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Brandeis’ chapter of SJP derecognized by university just before peaceful vigil

On Monday, Nov. 6, Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) planned to hold a vigil to “mourn 9,000+ Palestinian martyrs killed by the [Israeli] occupation in Gaza.” This vigil was to be held in the Shapiro Campus Center (SCC) at 6:30 p.m., and students were encouraged to “dress in Black, and bring flags, keffiyehs, pictures of our martyrs and candles.”

Before the event, Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz published an Op-Ed in the Boston Globe speaking on “How universities should confront antisemitism on campus.” He wrote that “universities cannot stop hate speech, but they can stop paying for it. Brandeis will ensure that groups that receive privileges through their affiliations with the university, including using its name, will lose their affiliations and privileges when they spew hate.” Also before the event, Brandeis Hillel sent out an email discouraging its members from attending the protest, asking Hillel members to avoid attending the vigil. According to an email obtained by The Hoot, Rabbi Seth Winberg asked students to avoid “giv[ing] SJP oxygen which will just raise their visibility and coverage,” and reminded students that “encouraging students to go to SJP events is fraught with uncivil activity risk. Who knows what will be said in the heat of the moment.” Rabbi Winberg instead offered an alternative event, encouraging students to attend a dinner in the Hillel Lounge at the same time. 

In response to Hillel’s email, SJP said on their Instagram that “We are deeply disturbed by the recent email from Brandeis Hillel, which carries elements that are troublingly racist and dehumanizing, particularly towards Palestinians. We believe it is our moral duty to condemn such sentiments and call for a more inclusive and just approach. The email insinuates that engaging with SJP and our events is not only risky but somehow contaminating, feeding into harmful stereotypes and misconceptions. This perpetuates a divisive and dehumanizing narrative that undermines the humanity and dignity of Palestinians, as well as anyone who seeks justice and equality for Palestine.”

Earlier on Monday, SJP received an email from Brandeis’ Student Affairs office notifying them that their group had been derecognzied. The Hoot obtained a copy of the email, which noted that “Brandeis University has decided to no longer recognize the Brandeis chapter of the National Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) because it openly supports Hamas, which the United States has designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.” The email goes on, saying that “this decision was not made lightly, as Brandeis is dedicated to upholding free speech principles, which have been codified in Brandeis’ Principles of Free Speech and Free Expression. However, those Principles note that ‘The freedom to debate and discuss ideas does not mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish, or however they wish’ and that, “… the university may restrict expression … that constitutes a genuine threat or harrassment … or that is otehrwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the university.” It also says that “The National SJP has called on its chapters to engage in conduct that supports Hamas in its call for the violent elimination of Israel and the Jewish people. These tactics are not protected by the University’s Principles.” Finally, the email notes that “As a result, the University made the decision that the Brandeis chapter of the National SJP must be unrecognized and will no longer be eligible to receive funding, be permitted to conduct activities on campus, or use the Brandeis name and logo in promoting itself or its activities, including through social media channels. Students who choose to engage in conduct in support of Hamas, or engage in conduct that harasses or threatens violence, whether individually or through organized activity, will be considered to be in violation of the University’s student code of conduct. Students who wish to express their support for the rights of Palestinian civilians may form another student organization, through established procedures, that complies with University policies.”

Notably, despite being derecognized, SJP has not been dechartered by the Student Union. When reached out to for comment by The Hoot, Student Union President Noah Risley ’24 affirmed that “Student Union had no role in [the decision to derecognize SJP]. This was purely an administrative decision.”

As being derecognized prevented SJP from hosting an event on campus, the group took to Instagram and said that “With heavy hearts, we would like to announce that our vigil today is cancelled, as our organization has been derecognized. This decision by Student Affairs came as a response to our vigil as Student Affairs considers it ‘a genuine threat’ or ‘harassment.’ We recognize that such a decision is purely racist and goes against the values of Brandeis University, an organization that was built to fight racism in higher education. We thank everyone who stood and continues to stand with us during this difficult time, and we encourage you to reach out to us if you need any kind of support. Until liberation, Students for Justice in Palestine.”

