Students for Justice in Palestine: A Decade of Campus Activism
When the original Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) was founded at UC Berkeley in 2001, organizers immediately realized the importance of connecting, coordinating, and sharing resources with like-minded
campus organizations. To this end, they organized what was to be the first national conference of campus Palestine activists in the United States, held at Berkeley in February, 2002. Out of this conference was
born the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM), a coalition comprised of dozens of (mainly) campus-based organizations across North America. The centerpiece of its platform: divestment from Israel.
Four more conferences were to follow, at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Ohio State University (Columbus), Duke University (Durham), and finally at Georgetown University (Washington, DC) in 2006. The conferences were used for internal education, for the exchange of ideas and experiences, to coordinate "days of action", and to attempt to develop a national infrastructure similar to that created by the PSM's Canadian equivalent, Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR).
By the time of the final conference, the landscape of Palestine solidarity activism had changed dramatically. Israel's increasing impunity had begun to make it more acceptable to publicly criticize its policies, and the traditionally hostile mainstream media in the United States were beginning to allow other viewpoints to be heard. With the passage of the landmark Palestinian Civil Society Call in July 2005, support for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) beganto grow beyond a relatively small core of students and faith-based
activists to become the dominant form of organizing for Palestine solidarity activists worldwide. New campaign victories were surpassing the symbolic and becoming increasingly tangible. The "learned helplessness" which had been endemic to the movement, particularly in the United States, was evaporating.
Why, then, did the PSM collapse? Although many factors played a role (such as the burnout or graduation of key organizers, or perhaps the fact that a dependence on "key organizers" had emerged in the first place), the most significant were bureaucratic in nature. Massive expenditures of time were made bickering over minute aspects of the coalition's platform, and a perceived attempt by one member group to seize control the coalition led to the establishment of new layers of bureaucracy, making it difficult to participate in the PSM at a national level while remaining substantively involved in local organizing.
When, on the heels of achieving the first tangible university divestment victory in the US, members of Hampshire College SJP decided that the time was once more ripe to pursue the national coordination
of campus Palestine activism, they were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the PSM. Assembled on Hampshire's campus in 2009, representatives of campus groups from across North America passed only
a single resolution: to endorse the 2005 Palestinian BDS call, thus bypassing pointless sectarian bickering by making the document,reflecting the consensus position of Palestinian civil society, the unifying framework for their organizing efforts. Although a national infrastructure did not directly emerge from the conference, a smaller national gathering was organized by American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) at the 2010 US Social Forum, and months later, sixty SJPs and allied student groups united to compose and disseminate a statement in
response to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL's) designation of SJP as one of the “Top 10 Anti-Israel Groups in America”.
Drawing on a decade of experience, internalizing the lessons of past efforts, and inspired by the courage, resilience and determination of the Palestinian people, organizers and attendees of the 2011 National
SJP Conference are poised to usher in new era of coordination and mutual empowerment among campus Palestine activists in the UnitedStates. The student movement was instrumental in bringing about the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and it is within our power to ensure that it helps to bring about the end of Apartheid in Israel/Palestine as well.
This essay, by Abraham Greenhouse, appeared in the program distributed at the 2011 National Conference of Students for Justice in Palestine.