How a Pro-Palestinian Group Became a Leader of Campus Protests

After last month’s attack on Israel by Hamas, Students for Justice in Palestine promoted a “tool kit” for activists that proclaimed “glory to our resistance.” The group has been banned or suspended by Brandeis, Columbia and George Washington University. And it was recently the target of thundering speeches on Capitol Hill and blistered during a Republican presidential debate.

In the six weeks since Hamas attacked Israel, there may be no college group that has drawn more scrutiny than Students for Justice in Palestine, perhaps the most popular and divisive campus organization championing the Palestinian cause.

But unlike many national campus groups — whether they are sororities, fraternities, religious or political — Students for Justice in Palestine is by design a loosely connected network of autonomous chapters. There is no national headquarters and no named leader. There is a national student steering committee, but it is anonymous. The group has never registered as a nonprofit, and it has never had to file tax documents.

One of the people who founded it about 30 years ago, Hatem Bazian, has described the setup as “a symbolic franchise without a franchise fee.”

That deliberate lack of hierarchy has been crucial to the network’s ascent, allowing chapters to spring up with few obstacles, according to interviews with 20 people and a survey of videos, academic writings, archival news accounts and public records. The network’s constellation of tactics and rhetoric, including theatrical demonstrations with “apartheid walls” and mock Israeli checkpoints, has been replicated on campuses across the country.

The flat structure, though, has also fueled worries among pro-Israel groups that accuse the network of driving antisemitism on campuses, often with little accountability. A 2016 report from the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis asserted that the presence of a chapter on a campus was “one of the strongest predictors of perceiving a hostile climate toward Israel and Jews.”

A member of Students for Justice in Palestine’s national steering committee in Stanton Park, in Washington, D.C.Credit…Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The New York Times
A second member of the committee wearing a pro-Palestinian necklace.Credit…Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The New York Times

Some critics of the network have gone as far as to raise fears that the student group has illegal financial ties to Hamas, which the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization. But they have not marshaled irrefutable evidence of that, and no prosecutor has ever brought charges against the network.

Members acknowledge that their tactics can provoke discomfort, but insist that the group’s mission is focused on progressive causes, mainly the plight of Palestinians, and combating ills that include white supremacy and antisemitism. And they believe that the group’s structure is inseparable from its integrity as a student activist movement, which has surged in intensity as the death toll in Gaza — now more than 11,000, according to the authorities there — has increased.

Three members of the national steering committee said that they had been drawn to the network, which has been closely tied to organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, because they saw it as a time-tested way to press for sweeping, radical change.

The committee members, all current or recently graduated students who were interviewed in Washington, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they said they worried for their safety. Some members of the group have had their personal information posted online without their permission.

“I think this is a moment where my personal feelings don’t matter at all,” said Carrie, a 22-year-old Jewish person from Baltimore and the only steering committee member who agreed to allow part of her name to be published. “My priority is showing up for my Palestinian and Arab comrades.”

Students for Justice in Palestine helped organize this month’s pro-Palestinian march in Washington. Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times

Drawing Headlines

Although published reports have pegged its founding to 2001, Students for Justice in Palestine actually began in the early 1990s at the University of California, Berkeley, according to Dr. Bazian, one of the founders.

Apartheid was collapsing in South Africa, he said, and some critics of Pretoria’s policies turned toward the Palestinian cause through the new student group. Other activists — environmentalists, opponents of American intervention in Latin America, critics of the gulf war — joined in, broadening the group’s base.

Recalling its early days in a speech last month, Dr. Bazian said, “Anyone who wants to organize for Palestine is welcome, as long as you have the principle of centering Palestinian concerns.”

Some researchers and former members believe the Oslo Peace Accords, which in the 1990s created a foundation for a Middle East peace process, briefly sapped interest in the group. In 2000, as the Second Intifada commenced after the collapse of peace talks, activity increased.

By the middle of 2001, the Berkeley group was drawing headlines. It pressed unsuccessfully for the university system’s regents to divest from Israel, and it blocked a campus gate to simulate an Israeli checkpoint. Dozens of people were arrested during a protest when students locked most of a campus building’s doors with chains and prevented people from using the remaining entrances, according to an account at the time by a campus publication, The Daily Californian.

“No justice, no midterm!” went one chant, according to The Mercury News, a newspaper in nearby San Jose, Calif. (Some people, The Daily Californian reported, climbed through windows to try to get to classes.)

Hatem Bazian said that he helped found the group in the early 1990s.Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times

The group’s protests eventually included “apartheid walls” with students, dressed as Palestinian refugees, standing nearby. Members and supporters saw the head-turning demonstrations as ways to puncture press coverage that they regarded as too sympathetic toward Israel.

But other students and faculty members said the group’s approach heightened polarization. At some point, the group picked up a nickname among critics at Berkeley and elsewhere: “Students for Just Us in Palestine.”

“The way S.J.P. framed the debate, it was kind of more interested in inflaming emotions, placing the blame, rather than trying to educate others,” said Scott Newman, the president of the Jewish Student Union at Berkeley for the 2000-1 academic year.

Mr. Newman, who said he did not remember tense protests before the group’s resurgence, described the tactics as “hostile” and recalled a demonstration where someone had a sign bearing three symbols: the Star of David, an equal sign and a swastika. Recalling the approach more than two decades later, he said: “You go to Berkeley, you get used to ordinary political protest. This was not that.”

He said, though, that Students for Justice in Palestine was effective at drawing attention to its interpretation of events and policy.

The Sept. 11 terror attacks upended the group’s momentum, but less than a year later, with many American Muslims feeling demonized, chapter members were holding a vigil at Harvard and staging weekly sit-ins at the University of Illinois.

