, and have hit schools, residential towers and overcrowded United Nations refugee shelters.” Satellite images analyzed by scholars show that Israeli bombardment has also damaged or destroyed 10,000 buildings in central and southern Gaza. The majority of the damage occurred after October 13th, the day the Israeli army ordered Palestinians in northern Gaza to move south.
  • Twenty-four Democrats sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday urging him to protect children in Gaza and press for a ceasefire amidst Israel’s ongoing bombardment. The lawmakers wrote that they are “profoundly shocked” at the violation of children’s rights in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, and called for “rapid de-escalation through a ceasefire.” Among the signatories were Raúl Grijalva and Mary Gay Scanlon, who had not previously called for a ceasefire. Israel’s military operations in Gaza have killed more than 5,800 Palestinian children.
  • A series of polls published over the last week reveal widespread youth and Democratic discontent with President Biden’s support for Israel’s war on Gaza.A poll from NBC News released on Sunday shows that only 40% of American voters approve of President Biden—the lowest level of his presidency—and 70% of voters 18–34 disapprove of Biden’s policy on Israel’s war. A Quinnipiac University poll published Thursday showed that 52% of voters between the ages of 18 and 34 sympathize more with Palestinians. Meanwhile, 68% of Americans—including half of all Republicans and 75% of Democrats—want a ceasefire in Gaza, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll published Wednesday. A poll of Jewish Americans released Thursday found that about 80% support the US sending military aid to Israel, but there is a stark generational divide: 51% of people ages 18–35 support US military aid to Israel, while 92% of Americans 36–64 support aid.
  • On November 15th, Elon Musk hailed a post from a far-right account claiming that Jews “push dialectical hatred against whites” and that “hordes of minorities are flooding” the US. “You have said the actual truth,” the billionaire owner of X, formerly known as Twitter, wrote on the social media platform. His comment sparked widespread condemnation, including from the White House, and a massive boycott of the platform by advertisers. On November 17th, Musk tweeted that the popular Palestinian slogan “from the river to the sea” and the term “decolonization” should be understood as calls for “Jewish genocide,” and threatened to suspend users who use such language. The Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who had decried Musk’s earlier comment, praised the “important and welcome move.”
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