More than 5,000 people signed a petition, started last November, to ban Students for Justice in Palestine chapters in CUNY.
Andrea Karshan, a student at the College of Staten Island, started the petition after members at different campuses chanted allegedly anti-Semitic comments at Jewish students during the Million Student March in November. One sign called for CUNY to divest from “Israeli apartheid.”
SJP began in 1993 at the University of California at Berkeley. Since then, there are chapters across the country, including at CUNY colleges. The organization is controversial for criticizing Israel’s presence in Palestine. One tactic it uses is BDS, which means boycott, divest and sanctions.
Karshan declined questions from The Knight News, but wrote an article on her blog defending the petition. She described the backlash from students and the support she received too.
“I don’t regret starting the petition,” she wrote. “It was something that needed to be done. Our voices needed to be heard.”
Karshan worked at The Banner newspaper when she created the petition. But she was dismissed by the Editor-in-Chief. After a new one was appointed, she returned.
The Banner newspaper sent a statement to The Knight News explaining why removing her was wrong.
“While it was not right for Andrea to become a part of the story she was reporting on, the editors handled the situation appropriately by taking her off the assignment,” it reads. “Her dismissal was quite literally against the Banner’s constitution as we’re obliged to be a welcoming place to all students at the College of Staten Island, no matter their beliefs or convictions.”
But Sarah Aly, president of the SJP chapter at Brooklyn College, said Karshan’s petition cannot work.
“There is no way that these demonstrations actually can be used to suspend any SJPs,” Aly said. “The CUNY-wide demonstration was organized by NYC SJP, which is an off-campus organization not tied to a campus.”
Aly added Karshan did not get along with Muslim students and caused problems with SJP chapters too.
“She complained that the prayer room on campus was ‘too Muslim.’ [She] forced Muslim students to clear the room of prayer rugs and Qurans, while Bibles and other religious items were left alone. She has also been known to harass CSI’s chapter of SJP in person and online,” Aly said.
CUNY Chancellor James Milliken said, in response to the allegations, that the remarks were not suitable and denounced them.
“While we will always embrace this openness to many voices, intolerant, hateful and bigoted speech, while it may be legally protected, is anathema to our values,” he said. “Those voices stop rather than encourage the dialogue and real debate that makes us stronger.”
In response to the Chancellor’s comments, Aly said there were Islamophobic remarks and found it troubling that he did not address that. She brought up the New York Police Department’s spying on Muslim students as something he does not comment on.
“This has been the trend recently [where] issues affecting students and faculty of color are being pushed to the side and ignored,” Aly said.
The New York Civil Liberties Union released the NYPD’s handbook on spying on Muslim Student Associations at CUNY. At Queens College, officers are told to look at online profiles of members and even follow them.
At QC, Aadil Ilyas, an alum, felt the backlash against SJP. He worked to make a chapter at the college.
Ilyas posted a status on Facebook calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a monkey. A Jewish student took a screenshot of his status and gave it to a staff member. Ilyas was told not to make the chapter after this and because the national “negative attention” toward the group.
“I left [the person’s] office in disbelief,” Ilyas said. “I was so angry. I know why I started SJP, and QC is the perfect place to start it.”
But Ilyas said several club leaders supported his decision and starting the chapter.
“I had a presentation to do for SJP [in front of QC officials], since it was a new club, and I did great,” Ilyas said. “They had no choice but to approve it.”
Only the board of trustees can decide to ban SJP, but doing so is illegal, said Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal.
“CUNY absolutely may not shut down SJP because some New Yorkers disagree with the group’s message supporting justice for Palestinians. To do so would violate the First Amendment,” Sainath said.