SJP flies the flag in Vermont

December 4, 2018

Alexander Smith and Scarlett Moore explain the backdrop to the University of Vermont’s decision to fly a Palestinian flag — and the administration’s decision to remove it.

STUDENTS FOR Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Vermont (UVW) campus won a victory in the intensifying struggle for Palestine when UVM became one of the first campuses in the country to fly the Palestinian flag.

After the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the UVM administration raised an Israeli flag in a failed attempt at solidarity. As SJP at UVM put it in a Facebook post, the university’s decision was a “misguided attempt to show support for Jewish people following the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.”

The post continues:

In fact, the displaying of the Israeli flag is a symbol of supremacy, not solidarity. The flag of Israel does not represent all Jews, though it is often conflated as doing so, both by hard-line Zionists who want to promote a one-sided narrative, and by the uninformed. What it does represent is a violent and oppressive history carried out by the state of Israel as a settler-colonial entity...

We will not stand for the defense of apartheid, colonialism and imperialism couched behind the false assertion that criticism of Israel’s colonial project is anti-Semitic, especially considering Israel’s close relationship with the progenitors of this wave of far-right violence against innocent people in the United States, in which this recent attack is one of the most deadly.

The Palestinian flag flies over the University of Vermont
The Palestinian flag flies over the University of Vermont

In response, the university granted SJP’s request to fly the Palestinian flag to commemorate the victims of Israeli apartheid.

On November 29, SJP held a memorial to commemorate the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Students from SJP and the International Socialist Organization gathered with community activists from Vermonters for Just Peace in Palestine (VTJP) to express solidarity.

The action included posting signs highlighting crimes committed by the Israeli state against Palestinians, primarily during the 2014 assault against Gaza.

A VTJP organizer emphasized the need for people organize in solidarity against racism of all forms, whether it be in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, in solidarity with the migrant caravan, or in the fight against anti-Semitism. The signs remained up the following day in a prominent location on campus, drawing student attention to the high civilian death toll in Gaza as a result of Israeli’s illegal bombing campaign.

But on Saturday, December 1, the flag and signs were removed, without any explanation from the university at the time of writing.

FOLLOWING THE increase in student interest and organizing capacity that coincided with the Great March of Return in Gaza, SJP restarted organizing at UVM after a multiyear absence.

This has in turn reinvigorated debate on campus regarding Israel’s routine denial of Palestinian civil rights, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and the broader struggle for Palestinian liberation.

UVM’s chapter of Hillel International was offered a $100,000 grant from the Maccabee Task Force, a group funded by Trump donor Sheldon Adelson dedicated to preventing BDS campaigns from succeeding on college campuses.

SJP and a group of concerned Jewish students on campus raised the alarm about the grant, starting a petition and hanging posters across campus to raise awareness. As one organizer starkly put it, “This is white supremacist funding.”

Anti-Semitism is an active force within the far-right of the United States and represents a real threat to the safety of Jewish communities.

Rather than working to oppose fascists and right-wingers, groups like the Maccabee Task Force mobilize the term “anti-Semitic” to erase the experiences of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and silence those who support Palestinian human rights.

The work of SJP and others inspired UVM’s student newspaper to publish a front-page article on the subject, including interviews with SJP members.

SO WHEN the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue took place, there was a polarized response. Catamounts Supporting Israel, which is an anti-BDS, pro-Israel student group, quickly won approval to fly the Israeli flag in the aftermath of the attack.

For many others, however, in addition to horror at the attack and sympathy with its victims, there was dismay at the university’s decision to fly the Israeli flag the next day.

In response, a number of Jewish students wrote a petition to the university expressing their own discomfort with the decision to fly the Israeli flag.

“Those of us who are Jewish together with the support of our fellow students affirm that the state of Israel, while branding itself as the Jewish state, is nevertheless a nation-state, and its flag is the flag only of that nation-state,” read the petition. “It is not the flag of the Jewish people.”

The petition was signed by 122 Jewish and non-Jewish members of the UVM community, but the flag was not taken down ahead of schedule. According to the petition organizer, the administration said there was “no mechanism to take the flag down.”

IByn contrast, SJP won the right to fly the Palestinian flag after several days of negotiating with the administration and a promise not to display signs with “inflammatory” phrases — like “apartheid” or “BDS.” Yet the Palestinian flag and signs disappeared quickly over the weekend, with no explanation given to organizers.

The reason why the flag and signs were removed still remains unclear, but the disappearance fits into a wider context of suppression of the Palestinian movement on college campuses. Student activists elsewhere have been targeted for harassment by the Canary Mission and university administrations. However, activists in the struggle remain dedicated to the fight against apartheid, especially in the context of recent victories for BDS nationwide.

An SJP organizer reminded the memorial attendees on November 29 of the significance of BDS victories and the importance of continued struggle, saying:

The takeaway is that free speech is terrifying to pro-Israel lobbyists and organizations. As pro-Palestinian activists, that’s all we have, we don’t have money or a whole lot of resources, so I was encouraging the crowd to continue using their free speech. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves because it is a relatively toxic climate, but every now and then, we have to celebrate our victories.

UVM Hillel will likely accept the Maccabee Task Force funding, if they haven’t already. But Students for Justice in Palestine isn’t going anywhere. Flying the Palestinian flag was a big victory, hopefully the first of many at this university.

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