Campus Jihad

Is Students for Justice in Palestine Hamas’s Branch on American Universities?

By Rafael Hoffman

Since Hamas’s attack on Israel, images of anti-Israel events marked by virulent rhetoric and sometimes physical violence, frequently interwoven with threats against Jews, have become part of the regular news cycle.

In the United States, college campuses have emerged as the frontline of this popular campaign against Israel and, in many instances, Jewry.

Stories have become too numerous to recount. A group of Jewish students found themselves barricaded inside the library at Manhattan’s Cooper Union during a “Student Walkout for Palestine Liberation.”

Pro-Palestinian Harvard groups chanted “Intifada! Intifada! Intifada! From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free!” and waved placards reading “Hold Harvard Accountable for Supporting Genocide.”

Several Congressional hearings heard testimony from Jewish students. Amanda Silberstein, a student at Cornell University, told the House Judiciary Committee that she and others “think twice” about showing their Jewish identity, “multiple times a day.” Sahar Tartak, a student at Yale University, told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce about being silenced at student forums and having her submissions to publications rejected for her pro-Israel positions.

At the vortex of the agitation that spawned what many feel is an unwelcoming and potentially dangerous environment for Jewish students is a collection of zealously anti-Israel campus groups, most prominently Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

SJP has long been criticized by watchdog groups for fomenting a ferociously anti-Israel and antisemitic climate on some campuses. At the center of their operations has been a campaign to move universities to embrace BDS polices against Israel.

“Studies have shown that the biggest indications of antisemitism on campus is the existence of an SJP chapter,” said David May, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). “They drum up anti-Israel sentiment, and the closest embodiment of Zionism is Jews on campus. There’ve been dozens, and probably hundreds, of incidents of intimidation of Jewish students and organizations this year alone; for the past month it’s been in overdrive.”

Since the Gaza war began, SJP garnered broader attention.

The group’s national arm declared Hamas’ murderous attack “a historic win for Palestinian resistance, across land, air, and sea,” and five days after the terrorist rampage, when most of the world was still in shock from its barbarism, SJP organized a “day of resistance” on campuses around America.

Most of its approximately 200 branches took a similar line.

Rutger’s University SJP chapter called Hamas’ actions “justified retaliation.”

Students demonstrate in support of Hamas and free speech at Columbia University campus on November 14, in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

SJP’s members have not limited themselves to official statements and have been the most instrumental in organizing anti-Israel protests since the war began.

At a rally led by Stanford University’s SJP, protesters chanted, “Two, four, six, eight! Smash the Zionist settler state!”

“We met with Jewish students over the past weeks, and they are faced regularly with threats and intimidation, telling them, ‘We’ll do to you what was done to the Zionist entity,’” said Charles Asher Small, Director of The Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP). “It’s a perversion of what a university is supposed to be and it’s time for administrators to get these hooligans off campus.”

Following SJP’s Money Down a Murky Road

Like all recognized campus organizations, each SJP branch receives an allotment of funding from the college it operates on. Yet, several groups including NGO Watch and FDD determined that its operations significantly exceed the standard budget they would receive from university coffers.

Many SJP branches are not formally registered as nonprofit organizations, exempting them from standard disclosures. Money either flows directly without tax exemptions or through other organizations. An additional challenge in tracing funding is that its national branch and its many campus chapters are organized and supported independently.

“There are different reasons why an organization would collect money through a secondary source, if an organization is new and didn’t have time to do the paperwork or if they are too small to justify filing reporting but want to collect tax-deductible donations. Neither of those make sense for SJP; they’re not small, and they’ve been around for years now,” said Mr. May. “The last reason is if an organization wants to avoid scrutiny and disclosures, so it collects money via a secondary source. That’s been their model.”

Professor Hatem Bazian.

