Students for Justice in Palestine, the Muslim Students Association, Student Worker Solidarity, the International Socialist Organization, and Students Against Mass Incarceration gathered on Low Plaza in Thursday's biting cold to speak out against Barnard administrators' decision to remove SJP's banner from Barnard Hall on Tuesday.
Speaking in the 20-degree windchill, students said that the decision to take down SJP's banner, which said “Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine” and showed a map of the Gaza Strip, Israel, and the West Bank without internal borders, violated the group's right to free expression.
Barnard took down the banner Tuesday morning and said that it would review banner policies after several students expressed concerns that the lack of borders implied the elimination of the Israeli state and that the banner's position next to an official Barnard banner implied the college endorsed such a position.
“It is our hope that involved administrators will reflect more deeply and recognize the extremely detrimental impact the removal of this banner has had on students who already feel marginalized and targeted on this campus,” Muslim Students Association Vice President Noor Siyam, BC '15, said at the speak-out. “We hope and expect the administrators who uphold its commitment to freedom of speech by allowing the approved banner to proudly hang as many others before it has.”
“We believe that the silencing of SJP belies the general message of what a university is supposed to be for, a space for education and sharing and discourse. Shutting down that side of the conversation really just ends our side of the conversation completely,” Dorian Barnwell, CC '15 and a member of Students Against Mass Incarceration, said.
“We find the silencing of SJP unacceptable and we remember a time where not too long ago, the rhetoric was that the state that was behind the persecution and subjugation of South African people was allowed and was seen as acceptable,” Imani Brown, CC '14 and another member of Students Against Mass Incarceration, said.
SJP organizers Jannine Masoud, BC '17, and Alay Syed, BC '15, read out a statement similar to the one released by the group Tuesday, and added that 16 other student groups have signed the statement in support.
The Student Governing Board issued two statements later Thursday afternoon, one signed by the majority of the board opposing Barnard's decision to take down the banner, and one signed by a dissenting board member supporting the decision.
Members of the other student groups present said that they shared similar concerns and goals as SJP.
“Obviously, they have no rights to any sort of an employment or gain for employment, which is very antilabor. And then in the West Bank, people can't even go to west neighborhoods without going to so many checkpoints and getting these crazy work permits for all this stuff,” George Joseph, CC '16 and a member of SWS, said of the persecution faced by Palestinians. “It's just very debilitating for all the worker's rights movement there.”
“Israel has a history of strong labor policies but they don't expand those to those who aren't perceived to be of the right ethnic or racial or religious category,” Joseph added.
International Socialist Organization member Matt Swagler, GSAS '15, compared this week's incident to Barnard President Debora Spar's opposition to the American Studies Association's boycott of Israeli academic institutions in December.
At the time, Spar said, “All scholars have the right to speak out against issues or policies with which they disagree, but academic boycotts pose a threat to the intellectual exchange and open debate that sit at the very core of our educational mission.”
“This is bullshit. As soon as a banner goes up talking about justice for Palestine, suddenly she has decided that open debate and independent thinking won't be tolerated, the banner has to be censored,” Swagler said. “Behind all the doublespeak, it becomes clear that they will make up the rules as they go along. The only thing they are consistent about is supporting Israel and its apartheid actions.”
“If this was the 1970s, they'd be standing on the side of apartheid South Africa as well. Students then had to fight tooth and nail to get Columbia to boycott South Africa,” Swagler said. “We're going to have to fight even harder.”