“It was following in sort of the Berkeley tradition of social action,” said William Youmans, an associate professor at George Washington who was a member of the Berkeley chapter around that time.

The hugely visible demonstrations in California, he said, allowed the group to expand, even as it remained decentralized, its chapters autonomous.

Students for Justice in Palestine hosted a sign-making and education event this year at Arizona State University.Credit…Megan Mendoza/The Republic, via USA Today Network, via Reuters

Early leaders like Dr. Bazian feared infiltration and disruption, so there was no national chain of command. In an interview, Dr. Bazian, now a lecturer at Berkeley, said that the approach “allows for any campus that sees the principle to initiate a chapter and get going.”

It was not unusual for universities to help underwrite the groups, as they have often done with registered student organizations. Dr. Youmans remembered that the Berkeley chapter of his era “would survive on funding from the university or the equivalent of bake sales.”

The sums have not always been princely. In 2013, the University of Tennessee’s chapter received $550. (Organizers of “Sex Week” were awarded $20,000.) Chapters have often seemed closer to broke than flush.

“The other day, I was like, ‘Why don’t you all make a good banner?’” said Pranav Jani, the faculty adviser to the chapter at Ohio State University, where he is an associate professor. “They were like, ‘Well, we don’t have any money.’”

In Chicago, the chapter at DePaul University sometimes gets donations of falafel or hummus from local restaurants, according to Laila Farah, the chapter’s faculty adviser and an associate professor at the university.

Researchers and pro-Israel groups have spent years trying to trace the network’s funding and have been skeptical of the poverty claims. They note that the national group collects donations, but the amount has not been made public. They have also cited the network’s intellectual and financial connections to American Muslims for Palestine, a Virginia group mired in litigation over whether it is an “alter ego” for a disbanded organization linked to Hamas.

Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an organization that has been critical of Hamas, told Congress in 2016 that American Muslims for Palestine was “arguably the most important sponsor and organizer” for the student group. With that support, he told a House committee this past Wednesday, groups like Students for Justice in Palestine “systematically threaten or intimidate Jewish and pro-Israel students.”

Dr. Bazian, now the chairman of American Muslims for Palestine’s board, played down its ties to the student group, which he said were generally limited to providing printed materials and offering grants for students to bring in speakers or attend conferences. He said that his group does not have meaningful power over Students for Justice in Palestine.

The student network’s lack of formal structure has not helped ease concerns. Even after the group developed a national steering committee that helped organize conferences and other resources, critics said, it did not declare itself a nonprofit or formally incorporate.

The steering committee members recoiled at the notion of coast-to-coast infrastructure, even if it could maybe yield more money and more trust.

“It would jeopardize the integrity of our movement as a grass-roots one,” Carrie said.

The steering committee members said that they had no control over campus chapters. The committee, which today has about a dozen members, sees itself as an advisory body, with members saying they offer the local chapters little more than ideas and, from time to time, tools that they can elect to use.

Among the network’s alumni, the national group can come off as informal.

“I tried to reach out to them to say, ‘I was involved, and, hey, if you want to talk,’” Dr. Youmans said of a past entreaty. “They never really got back to me.”

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine’s steering committee say that their informal structure is important to the group. Credit…Bing Guan for The New York Times

‘There Are Mistakes Made. There Are Triumphs Made.’

For years, the notoriety of Students for Justice in Palestine rose after protests at one university or another: an interim suspension at Berkeley after occupying an academic building; at Rutgers, the donning of shirts splattered with red to resemble blood; at George Washington, a dispute over anti-Zionism posters.

But after the Hamas attacks in October, a five-page “Day of Resistance” tool kit reverberated far beyond campuses.

Distributed by the national steering committee, the packet included a template for an illustrated advertisement that showed a thicket of protesters beneath a Palestinian flag.

From above, a paraglider seemed to fly in — widely perceived as a deliberate echo of Hamas’s use of paragliders during its assault on Israel last month.

“We as Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement,” the tool kit said, “not in solidarity with this movement.”

The tool kit cemented the idea for many critics that the group supported Hamas, at least ideologically. The Anti-Defamation League and the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law have accused the network of “celebrating terrorism.”

Steering committee members declined to discuss the tool kit for this article. But one member, who had recently graduated from a university in Texas, said the group was broadly engaged in a “constant process of trial, error, growth until freedom.”

“We are working to find the best way for our people to live a life not under siege,” the member said. “And there are mistakes made. There are triumphs made.”

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration argued that the tool kit amounted to material support for terrorism — defined by law as providing, or conspiring to provide, “property, tangible or intangible, or service” to a foreign terrorist organization — and sought the “deactivation” of two chapters at public universities in the state.

Legal experts doubted that the proposed ban was legal, and the American Civil Liberties Union and Palestine Legal filed a lawsuit on Thursday.

During a state university system board meeting on Nov. 9, Chancellor Ray Rodrigues signaled that the state was largely backing down. The campus groups, Mr. Rodrigues said, had “represented to administration that they are not chartered or under the headship of the National Students for Justice in Palestine.”

The group’s supporters said they were unsurprised by the newest phase of the campaign to discredit the network. Anything else, Dr. Youmans said, “would have been a break from a really rich history.”

Mr. Newman, the former Jewish Student Union leader at Berkeley, said he was unsurprised that Students for Justice in Palestine remained a force.

“As long as there’s people willing to listen to one side of the story, groups like S.J.P. will continue to exist,” he said.

The chapters are still signing up members and still posting on Instagram. The students from the steering committee, though, said they sometimes struggle to grapple with the intense public glare and the weight of events thousands of miles from American campuses.

“The range of emotions that I’ve been feeling,” a 23-year-old psychology student said, “I didn’t know that this many emotions existed.”

Stephanie Saul contributed reporting from New York.

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