Interview with Temple Students for Justice in Palestine

This interview originally appeared in Jadaliyya and was conducted over the period of a few weeks. Temple SJP answered as a group while I was a coordinating member of its executive board and president of the organization.

The following interview is part of a series of long-form interviews with chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine. The aim is to create a space for chapters to articulate their political perspectives and experiences on campus organizing, as part of a broader project to create a public archive of post-2000 organizing. The introduction to the series and other interviews are here.

Q: Can you describe quickly your chapter’s activities over the past year or two? What does your organizing look like? What kind of plans do you have for the future? 

Temple SJP: Temple SJP was founded in the mid-2000s. One of the original founding members from that time, Nehad Khader, is now managing editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies and a film curator for the annual DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival. From the very beginning, Temple SJP had participated in broader coalition politics on campus and in the larger city, like raising the minimum wage, combating racism in all its forms, and protesting and spreading awareness about Palestine. Wafaa Dias, a Palestinian-American student from Northeast Philadelphia, revitalized our SJP chapter a few years ago and made it what it is today. We hosted significant speakers on campus like Ali Abunimah and Norman Finkelstein, and also started Palestinian Nights, an annual fundraiser that promotes Palestinian culture and raises money for charities and organizations that serve the Palestinian people. At our most recent Palestinian Nights, we had Tariq Abu Khdeir speak about his experience with police violence in Palestine, and a local young Palestinian poet, Islam, performed in Arabic. Temple SJP has always sought to weave the culture of the Palestinian people with their resistance, because we recognize they are inextricably bound.

While we are a student organization, we are also a collective of activists who remain deeply committed to the people of Philadelphia. Our location in North Philadelphia, an area of working class Black people with a rich history of resistance, gives us the advantage of being rooted in a strong organizing community. The Church of the Advocate, a historic Black church that hosted the Black Power and Black Panther conferences in the 1960s to 70s, is only three blocks away from campus, and Elaine Brown, the first and only chairwoman of the Black Panther Party, was a native of North Philly and a Temple student. Our understanding of the Black struggle in North Philly and its relationship with national liberation because of our context has affected our understanding and activism for the Palestinian struggle.

Our longtime alliance with The Campaign to Bring Mumia Home, which rallies for Philadelphia political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, and our commitment to the MOVE family, who were firebombed by Philly police in 1985, also characterize our organizing. Most recently, Temple SJP co-sponsored the Black Radical Tradition Conference, and many of our leading members were on the steering committee for the conference and/or were volunteers. Over the years, we have mobilized in student coalition work against the gentrification and racist displacement that Temple causes in North Philly, connecting it to settler colonialism and state violence in Palestine.

Consciousness-raising and political education also remain a cornerstone of our organization. In the past, we have presented teach-ins like Women in Palestine, Palestine 101, and Palestinian Resistance, and we have many other teach-ins currently in development, such as Combating Liberalism and History of American Movements. We have also collaborated with other organizations. For example, this year we participated in an event on Police Brutality around the World with Temple Black Law Student Association and Society of Caribbean Awareness, and we planned and presented an event with Temple Queer People of Color on queer resistance, pinkwashing, and solidarity.

We use actions, demonstrations, and protests to raise awareness about Palestine both on campus and in the city. Last year, we held a day of action for Rasmea Odeh, and we held a flash mob declaring Israeli settlements and violence illegal under international law. We also hold the annual apartheid wall demonstration in the spring, where we set up a mock wall outside on campus to expose students, faculty, and community to the everyday segregation and violence Palestinians endure under the occupation.

Most recently, we hosted the SJP East regional conference, which sought to resolve questions of internal structure and organization. At the conference, we hosted and organized workshops called Confronting Repression on Campus, Organizing against Gentrification and Colonialism and The Revolutionary Mission of the Black Panther Party. This summer, we started the SJP Ona Move campaign, which struggles for the liberation of Black and Palestinian political prisoners, located in the struggle to free Philly’s Mumia Abu Jamal and the MOVE 9.