However, despite the university’s attempts to cancel the vigil, it went on. Beginning at about 6:30 p.m., students gathered in the SCC. Although there were not many students at first, there were approximately 200 at the vigil’s peak. Also of note, several members of Brandeis’ administration were present, including Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Tim Touchette, Assistant Dean of Students Carissa Durfee, Chief of Public Safety Matthew Rushton and more. There was also a significant presence from Brandeis police, including plain-clothes officers blending in around the outskirts of the crowd.

At the beginning of this event, students were asked by Brandeis administrators to stow flagpoles, flags and placards that they brought in cardboard bins placed around the campus center. Notably, at past pro-Israel events, students had not been asked to stow such items. Assistant Dean of Student Carissa Durfee was seen asking students to stow these items, so The Hoot reached out to her for comment. She referred The Hoot to Senior Content and Marketing Specialist Jarret Bencks MS’20, who said that “Posters and banners affixed sticks or poles were not permitted in the SCC during the gathering on Monday evening. This was a security measure put in place by the Office of Public Safety. Security decisions for events are made on a case-by-case basis; it is true that this measure was not in place at some previous events.”

Shortly after the vigil began, students sat on the ground. Then, students began to stand and speak, with one saying how she was one of just three Palestinian Brandeis students. She noted that 36 of her family members were murdered in Gaza, and that she “hates everything” about this school, but SJP gave her “hope and courage” to live in the United States. She continued, saying that she doesn’t want it to be forgotten that 10,000 people were murdered.

Another student spoke, saying that “we all know how unfair it is of the university to shut down SJP and the vigil.” The student added that “We recognize the hypocrisy of the university for attempting to censor students who are trying to peacefully remember.” Students continued to rise and speak, with many of them concluding their remarks by calling out “Free Palestine!” and receiving applause. Dozens of students spoke, noting that they came to Brandeis feeling it was a school founded on the basis of accepting all people, that the university “can’t take away our oxygen, they will never do that no matter how hard they try. We will always do something,” a reference to Hillel’s email. Many students added that they are terrified to exist as students of color on this campus.. Students also added that “the mere action of a vigil terrifies a school of justice,” and called for attendees to boycott organizations like McDonald’s that support Israel. Notably, several Jewish students spoke, noting that they felt “ashamed” of Brandeis’ actions and allowing themselves to be used as conduits for expressing thoughts to Brandeis’ administration.

Then, near the end of the protest, attendees stood up and read off the names of the children who have been killed in this conflict. There were also chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Some members of the Brandeis community could be seen filming the activities happening on the first floor from the second floor balcony. In an interview with The Hoot, one student noted that they also heard these students laughing when the names of dead Palestinians were being read by vigil attendees.

In an email sent to students on Nov. 8, Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz said that “This decision was made because SJP openly supports Hamas, which the United States has designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.” Liebowitz added that “To promote such free exchange, we must not and do not condone hate, the incitement of violence, or threats against or harassment of anyone, be they Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Israeli, Palestinian, or any other religion or ethnicity.” He also said that “Our faculty, staff, and student community members who wish to gather to express their support for the rights of Palestinian deaths during the current Israeli-Hamas war, are welcome to do so on our campus,” and that “it is critical that all students, and all of their diverse experiences and viewpoints, be allowed to engage in constructive dialogue and live together as a community, in an environment that is free of intimidation and harassment.” 

The Hoot reached out to Brandeis’ Office of Communication for comment following this event, and the office referred The Hoot to “President Liebowitz’s community message” without providing any new information.

The Hoot also reached out to SJP for comment following the vigil, but was unable to connect prior to publication.

The Hoot interviewed two of the students that were arrested at Friday’s protest and one more student who was involved in Friday’s events. Those interviews can be found in separate articles in this edition of The Hoot. The Hoot’s coverage of the protest itself and the silent walkout that followed it can also be found in separate articles.

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