Detective work by watchdog groups shows two major funding routes. SJP was founded by Berkeley Professor Hatem Bazian in the 1990s. He is also the founder of American Muslims for Palestine (AMP). AMP makes public statements of its support and coordination with SJP, but it too is not a registered nonprofit organization and leaves few financial footprints. Its official financial sponsor is the American Justice for Palestine Educational Foundation (AJP) which reported $1.7 million in income in 2021. Most sources are not traceable, but some come by way of several nondescript donor funds.

While lines of AMP funding lead nowhere in particular, its linkage to SJP is what led many to believe that the group is receiving money and guidance from sources co-mingled with sponsorship for Hamas.

In the early 2000s, federal authorities investigated three charitable organizations — KindHearts, the Islamic Association for Palestine, and the Holy Land Foundation — for providing financial support to terrorist groups. When it was determined that the groups had served as shells to raise and transfer millions to Hamas, they were shut down and some of their leaders were arrested. Several others who were implicated, but not charged with criminal activity, including Professor Bazian, who was a fundraiser for KindHearts, formed AMP in 2005. Some joined after their sentences were up.

Saleh Sarsour, who used his Milwaukee furniture store to send funds to Hamas’ Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades and spent eight months in an Israeli prison, is now an AMP board member. 

Rafeeq Jaber, the former head of the Islamic Association for Palestine, shut down for funding Hamas, prepared AFM’s tax returns since 2010 via a new organization under his name.

Jamal Said, a regular speaker at AMP events, raised money for the Holy Land Foundation.

FDD identified seven individuals with links to the three organizations shut down for funding Hamas which now have a role in AMP. There is a documented transfer of $100,000 from AMP to SJP entities in 2014.

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares.

This suspicious trail and the heightened national attention on SJP recently moved Virginia’s Attorney General’s office to launch an investigation into allegations AMP “may have used funds raised for impermissible purposes under state law, including benefiting or providing support to terrorist organizations.”

Washington is heading in the same direction. After urging by witnesses at several committee hearings, Congress members are urging the FBI and IRS to investigate where SJP and AMP get their funding, and whether they have a direct line to Hamas.

The other known channel to SJP is Westchester People’s Action Coalition (WESPAC), which serves as its official fiscal sponsor. WESPAC is a White Plains-based nonprofit focusing on a package of progressive causes including immigration and criminal justice. It also focuses on local economic and environmental matters. SJP is one of several anti-Israel organizations associated with it.

Since 2001, WESPAC has been led by Nada Khader, who previously worked for the United Nations Development Program in Gaza and has spoken at SJP events. Her blog includes headings like “Slaughter in Gaza.”

In fiscal year 2021-2, WESPAC reported $1.1 million in income. Most of its reported donations come from a set of U.S.-based charitable funds focused on supporting left-wing causes.

There is no way to track which donations to WESPAC are tagged for SJP, but Mr. May said that since becoming the group’s sponsor, its income has “expanded significantly.”

ISGAP shined a light on what it suspects is another source of funding, millions that flow from Qatar and other Gulf States to American universities. The group’s research showed a correlation between their funding levels and campuses where the SJP flourished most. Some argued that universities’ hesitance to clamp down on or ban SJP stems not only from a permissive attitude towards radicalism, but financial interests, pointing to the millions in Qatari and Gulf donors who might balk at such actions.

Some posit that while Gulf State funding might not directly fund SJP, the money they have given towards Middle East studies programs, which have been accused of focusing on an anti-Israel narrative, has a hand in creating hostile campus environments in which SJP thrives.

“Qatari money funds Arab Study programs hostile to Israel, that sets up a permissive situation that expresses itself in students and sometimes faculty lashing out at Jewish students,” said Mr. May.

Partners in Arms

The likely influences on SJP’s membership and operations from Professor Bazian and AMP-affiliated figures who call for the elimination of Israel is apparent in the group’s rhetoric.

An SJP statement said that Hamas’ barbarous attack had “broken down the artificial barriers of the Zionist entity, taking with it the facade of an impenetrable settler colony and reminding each of us that total return and liberation to Palestine is near.”

