SJP chapters have the right to say no

SJP member Shane James contributes to the discussion about a decision by a North Carolina chapter of the Palestine solidarity organization about who speaks for them.

A CHAPTER of Students for Justice in Palestine in North Carolina recently cancelled an event with Rania Khalek due to her apologetics for the Assad regime in Syria.

In response, dozens of Palestine solidarity and antiwar activists signed a statement condemning the chapter for supporting a "blacklist" against Khalek. This statement suggested that SJP and other parts of the left were instituting a "litmus test" regarding Syria to deny Khalek and other Assad apologists a public voice in the movement, suggesting that the cancellation fostered "splits, silencing, confusion, and a serious erosion of trust."

As a longstanding SJP member, I believe that the statement is wrong and harmful to our movement. There is no litmus test on Syria within SJP, nor is there a blacklist against Khalek.

The SJP chapter in question published a follow-up statement that read: "We were not at all persuaded by those who appear to have a vendetta against Rania...[W]e strongly condemn their tactics and their smears...[S]everal members of SJP chapters throughout the U.S., some Arab and non-Arab scholars of the Middle East, and many Palestine solidarity activists encouraged us to cancel...UNC SJP would not stop Rania from speaking if she were invited by another organization/department on campus."

As further proof that SJP harbors no blacklist and imposes no litmus test regarding Syria, two SJP affiliates--at Oregon State University and Temple University--are hosting events on Syria. The event at Oregon State includes Rania Khalek on a panel about liberation in Syria. All the speakers at both events are signatories of the "Against Blacklisting" statement and have made statements defending the Assad regime.

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SJP has no national or regional position statements on Syria. In fact, Syria has been a point of serious contention within the organization for years with no signs of resolution. There is clearly no effort by SJP to blacklist Khalek.

While Khalek continues to attend speaking engagements and her supporters crowdfund thousands of dollars for her, an SJP chapter in the American South has practically disintegrated. The chapter that cancelled its event with Khalek is located in Chapel Hill--the site of the violent, racist murder of three Muslim youth by their white neighbor in 2015.

Anti-racist work in the South is critical for fighting this kind of white supremacist terror, yet Assad apologists are still attacking the SJP chapter at Chapel Hill. Members of the chapter, including its most experienced leaders, have been thoroughly demoralized by the attacks and are struggling to continue their work.

The consequence of the "Against Blacklisting" statement was not comradely debate on the question of Syria and free speech, but big-name leftists slamming a good grassroots organization for making a reasonable choice about who represents them at a public event. This is especially troublesome considering that SJPs around the country are under attack by university administrators, police and state legislatures. The last thing we need is people harassing us with wrongful accusations of McCarthyism.

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IN A March 9 SW article, Eric Ruder argued that, "No one is owed a platform 'just because,' and every organization has the right to decide who it wishes to invite to appear at its events--including the right to disinvite people."

This is an important point because some have framed the situation as a battle over free speech when really it is about another freedom entirely--freedom of association. SJP elects its leadership, but we decide at a chapter level who speaks at our events. While we are happy to debate people in good faith, we are not obligated to let anyone publicly represent us if they hold views that are contrary to our principles.

The initial statement explaining the cancellation of SJP's event with Khalek made this clear, stating that, "We...believe [Khalek's] invitation would mistakenly imply SJP to hold such views [as Khalek's]. SJP supports liberation movements for all oppressed people and recognizes their right to self-determination."

Ruder also argued, "[I]t would be good for the movement to reject support for Assad, because it is counterproductive to the cause of Palestinian liberation. But it is also dead wrong to try to advance this argument by avoiding engagement with Khalek and others who share her views."

We absolutely need to engage Assad apologists in debate. The debate is not about clarifying a political point amongst friends--it is about confronting reactionary politics to win over the broader movement.

While debating, we should also consider other democratic ways of holding people accountable for reactionary positions on Syria. If they hold elected positions in our organizations, we should consider running against them. If we are inviting them to speak at our marches and events, thus representing us to the public, we should consider inviting someone else who doesn't make excuses for a dictator who uses barrel bombs against his own people.

While our comrades are tortured and murdered in Assad's dungeons, or under siege by several counterrevolutionary forces (though primarily the regime), we must show them solidarity and confront those who would support their demise.

This is a debate for the soul of our movement. Do we look at the world through the lens of realpolitik and geopolitics, "the enemy of our enemy is our friend"? Do we rationalize oppression for the sake of a faux anti-imperialism? Or are we, in the words of Akiva Orr, "always with the oppressed"? Our practical solidarity with the Syrian people or our complicity in their deaths: those are the stakes of the debate.