February 4, 2022
Robert J. Zimmer, Ph.D.
Chancellor and President Emeritus
The University of Chicago
Michele Rasmussen, Ph.D.
Dean of Students
The University of Chicago
RE: Urging Your Administration to Condemn Students for Justice in Palestine’s Campaign Targeting Faculty and Students for Discrimination
Dear Chancellor Zimmer and Dean Rasmussen,
We write on behalf of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department and the StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism, divisions of StandWithUs, an international, non-profit education organization supporting Israel and combating antisemitism. We write to you regarding a discriminatory and antisemitic campaign just launched by University of Chicago’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a student group that is known to create a hostile and discriminatory climate for Jewish and Zionist students on college campuses. (See Appendix below for background information on SJP.) We ask you to make a specific condemnation of this antisemitic campaign and of SJP’s rhetoric and conduct.
On January 27, 2022, SJP added a series of posts to its official Instagram account, “DON’T TAKE SH*TTY ZIONIST CLASSES,” encouraging students to “Boycott these classes that serve as vehicles to spread Zionist propaganda on American college campuses.” See Exhibit A. In a series of subsequent posts, SJP specifically lists classes, professors, and course descriptions that it encourages students to boycott, including Multiculturalism in Israel, Narrating Israel and Palestine through Literature and Film, and Gender Relations in Israel. See Exhibit B. We know anecdotally of at least one University of Chicago building that was plastered throughout with SJP’s flyers to boycott, and one classroom plastered with an SJP flyer on every chair.
At this stage, we believe that SJP’s rhetoric and conduct does not yet rise to a level of impermissible speech and campus policy violations, such as harassment and direct threats. However, SJP’s posts are antithetical to a robust campus climate. When SJP explicitly instructs students to boycott “Zionist” classes and professors, and then lists classes about Israel and that are taught by Israeli or Jewish professors, it appears as though they are encouraging their followers to boycott University of Chicago faculty members because of their Jewish or Israeli identities. If they meant a boycott of classes which promote Israeli government policies, they would say so. Instead, they cite “Zionist propaganda” and the conspiratorial “Zionist agenda,” both dripping with antisemitic undertones.
For most Jews around the world, Zionism and Israel form an integral part of Jewish identity. Israel is the birthplace of Jewish ethnic identity, language, culture, and religion, and Jews have maintained a constant presence there for over 3,000 years. Zionism represents the Jewish people’s unbreakable bond and age-old desire to be free in their ancestral home. On a political level, Zionism is a liberation movement supporting Jewish self-determination in the land of Israel. Jews endured over 1,900 years of oppression and violence across Europe and the Middle East and still live in a world plagued by antisemitism. Half of all Jews in the world live as citizens in the State of Israel. In this context, Israel’s existence and wellbeing is vital to the Jewish people’s safety, survival, and human rights. Here in the U.S., numerous polls show that for the overwhelming majority of Jews, their connection to Israel is central to their Jewish identity. As such, a boycott of “Zionist” classes and the professors who teach them can amount to discrimination based on religion, ethnicity, and/or national origin.
In theory, a KKK student group could call for a boycott of classes about Black communities taught by Black faculty, and it would be protected speech. However, it would also be hateful and warrant moral clarity by your administration in a statement of condemnation. This same principle—and need—apply here.
We note the university’s recent statement declaring a “steadfast opposition to discrimination, including rejection of antisemitism, anti-Palestinian bias, and other forms of bias…” However, we find this statement to be an inadequate and inappropriate response to this issue. Your inclusion of “anti-Palestinian bias” is simply bizarre. The only issue here is one of flagrant antisemitism. While bigotry against Palestinians is unacceptable and deserves condemnation when it occurs, that is not what this case is about. Instead of directly confronting the present antisemitism that is in fact at issue, your moral equivalency minimizes it and is completely unwarranted given the facts at hand. Concerningly, this incident is a new SJP tactic we have yet to see on other campuses. It is a blatant attempt to normalize antisemitic discrimination and targets your own faculty and course offerings. As such, it deserves, and in fact necessitates, your immediate public condemnation of SJP's actions specifically—not blanket and vague statements. You have an opportunity here to show moral leadership and set an example to the greater community that SJP does not reflect the values of your campus.
We thank you for your immediate consideration of this critical matter and look forward to seeing a public condemnation from you pertinent to this singular statement to the entire campus community. We are happy to provide resources and guidance on how to combat antisemitism and anti-Zionism if that should be helpful. We would appreciate a response to this letter by February 18, 2022.
Roz Rothstein Yael Lerman
StandWithUs StandWithUs, Director, Saidoff Legal Department CEO and Co-Founder
Carly F. Gammill
StandWithUs, Director, Center for Combatting Antisemitism
APPENDIX: BACKGROUND ON SJP
Nationally, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has a deeply disturbing record. The group receives funding and other forms of support from non-governmental organizations that are tied to multiple designated terror organizations, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). National SJP conferences have featured lectures from terrorists like Khader Adnan, an Islamic Jihad leader whocalled for suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. SJP also spearheaded a campaign to glorify and raise money for Rasmea Odeh, who helped carry out a PFLP terrorist attack that killed two Israeli civilians. Various SJP chapters have welcomed terrorists like Marwan Barghouti and Leila Khaled to campus.
SJP frequently expressessupport for an “Intifada,” a campaign calling for violence against Israelis. They have threatened and glorified violence against Jewish students and others who support Israel’s existence, including harassing and threatening with violence campus leaders and campus guest speakers who oppose them.
SJP spreads hate against Jews, Israelis and Zionists on campus on a regular basis. Much of their rhetoric, understood in context of their stated organizational goals, meets the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition and examples of antisemitism, which have been adopted and applied by more than 30 democratic nations across the world. In the United States, the IHRA definition of antisemitism has been recognized by both the Department of State and Department of Education.
For instance, SJP denies Israel’s right to exist, calls for the elimination of Israel, demonizes Israelis, and attacks Israel using classic antisemitic tropes. SJP’s troubles are no secret within the University of Illinois system. In fact, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign was the focus of a Department of Education investigation for failing to curb antisemitism on campus, caused in large part by the activities of SJP.
This past spring 2021, University of Illinois at Chicago’s SJP posted an alarming, flagrantly antisemitic “Zionist Shaming” campaign on their official SJP student group Instagram account. We believe this created an indisputably hostile, intimidating, threatening, and harassing campus environment for Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli students. The origins of this post and a second hateful, harassing post appear to have come from a former UIC student who held both leadership positions within SJP as well as UIC employment and campus-wide leadership roles before her presumed graduation in 2021.
So divisive and hate-infused is SJP’s presence on campus that administrators at multiple universities have denounced the group. In addition to Fordham, Tufts University condemned SJP’s honoring with a “collaboration award,” saying of the oversight: “We strongly disapprove of this award in light of SJP’s concerning policy positions, including its association with the BDS movement, elements of which we view as anti-Semitic.” New York University reached a Title VI settlement because the administration refused to take concrete action against SJP when the group repeatedly violated campus policies, local and state laws.