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
November 21, 2023

A Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) action at Columbia University in 2016.

M. Stan Reaves/Alamy Live News

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 editor 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.”

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents.