Despite being approved as a club by the USG, Dean Eldredge vetoed SJP’s application on Dec. 22. (SCREENSHOT COURTESY OF SJP FACEBOOK GROUP)

By ELIZABETH LANDRY & STEPHAN KOZUB
Asst. News Editor & Co-News Editor

Dean of Students Keith Eldredge has vetoed the formation of a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) club on Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. Leading up to the Dec. 22, 2016 decision, the club had undergone a prolonged application process that started in November 2015 and spanned over a year. It had also received the United Student Government’s (USG) approval on Nov. 17, 2016.

In an email on Dec. 22 to the intended SJP members and their faculty advisor, Chair of the English department Glenn Hendler, Ph. D., Eldredge explained his reasoning for the veto.

“While students are encouraged to promote diverse political points of view, and we encourage conversation and debate on all topics, I cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country, when these goals clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University,” Eldredge said.

The SJP’s constitution stated that their mission was “to build support in the Fordham community among people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds for the promotion of justice, human rights, liberation, and self-determination for the indigenous Palestinian people.”

Interviews were conducted with would-be SJP President Ahmad Awad, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’16, intended member Lexi McMenamin, FCLC ’17, and two members who wished to keep their identities anonymous for reasons of personal safety. Eldredge and Director of the Office of Student Involvement Dorothy Wenzel, Ph. D. both declined to comment.

The SJP’s constitution stated that their mission was “to build support in the Fordham community among people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds for the promotion of justice, human rights, liberation, and self-determination for the indigenous Palestinian people.”

“It’s shocking to me,” Awad said, regarding Eldredge’s decision. Awad, who is of Palestinian descent, was part of the original group of students who submitted the club’s application on Nov. 19, 2015. “I wouldn’t say this is a radical group whatsoever. It is simply a social justice group looking to have human rights and simple rights given to Palestinian people. That’s all this is about. This is not some radical organization that’s looking to dismantle the state of Israel or trying to create some crazy political uprising.”

Following Eldredge’s decision, the would-be SJP members consulted Palestine Legal, “an independent organization dedicated to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of people in the US who speak out for Palestinian freedom.”

Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) released a letter on Jan. 17 to Fordham President Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., detailing a timeline of the correspondence and meetings between SJP members and USG, Eldredge and Wenzel.

In the letter, Palestine Legal and CCR claim that “all evidence indicates that the denial was based on the viewpoint of students’ message and/or their national origin.” They further state that “the denial violates free speech and association principles, the University’s commitment to protect free inquiry, and could give rise to a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.” As a result, they demand McShane to “immediately approve SJP, apologize, and reaffirm Fordham’s commitment to free speech, associations rights and academic freedom.” They requested a response no later than Jan. 23.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act states, “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” If an organization is found in violation of Title VI, “the federal agency providing the assistance should either initiate fund termination proceedings or refer the matter to the Department of Justice for appropriate legal action.”

When the intended members of SJP initially proposed their club, they said they thought the approval process would only take a few months, according to the letter from Palestine Legal and CCR. In an interview on Oct. 28, 2016, USG Vice-President for Operations Kayla Wolf spoke on the club application process.

I tell people when they want to start a club that the process is pretty much dependent on them, because they need to fill out a lot of paperwork and figure out a lot of stuff on their end.” After the paperwork is put in order, it must be approved by the USG Operations Committee, Wenzel, and the full USG Senate. “Typically, once it gets to me, I would say [it takes] maybe a month before it’s voted on,” she concluded.

In SJP’s case, it took 12 months of what Palestine Legal and CCR allege were “delays,” “interrogations,” and “railroading” for the USG Senate to hold the vote.

Palestine Legal and CCR frequently cite SJP’s shared name with National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) as a source of concern in their letter. The organization’s website states that it is “an independent grassroots organization composed of students and recent graduates that provides support to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters on university campuses and the broader U.S. movement for Palestinian freedom and equality.”

“So it was just a use of the name that we thought, you know, would do the best,” Awad said.

“There was no question on the name of the club,” Awad said. “We’ve made clear with the administration that there is no solid permanent affiliation with the national chapter or with any other chapter. It’s simply a name. We made that clear to the administration multiple times.”

“We even got a letter from the national SJP chapter saying that in no way do we have to adhere to anything any other SJP does,” he continued. The NSJP website states that it intends to act in a support role for independent SJP chapters on college campuses, and organize an annual conference for these chapters. Other college’s chapters of SJP have been accused of creating tension and students have reported feelings of intimidation or harassment. 

“It was just a use of the name that we thought, you know, would do the best,” Awad continued. “I mean, we were students, looking for justice in Palestine. So I think the name made the most sense.”

The Office of Student Involvement and Eldredge asked the students to define their relationship with NSJP on three separate occasions on April 26, Sept. 20 and Oct. 14, 2016.

An email confirmation of the relationship between the organizations was the only correspondence that took place between SJP and NSJP, according to Awad. “There was no permanent affiliation between Fordham’s SJP and the national chapter,” he said. “It was more of a support group.”

