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Friday, Dec 8, 2023

Why Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) worries me

The Middlebury chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has created a website that helps us understand the extent of the suffering of the Palestinian people currently and in the past. In this op-ed, I do not deny the merit of their arguments for the rights of the Palestinian people, but I do draw attention to a harmful blind spot in their activism.


The 21st century is, without a doubt, a frightening time to be Jewish. Antisemitism has increased exponentially in recent years; the FBI reported in 2019 that out of 1,521 anti-religion hate crimes in the US, 953 (62.7%) incidents were anti-Jewish. Taking into account the fact that Jews make up about 2% of the U.S. population, it is safe to say that American Jews face a dire threat. White nationalists use American Jews as an explanation for the growing agency and social equality of racial minorities in the U.S. Antisemitism in America fuels the fire of white nationalism like oxygen, hence the inherent antisemitic ideology of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and the swastikas and other anti-Jewish hate symbols among many insurrectionists and domestic terrorists who broke into the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021.

Jews’ suffering is not limited to the contemporary US, however; in the pogroms of the 19th and 20th centuries the leaders of tsarist Russia suppressed the Bolshevik Revolution by redirecting the people’s anger toward Jews, which led to a catastrophe in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were wounded, raped, mutilated and slaughtered. As a result, millions of Jews were forced to immigrate westward. Out of the need to protect the Jewish people from such objectively horrific atrocities formed the movement known as Zionism. As if Jews hadn’t suffered enough, the Nazi regime in the 1930s blamed their social and economic quandaries on Jews, leading to the genocide of 60% of the world’s Jewish population, roughly equating to six million. Countless Jews were left without a home, for their communities from before the Holocaust were either occupied or demolished; This existential crisis for the Jewish people led to the heightened urgency of Zionism among Jews and those who sought to protect them. Any explanation of Zionism that doesn’t account for Jews’ indescribable torment in the past and present constitutes complacency with the forces of brutality and oppression.

Due to historical and present-day anti-Jewish violence, my description of which barely scratches the surface, the need for a safe haven for the Jewish people is more relevant than ever before. This, naturally, does not mean that we may not criticize the government of the State of Israel (in which I find appalling flaws); in fact, constructive criticism is especially beneficial in this area for the purpose of creating a more peaceful and equitable Israel/Palestine for all. 

However, it is of the utmost importance that any critics of the State of Israel explicitly state their support for a safe haven for Jews because of the prevalence of antisemitism and anti-Jewish violence in the world. To my great dismay, the organization called Students for Justice in Palestine not only disregards the need to protect Jews in their condemnations of the State of Israel, but they also actively advocate for the dismantling of the Jewish safe haven with their support of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), whose co-founder (Omar Barghouti) claimed that “[Palestinians have a right to]... armed resistance… [Jews] are not a people.” 

I argue that although criticism of the Israeli government does not necessarily equate to antisemitism, the unconditional criticism of the State of Israel without the explicit acknowledgement of Jews’ right to a safe space demonstrates a frightening lack of regard for the lingering effects of genocide and oppression against Jews. Additionally, by referring in their title to the entire area at hand simply as “Palestine,” SJP insinuates utter illegitimacy of the Israeli state. By extension, they perpetuate the antisemitic notion that Jews be denied a safe space, demonstrating complacency in aforementioned oppression and genocide.

The state of Israel was meant to provide a safe space in which Jews could flourish free of ethnic cleansing. However, I struggle to find the words to express my lamentation for the manner in which this was carried out; rather than creating a land of emancipation and equal opportunities, those who wished to protect Jews fought fire with fire, protecting the well-being of Jews at the cost of that of Palestinian Arabs who had largely inhabited the region beforehand. The rights of those Palestinian Arabs who did not flee in many manners were infringed upon, and these people have suffered unspeakable inequality and maltreatment for decades under various Israeli administrations. Notably, the current administration, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, has continued building settlements in Palestinian territory, disturbing the precarious situation and violating Article 49 of the Geneva Convention. Because of this, the International Criminal Court (ICC) based in The Hague, Netherlands, has rightfully opened a formal investigation regarding war crimes committed by the Israeli government in Palestinian territories.

