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National Students for Justice in Palestine conference goes on despite on-campus protest

The national conference held by Students for Justice in Palestine began Friday and ended Sunday. Zionist groups unaffiliated with UCLA protested the event Sunday. (Liz Ketcham/Assistant Photo editor)

By Inga Hwang

November 18, 2018 11:57 pm

A Palestinian rights group held its national conference at UCLA amid pushback from the UCLA administration and student groups on campus.

The national conference held by National Students for Justice in Palestine began Friday and ended Sunday. Zionist groups unaffiliated with UCLA protested the event Sunday.

Gurutam Thockchom, an SJP board member and third-year mathematics student, said they hoped the conference would promote discussion among student activists about human rights issues in Palestine.

Thockchom added the pro-Palestine movement would not be the only topic of discussion at the conference, which was not open to the public. However, they did not specify what those topics would be.

“We’ve been inviting our ally organizations and people who’ve stood with us,” Thockchom said. “And we were hoping that our conference would be a place of unity for our community where we could all be in the same room together and talk about our common goals.”

Campus organizations including Student Labor Advocacy Project, Muslim Students’ Association and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlan have voiced their support for SJP.

Justin Feldman, former co-director of education for Bruins for Israel and a member of Students Supporting Israel, said he believes the aim of the conference was to strengthen the anti-Zionist movement.

“I feel that way based upon not just ideology or rhetoric but by the actions of the organization itself … such as May 17th’s (disruption of) Indigenous Peoples Unite here at UCLA.”

Indigenous Peoples Unite, an event hosted by Students Supporting Israel, featured a discussion panel of Jewish, Armenian and Kurdish students. Members of SJP protested the lack of Palestinian representation at the event.

“The goal … is to really bolster a community of students nationally who have been involved in slandering the world’s only Jewish majority country,” said Feldman, who is a third-year Middle Eastern studies and political science student.

Thockchom said SJP would not release the names of the speakers because of security concerns.

“The Israel and Zionist lobby have many ways to try to silence people who are speaking out in support of Palestine,” Thockchom said. “One of those ways is with blacklists and smear campaigns.”

Thockchom said one blacklisting tactic uses databases of Palestinian activists to catalog their views, the events they attend and their social media pages. They added that activists are barred from returning to their homelands to see their families based on their presence in these databases.

“The goal is to scare people into silence,” Thockchom said.

SJP faced pushback from UCLA administrative officials regarding the conference.

Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck sent a letter to NSJP on Oct. 31 asking the organization to cease and desist using their original logo, which featured a bear, a kite and the name “UCLA.”

Chancellor Gene Block also wrote an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 12 that criticized SJP’s decision to exclude members of pro-Israel student groups from the conference.

Thockchom said Block should not have issued public criticism of the conference or of SJP’s beliefs based on his own political opinions.

“I don’t know why he feels the need to add (his opinions) to this letter, except as a way to placate this external Zionist political pressure,” Thockchom said. “His personal political positions should be irrelevant.”

Parsa Nowruzi, a member of the NSJP steering committee and a student at Stanford, said he disapproved of the administration’s involvement in the discussion surrounding the conference.

“It is very frustrating to see the administration taking those words at their face value and giving in to these attempts to attack student organizers,” Nowruzi said.

Hirmand Sarafian, president of Students Supporting Israel and a third-year neuroscience student, said he thinks closing the event to the public limited discourse.

“The conference doesn’t leave any room for discussion. It’s closed to most students,” Sarafian said. “I can’t go, I have to be vouched for by SJP, which is odd as this is a public campus, and this is a student group.”

SJP was not required to open the event to the public, as it was privately funded.

Roughly 100 members of Zionist groups unaffiliated with UCLA protested the conference Sunday outside of Dodd Hall.

Shar Luib, a protester and member of a nonprofit organization that counters anti-Zionism on college campuses, said he believes SJP aims to radicalize students unfamiliar with the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“They catch them and they spread tons of false rumors, and these people, if they don’t have a stance and they hear something like this, they’ll automatically believe them and turn into someone who hates Israel,” Luib said.

The Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution calling on UCLA to cancel the conference.

Paul Koretz, the representative for the Fifth Council District on the LA City Council, said during the protests Sunday he disapproved of the conference being closed to the public.

“We can’t tell if they’re plotting terrorism or just figuring out how to make life uncomfortable for Jewish students and supporters of Israel on campuses across the country,” Koretz said. “Whatever it is, it’s definitely anti-Semitism, it’s definitely hate speech.”

Thockchom said they think casual labeling of Palestinian activists as terrorists is demeaning.

“Our people … have experienced so much loss due to association with terrorism,” they said. “It’s extremely disrespectful to our identities and the struggles we’ve had to face.”

Thockchom added the pushback against the conference was not unexpected based on the current political climate.

“Our politics of advocating for Palestinian human rights, criticizing the occupation of Palestine by Israel and their maintenance of apartheid in Palestine goes against the existing political status quo in America,” they said. “What is unacceptable is the administration bowing to these external pressures, and we believe this is what is happening.”

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