On October 23, student organizers and members of Illinois Student Government (ISG) were elated to hear that a resolution demanding an apology from University of Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones had been passed by a vote of 29-4. The resolution criticized Chancellor Jones’s Massmail, which conflated criticizing Israel with anti-Semitism. In his Massmail, Jones relegates a swastika incident to a footnote, but dedicates paragraphs to the “anti-Semitic content” of a Multicultural Advocate’s student presentation on Palestine. Jones later admitted in an in-person meeting that this opinion was based on the interpretation by one student. ISG members also voted to send out their own Massmail (ISG is allotted three Massmails). The Massmail would be a factual response to the Chancellor’s email. The ISG victory came at a time when Palestinian students were being harrassed online by means of death threats and Islamophobic slurs.
Chancellor Jones’s email also included a list of his steps to ensure a safe campus, including training for housing personnel and reviews of housing policy and paraprofessionals hired. Despite this detailed agenda, there was no discussion of investigating the swastika found on campus, nor have there been any further statements on the swastikas that have appeared since.
Earlier, several student organizations, including Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), protested at the Homecoming Parade on October 18. The demonstration was accompanied by a list of demands that SJP made in response to Chancellor Jones’s email. Among other items, SJP demanded a new Middle Eastern Cultural Studies house, new Multicultural Advocate training on anti-Semitism, and for the Chancellor himself to resign.
SJP’s fight to stop the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism has received much support from campus organizations, all of which signed on to the demand for the Chancellor’s resignation. Jewish Voice for Peace Champaign-Urbana, United Muslim Minority Advocates, Black Students for Revolution, Movimento Estudiantil, Students Against Sexual Assault, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Students for Environmental Concerns, Fossil Free UIUC, Black United Front, Young Democratic Socialists of America, Graduate Employees’ Organization IFT/AFT Local 6300, Women of Pride, Arab Student Assocation, Muslim Student Association, and Pakistani Students Assocation formally supported the cause, while a host of other organizations served as independent allies and offered informal support.
The ISG’s resolution to formally differentiate between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is one of the first such declarations to come from a university as large as UIUC. While it is arguably a small win in the larger struggle, it offers a moment of recognition for student solidarity against white supremacy on campus. SJP’s actions have also given an example to other activists of how to get student demands taken seriously. Escalating from written lists of demands to several protests and to the win at the level of student government, by enlisting many co-sponsors SJP has succeeded in putting enormous pressure on the university administration to cease its support of Israeli apartheid.
Anti-Zionist struggle has made its way to even the institutions most fervently in support of Israel. Recently, at Harvard University, students staged a walkout against the Israeli Consulate General of New York, who was presenting the legal strategy for Israeli settlements. Student activism has proven to effectively raise the mass consciousness of the public. The win also comes amidst a resurgence of Palestinian solidarity movements in the US, with the pro-Zionist Jerusalem Post even recently admitting that anti-Zionism has “elbowed its way from the extremist fringe into the mainstream political discourse.”
Readers interested in finding ways to support Students for Justice in Palestine can check out their facebook page at Facebook.com/SJP.UIUC. Students for Justice in Palestine has recuring teach-in and workshop events about the Great Return March, the 1948 Palestinian exodus (Nakba) and other topics, as well as cultural events.
Rue Abbas is a student of the University of Illinois and a supporter of the Students for Justice in Palestine branch there.