Georgetown’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) hosted a series of events educating the community about Palestinian culture and the human rights issues at stake in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Between March 14 and March 18, SJP hosted nearly 400 participants for discussions, a film screening, an art event, and a gala to close out Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW).
According to two SJP representatives, this year’s IAW brought record levels of engagement, evidenced in part by the long list of event co-sponsors: GU Stand with Kashmir (SWK), GU Muslim Student Association (MSA), the Gender+ Justice Initiative, the graduate and undergraduate Black Student Alliance, the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees, and a number of organizations that shared information about the events via social media.
“Successful weeks like these push us to understand that what we’re doing is good and that we need to continue to fight,” one representative said. “I know we can start having more events and we’ll have people genuinely interested in what we’re talking about. Every year I think we’re gaining members,” another added, and emphasized that SJP is open to any student who wants to learn more about the crisis itself or Palestinian culture more broadly, even if they are not Palestinian.
“People assume that we’re only a political organization, but I don’t think that’s fair. I think we try to cover all the bases of art and culture and music because that all ultimately feeds into our goal of education,” they added. While the organization is rooted in efforts to call attention to the human rights of Palestinians living in Israeli-occupied territory, SJP has also grown to include a broader educational mandate.
“There’s also an interconnectedness of struggles,” one representative said, pointing to the number and diversity of co-sponsors. “Our struggles are not the same, but we like to uplift each other.”
Doha Maaty (NHS ’23), an MSA and SWK member, explained the rationale for both groups co-sponsoring some of the week’s events. “My goal for co-sponsoring was to help provide a larger platform for SJP and support them so that they had the ability to have the events that they did,” she wrote to the Voice. “It’s also important because both of the organizations that I co-sponsored with strongly believe that what is occurring currently and has occurred historically is wrong and believe that spreading knowledge on such topics is an important moral requirement.”
“When you look at where we were at a few years ago, it was really hard to get other groups to feel like they could engage with what we were doing,” another SJP representative added, indicating the amount of progress made.
Nevertheless, advocacy on the subject remains fraught, especially for Palestinian students. One SJP representative added that Palestinian students may be blacklisted from entering Israel on account of their speech and actions.
After IAW posters in Red Square were torn down in the weeks leading up to the event, interim Vice President for Student Affairs Jeanne Lord sent an email to the community with reminders about Georgetown’s free speech policies.
“Red Square is uniquely located as a public forum expressly designed for the impromptu and ongoing expression of ideas and viewpoints by members of our campus community,” the email read. “All members of the community can expect to encounter a true marketplace of ideas in this central campus place.”
At the same time, Lord emphasized the limits of university policy, which protects against illegal or threatening speech, defamation, and harassment. “Georgetown is committed to free speech, whether in the classroom, in other spaces on campus, or online, even when that speech may be controversial or objectionable, but we do not tolerate harassment or bullying in violation of university policies,” she wrote.
Maaty described the reasons she and many of her peers continue to advocate, despite the risks. “It mainly comes from the idea that people shouldn’t suffer at the hands of others, and it continues to be motivated because of a desire that people need to be made aware of what is happening around them,” she wrote. “The risk for students doing this activism is actually quite unimaginable and horrendous because it includes being targeted in every aspect of life and even putting your family in danger.”
Other student organizations, including the Georgetown Israel Alliance (GIA), took issue with some of SJP’s programming.
“As Georgetown students, it is essential that we support and actively defend each other’s right to free speech,” the executive board wrote in a statement. “Georgetown Israel Alliance welcomes any and all dialogue with respect to Israel, and urges for a space where members of both GIA and SJP can discuss their perspectives and feelings on these topics.”
At the same time, they disagreed with the framing of the SJP events.
“Classifying Israel as an apartheid state is not only incorrect, but dangerously misinformed. This misinformation is counterproductive to promoting genuine reforms in Israel, and has the potential to harm Israeli citizens of all religions and ethnicities in undermining the nation’s legitimacy,” the board wrote.
Last week, a United Nations Human Rights Council investigator, Michael Lynk, accused Israel of apartheid—the first UN claim of its kind, according to the New York Times.
GIA also cited examples of unknown students tearing down or defacing the organization’s own posters in Red Square in March, advertising an event about wounded Israeli Defense Forces soldiers. “Half of our fliers were gone, and under the few remaining fliers of our event left, were new fliers that stated Palestinians killed in conflict along with the quote ‘They are not heroes. They are war criminals,’” GIA wrote in an email to the Voice. “We welcome open and honest dialogue to talk about our differences and express our opinions, but not intimidation.”
Even when the discourse on campus threatens to turn ugly, an SJP representative said the organization aims to take the high road. “We just carry on doing the work we do because that’s the best response you can have and do all of that within the guidelines and rules of the school,” they said.
Representatives from SJP wished to remain anonymous to avoid reprisals for their activism.