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  • Amaris Martins

Solidarity from Clinton to Gaza: Hamilton’s Students for Justice in Palestine

Due to the sensitive nature of this subject and threats made against pro-Palestinian advocates at colleges and universities across the US, students interviewed for this article were offered anonymity. Learn more about the basic history of Israel and Palestine here.

When word first reached the Monitor on October 6th, 2023, that there would soon be a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus, the students founding it in hopes of educating the campus community about the State of Israel’s long standing policy of apartheid against Palestinians didn’t realize how quickly they would be thrown into the spotlight. Hamas would attack Israel just a day later.

SJP aims to raise awareness of Israel’s killing of over 33,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip since then. The Israeli military’s actions have destroyed most of Gaza, with leaders and soldiers alike often expressing disregard for civilian wellbeing. Experts have described the State of Israel’s actions as consistent with genocide, and college campuses across the country have become a locus of contention over the US government’s military support for Israel. This week, SJP has partnered with a variety of other student organizations to host “Apartheid Week,” a set of educational and protest events aimed at raising awareness, fundraising for humanitarian aid, and advocating for policy changes. Participation in and partnerships with SJP have often included both Jewish and Muslim students.

SJP's Apartheid Week poster

SJP expressed concern that the Hamilton College community hadn't taken as many steps to educate and advocate about the ongoing genocide against Palestinians as at other institutions. SJP chapters are a common sight on college campuses, with Columbia University, Colgate University, Williams College, and New York University being just a few examples. One E-Board member for SJP stated in an interview with the Monitor that, “One of my best friends from home, he is a member of an SJP chapter at a different school. And he had spoken very highly of it. It seemed to have accomplished a lot of success there.”

Similarly, another SJP E-Board member explained how they “come from a place where advocating for Palestine is very normal, or at least very popular. Coming from that sort of community and not having that here definitely made it seem more of an important thing to put onto this campus.”

These experiences fueled a desire to bring an SJP chapter to Hamilton and address what they perceived as a gap in awareness and open dialogue. To help bring awareness to and educate the Hamilton community, SJP plans to host fundraisers, invite speakers and well-known activists who are educated on the topic, and create informational sessions that would go more in-depth about the conflict. Last week, they protested Rep. Matt Cartwright ‘83 (D, PA-08) at Common Ground for his support for military aid to Israel and resistance to calling for a ceasefire. Before Hamilton SJP’s official founding, a variety of student groups hosted educational events in the fall semester. Most notably, the Feminists of Color Collective, Black and Latine Student Union, and Young Democratic Socialists of America hosted a teach-in in the Red Pit with faculty panelists Shoshana Keller and Margo Okazawa-Rey that garnered over a hundred attendees.

SJP also aims to hold the college administration accountable for its recent statements, and how they handle cases of discrimination or targeted attacks against students. An E-Board member for SJP told the Monitor, “in terms of [college] administration, we recognize that there are significant challenges across the board and most college administrations have been strongly against locally supporting Palestine. At most, they’ll take a semi-neutral stance that is still partial towards Israel. However, in our activities, last semester, with other pro-Palestine students, we were vocally critical of the way that the administration was approaching these issues, the way they were wording, their response to the situation, and how that was explicitly or implicitly biased towards Israel. So we will continue to at least make our concerns voiced about how the administration is handling response to the issue and the upcoming cases of discrimination or targeted attacks, if any come forward.”

Part of what SJP is referring to is a series of statements issued in the days and weeks following October 7th. An initial October 10th email from VP for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Sean Bennett sharing resources and broadly sympathizing with “all members of the community coming to grips with the loss of life” was met with outcry from some community members for not condemning Hamas. One well-known alumnus with over 800,000 Twitter followers, Democratic Party-aligned lawyer Marc Elias ‘90, threatened in a since-deleted tweet to levy additional public criticism if Hamilton did not issue a stronger statement.

