Among the groups on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of the “top ten anti-Israel groups in America” was Students for Justice in Palestine, a nationwide group of organizations on a variety of college campuses working on Palestine solidarity in universities.
SJP chapters have been instrumental in moving the cause of Palestinian justice and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement forward in the United States. At Hampshire College, the SJP chapter successfully pressured the college’s board of trustees to divest from holdings it had in companies that profit from the Israeli occupation, a first in the United States. Last academic year at the University of California, Berkeley, the SJP chapter there attracted international attention for its groundbreaking effort to push their college to divest from companies complicit in the Israeli occupation, although their initiative was ultimately felled by a veto from the president of the student government.
It’s no wonder why the ADL is targeting the group.
Immediately after the ADL’s release of the “top ten anti-Israel groups in America” list, a number of SJP chapters quickly organized to put out a response, calling the list a “disingenuous and misguided attempt to vilify students that criticize Israel’s occupation, which denies Palestinian human rights and self-determination.”
For more on SJP’s response to the ADL, I recently caught up with Yaman Salahi, a student at Yale Law School who is involved with SJP at Yale.
Alex Kane: What was your immediate reaction to SJP being included on the ADL’s list?
Yaman Salahi: Given the ADL’s record for smearing anyone speaking out for Palestinian freedom, for justice and human rights, it was not surprising. But the idea was kind of creepy — what kind of person would be interested in this kind of Top 10 list? What’s the point of the list? Why did the ADL create it? There’s no real useful substance in it at all, there are not even compelling factual findings. To the extent that the ADL smears activists supporting the Palestinian struggle for freedom and equality, it just didn’t seem like a very effective smear.
I think that the list really has a marketing function. The ADL list is an exercise in branding. The ADL recognizes that SJP and groups like JVP [Jewish Voice for Peace] have a growing influence on fair-minded people. It recognizes that these groups are breaking out of the activism circle and have growing influence on the mainstream. It recognizes that these groups are getting savvier by the day and are learning how to mobilize and intervene effectively.
Nowhere in its report does the ADL challenge the basis for our activism. Nowhere in its report does it say: “Israel should, in fact, be allowed to use white phosphorous as a weapon against civilians.” Nowhere does it say: “Israel should be allowed to bomb, indiscriminately, the civilians of Gaza.” Nowhere does it say: “Israel has a right to demolish the homes of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, and hand their properties over to Jewish settlers.” Those are all the implications though because that is the kind of stuff we speak out against. But the ADL report constructs a vacuum completely devoid of moral principles and ethical concerns, nowhere acknowledging our motivating principles, and implies that if you object to any of these kinds of injustices, that you are simply “anti-Israel.” It can avoid the burning truth of white phosphorous by relying on these kinds of sophomoric labels. But if its definition of “anti-Israel” is nothing more than holding Israel to universal standards of decency and justice, then “anti-Israel” can only be a badge of honor.
So the ADL is engaging in a branding campaign to combat the fact that we are social justice and human rights activists coming together to put a stop to a real wrong. It wants to dismiss all of these legitimate and compelling concerns and rely simply on the label “anti-Israel.” It doesn’t even define “anti-Israel” — instead, the ADL relies on whatever preconceptions exist in readers’ minds to define the term for themselves. So you can see, it brings together not only ten very different organizations, all over the political spectrum, in order to imply some sort of “guilt” by association, but also to brand all these groups as nothing more than “anti-Israel.” It wants to distort the causality by suggesting that we are irrationally “anti-Israel,” that we have no legitimate reason for our attitudes. In fact, activists speak out against Israel because of what we know about Israel’s history and because of what we know about what Israel does every day to the Palestinians. The ADL wants to pretend that people who speak out against what Israel has done and continues to do are not motivated by the Nakba, the occupation, the siege of Gaza, apartheid, war crimes, etcetera, but by something else. It has to pretend that’s the case in order to dodge the real issues. That’s a deliberate strategy. The ADL doesn’t want Americans to judge Israel based on the facts; it wants to judge Israel based on marketing images.
AK: What do you think SJP’s inclusion on the list says about the state of the Palestine solidarity movement in the U.S., and specifically on campus?
YS: I think it reflects the tremendous growth of student activism on the issue. By and large campus organizations are autonomous of one another, but now, networks are beginning to form. I think that these networks have a lot of potential. I believe that the response issued by SJP and signed by over 60 campus groups is the first coordinated action of that scale. It’s really promising because such networks can be leveraged in support of much more ambitious and effective campaigns, on a national scale. I think that the ADL sees the writing on the wall, and that is why it wants to focus on SJP. I think it believes that the divestment Debate at UC Berkeley was just the tip of the iceberg, and that because it can’t argue on the merits, the ADL has to resort to ad hominem attacks instead.
Nevertheless, it’s important not to react triumphantly. Just because the ADL puts us on its blacklist doesn’t mean we are guaranteed to succeed. We will succeed, but only if we are serious and work hard. The best way to honor this report is for students to find ways to provoke meaningful discussion and action on their own campuses. Students must always re-focus the discussion on Israel’s actions, because the ADL and other groups like it want to derail all discussions about Israel’s actions. We have to provoke the discussions that they can’t win.
AK: What do you think the list itself tells us about the ADL?
YS: It re-affirms that the ADL can’t be taken seriously when it comes to the Middle East. It has no moral authority. It is nothing more than a cheerleader for Israel, with absolutely no fidelity to values of justice or equality. It can’t cite a single progressive value that would support the creation of such a McCarthyist list. Seriously, what value does it promote? None. That’s not the ADL’s only unprincipled position lately. It took the shocking position that Muslims trying to build a mosque in New York City were doing something “offensive.” It’s almost as if the ADL was saying that, in order to avoid offending anyone, Muslims should only build mosques at the back of the bus. As far as the ADL is concerned, Muslims and Arabs have fewer rights than others. It can’t be taken seriously. It just honored Rupert Murdoch — what kind of organization that cares about racism, equality, civil rights would celebrate Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News?
AK: Do SJP chapters plan on capitalizing on the attention the ADL has given you guys, and if so, how will you capitalize on it
YS: I can’t really speak for any SJP chapter on this. I think the fact that so many groups came together to issue that joint statement says that there’s definitely an intention to use this opportunity to contribute to the public discourse, to defend student activism, and to make sure that Israel is accountable for its actions. However, to be honest, the ADL’s report itself didn’t get very much attention. Generally, only Israeli newspapers and a couple Jewish-American publications covered it, and most focused on the inclusion of Jewish Voice for Peace. This focus itself reflects a characteristic of public discourse that I think can only be described as a form of racism: many people only pay attention when the right-wing Israel defenders attack Jews or Israelis, but insofar as they’re only attacking Arabs, Muslims, or other human rights activists, not very many people are interested. It’s funny, in a way, though, that the ADL would include JVP on this list. It goes back to the whole guilt by association thing. Here, the ADL is basically saying: “Look, JVP hangs out with Arabs & Muslims!” In other words, they’re Arab-lovers! Last time people talked like this, they lost. I think this attack by the ADL is a good opportunity for SJPs to gain access to public forums and respond. I hope people can use the opportunity to draw more attention to the real issues, like Israeli war crimes and the occupation of Palestinian land.