“There is strong suspicion that AMP plays a role in steering them and the overlap many of its leaders have with organizations that were shut down for Hamas connections are well known,” said Mr. May. “[SJP] is part of a network of different organizations to deliver the pro-BDS message. SJP is the most visible, but they’re all clearly coordinating.”

ISGAP’s research attempted to show direct linkages in operation and ideology between SJP and the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot. SJP has partnered with the Muslim Students Association (MSA), which has a Brotherhood-style Islamist agenda. SJP’s organization of its annual “Apartheid Week” is a joint venture with MSA.

“SJP are shock troops for the Brotherhood,” said Dr. Small. “This is not a group advocating for Palestinian self-determination. They share the Brotherhood’s ideology of delegitimizing and eliminating the State of Israel; in the process any Jewish kid with an association with that country becomes an enemy on campus.” 

Vogue Jihad

One area where SJP has departed from mainstream Islamicist groups is its alliance with progressive campus groups and the ideas they promote. These partnerships have been key to SJP’s success at mainstreaming its harsh anti-Israel message on campuses where radical leftist ideologies have long found fertile ground.

“This has been SJP’s bread and butter. It got a major boost in 2014 with its support for the Fergusen riots which overlapped with war in Gaza,” said Mr. May. “SJP made it an essential idea that you can’t really be progressive unless you support their [Israel] narrative.”

SJP has been able to use the prominent left-wing concept of “intersectionality,” that all “injustices” are ultimately connected, to win over a diverse group of supporters. An internal 2018 manual for BDS advocates, publicized by FDD, recommended that activists attend events of progressive causes and sign their petitions because “solidarity is always a two-way street.”

“It’s allowed [SJP] to attract a lot of ill-informed people who parade themselves as progressive, into literally supporting a pogrom and an allegiance with political Islam,” said Dr. Small.

Most of the constellation of causes it has allied itself with fit into an anti-western and anti-capitalist worldview that finds a comfortable home in SJP. Yet, its collaboration with progressive social causes, anathema to Islam or any traditional religion, appear incongruous.

Many feel that SJP’s core leaders, who are usually Muslims of Middle Eastern origin, pay only lip-service to progressive causes and have little real interest in them.

Others feel there is more common ground.

“Jihadists and the progressive left are on opposite ends of the spectrum on a host of social issues, but what they agree on is their distrust and hatred of Jews and opposition to western civilization,” said Jason Bedrick, Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Educational Policy. “They both want to overthrow western civilization. What they want to replace it with is different, but in the meantime ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’”

Many commentators on the right have posited that SJP benefited from academia’s embrace of Critical Race Theory and other radical outlooks that divide the world into “oppressors” and “oppressed.” An article by syndicated columnist Ben Shapiro drew attention to a poster at a recent anti-Israel protest at the University of Chicago which read, “Ending white privilege starts with ending Jewish privilege.”

“Since Jews are disproportionately successful, this must be because they benefit from ‘white privilege,’ and the same is applied to Israel which they portray as a white European colonialist effort,” said Mr. Bedrick. “Palestinians are people of color and oppressed, so they must be morally right. That’s why it became a statement to tear down posters of hostages. Oppressors can’t be victims in their ideology, so they need to resolve that.”

Examples of this narrative are not hard to find among SJP’s statements.

“Glory to our martyrs” lit up on the GW University library.

George Washinton University’s SJP’s reaction to Hamas’ attack declared that “decolonization is not a metaphor…It is a tangible, material event in which the colonized rise up against the colonizer … We reject the distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘militant.’ We reject the distinction between ‘settler’ and ‘soldier.’ Every Palestinian is a civilian even if they hold arms. A settler is an aggressor, a soldier, and an occupier even if they are lounging on our occupied beaches.”