President Wippman issued a statement on October 11th, which Hamilton replied to Elias’s tweet with, saying, “The recent terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israel serve as a gruesome reminder to all of us that intentionally targeting civilians is abhorrent and criminal.” Likely responding to criticisms, Wippman wrote that, “Bennett’s statement yesterday was intended to call attention to the resources available to students and others who might need support.”

Successive statements about the war and bias incidents – at first only pointing to antisemitism on campus, and later both antisemitism and Islamophobia – have not condemned any of Israel’s actions. It remains to be seen how the administration will respond to future student concerns (Hamilton officials did not respond to requests for comment for this article).

SJP has faced some of its own opposition. At the March 5th faculty meeting, according to meeting minutes, President Wippman announced he had received 75+ form letter emails from parents, students, alumni, etc, regarding campus climate, especially highlighting the recent formation of SJP and "they felt that the activities of SJP nationally created a hostile environment for Jewish students on many campuses.” He stated that he responded to every email by stating something along the lines of, “thank you for sharing your concerns. At Hamilton, we take very seriously complaints about Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, or other forms of bigotry and intolerance.” He continued, “we continue to work with students and others in the community to try to ensure there is respectful dialogue and a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students….students are entitled to express their views and to join organizations that are formed for that purpose.”

One of SJP’s recent events was a bake sale fundraiser for the United Nations Office for Palestine Refugees. When requesting funding for preparation, a member of the Student Government Alliance (SGA) raised a concern about funding SJP at the February 19th meeting. “SJP could be controversial considering the fact that the SGA cannot provide funding for a Jewish life organization.”

However, an administrator in the Dean of Students Office clarified that Jewish and religious organizations receive funding from the Chaplaincy while other clubs seek funding from SGA. Other members also clarified that SJP is not a religious organization; their mission aligns more with humanitarianism. The vote for their funding passed unanimously.

Advocating and speaking on such a controversial and political topic, however, is not easy for many members of the SJP. Fears of physical and emotional harm from backlash can be a significant deterrent, causing many members of the SJP to weigh their passion for the cause against the potential consequences. Pro-Palestinain advocacy groups have been met with backlash at other colleges and universities. For example, four Columbia University students were suspended indefinitely and evicted from their college housing for their involvement in an unauthorized “Resistance 101” event which featured Khaled Barakat, who is allegedly a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Columbia had previously suspended its Jewish Voice for Peace and SJP chapters. Three students were expelled, another suspended, and twenty were placed on disciplinary probation at Vanderbilt University for a similar protest. Nineteen students at Pomona College were arrested and placed on interim suspension during a pro-Palestine demonstration.

Responding to efforts at other institutions to restrict demonstration times and locations, Wippman told faculty, “My own view is that at least at a place like Hamilton, we should be trying to encourage each other to be thoughtful rather than tightening our restrictions.”

One E-Board member expressed that many joined SJP, “aware of possible attacks.” They explained how the “hardest part of activism is facing backlash…and that’s why we created this organization.” Even when facing criticism, they prioritize providing a supportive network so people can advocate without fear or isolation. Members would know that the entire SJP community is “backing them up, giving them resources and support, and making them feel like they actually have a foot to stand on the ground to stand on and aren't just them against everyone else.”

An E-Board member continued, “History has never looked down on people who tried to stop genocide. It's always the other way around. We know that we're right. I think it's really that simple. We know that we're on the right side of this.”

SJP continues to encourage those in the Hamilton community to educate themselves on the humanitarian crisis and inform others through whatever platforms they can. SJP stresses the importance of not just “posting what you see, but it is about actually learning and knowing what you're talking about, and making sure you're sort of having that strong backing of knowledge, instead of just sort of seeing like an infographic and then posting it again, because while those are important they do show and hoard information.” SJP urges the Hamilton community to move beyond passive consumption and engage in informed action. Whether it's social media advocacy, protest participation, or organizing events, they say true impact comes from understanding the complexities of the conflict.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that SJP submitted their club application on October 6th. Rather, the Monitor first became aware of students' intentions to do so on that date.

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