By extension, I also deem rightful the objective of Students for Justice in Palestine to put an end to systemic discrimination against Palestinian Arabs in the land of Israel/Palestine by promoting peaceful activism against the Israeli government. That being said, SJP’s positions take into account neither the lingering effects of the Holocaust nor the anti-Jewish hatred which has persisted throughout the fabric of history — SJP claims that Zionism is nothing more than a colonialist ideology, going as far as entertaining the proposal that Jewish nationals return to the lands of Eastern Europe, whose peoples had so horrifically slaughtered their Jewish populations. As a result of this complacency and lack of consideration for the implications of their own demands, even if it is not their intention, SJP harmfully aligns itself with those who hope to cause the further oppression of Jews.

This brings me to my denunciation of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, a campaign which lies at the foundation of SJP. The third tenet of BDS calls for “the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.” If Palestinians Arabs inhabited the land of Israel/Palestine before 1948, and all Palestinian Arabs and their descendents are to return to their original homes, where are Jews to go as the cycle of anti-Jewish violence and antisemitism persists? As Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the BDS movement said: “If the [Palestinian] refugees were to return, you would not have a two-state solution, you’d have a Palestine next to a Palestine.” 

SJP does not even attempt to address this question; while their intention is righteous and ethical, the result of the policies it promotes is tolerant (or, dare I say, encouraging) of the hate that has universally plagued the Jewish people. The fulfillment of SJP’s demand for BDS, therefore, de facto amounts to the utter destruction of the state of Israel. Additionally, BDS completely disregards the fact that more than a fifth of the current population of Israeli territory identify as Palestinian Arabs; this tenet, were it to be fulfilled, would expropriate the land not only of Jews but also of countless Palestinian Arabs. The notion that Palestinian refugees be granted equal access to their homeland is a virtuous and respectable demand that I would support; the notion that Palestinian Arabs return to the exact residences in which they used to live, however, is logistically inconceivable and demonstrates an incomplete understanding of the situation at hand. 

Finally, Middlebury SJP’s justification for their unconditional support of BDS — that Zionism consists of a “pernicious” instance of European colonialism — merely comprises a red herring designed to allow them to justify their harmful ideology by misleadingly comparing it to the malicious intentions of European colonizers. Although the British Empire’s presence in the Middle East may have embodied colonial interests to a certain extent, this explanation ignores the fact that the League of Nations precisely gave the British a mandate to administer the region. While Middlebury SJP’s definition of Zionism briefly mentions antisemitism, they fail to acknowledge the Holocaust or any form of anti-Jewish violence; ignoring these Jewish existential crises and by extension the humanity of the Jewish people exhibits blatant antisemtism. In short, the notion that Zionism is merely an embodiment of colonialism allows SJP to turn a blind eye to the need to protect the Jewish people, which is incompatible with SJP’s political agenda. In its current state, Middlebury SJP strays far from its pledge to “advocate for the rights, freedoms, and dignity of all people,” as promised on their official Facebook page.

In its neglect for the necessity of a Jewish safe haven and its support of the BDS movement, the organization called Students for Justice in Palestine treats the Israeli/Palestinian conflict like a zero-sum game: their demands imply that only one of the two peoples may inhabit the area known as Israel/Palestine. I urge activists for Palestinian rights, and anyone reading this article, to reject this misleading and injurious idea. The claim that anti-Zionism may not be equated with antisemitism is an utter falsehood, for it ignores the indelible fact that the two ideologies time and again come hand-in-hand. To those who virtuously fight for the human rights and equity of the Palestinian people: let us all unite against the structural inequality and atrocities committed by the Israeli government! I cannot stress enough, however, that in order for this cooperation to be feasible, I and many other Jews must know that we all agree on the legitimacy of the Jewish State and its reason for existence. As long as you support the BDS movement, which effectively advocates for the destruction of the Jewish State and thus constitutes an existential threat to the Jewish people, neither progress nor peace will ever be within reach. 


Editor’s Note: Although Max Shulman-Litwin is a member of the Middlebury Hillel Board, he speaks only for himself in this article.

Max Shulman-Litwin is a member of the class of 2022.