In the future, we want to lobby Temple to hang a Palestinian flag in the Student Center among the flags of other countries, which we believe would help represent the high population of Palestinian students from Northeast Philly. We aim to continue our solidarity work in North Philly, particularly the student-community mobilization against the stadium Temple plans to build in its brutal neoliberal plan of gentrifying and displacing the North Philly community.

Q: Does your chapter focus on anti-occupation politics or broader anti-Zionist politics? If one or the other—or sometimes one, and sometimes the other—why have you made that choice, and under what circumstances do you choose to emphasize the occupation versus a broader opposition, or vice-versa? 

Temple SJP: Our SJP chapter focuses on anti-Zionism, which is the principle guiding our organizing, and the other side of the coin of our ultimate goal, national liberation for the people of Palestine. We do not believe anti-occupation politics are sufficient in addressing Israeli settler-colonialism, which encompasses not just the West Bank, but also historic Palestine. We understand that Zionism is not just an oppressive ideology, but a system of racism and colonialism that robs the Palestinian people of their fundamental human rights. We agree withEdward Said’s analysis that “Zionism. . . [is] a movement for colonial settlement in the Orient.”

In opposing Zionism, we oppose racism and we oppose colonialism in all of its forms.

Temple SJP is anti-Zionist because we believe anti-imperialism is a necessary stance we must take if we want to see any shift in discourse and movement-building in the United States. By making people conscious of the oppression Zionism causes, and by opposing colonialism, racism, and imperialism in all its forms, we are challenging people to think critically about empire and neoliberalism. We believe the time for Palestine solidarity has never been more critical in the United States than it is now, and that it is necessary to take advantage of this moment to expose the public to imperialism and the struggle against it. Only from this energy and momentum, we will be able to build a powerful internationalist movement for Palestine in the United States and the rest of the world.

Q: Does your chapter build alliances with other campus groups? If so, which ones, and what guides those alliances?

Temple SJP: We have a strong campus presence and longtime connections with various groups on campus. We are allied with Temple Queer People of Color, 15 Now, Black Law Student Association, Black Student Union, The Muslimah Project, Temple Area Feminist Collective, Temple Socialists and many other organizations. We have also participated in many student power coalitions like the Million Student March, Coalition for Radical Student Power and People’s Power Coalition at Temple.

For us, the principle that guides our alliances is the awareness that we are all part of the same struggle. The liberation of workers, women, queer people, Black people, and minorities is not possible without the liberation of the Palestinian people. Likewise, the liberation of the Palestinian people depends on the liberation of humanity from the chains of oppression. We believe it is both right and strategic to connect politics and unite the people in combating forces of oppression. We are stronger and more powerful in numbers when we are united and consolidated, and history proves the oppressor implements seeds of division to prevent organized fronts of resistance. Revolutionary love and the need for friendship ensure these relationships thrive, and we become not just allies, but friends with students in these organizations.

Q: Does your chapter have links with community groups, Palestinian or otherwise? What are your frames and points of political reference in terms of Palestinian politics?

Temple SJP: Temple SJP is rooted in community. We believe student organizing power is not possible without serving the community that surrounds us. We are connected to the Palestinian community of Northeast Philadelphia with whom we organized the protests for Gaza in 2014. We are also connected with Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, Playgrounds for Palestine and Al-Bustan, Seeds of Culture, which promotes cultural resistance and the arts of the Arab world. We organize protests with Philly BDS and help with their campaigns. We also work with Philly JVP with whom we hosted a teach-in in 2014 called Antisemitism and the Left.

Local activist and internationally-acclaimed Palestinian novelist, Susan Abulhawa, is the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine and serves as an informal advisor to Temple SJP. Recently, we reconnected with Nehad Khader, who co-facilitated a workshop at the SJP East regional conference on transitional leadership for SJP groups with current and past Temple SJP leaders. Dr. Anthony Monteiro, a former member of the central committee of the Communist Party USA, a civil rights activist and a native of North Philly, is our mentor and brings decades-long experience of internationalism, solidarity, and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and police violence in the US to Temple SJP.

As mentioned before, we are rooted in the North Philly community foremost because of Temple’s location and the organizing culture in the area. We are involved with Stadium Stompers, a joint student-and-community-led organization, which rallies against Temple’s gentrification plans to build a stadium, and the People’s Power Coalition. We are involved with political prisoner advocacy in solidarity with MOVE and The Campaign to Bring Mumia Home with the SJP Ona Move campaign. Many people in our leadership are also in the Black Radical Organizing Collective.