The USG referred to the club as “a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine,” in their Nov. 17 statement approving the club. In his Dec. 22 email vetoing the formation of SJP, Eldredge referred to it as “a club affiliated with the national Students for Justice in Palestine organization.”

The Office of Student Involvement also expressed concern over SJP’s support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), a controversial movement opposed by both the Democratic and Republican party platforms, which attempts to put pressure on Israel to end its Palestinian occupation. In defense of BDS, an unidentified member of SJP stated that “BDS is a time-honored civil rights tactic that targets Israeli government policy, not Jewish people,” according to an email cited in the letter.

The attempted formation of SJP was not the first time discussion of BDS surfaced in the Fordham community, according to Hendler. He was involved in the American Studies Association when the organization voted to join the BDS movement in December 2013, a decision which has since come under fire.

“It became a fraught subject in the Fordham community when some members of the Fordham American Studies program wanted the program to renounce its membership in the national American Studies Association because the ASA had endorsed BDS, and there was a quite heated debate in the program that led to four or five of the 40 members resigning from the program,” Hendler said.

BDS also came under fire in New York last year. On Jun. 5, 2016, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed an executive order titled “Directing State Agencies and Authorities to Divest Public Funds Supporting BDS Campaign Against Israel.” The order states that “the State of Israel is a critical and valuable ally of the United States,” and that “the State of New York unequivocally rejects the BDS campaign and stands firmly with Israel.” On May 5, 2016, the New York City Council also adopted a resolution “condemning all efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and the global movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction the people of Israel.”

The letter from Palestine Legal states that in a meeting on Oct. 27, a member of SJP was questioned as to whether Cuomo’s order would prevent the formation of SJP on campus. The members of the intended SJP executive board responded with documents from the New York Civil Liberties Union and other legal experts defending their right to organize.

The FLC Jewish Student Organization (JSO) became involved with the approval process in late October, a development which SJP members referred to as “inappropriate” and “an exploitation of the democratic process because it gives JSO an undue advantage to mobilize support against us.” They also expressed confusion at the decision to have JSO weigh in on the formation of SJP and said that “by having JSO come to speak again in front of the [USG] Senate, it seems as though there are concerns we have not been told of.”  

USG President Leighton Magoon, FCLC ’17, told the members of SJP that JSO had previously requested a meeting with the USG Executive Board and “the Senate was interested in hearing the group’s opinions from the group directly,” according to Palestine Legal’s and CCR’s letter.

The Observer requested comment from JSO on Jan. 18, but has not yet received a response.

At the meeting, the members of SJP were asked if they “would partner with JSO at events,” to which a student interested in joining SJP “inquired why a political advocacy organization should be asked to partner with a religious organization,” according to the letter.

SJP chapters and regional organizations have partners on and off college campuses. These include Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which “opposes anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression” and supports “an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.” The prospective members of SJP said that they “would like to work” with JVP when asked by Eldredge and Wenzel. Other groups such as Academics for Palestine, American Muslims for Palestine and Showing Up for Racial Justice NYC have signed an online petition to support New York City Students for Justice in Palestine’s (NYC SJP) push for Fordham’s SJP to be reconsidered.

The letter also states that Wenzel spoke “to several Jewish faculty members about SJP in the previous academic year, and requested their opinion on whether SJP should be established at Fordham.”

Hendler continued, “I had multiple conversations with Dean Eldredge, and I felt during those conversations that he wanted to learn about the issue and about what different constituencies felt about the issue and about this club, and I respected that.”

Hendler said that although he did not hear from students who were concerned about the club’s formation, a number of faculty members had come to him to “express worry.”

“I tried to say some of the same things that I said to Dean Eldredge,” he said. “That these were students who wanted to advocate for their cause and who wanted to have discussions and debates with people who just differed with them and there was nothing more than that at stake here.”

Hendler continued, “I had multiple conversations with Dean Eldredge, and I felt during those conversations that he wanted to learn about the issue and about what different constituencies felt about the issue and about this club, and I respected that.”

For Awad, consulting JSO and Jewish faculty was “absurd.” He equated it to the university consulting male professors if students tried to form a feminist club, or if the university consulted the College Republicans on the College Democrats’ positions.

“[The process] was just constantly questioning what our motives were, you know, constantly having to re-word things, to change our constitution,” a student who wished to remain anonymous for reasons of personal safety said. “It felt like any other club that wanted to become a club, had become a club, and they were just waiting until somehow we would give up on it.”

After several months of discussing these topics and navigating the club approval process, the USG Senate voted to approve SJP, releasing a statement on Nov. 17.

“After careful deliberation, United Student Government has faith that this chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham and its members will positively contribute to the Fordham community in such a way that is sensitive to all students on campus,” the statement read. The Senate continued that they have faith that SJP “can function on campus respectfully,” and that it “fulfills a need for open discussion and demonstrates that Fordham is a place that exemplifies diversity of thought.”