Tagging Israel with the colonialist label plays a major role in how SJP’s narrative managed to gain wide acceptance in universities. This view found wide backing from faculty as well and is commonly taught in many Middle East Studies departments. Recent research by Mr. Bedrick and another Heritage fellow, Dr. Jay Greene, pointed to a disproportionate number of college instructors who spend their student days as active members of radical groups like SJP.

“When SJP and so-called intellectuals teach that Israel is a colonialist fascist outpost, these students feel obligated to do their part in dismantling that entity,” said Dr. Small.

Justice Coming for SJP?

Taking note of the inciteful nature of SJP’s actions and amid outcry from national Jewish groups, some in power have determined that the organization crosses the line of even what typically permissive universities can tolerate. Brandeis University was the first to ban SJP from its campus. Columbia, George Washington, and a few others have followed.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Politics & Eggs program at Saint Anselm College, Oct. 13, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis responded early in banning the group from his state’s university system, tagging its celebration of Hamas’ actions as support for “a foreign terrorist organization.”

Just recently, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed an amendment that would cut federal funding to any university that “authorizes, facilitates, provides funding for, or otherwise supports” antisemitic campus activity. The measure was introduced by New York Republican Congressman Mike Lawler, with funding and tolerance for SJP in mind.

Yet, most schools so far had tepid responses to aggressive anti-Israel activity.

Students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) staged a “die-in,” blocking entrances to a central building and reportedly threatened Jewish and pro-Israel students holding a counterdemonstration. Administrators acknowledged that their actions violated university policies, but said they refrained from suspending them out of concern it would impact the visa status of many foreign students involved.

At Harvard University, an Israeli student who tried to film a pro-Palestinian demonstration was physically surrounded by protestors who seemingly threatened him while yelling, “Shame! Shame!” One of those who trapped the student was identified as Ibrahim Bharmal, editor of the school’s prestigious Law Review. Harvard’s president responded with a confirmation of the school’s dedication to free expression and rejection of “hate” against “Jews and Muslims.”

Students demonstrate in support of Hamas and free speech at Columbia University campus on November 14, in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In recent years, universities have often found themselves on the other side of accusations by right-wing groups who said schools squeezed their freedoms of expression. Against that background, some found college’s hesitancy to act against SJP suspect.

“It’s hard to take the universities at face value when they claim to be protecting the freedom of expression of SJP when they have such dismal records of protecting free speech generally, said Mr. Bedrick. “Conservative and pro-Israel speakers are regularly shouted down or prevented from speaking on college campuses, and students can get into trouble for so-called ‘micro-aggressions’ like using the wrong pronoun. Moreover, SJP’s tactics often go well beyond mere speech to open harassment of Jewish and Israeli students — actions that fall outside the purview of the First Amendment.”

Even if universities do not act, Jewish students might have legal resources to force their hand.

Organizations like the Brandeis Center for Human Rights under Law have encouraged students who have faced intimidation to file claims that schools giving SJP and similar groups a free hand are failing to live up to their obligations under the Civil Rights’ Act’s Title Six, barring harassment against Jews and other protected groups.

“SJP can claim their freedom of speech is being violated, but if Jewish students can counter that they are endangered by their rhetoric and actions, if they’re inciting or engaging in violence, there’s a good case against them,” said Mr. May. “If the university is not dealing with these issues proactively, they could be liable.”

Others claim SJP’s own public statements reveal the illegality of its existence on campuses, based on its support for Hamas and other terror groups.

Dr. Small pointed to the group’s “toolkit,” published after Hamas’ attack, saying that, “We as Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement…All of our efforts continue the work and resistance of Palestinians on the ground.”

“Hamas is a recognized terror organization, if [SJP] claims to be ‘part’ of their ‘resistance,’ it’s illegal for them to exist in the United States. If universities are giving them support, they’re accomplices to a crime,” said Dr. Small. “Universities have a legal and moral obligation that their students should feel safe from harassment, but aside from that, they need to be held responsible for aiding a group that openly claims to be part of Hamas.”

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