We were involved in the protests that flared up following the grand jury decision on the Mike Brown case and the murder of Freddie Gray, and we worked with the Ferguson to Philly Coalition, now known as the REAL Justice Coalition. We were allied with People Utilizing Real Power, a North Philly-based youth organization that mobilized against gentrification, police brutality, racism, and imperialism. Other organizations with whom we work include Philadelphia Jews for a Just Peace, Philadelphia South Asian Collective, and the International Action Committee.

Q: What role, if any, do you see for student leadership within broader movement politics? Alternatively, what do you consider the specific role of students within the movement more broadly?

Temple SJP: We believe student power is not possible without serving the people and the community. Students must join forces with the people if we wish to effect real political change instead of stagnating in feel-good echo chambers. While hosting discussions and raising campus awareness is the first step, it is crucial we connect and work with oppressed communities on the ground. As students, we are strategically located within the university and our access to education and power should be channeled into doing work for the movement. Our privilege and access should be utilized to benefit the people. The movement is made by the people, and for that reason, student leaders are accountable to the people. As a result, student organizers must join the people and become part of them.

Challenging the university from within is necessary for student-activists. Universities often become forces of hegemony and oppression. From Chicago to CUNY to Mizzou to Princeton, we have seen students protest against their universities, hold them accountable, and force them to do better. In the struggle against gentrification in North Philly, Temple SJP has learned the necessity of joining with community to protest the problems in our university. By joining the community, we challenge the racist and colonialist lines people in power at Temple have drawn to divide the people.

Q: Do you receive support from faculty? What form does that take, and are they involved in your organizing more broadly?

Temple SJP: Our faculty advisor is Khalid Blankinship, professor of religion at Temple and an internationally renowned scholar in Islamic Studies. However, we do not receive particular support from faculty at Temple. If we are ever supported by faculty, it is tacitly given, because most faculty are forced to be neutral and apolitical. This is largely due to Temple’s increasing corporatism, which creates an anti-intellectual environment and makes it difficult for professors to be involved in political organizing without fearing for their jobs. For example, a couple years ago, we lost the support of a tenured professor because he was threatened by the Anti-Defamation League. Dr. Anthony Monteiro, our mentor, was a professor in African American Studies at Temple for years, but was fired for criticizing Temple’s gentrification of his neighborhood and community. Entire departments in the College of Liberal Arts have been shut down or have lost funding. It was only recently that adjunct faculty were allowed to unionize, and that was due to coalition work on campus.

Q: What is your relationship with the administration, past and present, both positive and negative? And also with student government?

Temple SJP: Our relationship with administration goes in cycles. Sometimes, administration is helpful and cooperative, which is in fact their job, and other times they are calling cops to monitor our twenty-minute flash mob. In 2014, a Zionist student and CAMERA fellow started harassing Temple SJP’s information table. A second visitor to our table slapped him. A right-wing, racist, anti-Palestine media campaign started, seeking to shut down our organization and inhibit Temple SJP from exercising our freedom of speech. Ever since then, the Zionist pressure on university administration has increased. This has resulted in cancelled meetings, cancelled room reservations, monitoring our freedom of speech on social media, policing our peaceful protests, and threats to shut down our organization. While Temple SJP receives the worst of the repression and has been repressed for the longest period of time, other politically active organizations on campus face similar repression.

For the past few years, our student government has been largely apolitical and has failed to connect with the majority of the students or speak to their concerns, and also failed to consider community in its agenda for bettering the university. Recently, however, we saw the dynamic shift when Take TU ran for elections. Take TU was an intersectional feminist campaign that came out of the Million Student March and the coalition against the stadium. It stood in solidarity with the North Philly community and had strong campaign points. Interestingly enough, we saw other campaigns invested in empty politicking co-opt from Take TU’s platform in debates. While Take TU lost, they shifted the narrative and helped to mainstream Temple’s longtime activist community and culture on campus. We hope this change in discourse will work to the benefit of Temple SJP and any campaigns we would want to start in the future.

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