TEL AVIV – UCLA will allow a conference by Students for Justice in Palestine to take place this weekend, despite an appeal from a coalition of Jewish organizations requesting that the event be cancelled over the anti-Israel campus group’s “violence” and anti-Semitism.
In an op-ed published by the LA Times Monday, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block wrote that while he had “fundamental disagreements with SJP,” the two-day national conference must take place in order “to preserve the rights of all sides to speak and be heard.”
He called out SJP’s support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which “label[s] it a pariah state.”
“The attempt to ostracize Israeli thinkers, and to declare off-limits even discussion with Israeli academics runs contrary to the values of inclusion, debate and discussion that are crucial to any university,” Block wrote.
He added that such values undermine the University of California’s “Principles Against Intolerance,” which warn against “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.”
“I am disturbed by the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the United States and the world. I believe every American must condemn the religious bigotry and racial animus that too often infects our politics,” Block wrote.
Nevertheless, Block argued that while “there is fear among some that the conference will be infused with anti-Semitic rhetoric,” and that the content of the event “may be deeply objectionable — even personally hurtful — to those who believe that a complex conflict is being reduced to a one-sided caricature,” the U.S. was built on a principle of “open debate.”
“It remains an awkward reality that our constitutional system, and democracy’s commitment to open debate, demand that Americans allow speech we may oppose and even defend the rights of those who might not defend ours,” Block wrote.
Darion Ouliguian, the president of the UCLA student group Bruins for Israel, praised Block and UCLA for solidarity with the Jewish community but also “upholding the rights of all students.”
Ouliguian called on SJP to distinguish “between legitimate criticisms of Israel and anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism, and to not allow your conference to become a space full of hate but rather a space that encourages education on this topic.”
“I call on my personal friends in SJP to be reminded of our relationship, of the humanity of a Zionist,” he said in a post on Facebook. “Allow that to take root so that we may be able to build each other up in our endeavors.”
Ouliguian’s words were markedly less harsh than those of the 31 groups that called for the conference to be cancelled. In a letter cited by the Algemeiner, the student groups wrote that the anti-Israel campus organization has a “history of violence on California campuses.”
SJP “fuels campus anti-Semitism [and] seeks the elimination of the world’s only Jewish-majority country,” the student groups wrote.
The groups also cited a study by the monitoring group AMCHA Initiative that found that campuses with anti-Israel groups like SJP have more anti-Semitic incidents than campuses that don’t.
“The two phenomena are connected,” the students wrote. “SJP is therefore a threat to the physical safety of the Jewish community.”
They charged SJP with violating UCLA’s Principles of Community, and pointed to events that SJP disrupted by tearing down Israeli flags and chanting for the elimination of the Jewish state in favor of a Palestinian one.
They quoted a member of Stanford University’s chapter of SJP, who threatened to “physically fight zionists on campus.” Despite downplaying the rhetoric by replacing “physically” with “intellectually,” the student later stepped down from his job as a resident assistant.
The students also noted anti-Semitic sentiments shared by Robert Bowers, the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre last month, and urged UCLA to “take the anti-Semitic rhetoric of SJP members seriously.”
“Robert Bowers wrote on social media that ‘Jews are the children of Satan,’” they said. “Samer Alhato, one of the many anti-Semites set to speak or attend the conference tweeted, ‘Anyone been to Jerusalem? I hated seeing a bunch of Jews there but other than that it’s a beautiful city.’”
Last week, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution calling on UCLA to cancel the SJP conference over concerns that it would promote anti-Semitic views.
The school last month sent a cease-and-desist letter to SJP for using the school’s mascot, the Bruin Bear, on the conference logo. The bear was wearing a keffiyeh scarf, associated with the Palestinian cause, and reaching up toward a kite with the colors of the Palestinian flag and three doves. Incendiary kites and balloons have been flown over the Gaza border into Israel since May as a form of terror and the school did not wish to see their mascot or name associated with a logo that could be interpreted “as an intention to endorse violence against Israel,” the request said.
SJP acquiesced to the request and removed the UCLA name from the logo, but said the school’s “racist and gross mischaracterization of our design ignores the fact that kite-flying is a common pastime in Gaza, and has long been a symbol of freedom for Palestinians.”