The decision came three days after a sign featuring Uncle Sam with the caption “I’m Israel’s bitch. And so are you!” was found on the Middle East Studies Department’s bulletin board on the ninth floor of Lowenstein. SJP condemned the sign on their official Twitter account.

On Dec. 22, Eldredge vetoed the USG Senate’s decision.

“In a statement announcing their vote to approve the club, United Student Government at Lincoln Center acknowledged the need for open, academic discussion and the promotion of intellectual rigor on campus; however, I disagree that the proposal to form a club affiliated with the national Students for Justice in Palestine organization is the best way to provide this,” Eldredge said in his email to the members of SJP, Hendler, Wenzel and Wolf. “I welcome continued conversation about alternative ways to promote awareness of this important conflict and the issues that surround it from multiple perspectives.”

When The Observer contacted Eldredge for comments, he said “unfortunately, I am not able to speak on the record about this matter due to the possible litigation,” and referred to an official statement from the University published in InsideHigherEd.

The statement reads, “Fordham has no registered student clubs the sole focus of which is the political agenda of one nation, against another nation. For the University’s purposes, the country of origin of the student organizers is irrelevant, as is their particular political stance. The narrowness of Students for Justice in Palestine’s political focus makes it more akin to a lobbying group than a student club. Regardless of the club’s status, students, faculty, and staff are of course free to voice their opinions on Palestine, or any other issue.”

The USG Executive Board defended their vote to approve SJP, standing by their Nov. 17 statement in addition to saying, “We in the United Student Government at Lincoln Center Executive Board stand by the process and decision our General Assembly underwent to approve Students for Justice in Palestine in the fall semester. After speaking with those involved in the group, we felt the chapter would have fulfilled a need for open discussion and demonstrate that Fordham is a place that exemplifies diversity of thought.”

“I was honestly shocked when I received word,” Awad said, regarding Eldredge’s decision. “Especially when we read his emails first, everything seemed perfect, that he was happy with the way we discussed, how we answered all his questions.”

“We simply came to Fordham to educate the Fordham community about our position, our perspective of the conflict,” he continued, adding that he did not realize he might graduate before they received approval until the middle of the Fall 2016 semester. “We fulfilled all of Fordham’s requirements in the constitution for the club. I am not a fan of the way they had questioned us and interrogated us, on questions of our personal beliefs and possible things that may arise in the future.”

Eldredge and Wenzel asked the questions to which he is referring of two intended SJP members at a meeting on Dec. 12 which included, “What does BDS mean to you?” “Does BDS mean the dissolution of the state of Israel?” and “Why use the term apartheid?”

“This was prior restraint,” Awad said. “They were trying to restrain our free speech without us even doing anything.”

“I think that not recognizing a duly recognized student group clearly cuts against notions of academic freedom and open debate,” Hendler said of the outcome.

The veto of SJP has since garnered attention from Jewish Voice for Peace and NYC SJP, both of which have started online letters of solidarity for supporters of Fordham SJP to sign. The Jewish newspaper Algemeiner reported that the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), the Simon Wiesenthal Center and AMCHA have supported Eldredge’s decision. On the other hand, InsideHigherEd has reported that “The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, which advocates for free speech on campuses, has also taken an interest in the case and plans to send its own letter to Fordham, according to Ari Cohn, the director of FIRE’s individual rights defense program.”

Though the USG Club Application Packet does not provide procedure for a veto by the Dean of Students, Eldredge said via email on Jan. 6 to the SJP members that there will be no appeal of his decision. He invited them to contact his supervisors, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs Jeffrey Gray and Associate Vice President of Student Affairs Michele Burris to discuss their concerns.

The FLC Black Student Alliance (BSA) has organized an online petition in support of SJP, demanding that Fordham reverse its decision. The petition says that Eldredge’s description is “belittling, offensive and denies Fordham Student’s [sic] rights to effectively practice being men and women for others as our Latin motto encourages us to do.” The Facebook event “Solidarity Rally for Fordham SJP” is planned for Jan. 23 and calls “on all those who fight for justice to stand with us.”

“I think that not recognizing a duly recognized student group clearly cuts against notions of academic freedom and open debate,” Hendler said of the outcome, noting the diverse religious background and open-mindedness of the students involved. “I think they embody Fordham’s values and I think this decision does not.”

The Observer will update this article if we receive further comments from any contacted parties that have not yet responded.

UPDATE: Jan. 20, 2:33 p.m.

PEN America weighed in on Eldredge’s decision on Jan. 19, stating that “Fordham University’s refusal to allow students to start a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) infringes upon the principles of free expression and association that all universities should support and encourage.”

UPDATE: Jan. 23, 11:43 p.m.

Fordham SJP staged a protest on the Fordham Lincoln Center campus on Jan. 23, drawing nearly 100 people.

Faculty have started a petition in support of SJP, which has received over 50 signatures in less than 24 hours.

Awad published an opinions piece in the New York Daily News about his experience with Fordham University and SJP.

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