Updated, March 12, 11:55 a.m.
The placement and subsequent removal of a Students for Justice in Palestine banner on Barnard Hall advertising the group's annual Israeli Apartheid Week sparked debate about banner display policies and student groups' rights to free expression.
The banner—erected Monday and taken down Tuesday morning by Barnard administrators in response to pushback from students—displayed the words “Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine” and a drawing of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, without internal borders. Some students who said they were upset by the banner claimed that the lack of internal borders showed that SJP supports the elimination of the Israeli state, and that the banner's prominent position on the building, next to a Barnard banner, implied the school endorsed such a position.
SJP, however, asserted that the banner was part of the group's right to free expression.
“Columbia SJP is a student group at this university—no different from any other group—and has equal access to the same platforms and resources that are made available to all students. Barnard College students went through the necessary banner placement review process, which included clearly stating the banner's message in advance,” SJP said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. “Had our request been rejected, it would have been an act of censorship and an infringement on our freedom of expression as a student group at this university. The fact that our banner has been taken down now is a direct violation of our freedom of expression.”
The statement also said that the group was not informed of the banner's removal by Barnard.
The pro-Israel student group LionPAC said that the removal of the banner was necessary to prevent confusion over Barnard's position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It is a completely green map with no internal boarders, annihilating the existence of any Jewish state or the possibility of a two-state solution. The location of the banner makes it appear as if Barnard as a school is publicly endorsing SJP's message that Israel as a Jewish state does not have the right to exist,” LionPAC said in a statement Tuesday. “The banner was not taken down in order to suppress a particular political viewpoint, but rather to ensure that people feel comfortable walking into Barnard Campus and do not feel as if Barnard is endorsing SJP's message.”
As scheduled for Israeli Apartheid week, which lasts until March 14, SJP had a display set up on Low Plaza Tuesday afternoon. SJP set up a banner that said, “End Israeli Apartheid,” while across College Walk LionPAC, Hillel's Garin Lavi Student Center for Israel and Zionist Thought, and Columbia's chapter of J Street U unfurled a banner that said, “Be part of the solution,” flanked by U.S. and Israeli flags.
Barnard Dean Avis Hinkson said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that it has been a long-standing policy to allow student groups to hang banners outside Barnard Hall promoting their events. But Hinkson acknowledged the concern about placing SJP's banner next to Barnard's, and promised a reexamination of the banner policies.
“Student groups will still have the ability to flyer and promote their events throughout campus, but until we have had time as a community to discuss the banner placements on Barnard Hall and better define a policy, we will not be hanging student banners on Barnard Hall,” Hinkson said.
Hannah Spellman, BC '15 and current president of Hillel, said that Barnard Hall represents a communal space on campus that should “bring the community together, rather than divide it.”
“And I think that putting an overly politicized statement that not only shows controversial and political issues, but that threatens and makes many students on campus feel unsafe, I think that that is a problematic form for that type of banner,” she said.
Still, members of SJP said that the removal of the banner showed that the Barnard administration favored some voices over others.
“We feel as a group, the act of taking down the banner was a silencing of our voices as an organization,” Feride Eralp, CC 14 and a member of SJP, said. “We are calling for justice, and the fact that the words justice' and Palestine' cannot be tolerated by Barnard and other groups on campus is something we find offensive.”
J Street CU, which co-sponsored the table opposite CJP, said in a statement Wednesday that while the group disagreed with the idea that student banners should not be political, it does not view the borderless state, as portrayed by the banner, as "justice for everyone."
"Rathering than expressing our disagreement with the banner's position by advocating for its censorship, J Street CU chooses to act in support of a realistic and necessary two state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We should not let this incident distract from the real work in front of Americans," the statement said.
"Let us put debates about banners aside and work for real political progress for two states: for Israelis and Palestinians alike," the statement said.
The banner's removal came after many students voiced their opposition to or support of the banner on social media Monday night.
“That is to say, C-SJP's banner, brazenly displayed on the front door of Barnard College, entirely erases the Jewish State from the map,” Seffi Kogen, GS/JTS '14 and former president of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, wrote in a public Facebook post. “While I hesitate to use the term too loosely, I am at a loss as to how to categorize this display as anything less than anti-Semitic.”
Kogen's Facebook post—one of many in a similar tone—received close to 400 likes and nearly 90 shares. Kogen encouraged others to relay their opposition to Spar and other Barnard administrators.
Eralp wrote a public Facebook post early Tuesday morning responding to the displeasure voiced against the banner.
“A lot has been read into the substance of this banner, including by the President of Hillel. Yet this is a distortion of the message of the student members of Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine,” Eralp wrote. “Using the map of historic Palestine affirms the connection that Palestinians living in the diaspora, the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and as citizens inside of Israel, feel for one another, despite their fragmentation across time and space.”
Eralp added that claiming the banner was unacceptable was the same as claiming SJP should not exist “since the content in question is nothing that is not already part of our name and in our logo.”
Students on Low Plaza Tuesday had a wide range of opinions on the removal of the banner and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“There is a difference between SJP protesting on College Walk, which is them exercising their freedom of speech, which they definitely have, and Barnard endorsing a position that a student group is taking that is very controversial and something that a large portion of their students were outraged by,” Marissa Young, CC '17 and a member of Hillel and LionPAC said.
“While I disagree with what people on [Students for Justice in Palestine] say, I fully support their right to have a banner,” Jamie Boothe, CC '15 and executive director of the Columbia University College Republicans, said. But, he added that “such controversial things shouldn't be posted next to official administrative banners.”
“It's the women's colleges who are supposed to stand for equality, for justice, not just when it is safe or acceptable,” Anta Tourey, BC '17, said.
“I wasn't even one of those who put it up, I only heard about when it was removed,” Amal Abid, BC '17, said. “But it's definitely a dangerous step that promotes selective freedom.”
Avinoam Stillman, CC '17, has lived in Otniel, a Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Stillman was at the protests on Low Plaza, but expressed disappointment in the lack of constructive dialogue on Columbia's campus.
“Where I came from, which is called a settlement, which people would assume would be much more radical, many of my friends who go to the Israeli Army, and who live in the West Bank—Jewish people—are reaching out to their Palestinian neighbors, have Palestinian friends, are trying to build inter-faith dialogue,” Stillman said. “And I don't see that here, which is sad.”
Barnard has yet to make an announcement on when it will hold discussions on reviewing banner-placement policies.
Elizabeth Sedran, Maia Bix, Rana Hilal, and Yasemin Akcaguner contributed reporting.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Jamie Boothe, CC '15. Spectator regrets the error.
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